by Wilfred Okiche
Every November, for the last five years, the literary community- an interesting mix of writers, critics, editors, publishers, artists, students, musicians and even politicians – makes the annual pilgrimage to Ake, a quiet, sleepy town in rocky Abeokuta, capital of Ogun state for the Ake Arts and Book Festival.
Before 2013 when the festival was birthed, Ake’s biggest claim to fame, was a documentation in the literary canon, as the quaint little town where Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka spent the first twelve years of his life. Soyinka rendered a personal account of this period of his life in the 1981 memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.
Ake has since gotten a new lease on life, coming alive for a full week every year as the continent’s finest thinkers and intellectuals gather to meet, greet and inspire one another.
At the inaugural in 2013, Soyinka himself was present, taking the opportunity to look back on his eventful life and career. A pre-Man Booker prize winner Marlon James made the trip down, so did Kenyan, Binyavanga Wainana. Former president, Olusegun Obasanjo was there to promote his epic three-volume memoir, My Watch the following year. Brymo, Nnedi Okorafor, Zukiswa Warner and Taiye Selasi have at different times, made the journey to Ake.
This year, the festival is dedicated to the female spirit and will be headlined by Ghanaian legend, Ama Ata Aidoo. Themed This f-word, guests are expected from all corners of the world and most are pumped for a week of prime, heady stuff. From poetry recitations to book readings, panel discussions to theatre experiences, there is (almost) never a dull moment to be had at Ake. If there is any criticism that has lingered, it is that Ake can sometimes feel like full sensory overload.
The person responsible for all of this literary and cultural goodness is Lola Shoneyin, a forty-three-year-old poet, novelist, publisher and all round formidable ball of energy.
Shoneyin is known to be many things, but perhaps writer is the one that has stuck around the most. She had been publishing poetry collections, short stories (in the Post Express newspapers) and children’s books, but it was her critically and commercially acclaimed 2010 novel, The Secret Life of Baba Segi’s Wives that made her a household name and ensured no culturally enlightened Nigerian (perhaps African) is likely to be unfamiliar with her name.
Coming after two previous attempts at interesting publishers with her prose had fallen through, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was quickly snapped up by Serpent’s Tail, a London based independent publishing house. Shoneyin took a broad swipe at polygamy, an African cultural mainstay as she depicted, in salty, humorous yet terribly effective language, the dramatic disintegration of a typical polygamous family when the eponymous character, Baba Segi, takes a fourth wife for himself.
It was an instant hit.
Publishers Weekly gushed, “Shoneyin masterfully disentangles four distinct stories, only to subtly expose what is common among them.” Harper’s Bazaar called it “A rich debut… an engrossing and beautifully written domestic tale of polygamy and rivalry.” The novel was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011 and in the same year, won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award.
Shoneyin could have coasted on this success and embarked on a visible literary career, one that attracts fellowships and residencies, results in book tours, speaking fees and a regular seat at various global panels discussing African writing.
She chose to do something different.
Failing to understand why she wasn’t having all of the stimulating conversations that are usually huge attractions at events like these, Shoneyin tried for something maybe a little radical, but something altogether more lasting. ‘’I think it is very important to have a space where African authors, African creatives and intellectuals and lovers of Africa can get together and talk about African issues on African soil. That is very important, that it is done on African soil,” Shoneyin told The Luxury Reporter’s Funke Osae-Brown in 2015.
In 2012, Shoneyin founded the Book Buzz Foundation, a non-profit that aims to promote literacy and create safe reading spaces to nurture writers. A lot of the foundation’s work has been overshadowed by the Ake Arts and Book Festival, but earlier this year, Shoneyin and her team proved with the inaugural Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST), that the success of Ake is no fluke. Not that anyone who ever attended Ake would ever suggest otherwise.
Despite some initial political reservations, Shoneyin was able to capture lightning in a bottle, working in conjunction with the Kaduna state government to shine a spotlight on the literature coming from the northern part of the country. For four days, the city of Kaduna played hosts to the artists, authors and culture enthusiasts who travelled from around the country to explore the rich cultural heritage of the state.
Book Buzz Foundation is also hard at work on the full rollout of The Right to Write, a European Union funded project that has educational and media training opportunities as its primary objectives. The Right to Write program seeks to discover, develop and nurture twenty authors from Northern Nigeria through an open call for applications process. The shortlisted persons will be paired with established authors from around the world who will provide mentorship to help them come up with age-appropriate titles that will be published and circulated in forty schools across five Northern states – Kaduna, Katsina, Borno, Bauchi and Yobe.
Because libraries are expensive to set up and most state governments couldn’t really be bothered, Book Buzz Foundation’s innovative mobile libraries through a collaboration with publishers and donors, help bring books to the pupils through mobile libraries that can be wheeled from one classroom block to the other.
Then there is the Project Inspire!, an important component of the Ake Art and Books Festival in which festival guests visit local primary and secondary schools for interactive sessions. The authors read to the students from their work and engage them in conversations around books and the arts.
Juggling all of this may seem like a handful but it helps that Shoneyin had a bit of preparation and did not stumble onto this path by chance. “A lot of things that I do are not about glamour and are not for any of those reasons that I think has to do with snazziness or bright lights,” she told Wana Udobang in an episode of the web series, Culture Diaries.
Shoneyin’s work with Book Buzz Foundation is merely the culmination of a journey that started as far back as 2001 when she returned to Nigeria from the United Kingdom. Resident in Ibadan, land of her birth, at the time, Shoneyin started the Ibadan Arts Renaissance, a cultural gathering which she ran up until she moved to Abuja in 2009.
Together with Dapo Oyewole, a policy expert, Shoneyin started Infusion, a popular monthly gathering of art, culture and music lovers in Maitama. For almost three years, Infusion hosted a long list of authors including Eghosa Imasuen, Chuma Nwokolo and Molara Wood. Throughout this time, Shoneyin was working full time at a private school, Regents, where she was employed as an expatriate teacher. She kept Infusion going single-handedly, even after Oyewole took up a federal appointment at the Ministry of National Planning.
In the course of her work in Nigeria, Shoneyin has recognised the all-encompassing reach of government and the importance of the political class in smoothening the process for startups such as hers. She has not been afraid of making good use of her contacts to help greenlight projects that she is interested in.
Shoneyin is married to Olaokun Soyinka, a public health specialist. He was Commissioner for Health in Ogun state, during the same period the Ake festival was launched. Her father-in-law, of course, is the inimitable Wole Soyinka. Both Soyinka – the elder – and Shoneyin participated in the Abuja launch of President Goodluck Jonathan’s short-lived literacy campaign, Bring Back the Book.
Shoneyin downplays any direct influence from her father-in-law towards her writing career. She told Premium Times, ‘’Professor Soyinka didn’t even see the novel (The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives) in manuscript form. I sent him the finished product – the book (because) I wanted to surprise him.’’ She continues, ‘’I knew that he would be even more proud of me if he knew I had done it on my own. I didn’t get a leg-up. I worked my ass off! I found an agent, got my manuscript organised, sent it out, and somehow got through all those rejections. My partner has been great though. I can’t give him enough credit for being my first editor.’’
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, Shoneyin was drafted into the All Progressives Congress (APC) campaign and for a while was a visible member of the campaign team. She published an opinion piece in the Guardian UK, expressing her support for Muhammadu Buhari, and practically absolving him of his crimes against her family.
Buhari’s military regime had in a bogus clamp down on corrupt politicians, imprisoned her father, Tinuoye Shoneyin, a government contractor, for six months. In her words, Shoneyin explained her latest stance, ‘’Many Nigerians believe that it is time to return to one of the few faces of anti-corruption in Nigeria’s political history. Even my wrongly-imprisoned dad would recognise that Buhari’s ambition was to stem corruption.’’
Just as the Kaduna Arts and Book Festival was announced, a group of writers, called for a boycott, citing Kaduna state governor, Nasir El-Rufai’s disastrous human rights record, plus his ineffectual handling of security crises in the state leading to loss of lives and property.
Culture critic Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an intervention posted on medium, argued thus, ‘’The last thing Nigeria should be talking about is a festival that sequesters her thinkers while the country burns thanks to El-Rufai’s purveyors of hate.’’
The festival went on as planned.
Of course, planning and executing a festival of Ake’s scope and conceiving the various ambitious Book Buzz Foundation education programs, cannot entirely be done outside of government patronage. The Kaduna state government stepped in for KABAFEST and for The Right to Write. The Ogun state government provides the Cultural Centre, Kuto as venue for the Ake Arts and Book Festival. Without these interventions, Shoneyin’s work would be twice as difficult.
Assessing funds for cultural events like the Ake Arts and Book Festival are the stuff nightmares are made of and Shoneyin is constantly on the move, taking meetings and seeking sponsorships or partnerships for her various projects. If her connections and privileged background can help her get into the room where these decisions are considered, then it is just as well. The culture space definitely needs more friends like Shoneyin.
But in a country where the best culture writers are all hustling to write for foreign publications and all the novelists would rather be published abroad, how hard is it, getting local organisations to rally around the arts? Shoneyin answers from experience, relaying her frustrations on Culture Diaries, ‘’It breaks the heart that a lot of Nigerian organisations do not support the arts, literature and culture in the way that they should.”
But Shoneyin remains eternally optimistic, in the manner that anyone who commits and sticks around to do the kind of unglamorous work that she does, has to be. “It is a question of what people value. And I think that things are changing because people are now seeing that authors actually can be successful, and have great lives and are travelling, and are jet-setters and which is important too,’’ she says.
The driving force
It is possible to count on one hand, the big publishers working out of Nigeria. At last year’s Ake Arts and Book Festival, a new contender joined the fray. Headliner, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was on hand to launch Taduno’s Song, the debut novel by Odafe Atogun. Taduno’s Song, a small novel about a rebel musician returning from exile is the debut release from Ouida Books, a new publishing house founded by Lola Shoneyin.
Ouida has since gone on to publish the Nigerian issue of the critically acclaimed, Baileys Prize shortlisted novel, Stay With Me, the debut by Ayobami Adebayo. Other authors on the Ouida Books imprint are Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson and Hadiza Isma El-Rufai, wife of the Kaduna state governor.
Dami Ajayi whose second collection of poems, A Woman’s Body is a Country has been published by Ouida, describes the experience, ‘’I sent her (Shoneyin) the manuscript and she asked me to wait for six months as she was busy. She eventually got back to me. And wham! book out.’’
Ouida Books is a platform that proudly identifies as Nigerian. Every aspect of the business – from the editing to the illustrations and printing – is done in Nigeria. Shoneyin is discreet about her achievements. Speaking to Kenyan journalist, James Murua, she explains, with a sense of modesty that belies her accomplishments, ‘’Ouida Books is just another outlet to add to the incredible work that has already been done. I don’t think you can have too many publishers. I don’t think that you can have too many companies who are seeing to it that great work is published and put in other people’s hands. That is the driving force.’’
It is a beautiful thing to observe, persons who have discovered their calling in life going all the way to make things happen not only for themselves but creating value for others along the way. Dami Ajayi who has worked closely with Shoneyin on his book, and has observed her create magic from nothing, many times over, expresses his awe at the energy levels she manages to sustain ‘’She is a go-getter, perhaps the finest multi-tasker around.’’
Truer words haven’t been spoken.