I first met Lola Shoneyin at the 2016 Ake Festival. The next year, she forwarded me an invitation to the festival at Abeokuta. I arrived to find a maelstrom of activity, Lola herself in the middle of it. She paused to welcome me, then hustled off again in a whirlwind.

This conversation reminded me very much of that meeting. Lola appeared on my screen in a burst of energy, immediately telling me everything about her day so far. Our conversation eventually turned to reflecting on her journey to becoming a champion of culture and literature and the choices and decisions that accompany a career dedicated to culture.

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Lola Shoneyin

It’s been such a busy time. And it’s interesting how you imagine that you will be bored or frustrated during the lockdown. It’s like there’s double the work you have to do.

Arit Okpo

Is this because of planning for this year’s Ake Festival?

Lola Shoneyin

We have two hundred and five speakers and participants. So it’s huge. It’s exciting for me — this whole idea of having an online event. As I was creating the event and adding more people, I’m thinking — how will you fly all of them down and then I realized, I’m not flying anybody. Then I realized that you can do so much at the same time.

I like doing things that put Africa and Africans on the map. My job and the stuff that I do allows me to come in contact with so many talented, incredibly hardworking people. Young but doing incredible stuff. I want the world to see them. And when I say the world, the truth is, in fact, more than anything, I’m talking about Africa, as in the African world. We need to be more aware of our own talent. From there comes the confidence to take on the rest of the world. A trajectory that we’re going down that’s worrying me is how, if we’re not careful, Africans will not have access to African stories. There’s a big danger of that happening.

 Arit Okpo

Why do you say this?

Lola Shoneyin

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So, for instance, we have this incredible app, One Read, which is for African stories. By featuring a book by an African author published in the West on that platform, we are preparing the ground to support booksellers, to support publishers. In grabbing some of these titles for this platform, the intention is to work with small African publishers, independent African publishers. Such books cost like 10 or 12 pounds.  That price is understandable seeing as even though these books are set on the African continent, they have been adopted by a Western publisher who has put all the work into helping to make this book a book. But I’m asking, OK, can we please have this book available on the continent so that people can have access to it? Please? Because at that price, what that translates to here, by the time you put shipping, makes it impossible for ordinary readers, ordinary people, to afford.

So for somebody like me that’s interested in people having access and finding ways to make sure that there is access, you find yourself in a tug of war for those stories. Something must still be put back into the pot to sustain these stories here. I realize that when African stories are first published abroad, we’ve got to put measures in place to make sure that Africans can access those stories.

Arit Okpo

When I was reading up and thinking about this conversation, I actually thought about this thing called The African Writer that is often marketed to a non African readership, which totally changes the conversation around accessibility. I feel it starts to almost guide the kinds of stories that are told.

Lola Shoneyin

Exactly. That’s why we’ve created One Read. It’s a wonderful app … you can read, you can listen. The idea is it’s not Kindle. It is not iBooks. It’s something else. It’s an annual subscription, and all you pay is twelve dollars a year. And for those twelve dollars a year, you will get twelve books a year.  There’ll be books that haven’t quite hit the markets yet. Especially when it’s an African book or written by an African. Because you know what? At some point we have to prioritize ourselves.

I understand the commercial thinking that goes into being a publisher. I also know the work that the publisher has to do from design to layout to editorial and especially to copy. It’s a lot of work. I know that it costs money. But it does honestly feel like colonialism. It feels like imperialism to me. Yes, we screwed up in that we haven’t created the infrastructure that makes it possible to be able to produce these books at an affordable rate. And as such, we all look to the West, their methodology and how they’re doing things. However, the access is important.

We’ve tried to create a platform that’s accessible. You get the audio book and the e-book. The book is only available on the app for 21 days, and the book itself is divided into 21 sections for you, so that every day, you have a daily read or a daily listen. There’s also a number of other wonderful features that we thought were really important for the app when we were building it. For instance, it has a book club facility. So if I join, I can create a book club. Not only can I chat with you, but if I’m the admin I can go and see who is in the club and see how much they’ve read. Then I can also kind of alert members of the book club: “did you see this book?”

There’s also a review section. And what we’re trying to do is encourage people to reflect. So when you read a book, you reflect on it and you can write your little review. If people like your review, it keeps going up until it gets to the top. So what we want to do is, maybe the day before we move on to a new book, we can give some sort of prize to the people who’ve written the best reviews. This is just me, again, mentioning one of the things that I think we don’t do enough of, which that is even when we take information, we don’t reflect on it. We respond without reflecting and this aims to get people out that habit.

We also have what we call a bonus book. Every quarter we are literally commissioning somebody to write a book about an issue that’s pertinent but only 40 pages. So, for instance, the latest one is about Covid and habits to keep you healthy. It’s free. It’s there for everyone. You can read it online, everywhere.

The model itself, being twelve dollars a year, makes it not only affordable, but it also allows me to go to a governor, for instance, and say, “Sir why don’t you give one thousand young people access for a year?” Or you can also gift an annual subscription to someone.

There’s another feature that we’re really trying to develop which I love. I said the book is there for 21 days. We have a 28-day cycle which starts on the first of every month. The first 7 days we call the engagement period. So what we do then is every day, we have some sort of engagement feature: a podcast today with the author, the next day maybe, a short video, then a photograph, then an interview, then maybe quiz which is easily answered. Those who win get a free subscription.

I think another thing people will miss in these times is post-reading engagement with authors, especially in light of how, because of Covid, most people won’t get to meet authors. So something else we’re thinking of is doing an IG live, recording it, and putting it on the app. These are some of the interesting things that we’re thinking about.

I think I’m extremely lucky to be working with Sterling Bank.  Once I am able to show the value of a product to them, they will support the creation of that product. I’ve spent over 20 years trying to raise money, you know, degrading myself, humiliating myself, you know, going around, begging people. But I will suffer any indignity for the work that I do. I consider it to be part of the territory. So it’s a huge opportunity that Sterling has that kind of faith in me. I take it very seriously. I want to make sure that the value that I’m bringing them is almost tangible. That way they will keep on contributing.

Arit Okpo

Has getting support over the years changed? Is it now easier or more readily available?

Lola Shoneyin

Much more ready, much more available. It’s easier in the sense that fundraising is about building relationships over the years, and I think it also has to do with the fact that people trust me much more than I could have ever asked for. So people believe that when Lola Shoneyin says she’s going to do something, it’s going to get done probably in a way that is going to make it look like I gave her ten times what I actually gave her to do that particular job. That’s what I strive towards because I want to be known for excellence. This is literally the main thing I have to give anybody. The culture of excellence is important to me. We are capable of it. Yes, we are. When people think about Ake festival, I want them to think about having a good time. How it was well-organized.

Arit Okpo

I remembered last Ake when the international guests were heading to the airport, and we all came out to say goodbye. I remember thinking, “I don’t know anywhere in the world where this happens, where in three or four days you make bonds that feel like you have known people all your lives.” I will never forget that.

Lola Shoneyin

You know, I was a teacher for many years. So almost instinctively, I understand how people can operate. I know that one of our biggest disadvantages as a continent is the absence of connectedness that affects us on every single sphere, level, area, field you can think of.

In a way, I look at Ake festival and these gatherings as a microcosm of Africa. Here we are, we are all together every year. We recognize that sharing this time is so important for our collective development. A writer may come to Ake and think, “Oh I’m just a writer coming to talk about my book.” But by the time they leave, they will care about other African writers — either through meeting them and bonding with them individually or something they would have listened to on a panel. That’s what I want to happen, these networks that we continue to make at every Ake festival. That process is critical to the development of culture on the continent. We need to know what we’re doing so we can support one another.

I’ve been to Abantu Festival in Johannesburg, to Gaborone Festival in Botswana. This is what we need to be doing — supporting growth and birthing of other festivals across the continent. When we do that, we support the writing, the publishing, the many industries plugged in to the festival. And it’s those people who normally don’t get recognition or attention. They’re the ones who benefit from that particular value chain. So I will go to all those festivals. I pay for myself to go because I want to be there to support them. I always want to show that solidarity even amongst us in Africa. So when I see Ake Guests at Abantu, I love it.

Arit Okpo

I want to turn the spotlight on you. You’re very visible, but you’re also very behind the scenes. I don’t know how you do it, and I want to explore a little bit that journey. Of Ake through you. I want us to start from that first festival.

Lola Shoneyin

Starting a festival had been on my mind for a very long time. I used to get irritated when I’d go to festivals abroad. Even if you go to a place with a considerable black population, you see one black person in the entire audience. If you are lucky, there’ll be two. So I just used to get like, “Where are my people?” These festivals also mean that you have to censor yourself sometimes, and you also don’t often get that feeling of being part of something great because you are outside of it. And when you’re inside of it, sometimes enough care hasn’t been taken to make sure that you don’t end up just feeling like some sort of performer, but also some sort of little token.

For me, my teaching background means managing people. It’s easy for me. A task that can be very daunting to a lot of people, but not for me because I would sit and help to do the entire program timetable for an entire school of a thousand kids. So I’m not intimidated by the things that I think regular people find intimidating about organization because I’ve done it for so long in my life, you know?

Prior to that time, I’d been a member of the association of Nigerian authors, and I became the PRO for the Oyo state chapter. I went to a number of conventions that were held October every year, but it was really a gathering of writers alone. And while there’s a place for that— and it’s very important that that happens as well—for me, there’s a lot to be said for having non writers in the mix. I felt that those conventions didn’t create enough space for the kind of collaborative work that I would have liked to have been introduced to or that I would have liked to introduce into the African literary-cultural space.

So that’s one of the reasons why I said we have to do this thing, and we have to do it properly. And we have to make sure that it’s a festival that makes us proud. Everyone who attends should leave with a smile and feeling that they’ve been enriched and nourished and nurtured. And the guests. I want them to feel taken care of. That’s why we do all those little, little, little things, because I want them to feel like we want them to be there. We are happy to have them. We appreciate them. We value them. If you are undervalued everywhere on the African continent, when you come to Ake, you are going to feel differently.

Arit Okpo

Having been to Ake three times, I’ve seen some of the writers that you featured being overwhelmed at just how much love they were getting. Did you intend for the festival to create this feeling from day one?

Lola Shoneyin

Yes. You have to set the tone. That’s another thing from teaching. And that’s what I did. Even with my first team, I called and talked to them everyday, saying this is how I want people to feel when they leave us. I don’t want you [the team] to be the one who denies them that experience. My expectations are so high of my team and my staff and the volunteers. I want them to understand the culture of service, that when you make other people bigger, it doesn’t reduce you in any way. Just understand that when you show respect, you show that a human being is actually worthy of the space they are occupying.

We have a set of rules about how to interact. They’re not even allowed to hug the guests. There’s so many things that I set up so that they understand personal space, but also to protect them from predators. In a way, you create a culture. I think that one of the things people don’t understand is that you can’t just leave yourself to just go with the flow, with a certain culture; you actually have agency and intelligence to create your own culture. So that’s what we did. We decided that, well, this is how we want this space to be.. It was all intentional.

Arit Okpo

I think it’s something very special that you can so intentionally create something that feels so organic. Has your vision evolved in the last eight years?

Lola Shoneyin

It’s the same thing. Humanity is at the forefront. Going back to the idea that we have power to create a culture. With Ake Festival, in terms of the content, I’ve always believed that tolerance is something that can be taught. I knew and believed that if I could mainstream things that seemed to be on the fringe, it would all become so intertwined that nobody would know what was fringe or what was mainstream anymore.

So for instance, with the topic of queerness at Ake festival. People ask me all the time, why feature queerness? It’s like you are promoting homosexuality. People say that all the time. And I love it when they say it because it gives me a chance to explore that thought but also to ask them, OK, so did queerness hurt you in any way? What did it do to you? Did it take away some parts of your brain or your heart?  What would it do to you? Just the idea that other people who are like you, have as much right to that space as you do are having a good time. What part of other people expressing their personhood is damaging you?  At the end, they’ll say, “It’s Ok, it’s true.” And in my mind, I’m just like, “another person who now gets it.”

At the very beginning, it was scary. You worry a bit, like what will happen? But these are the things I think of that remind me that what I’m doing is important and is worthwhile. It’s not about individuals. It never is and rarely is with me. It’s often about the bigger picture, the bigger conversation and the impact that those conversations have on ordinary people. That was my vision from day one. That’s my vision till now, hasn’t changed.

Arit Okpo

I’m thinking about the panel I did on the gender spectrum, and people came up to me after that interview in tears. And I thought to myself, how special! For once, you are in a space where all you get to do is sit down and listen to other people’s realities.  I was at Ake the season of Rafiki, and you said something during the opening ceremony, you were like, this is a safe space. I’ve watched you successively create a space where everybody is 100 percent

Lola Shoneyin

… worthy.

Arit Okpo

 And it’s a truly special thing.

Lola Shoneyin

Or I just see myself as a tool. I have kind of submitted myself to the service of culture on the African continent. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to grow it. Unfortunately, the things that people expect to be moral decisions for me are not. What I do is, whenever I think about doing something, I think about it very deeply and thoroughly. Sometimes it takes me a minute, sometimes five. And at the end of that thinking, I’ve know that I will come out with a yes or no. If it’s going to be a Yes, I have to be able to defend it and stand by it. And if it’s going to be a No, I have to be able to defend it and stand by it. I will say that when it comes to culture, the development of culture on my continent, I am mercenary and ruthless. And that’s why there are very few things by way of indignity that I won’t endure for culture.

So, for instance, about working in Kaduna State. It took me maybe a minute to decide. Because at the end of the day, the big mathematics in my head is simply: “If I do this, it means I get to literally make sure Kaduna state is dedicating part of its budget to the development of arts and culture. And if I don’t do it, it will either be done badly by someone else who tries to do it or it won’t be done at all. So that money is going to go to something else maybe.” I’m thinking of the people and what we can use KABAFEST to give them. Nothing else matters to me. I mean, I’m trying to think of the most wicked leader. If that person invited me and said we’ll pay for you to start a literary festival, I would probably think about security. And if they can reassure me that people will be safe, I’ll probably take the money and go and do it. Because I’m not doing it for that individual. My vision is totally somewhere else.

 Arit Okpo

Do you ever have to deal with people who then believe that your choices should be different or that you cannot look at the bigger picture without looking at the smaller picture?

Lola Shoneyin

Earlier I said to you that once I’ve done the thinking and taken the decision, that’s it. I can’t allow myself to be distracted. And that’s the truth. I can’t be distracted by issues about the personality of the governments operating. Is it his money? It’s the government’s money. I will take the money and give it to the people. If I wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be doing this.

The thing that turns me on, is sitting in front of my computer, dreaming about Ake Festival. It’s because I want to treat people, especially creatives who just don’t get much by way of respect. If we can get on, if we can resolve our issues, whatever issues there might be, if we can even lay down the issues and decide this is what we’re doing, the way forward, it’s the progress that is the priority.

As I said earlier, we’ve forgotten how to connect meaningfully. But that’s the great thing about reading and being introduced to books. You get to experience in a very real way other people’s realities. When I went to South Africa for the Abantu Festival, I met Zakes Mda. We were in the same vehicle going to the airport, and I told him that I really wanted him to come to the festival. He was, like yeah. And he was telling me about what it was like in the 60s, that when Biafra happened, he said all the intellectual class were on the side of Biafra for one simple reason: they had read Things Fall Apart by Achebe. That’s what literature does, just allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. People from other places, people living all other lives. People living a different life to the one that we know and that we’re used to. So that’s just one of those little things that you hear and you think, “That’s why we’re doing this.” It’s good.

Arit Okpo

I spent some time this afternoon really thinking about your journey through your books and all the work that you did, and then Ake. And it’s impossible to think that this hasn’t taken from you in some way.

Lola Shoneyin

Yeah, it’s probably robbed me of another book or another few books. Because the truth is, it’s very difficult to juggle everything. I know that in organizing Ake, when I get really deep into it, I am not as present for my daughters as I should or I could be. I would like to think that I have done a good job as a parent. But somewhere in my mind, I also hope that I haven’t involved myself in these activities at the expense of time that I could be devoting to my children. But I ask them, they will tell me, no, no, no, it’s not like that. We love what you’re doing. We’re so proud of you. We’re so happy. Well, they’re looking at it one way. I’m looking at it from another.

The writing. Maybe I would have written a few more books, Maybe not. I don’t know. The thing is that what people get from writing a book, the glitz and the glamour that comes with being a writer has also never driven me, so if I never write another book in my life, I really don’t care, so long as I’m doing something that I consider important.

Arit Okpo

In an old interview you gave in 2014, you said, “I want to make culture sexy again and literature sexy again.” And one of the things that is so clear is that you have. You have reshaped for many a lot of what African literature looks like, what it means to be a writer, what it means to be a creative. And I have seen the validation of self that happens when they come into a space like Ake where they’re sitting down with foremost, black and African writers, not just from Nigeria, not just from the continent but from around the world. And conversing as peers, there’s a very beautiful alchemy.  It’s something very magical. I watched your face as I said this, and you shook your head because you weren’t sure you wanted to accept it.

Lola Shoneyin

I was actually honored. The thought that went through my mind is, “Wow, what a thing to say to another human being.” I have to say it’s a good thing, actually. I don’t often have conversations like these. I don’t often do it. I’m very conscious of attention. I don’t want it, to be honest. I just want to live my life. I want to do what I want to do. I don’t enjoy the limelight. It looks like I do, but it’s from decades of presenting a perfect mask to people. So, thank you. That’s all I want to say. I have a lot of energy, and I want to do big things. But I often don’t know how to take stock in a way that I see positive results. With Ake Festival, my entire focus is on what went wrong, and I recognize that it’s not a good thing. Those high standards I have of everybody? I have times 10 of those high standards of myself when it comes to performance. To hear you say these positive things — it’s beautiful. It’s refreshing. And it’s very kind to hear that. I feel like I live to build things that make people feel good.

Arit Okpo

You have the Ake Festival. Now we have One Read that’s coming into our reading space. You also have your publishing arm. I want you to just tell me first about the publishing.

 Lola Shoneyin

It’s just to create another outlet for our creativity. That’s all. I just look at the landscape — Farafina, Cassava Republic, Parresia, Narrative Landscape and I think these guys are all doing phenomenal work. In my mind, I’m like, “Maybe the people they’re not catching, we can catch them.”  So, for instance, Nnedi Okorafor is hugely successful, but there were books that she had that weren’t available in Nigeria. So let’s make sure her work is available in Nigeria.

I’m also thinking of books that are sometimes controversial, like Lives of Great Men. So I told Ola [Shonekan], I want to publish this, but these government people. He said, “You are not the person I thought you were if you don’t publish that book.” That’s how he said it. He just looked at me like, “What, you’re having second thoughts?” And it wasn’t that I had second thoughts, I was just thinking how do I make sure that they don’t come and arrest anybody. I don’t want to get anybody else in trouble.

That’s what I mean when I say I like the idea of being able to mainstream anybody who’s writing from the fringe or about fringe topics. We need to push them towards the center so they become part of the conversation. I worked with Hadiza El-Rufai on her book, which is partly where our bond is. I got to really understand a lot about her, not just as a writer, but also as an individual from reading that book. I wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side, so to speak, because when we do know that, we treat people differently as well. And I hope that all our writers have that experience because that’s what I push for.

But also, it’s because the West cannot continue to dictate to the African continent what it should and should not read. We have to have autonomy. And what will initiate that process is when we start doing things for ourselves. So Ake Festival books that we publish and we source, we print in Nigeria, because if they don’t print in Nigeria, we don’t develop and grow the printing industry in a way that will make it favor us and bend for us. The price of paper will not come down. Demand for paper does not increase. So I believe that you have to start these processes.

Let’s take everything that the west is doing right and marry it with what we have on the African continent and see how we can develop the industry, get home grown talent. Achebe and the rest, they were here in Nigeria. Did Cyprian Ekwensi ever go abroad to write a book? They were here. The source material is from here. The brain was born here and developed here. There are many more people like that and our job is to find them. At a point, I was beginning to worry that we were not finding them fast enough. So if we don’t find them, publish them, push them towards the path where they can be writers, invite them to the festival, make sure you put money in marketing, how can you get them into articles? How can you make sure that this art that they’re creating can contribute towards their sustenance? I’m not saying they shouldn’t have another job. In fact, they should. But what I’m saying is that they must feel that they’re getting something from this creative one. And I want that to be the culture here as well.

I think in the U.K. there’s like a standard fee if you invite somebody to your festival. If the person is a writer, there’s a minimum fee you have to pay. Whereas when I was organizing this festival – I said to one of the foreign sponsors that I would like to give all the guests a small token amount. The sponsor from the West told me that African writers should be grateful that they’re even being flown in to Ake to participate. And that’s when I realized that even when we continue to depend on the West, or we’re in a position where we’re having to rely on them totally to sustain and develop our culture, we lose ourselves completely in the process.

And we have to constantly educate ourselves so that we’re not always in this position where we’re subservient, where we’re the underdog. You can call me an underdog in many different contexts, and I might kind of say Ok. But when it comes to creativity and culture, I will never accept it for Africa. What has happened is simply that even culture has been failed like most other things. But what can we do then, as the citizens or the broader civil society? We need to create those structures where they’ve been eroded? That’s what this work is, that’s why they call it development.

Ake is run by a foundation. We have to do our books and do our reports every year. So it’s not even the kind of thing where you can just be chopping money. I’ve never drawn a salary from Ouida Books, from Book Buzz, from anything. Ever.

Arit Okpo

I want to ask why or if that’s going to change.

Lola Shoneyin 

Not yet. We’re not quite at that place yet. What would I pay myself? My priority is always the people who work with me. If you’re doing this work, you’ve got to be prepared to put a lot of yourself in it. If you are not prepared to see your money go and wave it goodbye, you can’t do this work. And ask anybody from Ainehi Edoro-Glines, Thando Mgqolozana, anybody who has ever created anything within the cultural landscape. You end up putting a lot of yourself into it. So you just take it like that. So many expenses, just do it out of my personal account. I can’t even be bothered about, “Oh, I need to be reimbursed” —I can’t. You know, it’s this big pot, and it has to cook. And if I’m the one who has water at that moment, I’m just going to pour it. So that pot doesn’t burn and waste everything. That’s how it is.

Arit Okpo

I’m just absorbing all we’ve talked about in the context of Brittle Paper’s 10th anniversary. As somebody who has been so influential in the African literature space, who has been pivotal in so many ways, if you were at this point to look at the African literary scene as a bunch of heads and you’re standing at a lectern and this is your closing remark to this group of people of different disciplines, publishers and writers and creatives of different kinds, what’s one thing you’d want to say? And I’m not talking about it from the publishing space and the taking ownership of our process. I’m talking about it as you, Lola.

Lola Shoneyin

Keep finding ways to build things, to build institutions, to ensure that creativity and culture find a space. But you must continue to build recognizing that every single small loss in this very small space has huge impact and the impact is not good. People have to move away from focusing on personalities and focusing too much on what they consider to be perceived flaws of people who clearly are natural builders.  Think of the creative content and creative organizations. There are not many at all for a continent of this size. None of them must die. We must hold them, the ones that are run by the people I personally like, the people I don’t know, the people I don’t like. All their institutions must live, and they must thrive. That is how you build things. You know, you can’t even for a day imagine contributing to a situation where one of those institutions does not exist. Because the consequences are just dire. So many people lose. So many opportunities are gone. So focus on helping to build. And we should all just keep building.

I just want to give a shout out to the people who want to start initiatives. I don’t know how to be a mentor cause I’m pretty useless. But I don’t hoard ideas. If anybody wants to start something, and they need somebody to bounce ideas off, reach out and ask. There’s no question that I can’t and won’t answer. Even if it means that I have to send you a voice note. But I will give you the answer that I think you need to guide you. I think it’s important to know that. So you want to start a festival? Get in touch, and we can have a conversation because I’m interested in passing on everything. If I die today, I like to believe that I’ve given away all my trade secrets, but I don’t want to take any of them to my grave because I’ve no use for them.

So that’s what I would say. Build, build, build.

Connect. Bring people together. Network.