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Lola Shoneyin: A passionate author

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In this interview, LOLA SHONEYIN, a writer, tells FUNKE OSAE-BROWN about her passion for the arts and how she is forging ahead with the Ake Arts and Book Festival.

Her GRA home is just the perfect place to meet famous writer, Lola Shoneyin. She is in her natural element as she moves from one end of the house to another. She is just being herself.

I was first introduced to Shoneyin’s poetry in 1999, through her collection of poems, ‘All the While I was Sitting on an Egg.’ I was fascinated by her image on the back cover of the book as much as I was by her simple interesting lines. Her thoughts were poignant. Her choice of words is what makes her works fascinating, even to a first time reader of her poetry.

Since her debut, All the While I Was Sitting on an Egg, she has published ‘Song of a River Bird’ and ‘For the Love of Lights.’ She completed her first novel in 2000. Her second novel, ‘Harlot,’ received some interest, but the story of a young girl growing up in colonial Nigeria to make a fortune as a “Madame” is yet unpublished.

In the last two years, her love for the arts has driven her to kick start the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria.

Since 2013, it has become an annual convergence of practitioners and lovers of the African arts. She tells me her desire for a place where African writers can meet to discuss informed the establishment of the Ake Arts and Book Festival.

“Apart from having a convergence of creative Africans,” she says, “and of course, intellectuals, 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.”

In May 2009, she released her novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives,’ in the UK. And she says she has been preoccupied with the Ake Festival, which has prevented her from doing any serious writing. “I am too busy organising the Ake Book and Arts Festival, but I hope to get unto that next year,” she says. “This year was a big year for me with my first child going into university, and it is my last child’s final year in primary school, and I think also the demands of motherhood have been rather overwhelming in a very pleasant way. So, you sort of get over a hump and it is easy to progress. And I think next year is going to be a really good year for me creatively, because I have sort of passed the phase of fear.”

Shoneyin is a writer who writes in response to situations. That is how poetry works for her. “I see something and then I respond to it,” she tells me. “I feel something and then I respond to it. So, it is quite spontaneous. Yesterday, I was watching the news about the 47 children who were killed so mercilessly and horrifically, and I could feel like a bubble inside me and I know that there is something I want to say in response to that. So, that is basically how I operate. Fiction is much more sort of organised and planned for me, you understand this is what I am doing so you set aside the time and space for it. Poetry doesn’t quite work that way for me.”

In addition to writing, she finds joy in teaching. She was previously a teacher at Regents School in Abuja. She was recruited for the position from the United Kingdom. “I was an expatriate teacher,” she explains. “I was employed as an expatriate teacher. I was employed in the UK, I have a British passport.”

Now that she is out of teaching, the author speaks nostalgically about how much she misses her students. “I miss teaching very much, I miss it immensely. I miss waking up in the morning and thinking about my students. It is all consuming for me; that is my passion at work again. I am very passionate about my job. When I was a teacher, I was very passionate about the children. I knew every child in my school, I knew them well, I had spoken to every child, interested in them, in their lives, in their development.”

It is her love and passion for the development of young people and writing that she took an active part in the Abuja launch of the ‘Bring Back the Book’ initiative of President Goodluck Jonathan. But Shoneyin says she is pained the campaign was discontinued.

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“I did because I was emotionally invested in the Bring Back the Book (project) for all sorts of reasons. One, I am an author; another is that I know the significance of literacy in this country. I mean, you see what is happening in the North. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that people just feel that they do not have any prospects. If you are not educated it is a real problem. The world is shut out, you cannot read a road sign, you cannot read the instructions when you buy medicine, you do not know what it is or how to use it. Progress is so linked to education that I cannot overstate it. So, I was emotionally invested in the ‘Bring Back the Book’ project and I really wanted it to continue, but not much has happened since.”

Through her Book Buzz Foundation, a non-profit organisation, she has annually organised the Ake Arts and Book Festival, and she hopes to use the foundation to promote better reading culture in Africa. “We are hoping to move into other initiatives that support the creation of reading spaces and supporting schools with library development.

“Of course, it is an NGO that is heavily reliant on raising funds. We have committed ourselves to the Ake Festival, we are going ahead with that and it is now to have clear cut programmes as to what we want to do when we are not doing Ake Festival. We are working on that.”

The poet says sponsorship was a big challenge for the Ake Festival in 2014. However, she hopes 2015 will be better. “It was a very tough year in 2014. It had taken support from corners that I did not even expect. That is how we were able to pull this off in 2014. We ran on empty. We did not have enough to pay for all the costs, but things worked out.”

For Shoneyin, the lack of interest of corporate organisations in arts and culture has led to poor sponsorship of arts related events. “No matter what steps you take to market the Ake Arts and Book Festival the problem is, how interested are people, organisations and companies in arts and culture? It is simply not an area that people believe is valuable and that is very sad. Go anywhere you like in the West or the developed world, the arts and culture are massively subsidised by the government and hugely supported by different organisations within that country who know the value of arts and culture.”

For the two years the festival has been running, famous writers from all over Africa have attended. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Wole Soyinka attended last year.

“I am really looking forward to having Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 2015, for instance. But you know, it is a process and the major authors, the very big ones, are often very expensive and this is still the festival that is trying to find its feet, especially financially. We almost did not proceed with this festival and I really have a lot to thank Access Bank for; they came in at a very critical time, and because of the injection that they have put into the festival, it is actually going to be able to go ahead.”