When I got an email inviting me to this year’s Aké Arts and Book Festival, I was overjoyed, and for many reasons. Some of it is simply because it means yet another opportunity to commune with writers, artists and thinkers from around the world in an environment that is much like creative nirvana. One of the literary world’s most coveted invitations, the festival affords one a chance to ignite ideas in ways only an attendee can explain. This year’s, the tenth edition, is the first after famous triple-threat writer/poet/publisher Lola Shoneyin announced last year that it could well be the last outing. So, the 2023 edition stands as a testament to the power of literature in shaping narratives, fostering unity, and igniting conversations that transcend borders.
Shoneyin founded the Aké festival in 2013, and it has steadily grown into a cultural juggernaut that other annual events are scheduled around. Taking its name from the city of Abeokuta where it was initially hosted, it has expanded over the years, currently having the megacity of Lagos as its home. Year in, year out – 10 years to be precise— Shoneyin has invited writers from across the world to grace the festival, seeing seventy-two writers from 17 different countries within and outside Africa engage in stimulating discourse via book chats, panel discussions, and others. As it is known for, there has also been a lot of laughter, fun, and learning, sometimes all at the same time.
Some of the things I have mentioned above are why Shoneyin has earned a well-deserved spot among the Financial Times’ 25 Most Influential Women in the World list for 2023. This recognition is a testament to her multifaceted impact on society, blending her prowess as a writer with a fervent commitment to addressing societal issues. At the heart of Shoneyin’s influence lies her literary prowess, including, as fellow writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in the FT, her “humaneness”. As a celebrated Nigerian author, Shoneyin has captivated readers worldwide with her compelling narratives and insightful storytelling. Her debut novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, garnered international acclaim for its exploration of polygamy and its impact on women in Nigerian society. Her ability to craft narratives that resonate universally while retaining cultural specificity is a testament to her skill as a storyteller.
Shoneyin’s dedication to promoting African literature is evident in her role as the founder of the Aké Arts and Book Festival. This annual event has become a cornerstone in the literary world, providing a platform for African writers to showcase their work and fostering a vibrant literary community. Her commitment to nurturing talent and amplifying diverse voices has contributed significantly to the global appreciation of African literature.
Beyond her literary achievements, Shoneyin has emerged as a fervent advocate for women’s rights. In a world where gender equality remains an elusive goal, her work takes on added significance. Her writing often explores the complexities of women’s lives in patriarchal societies, shedding light on issues such as gender-based violence, reproductive rights, and the quest for self-determination. Through her involvement in various organizations and initiatives, she actively seeks to empower women, and often succeeds. Her efforts extend beyond the pages of her novels, as she engages in dialogue, awareness campaigns, and educational programs to effect tangible change. In a world where the voices of women are sometimes stifled, she serves as a powerful advocate, amplifying these voices and inspiring others to join the fight for gender equality.
Shoneyin’s influence has spread in another notable, but seldom trumpeted way. Take, for instance, the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, also known as KABAFest, which debuted in July 2017 and quickly became the definitive cultural event in northern Nigeria. Organized by Shoneyin’s Book Buzz Foundation (which also organizes Aké) in collaboration with the Kaduna State Government and the Gusau Institute, it was the first of its kind in the region. Shoneyin has said before, that she aims to “create new and exciting opportunities for social and cultural interaction, to celebrate and promote creatives in the Northern region of Nigeria, and to foster tolerance and understanding through dialogue about books, culture, the arts and society”. Now, KABAFest did just that – and continues to do so – plus something else in addition: It inspired, quite directly, a wave of festivals across Northern Nigeria, including Sokoto, Borno, and Yobe states, created and curated by young enthusiasts. But that’s a story for another day.
While her influence extends far beyond the pages of her books, in celebrating Shoneyin, we celebrate a woman whose influence is both profound and enduring. Her work in this realm aligns with the broader goals of global education initiatives, and her advocacy serves as a reminder that education is a fundamental catalyst for positive societal change. I could go on and on about her inclusion on the FT’s list, but I do not have enough space. I will simply end by stating that she has been one of the most influential women in the world for a long time, and the FT is simply recognising it formally. The powerhouse that she is, will certainly continue to find ways to keep on magically putting together this incredibly important platform for the immeasurable good that it does to Nigeria, Africa, and the world. Let’s give Lola, as we say, an ‘Aké round of applause’!