Black History Month Spotlight: Lola Shoneyin

22 October 2020

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the sixth of the series, Associate Publisher Rebecca Gray writes about Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.


Ten years ago, one of the first books I edited was The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The story of a polygamous household having to accommodate a new, young, fourth wife, the characters jostle for space in just the way they would have to in their home. There’s intrigue, drama and plenty of tension. Though it’s named for its patriarch, for me it will always be Bolanle’s book, the new wife who may be booksmart but who seems not to know too much of the real world. While all the characters have stayed with me, it is her pain and quietness that I most powerfully remember a decade on. 

Working with Lola was a joy – her combination of lightness, wit, sly humour and wrenching pain is what makes her first and only novel a modern classic. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, has been adapted for stage and will soon be adapted for the screen, has sold consistently well for a decade and will shortly be available with a gorgeous new cover and as an audiobook read by the author too.

In the years since her debut, Lola has created and built the Ake Arts Festival, which has become a literary and arts festival of international renown. Bringing together authors from all over the world to celebrate creativity on the African continent, Lola proves she knows how to inspire others as much as pursuing her own art. Which reminds me to say that I hope it won’t be her only novel forever! I continue to hope (and occasionally hassle her) for another. Meanwhile, The Ake Festival begins (virtually) today and runs until 25 October, so you can join from wherever you are. https://akefestival.org/ 

Buy your copy of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives from your local independent bookshop or: Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

lola shoneyin

EXTRACT

When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something drastic about his fourth wife’s childlessness. He was sure the pain wasn’t caused by hunger or trapped gas; it was from the build-up of months and months of worry. A grunt escaped from the woman lying next to him. He glanced sideways and saw that his leg had stapled Iya Tope, his second wife, to the bed. He observed the jerky rise and fall of her bosom but he didn’t move to ease her discomfort. His thoughts returned to Bolanle and his stomach tightened again. Then and there, he decided to pay Teacher a visit. He would get there at sunrise so Teacher would know it was no ordinary stop over.

As soon as his driver parked the pick-up truck by the gutter that circled Ayikara, Baba Segi flung open the passenger door and re-inflated his large frame. Without a word or a backward glance at his driver, he dashed down a narrow alleyway. If his eyes hadn’t been entirely fixed on Teacher’s shack, he might have noticed that his driver had scrambled after him. Baba Segi stepped aside to make room for the schoolchildren on their daily pilgrimage. These children went to great pains to bid Teacher good
morning, just to see him steam up the louvres with his response. ‘God mourning,’ the smoky-eyed sage hummed. The children waved happily and toddled off to school. Baba Segi shook his head. If their parents ever discovered that they had strayed from the dusty road that led to wisdom, stepped wide-legged over spluttering gutters and shifted between random buildings, those children would be in grave trouble. Teacher’s shack was in Ayikara and Ayikara was not a place for children.