Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |June 14, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Lola Shoneyin

author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Ten Terrifying Questions

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1. To begin with, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Ibadan, Nigeria to a family of five sons. At the age of six, my parents bundled me off to boarding school in the UK. I returned to Nigeria just before my teens and I have split my time between the two countries ever since. I am married to a medical doctor and we raise four children, three dogs and two rabbits.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was twelve I wanted to be a singer. I was already writing bits and pieces at the time but after years in the school choir, I thought I had a decent voice. I also enjoyed writing songs about my miserable youth. I can’t sing like I used to these days so I bribe my children and get them to sing to me.

When I was eighteen, I wanted to teach literature at university so I could inspire students. I had a really brilliant lecturer and I wanted to be like him. He introduced me to Toni Morrison. I couldn’t stop talking about her writing so I thought I might as well get paid.

By age thirty, I had published two collections of poems and written a failed novel. There was no going back.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

Back then, I was terrible at defining or managing my emotions so I’d convince myself that I was in love with for every guy who told me a sad personal story. Now, I know that the strange stirring in the pit of my belly is the gift of empathy. It can be a curse too but I’m not a sucker anymore.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Definitely Frida Kahlo. I love the rawness, the honesty of her work. Her art was about the survival of her soul. Sometimes writing poetry is like that for me. It becomes a release valve that helps me cope with my complications.

Sula by Toni Morrison had a huge impact on me. I still read her work before I write. There’s something about her writing that pushes me along when I get stuck.

I love musicals and My Fair Lady is a favourite of mine. Songs by Aretha Franklin heal and give life.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I enjoyed the challenge. I struggle with writing short stories these days. I find it difficult to stop writing. You can really throw yourself into a novel

6. Please tell us about your Orange Prize longlisted novel… The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

It’s about a polygamous family, set in Ibadan, Nigeria. Baba Segi has four wives and seven children. After marrying a fourth wife –Bolanle, a prized university graduate–, he becomes frustrated when she doesn’t conceive and drags her to hospital. This visit to the doctor sets off a chain of events that eventually reveal devastating family secrets. No one is spared.

(BBGuru: Publisher’s synopsis –

To the dismay of her ambitious mother, Bolanle marries into a polygamous family, where she is the fourth wife of a rich, rotund patriarch, Baba Segi.

She is a graduate and therefore a great prize, but even graduates must produce children and her husband’s persistent bellyache is a sign that things are not as they should be. Bolanle is too educated for the ‘white garment conmen’ Baba Segi would usually go to for fertility advice, so he takes her to hospital to discover the cause of her barrenness.

Weaving the voices of Baba Segi and his four competing wives into a portrait of a clamorous household of twelve, Lola Shoneyin evokes an extraordinary Nigerian family in splashes of vibrant colour.)

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope they will see the universality of human selfishness. I paint a true picture of a polygamous home where women need and despise one another in equal measure. I hope it inspires young women to strive for economic independence, especially in Africa where girls have limited options. I also hope the novel reminds people to forgive themselves.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

That would be Toni Morrison. She writes about her history with boldness, telling the stories of her people and singing their songs. It was after reading Song of Solomon that I started to engage with my history and my ancestry in a meaningful way. It is very important that people know who they are.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I haven’t set myself any goals… I hope this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. You know, raising four kids, and holding down a full time job mean I don’t have much time to devote to writing. I try not to put myself under too much pressure. Come to think of it, I’d love to see one of my novels adapted for the stage– a musical perhaps! Now, that would be amazing!

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Work hard. Play hard. Live hard.

Lola, thank you for playing.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.

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