Arts & culture

In My Shoes

Award-winning author and poet Lola Shoneyin has gone from attending school in Scotland to founding Africa’s largest literary event, Aké Festival

Interview: Cheryl Caira

I love Edinburgh. I didn’t visit for 30 years [since childhood] and when I did, I fell in love again. I was reintroduced through the Edinburgh International Book Festival, so it was a cultural return journey. I met the wonderful storyteller Mara Menzies and a whole bunch of beloved writers. The Edinburgh festivals are more than Edinburgh. It is the entire world crammed into a beautiful, cold city.

I had the opportunity to travel to several countries in Europe and to the US when my book [The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives] came out. I didn’t have as many opportunities to travel around the African continent and I was eager to talk about the issues raised in my novel with Africans on African turf. So I knew it was time to establish a world-class festival where Africanness would be central to the majority of conversations.

Aké Festival builds bridges between Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa. It is a time to celebrate our homegrown stars. It is a special experience for us all because the networking is invaluable. My hope is that what we have started gives birth to many other such initiatives across the continent.

One of the worst things about colonialism is the damage it did to our collective psyche. There is a sense in which all that was introduced by the missionaries was great and everything traditional was evil and needed to be urgently expelled. We are still suffering from this blow to our identity today.

Another challenge is poverty. People are busy trying to stay alive and artistic endeavours are seen to be pointless, because they do not translate to immediate financial gain.

Scots Makar, Jackie Kay. Credit: Mary McCartney

I am always dipping into Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar. She is such an inspiration. I really want her to come to Aké Festival. I love Billy Connolly. I have always been a huge fan. I am very keen to engage with more Scottish writing.

Feminism for me has always been about opportunity and choice. I am interested in establishing and creating opportunities for women so they can enjoy some of the choices that our menfolk have access to.

Aké Festival 2019. Image:

There is change coming. I see it on the horizon, and it will be driven by young people who are going to throw away the cultural traditions that we really should have let go of decades ago. I always say that our culture should serve us and not the other way around.

I wish I had the time [to write more]. I spend so much time running Aké Festival, the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, Ouida Books [a publishing house] and a bookstore in Ikeja, Lagos. These days, I am writing children’s books for the children of northern Nigeria who need to see themselves in the books that they read.

I am working on projects that will make a real difference to people’s lives. I worry about the lack of access to literacy in parts of Nigeria. I have given up on government, but I do worry about leadership and its impact on the under-25s. I am interested in thinking of ways to inspire people.

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