Friday, January 07, 2011

Conversation with Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives

Lola Shoneyin is the author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, her debut novel. She is first and foremost a poet and has penned some fantastic poems. The author took time to grant ImageNations its first interview in 2011. Lola has some strong views against polygamy as the interview below shows and she has no apologies for her views. According to her there can be no justification or whatsoever for polygamy and that whereas polygamy is a lifestyle homosexuality is genetic. She also has strong words for men. Read on.

You work as a Secondary School Teacher, a poet and now a novelist. Tell us about yourself and the things that have contributed to these impressive career choices.
Growing up, my father bought us books. We grew up with Shakespeare and Dickens; they were hardly the sort of books that children wanted to read but I read them anyway, out of boredom sometimes.  It’s very important to grow in an environment where books are viewed as being non-threatening. I remember when I was about twelve, my mother took me to the UK and bought me a whole suitcase full of books. They are very few Enid Blyton books that I didn’t own as a child. I was an avid reader and even now, I get a greater thrill from browsing in bookstores than shopping for clothes.  Apart from this, I went to a school where forty minutes of silent reading was compulsory.  This helped me figure out what I liked to read from quite an early age. I had an incredible lecturer called Wale Oyedele at university. He made me read far and wide on African American literature for my thesis. That’s how I discovered Toni Morrison and from the moment I read Song of Solomon, I knew what I wanted to do. Wale Oyedele passed away at a few years ago but I remember him every time I look at a book that I have written.


Lola, I read an article you wrote for News.Scostman.com detailing your background and how you suffered racism at your childhood school in Edinburgh. Would you say that these abrasions influenced your writings?
It’s impossible not to be influenced, one way or another, by one’s childhood experiences, especially when you are a writer and your job is partly to chronicle the ‘truths’ that you know. I am not one of those people who will sit and feel sorry for myself; I try very hard to learn from the more unfortunate experiences I’ve had.  However, I detest all forms of oppression and racism tops my list of its many manifestations. Having said this, I also understand that culture, background, race even determines one’s mindset. I am black and therefore sympathetic to the plight of black people all over the world. But am I sympathetic just because I am black? And would be less so if I were white or yellow? Many of the children were regurgitating what they absorbed from their parents. Many of my school mates read the article and contacted me to ask if they had been involved and to apologise.  I think the greatest thing I learnt from encountering racism at such an early age is this: my own children do not leave home unprepared for the perils and confrontations of the outside world. They have a very good sense of what and who they are. I didn’t have this luxury of preparation.

I listened to your poem ‘She Tried’ and I was moved. In that poem you used the phrase ‘that probing, phallic mind’ and there was a ‘they’ who were preventing the woman from becoming what she wanted by giving her a whole lists of reasons. Is this ‘they’ men and do you think that this is still an issue?
I wrote the poem She Tried in 1995 and I think it’s still relevant today. African women have not been given the opportunity to come into their own. They are shackled by the selfishness of their men, who are more comfortable with them being subordinate than equal partners of superiors. The tragedy of it all is that Africa will continue to be only half as productive as it could be- economically, socially, culturally and creatively – if it doesn’t invest in the womenfolk.  Rather than perpetuating traditions that subjugate and oppress women, a sound education and real opportunities for excellence should be created.

I love ‘Diplomatic Lip Service’, not just the title but the content. It’s so true. Was the poem based on personal experience? 
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really enjoyed writing it. And yes, it’s based on a true story. Everyone at some point has tried to get involved in an argument between a married couple, with the hope of helping them to resolve their issues. But it’s just not worth it. Married couples have so many secrets and shared experiences and these are the very things that keep them together. Sometimes, it’s impossible - as an outsider - to make a fair judgement because you will never have all the information you need.

Your book ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ attempts to put polygamy into perspective, according to reviews. Can you tell us exactly what the book is about?
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is about a polygamous home in modern-day Ibadan. Two years after Baba Segi took Bolanle -a young university graduate- as his fourth wife, she has not given him a child. With seven children in total from his other wives, he cannot understand what is wrong with Bolanle’s womb and decides to take her to the hospital. What the medical investigations reveal threatens to tear apart this home.

What are your personal views on polygamy? 
There’s no doubt that many go into polygamy as a way of escaping their difficult, sometimes unbearable realities. Economically and financially, one might be tempted to believe that there are benefits to polygamy. But who is to say that alternative lifestyles that cater for emotional needs would not have evolved by now, if we hadn’t been so quick to take them option that puts smiles on men’s faces? I can bet you any money that polygamy came about after a bunch of men put their heads together to work out what would be the most convenient, the most pleasurable system for them.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of financial stability for women but to join a polygamous household for this reason alone is not worth it. I should add that the majority of the women who join polygamous homes are illiterate, unskilled and often have very limited aspirations. This is because they come from areas where women are seldom sent to school, nor given the opportunity to see themselves as anything more than a man’s property.  What is worrying is that there is a trend now where educated women from affluent backgrounds are opting for polygamy out of desperation and the lure of greater wealth. But what woman goes into a relationship knowing that she is only getting a fraction of her husband? Never has the phrase ‘settling for less’ been so apt.

As an institution, polygamy brings out the worst in the women involved. There isn’t one woman alive who wouldn't rather have their husband to themselves, who wouldn’t want all the children in the household to have come from them. What this tells me is that most women who are living in these circumstances just grin and bear it. The senior wives often don’t have a choice and for their own survival, they learn to bottle up their misery and the sense of betrayal they feel. Most times, they take it out on the new wife who, justifiably, is viewed as a usurper. The newer wives know what they are in for so they come in itching and spoiling for a scrap. Most of the fighting is done behind the husband’s back. In his insensitivity and ignorance, he boasts to his friends that his wives get on swimmingly.

I have had issues with polygamy as an institution for years. In my first collection of poems, there is a poem called, ‘You Didn’t Know’ where I cite the Yoruba proverb which says, the same whip that was used in punishing the first wife will inevitably bruise the new wife. This is the true picture of polygamous homes. There is no security for the women; their self esteem is slowly chipped away until they become so desperate that they would do anything to capture their husband’s affections.

Gay unions are gradually becoming more acceptable and people who don’t accept it are tagged  as‘conservative’,  ‘ignorant’ or ‘homophobic’.  Some would say that if we are so eager to accept different forms of relationships,  why don’t we just develop polygamy and take away the things that make it ‘negative’? Why do we have to throw it away only to accept another form of relationship? What do you think about this? 
I don’t think there’s any basis for comparing homosexuality to polygamy. Classic case of chalk and cheese! Homosexuality is something you are born with; an impulse that you cannot help but give in to. It’s genetic… part of your make-up. You know how the Bible says God knew you before you were born? Well, God knew who was going to be a homosexual before they were born. When you look at the stigma and the alienation that homosexuals experience in most African communities, you can’t help but ask why anyone would live with the never-ending persecution unless they simply couldn’t help it? The same way I can’t help being heterosexual! People don’t chose to be gay. It’s not a life-style choice. It’s innate. That’s why it’s ludicrous to expect a gay person to be able to just switch, and almost as ludicrous as expecting a heterosexual person to switch and become gay.

Just recently, several African countries voted not to amend the clause that would give homosexuals protection in countries with particularly poor human rights legislation. Such countries should be ashamed of themselves. But I am not surprised. In Africa, judging by the characters we often find in governance, we have become an insensitive people. Callous, even.

Polygamy is a polar opposite because it is a lifestyle choice. Polygamy exists because it’s not a woman’s world. Polygamy is about man flexing his manhood, enjoying the prospect of having a buffet of women to choose from.

In Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo and Faceless by Amma Darko, various justifications were given by women who entered a polygamous marriage. Do you think there is ever a justification for polygamy?
‘Justification’ is a difficult word to use where polygamy is concerned. It’s rather like asking if there’s justification for rape. For instance, the limited opportunities for upward mobility available to single women mean that they will join a polygamous household just to be known as Mrs so and so. Becoming a ‘Mrs’ translates to a higher status and respect. This is sad because ultimately, the woman’s achievements will be filtered through her marital status and the person she is married to. In Africa, women are not regarded as being fully-fledged unless they are ‘living under’ a man, regardless of their age or experience. So, would you say such women were justified in their decisions to join polygamous homes? I personally don’t like to focus on the justification of polygamy; I would rather examine at the short-comings and hideousness of the institutions and societies that put women in such a position of weakness that they are forced to contend with polygamy, as a viable option.

You are first a poet and then a novelist. Would you say that this is a natural shift for you? 
It is true that I have been better known as a poet but I have always written prose. My unpublished collection of short stories was shortlisted for an ANA [Association of Nigerian Writers] prose prize in 1999. I developed a passion for poetry in the early 90s, proving that you produce what you consume. I had an insatiable appetite for American poetry. I loved everything from Alice Walker, Maya Angelou to Ntosake Shange, from Sylvia Plath to Allen Ginsberg, from Langston Hughes to Anne Sexton. 

Was there was an event or observation or even a story that led to you writing a novel about polygamy?
The novel was prompted by a true story that was told to me by my brother’s ex-girlfriend. She was a house officer at the local teaching hospital and she told me how a man’s family had been completely changed after a medical investigation. Two weeks before, this same man had dragged his fourth wife, a young university graduate, to the hospital by her hair, shouting that she was barren. 

Do you believe in a homogenous world culture?
No, I cherish the small and the stark differences in the different cultures of the world. It would be so boring if we were all the same, had the same values, believed in the same gods or ate the same food. Nevertheless, we should strive for a situation where there are no cultures that marginalise or diminish the value of people who exist within them. Culture has never been and never will be static so we shouldn’t be afraid to change them as we gain a better understanding of the world and science. Before Mary Slessor arrived in the Southern parts of Nigeria as a missionary, many of the ethnic groups used to pound twin babies in a mortar, believing them to be evil aberration. These days, you will find lots of healthy twins in those parts.

Look at facial scarification which used to be very common amongst the Yorubas. Many people in my parents’ generation who had these ethnic markings paid large amounts of money to have them surgically removed or reduced. Apart from the hideous rituals involved in the process of scarification, the need for it was greatly reduced as it became acceptable to travel far and wide, but also it became acceptable to intermarry and be absorbed into other ethnic groups. These days, it’s very rare to find a baby who has been scarred. As a culture, we have outgrown it. Many even call it child abuse. This is another example of how our culture in Nigeria has evolved.

Tell me any part of the world where polygamy is commonly accepted and I will show you how the women in these parts are devalued, abused, uneducated, voiceless and subjugate! The two go hand in hand. And besides, I have never met a woman from a polygamous home who is actually happy or content. Just recently, I met a thirty-nine year old woman who is married to a man who used to be a top government official. The lady got married to him when she was eighteen years old and has put to bed nine times. She now has eight surviving children. This woman’s husband is one of the most corrupt government officials Nigeria has ever known; he emptied the treasury when he was in government. Money is not an issue for this family; there is enough to go round. After delivering a fifth daughter, her husband married another wife. Wife number one went berserk in spite of her strict Islamic instruction! She is still bitter and probably will be for the rest of her life. Even though she was born and raised a Muslim, she can’t cope with polygamy. Nobody in the world wants to share their spouse, yet, as Africans, we keep trying to justify it by saying it is our culture. What we are saying, in other words, is that it is our culture to destroy our womenfolk psychologically. Many will argue that this is not far from the truth.

Look, polygamy ruins women. They are deeply hurt and emotionally scarred but there is nothing they can do about it so they keep quiet and soldier on with their lives. Let us celebrate what is good about our culture and do away with the ugly. This is what you find in developed countries. Let’s get out of the dark ages and leave the retrogressive elements of our cultures behind.

I love your work and I see strong statements in both your poetry and your fiction. What do you intend to achieve with your writing?
Thank you very much. My hope is that everything I put in the public sphere touches a few people. I am interested in issues that pertain to women and children. I think that is my ‘calling’. I hope my work makes people look at life in a different way. With my novel for instance, apart from wanting to tell an interesting all-Nigerian story, I wanted to make several statements about issues that are close to my heart: the awful state of mental healthcare in Nigeria; the high but rarely reported incidence of sexual abuse against women; traumatic mother-daughter relationships; and the most importantly the uncertainty of the future. Nigeria, like many African countries, has become very unpredictable. Polygamy is on the rise again. Why? Because, as a nation, we cannot successfully prosecute a federal senator who takes a thirteen your-old-Egyptian girl as a fourth wife. We are too lily-livered to confront obvious cases of paedophilia. We pussy-foot around issues and take refuge under religious beliefs that didn’t have the resources or the sophistication to take medical hazards like VVF or child molestation into account. These are the issues that get to me.

Are you currently reading a novel? If yes, what’s the title and author?

I am cackling my way through Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Mrs Corner, one of my teachers in prep school used to read bits of it to us at the end of her lessons. She didn’t have time to  finish the novel but I was so taken by it that I went out and bought it with my own pocket money.  I was about nine years old. I read a fictional review of Tony Blair’s memoirs recently, written by none other than the fictional character, Adrian Mole. I found my old copy and decided to read it again, for the laughs and for the memories.  When I finish, I will start reading Black Rock.

Your list of top five books.
Sula by Toni Morrison
House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Girls by Lori Lansens

Thank you very much for giving ImageNations the chance to talk to you. Thanks for the interview. I hope you can get hold of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives in Ghana.
Thanks for talking to me. The novel is available in Ghana already.

ImageNations has not as yet read Lola's book; however, when it is read be assured that the review would be posted here so keep watching this space. Do you have a different opinion? Let the discussion roll.

10 comments:

  1. Very interesting; thanks for your interview. Her book is on my wish list, but the question is: where can I buy it? Shoneyin says it is available in Ghana, but where?

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  2. What a great interview! I don't even know where to start here :)

    Shoneyin sounds fantastic and I'm looking forward to reading her novel more than ever now (it's on my Kindle at the moment). I love her strong convictions and opinions. I would certainly get behind the facts that women need education and opportunities, and that homosexuality is genetic - I can't imagine who would choose it if they had a choice given the troubles they face, even still here in Canada as well.

    I haven't read Faceless but in Changes I saw it not so much as a justification of polygamy but rather an example of why a woman may choose it. In the end it shows how it turns out poorly for all the women involved, though. Neither are happy and both are left wanting more. I love the line about how we can't have one homogeneous culture (that would be terrible!) but that we all need to respect each other - and instill respect for all in each culture. I thought Changes showed this well - a picture into polygamy, why a woman might be tempted to choose it, and a warning against choosing it in the end. If that makes sense!

    Oh - and I am obviously going to have to pick up Faceless at some point :) I keep hearing great things about Amma Darko's works. And Shoneyin's poetry!

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  3. @Nina, I haven't come across it myself. If it isn't at the silverbird I can't tell where it would be at

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  4. @Amy, thanks for the comment. Yes, in Faceless too it was more of why people choose it. However, if people have reasons for choosing it, and note that in Faceless it didn't also end quite well for all involved though it was no fault of the woman, why should we blame them. There are instances where educated women have opted for it, willingly. So is it a matter of education? I agree that when people pick up young girls, whose consent cannot even be accepted in a court of law (again a child of 14 has no consent in marriages), that is pure defilement. Such a man should be arrested and dealt with. But what can you do to a woman of thirty-something years, educated to the highest level who decides to go in for polygamy. You see, it exists now not because people don't know some of its ills but because people choose it. Here I am not been tribe/religion specific because polygamy isn't idiosyncratic to any religion or tribe. It's pervasive. Then again, what do you call a man with a single wife and multiple girlfriends as happens in many of the Western countries among the gliterrati, like the famous incident of Tiger Woods?

    For the genetic inclination of gayism I know we have XXY and XYY and all those combinations so that if a man has one more X to his XY he gets more feminine hormones and all that. Yes, but other researches have shown that homosexuality is also common among male-only prison population. I believe such people chose it just as people choose to be polygamous or involve in it or people choose to be monogamous.

    I would be reading your review. I don't have a copy now. I learnt they are in Ghana so I be on the look out for it. Yes, and Lola's poetry is great. Her use of words marvels.

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  5. This is one interesting interview. I think I've listened to her talk on B.B.C about her book and her take on polygamy. Her thoughts on Polygamy makes me want to search for her novel. Good job here, Nana.

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  6. Yes it still shocks me that people can come up with reasons for it, but then it isn't really allowed here. Though you are right I've had a friend who dated a married man and we all tried to talk her out of it and tell her she was crazy. It is definitely much more frowned upon here but it does happen, and I think it will continue to happen until we can change our culture more to make it more equal.

    And re: prisons, yes, in some situations it is probably a choice. But in, say, normal life under repressive governments, especially, I can't see anyone choosing that. People seem to have such a hard struggle coming out and accepting that they are gay and trying to hide it and pretending to be straight for so long that it doesn't seem like much of a choice. I mean, I just always knew I was heterosexual so I assume others know the same whatever their orientation is... but you are right. There are instances with choice too.

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  7. I guess you are right but I wonder how one can be talked out of ones choices. I mean, once someone has chosen to be with a married man it implies that there is something in it that that person likes. I have heard numerous girls giving strange reasons for dating married men. And since these reasons aren't losing their appeal it means a lot of people would engage in it no matter what is said on it.

    But on the whole you have a valid point. And the Homosexual issue, yes. I remember in Malawi or so two couples were arrested and jailed for being homos. I think if you are in such a place you are more likely to hide your status and if it were left to 'choice' alone you might not choose.

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