Talking About Polygamy With Lola Shoneyin, Author of The Secret Lives of the Four Wives

Lola Shoneyin's novel, The Secret Lives of the Four Wives, touched me so deeply, bringing up issues that you would hope would be obsolete by now but are unfortunately alive and not-so-well. The story takes place in Nigeria and revolves around Baba Segi and his four wives, who are all such multi-layered characters, you feel like you know them personally. It is a fascinating and fast-paced tale that will get you thinking about polygamy and why many women still choose it as a lifestyle. Author Lola Shoneyin has much to say on the subject -- and so have her readers, who don't necessarily agree with her views. This book will get an important conversation going, which is Lola's goal.

Lois Alter Mark: I absolutely loved this book, and was fascinated to learn that your own grandmother was one of five wives. How did you feel about that and was her experience the inspiration for this book?

Lola Shoneyin: Thank you so much. My grandfather was an oba -- a traditional ruler -- so it wasn't unusual for men in that position to have several wives. It's still a privilege to carry the royal seed so, even now, women will offer themselves to an oba. My grandmother was the first wife and they were married before his coronation. She became bitter because he changed; he went from being a devoted, attentive and considerate husband to becoming aloof and somewhat self-absorbed. But this is the personality an oba must adopt; they are not regarded as ordinary human beings. Both my grandparents were trained teachers. My grandfather attended the Wesley College, Ibadan and played the church organ beautifully. I think my grandmother was also disappointed that he abandoned his rather westernized ways. It saddens me when I think how depressed she was. She lost her husband years before he died and that must have hurt like crazy. Some of the scenes in the book are based on experiences that my mother relayed to me but the novel itself is based on another true story that I heard when I was about fourteen years old.

LAM: You wrote a fantastic article for the Guardian in which you decry polygamy, warning that it "devalues women and the only person who revels in it is the husband who gets to enjoy variety. You, poor women, will become nothing more than a dish at the buffet." I think that sentiment comes across loud and clear in the book. What specific message do you want readers to come away with?

LS: I want people who read the novel to see how polygamy changes women. I have interviewed a lot of Muslim women and I haven't come across one single wife who was thrilled when she heard that her husband was taking on another wife. It's impossible for a woman not to feel diminished and inadequate. The new, younger wife knows she is going to be confronted with resentment and hostility so she goes in spoiling for a fight, to show that she is not a pushover. It's tragic to see ordinarily lovely women battling for the affections of the man who put them in that position in the first place. This competitiveness can leave a family devastated, as you would have read in the novel.

There are other dimensions too. In a country like Nigeria, where we're struggling to control HIV/AIDS and several other sexually transmitted diseases, in the rural areas, polygamy sends many unsuspecting co-wives and husbands to an early grave.

I think it's conceited when a man believes he can satisfy and sustain several women. It's simply not possible. Can one really blame women who venture outside their marital homes for fulfillment?

LAM: The characters in your book are so well-defined and have such distinctive personalities; they feel like they must be real. Are any of them based on actual people?

LS: Yes, they are based on some extraordinary people; many of the characters are an amalgamation of several individuals. Interestingly, I have also found that there's a piece of me in nearly all the characters. I learned so much about myself in the process of writing this novel, especially the less desirable, weaker elements of my personality. For instance, I have had a very complicated relationship with my mother. It wasn't until after I finished writing the novel that I realized I'd captured that complexity in Bolanle's relationship with her mother. Writing can be very revealing.

LAM: Why did you decide to write a novel about polygamy rather than non-fiction?

LS: That's such an interesting question because I have been making lots of notes of late. I really want to write non-fiction but I'm not sure I will ever have the courage. Some days, I'm really excited about the prospect; other days, my "liver fails me" -- like we say in Nigeria. When I heard the story this novel is based on, I distinctly remember thinking that I would one day write it as a stage play. But after I couldn't find a publisher for my second novel, I was in desperate need of a new project so I decided to write the story as a novel. It never occurred to me to write this particular story as nonfiction.

LAM: There's a reality TV show in the United States called Sister Wives, about a polygamist in Utah. The wives all seem to get along -- on camera -- but I guess Baba Segi's wives often seem to get along, too, at least when the big man is watching. It's no wonder these women are jealous of each other -- each one is short-changed of a loving relationship with a man who loves only her. From your experience and research, how do most wives in a polygamous marriage feel about each other?

LS: They can't possibly like each other, unless they are superhuman. In a polygamous home, a wife must guard her place and position with everything she has. She must protect her children too. The competition is fierce and some wives will do anything for one-upmanship. They have to keep their eyes and ears open because if the husband feels that a particular wife is quarrelsome or disagreeable, he has the power to throw her out. Such a woman would lose her status. A sensible wife will sheathe her sword when her husband is within earshot.

LAM: Each wife is referred to as "Iya," followed by the name of her firstborn and seems to have no identity other than as a mother. Bolanle keeps her name because she has no children. Is it really a sign of masculinity for a man to have as many children as possible? Do these children spend any quality time with their father? How do the children feel about growing up in this environment?

LS: To be fair, men are also defined by their children, hence Baba Segi. Baba here means, father [of] Segi, the same way Iya means mother [of]. Children are very important in Yorubaland, as with other ethnic groups. In many songs, children are described as the cloaks that cover our nakedness. There's also a popular saying that translates as, "a woman who gives a man a child is no longer a concubine but a wife." It's important to understand that many women join polygamous homes for the status it gives them. The status of a wife, any sort of wife, commands more respect than that of a spinster. Men desire lots of children because, traditionally, they signify wealth and bounty. Unfortunately, many men do not have the means to fend for their wives and children.

Whether a man spends time with his children depends entirely on how dutiful he is or how much he values his children. Baba Segi, in spite of everything, is as good a father as he can be to the children in his household. He loves them dearly and caters to their needs as best he can.

Growing up in a polygamous household can be tricky. I have come across people who have told me it was okay but I have also met people who were completely traumatized by the experience.

LAM: The country's disdain for women is palpable in this book, with mentions of a male senator slapping a female colleague, young girls being assaulted and stripped naked in the streets and men "slapping their womenfolk as if it had become a national sport." Is this still the prevailing attitude?

LS: It's difficult to generalize and talk about Nigeria's' disdain for women as a country because different ethnic groups have different ideas and attitudes about the place of women in society.

The story about the senator is absolutely true. It really happened. It was very worrying for me at the time because if a federal la-maker could slap a woman in public, you've got to ask yourself what chance a woman who has been assaulted has in court! He wasn't prosecuted. Rather, "the slapper" was seen hugging "the slapped" on TV. They both agreed to blame the whole slapping episode on the Devil.

Many men still don't see anything wrong with physically abusing their wives to "teach them a lesson." I was in a bank a few months ago and a man was trying to push in front of a young woman. When the woman protested, the man gave her a dirty look and asked, "Don't you have a husband who controls you at home?" I had to get involved at this point, on principle. When a woman asserts herself, some think it's an indictment on her husband who hasn't succeeded in beating her into submission so that she cowers before all men. It's ridiculous! Things are changing, though. I am very pleased about the rise in the number of women's groups.

LAM: It is obvious from the deviousness and smarts of all the wives that women are perfectly capable of changing their situation. Why aren't we fighting back and why are women still agreeing to enter into polygamous marriages?

LS: The sad thing is that women are sometimes the ones who help to perpetuate the oppression. A few months ago, another notorious senator, Mr. Ahmed Yerima, married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl. Several human rights groups were up in arms but women from his home state marched, declaring that they were happy with older men marrying young girls. The senator defended himself by telling the world that what he had done was acceptable in Islam. The young girl was his fourth wife. He'd just divorced a 17-year-old that he married a few years before. There is clearly a pattern here. How did such a man become a lawmaker?

About three years ago, one of our former presidents gave two of his daughters away to become third and fourth wives to two different governors. The women willingly married the men who had access to the public purse. I hope this gives you an insight into the complexity of the situation. The significance of status in our societies mean many women would not even conceive of changing their circumstances. A woman without a husband is accorded very little respect. For this reason alone, some women would settle for any marriage, even if it means they are ultimately stripped of their dignity.

LAM: I read that a shocking one third of married women in Nigeria are in polygamous unions. What has been the reaction to the book from people in your country? Is it raising awareness?

LS: The reaction has been very positive on the whole. It has triggered a lot of dialogue about polygamy, which I am proud of. A lot of people read it as a story. Others read it as a cautionary tale. A few months ago, at a reading, a woman came and hugged me. She said, "I am Bolanle. Thank you for writing my story." That was very moving for me. Polygamy isn't going away anytime soon but it's great that people are re-evaluating its place in modern Africa where our various governments proclaim that woman have the same rights and same opportunities as men.

LAM: How do you teach your own children about polygamy, and is it different for your sons than your daughters?

LS: Pretty much in the same way I taught them about gay marriage when we were living in the UK and the lesbian couple that lived in the flat beneath us came home with a baby. In fact, polygamy was much easier to explain to my children. We live in the Federal Capital Territory which is predominantly Muslim and they often hear their friends talking about their "stepmothers." Broaching the subject was quite straight-forward. My husband and I are raising four children -- two boys, two girls -- who are all going to be feminists. They don't have much of a choice there, I'm afraid. Respecting and appreciating womanhood, pushing for the advancement of women, is a huge part of their upbringing.

Lois Alter Mark is the co-founder of and the Flicks for Kids editor at