Lime interview - Books & Spoken Word
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Lola Shoneyin is the author of the acclaimed The Secrets of Baba Segi’s Wives.
Why did you decide to write about polygamy?
The novel is based on a true story that I heard when I was 14-years-old. My brother’s girlfriend, a medical doctor, saw the episode unfold. She was there when a wealthy middle-aged man dragged his new, university-educated wife to hospital to find a solution to her barrenness. I was intrigued by the drama of it all and thought it would make a great stage play. Fast-forward 20 years. I needed a new project when I couldn’t find a publisher for my second unpublished novel. I wanted something fresh and exciting that I could get my teeth into. The story of Baba Segi and his wives was perfect. It was fairly easy to write because I had a lot of material from the stories my mother told me about the polygamous home she grew up in. Polygamy is all around you in Nigeria. I don’t know a lot of people of my generation whose grandfather’s weren’t polygamists.
How have people in such families responded to the book?
The general reaction to the novel has been wonderful. One lady (who is a daughter of a prominent Nigerian polygamist) did argue that becoming a co-wife is ‘better than living as an unmarried whore’. Such statements, especially from women, demonstrate an attitude that I can only politely describe as defeatist. Many of the invasive cultural practices, though probably imposed by patriarchal thinking, are enforced and supported by women. It embarrasses me when the ‘enlightened’ women of my generation make statements that limit and diminish women. Conversely, women often write to me to thank me for writing their stories. Some say they are amazed by the similarities between my portrayal of Baba Segi’s household and the homes that they grew up in. The novel continues to be well received in Nigeria and I am pleased about this.
One of the strongest themes is about motherhood, you explore that in a variety of ways, why that particular focus?
I have had a somewhat troubled relationship with my mother for most of my life. It’s amazing how much you learn about yourself during the drawn-out process of writing a novel. I wanted to explore the complexity of mother/ daughter relationships and how the nature of these relationships can have devastating consequences for young girls approaching womanhood. Several types of mothers are represented in the novel.
In the Black Reading Group discussion in August, most people were sympathetic to Baba Segi, does that fit with the response you have had elsewhere?
Yes, readers start off hating him and by the end of the novel, they find themselves feeling sorry for him. I adore Baba Segi because he is such a devoted father to the children in his household. He’s a bit of a dinosaur but that’s because he knows no better.
What book do you wish you had written and why?
Sula by Toni Morrison. It is my favourite book. It explores human imperfection with sensitivity. I have always been drawn to tragic heroes. I also admire writing that captures human frailty, our flaws, our appetite for excess. I pay tribute to Sula in The Secret Wives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
What are you working on now?
Something I really like. There’s a lot going on in Nigeria at the moment. The Abuja I live in used to be a safe haven, but is now making the headlines for all the wrong reasons- bomb blast and religious extremism. Slowly, life as we know it in Nigeria is disappearing. I find it tragic that people can just plod on, settling into a permanent feeling of dread.
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