Biyi Bandele is a filmmaker, novelist, playwright and photographer. He wrote and directed the films Half of a Yellow Sun starring Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Boyega, and Anika Noni Rose, and Fifty. His TV work includes Not Even God is Wise Enough, directed by Danny Boyle, and two seasons of the MTV series Shuga. His plays include Rain, Death Catches the Hunter, Marching for Fausa, and Resurrections. Amongst his theatre adaptations are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which premiered at the London International Festival of Theatre, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and Federico Garcia Lorca’s Senora Carrar’s Rifles for the Young Vic Theatre, London. Bandele has written several books, including The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond, The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams, The Street, and Burma Boy, which has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Polish and Swedish. He has been a Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholar at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He lives in Lagos and London.
LitVo: Good afternoon Sir, welcome back to Nigeria, how’s the stress of settling in and all?
Biyi Bandele: Oh no no, it’s fine, it’s part of life. It’s great to be back home. Where are you from?
LitVo: I am from Niger State.
Biyi Bandele: Minna?
LitVo: Yes Sir.
Biyi Bandele: When I was a kid, we used to go through Minna, by train. My dad was born in Minna.
LitVo: Oh really?
Biyi Bandele: Yes, my grandfather was an engineer with the Railways, I don’t know if the lines are still there.
LitVo: Yes, they have recently been repaired and with the recent insecurity especially on roads, the railway is the safest means of travelling now. So anyways, I do have a lot of questions for you, I hope you won’t mind my asking all?
Biyi Bandele: Oh no problem.
LitVo: My first question, when I was reading your bio, you graduated in 1990 with a degree in dramatic arts, am I correct?
Biyi Bandele: It’s more accurate to say, I left Ife, I didn’t actually graduate. It was my last year, and what happened was that I wrote this play in the first semester of my first year at Ife and the play won an award but you know back in those days – back in the late 80s- it was before the Internet, it was before mobile phones, everything was very slow.
So, I wrote this play, a one-hander called ‘Rain’ and entered it for this competition in England through the British Council and I forgot about it. And then, two years later, I’m walking down the campus and this kid comes up to me – we were all kids – and says, “I heard your name on the BBC last night. Congratulations,” and then he walks on.
Shortly after this cryptic remark from a fellow undergraduate, I received a letter saying I’d won an award with “Rain” and I was being invited to England for a performance of the play. And I had at the time, the manuscript of my first novel. My first novel is called The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond. I wrote the first draft when I was in Kaf, I was like 14. I finished it when I was sixteen, seventeen, when I moved to Lagos to live with my cousin and her family.
LitVo: What do you mean by Kaf?
Biyi Bandele: Oh, Kaf is what we call Kafanchan (laughs) It’s funny, maybe because you are from Minna, from the North, my brain just switches, so I said Kaf but if I was talking to someone, say, a Yoruba or Igbo, I would have said Kafanchan.
So, when I moved to Lagos, I rewrote The Man Who Came In From the Back of Beyond but then I couldn’t find a publisher. Anyway, in 1990, when I was going to England for the production of “Rain” – a rehearsed reading, really – I told one of my lecturers, Uko Atai, that if I found a publisher for my novel, I would not be coming back for a while and Uko said, between me and you and this splendid bottle of beer, fine! When I got to England, I found a publisher not just in England but in Italy, in France, Germany, Spain and I think in Portugal.
LitVo: For the same book?
Biyi Bandele: Yes, it was published in several languages and I got a job as an Art Editor for this Nigerian paper in London. It was called HomeNews. I did everything, interviews, articles. So yeah, I left Ife in 1990 but I didn’t really graduate (laughs)
LitVo: Was it that easy for you to just notify your lecturers, “see, I am not coming back if this happens?” I mean how easy was it for you to make that bold move?
Biyi Bandele: Look, I had lecturers at the time who were eccentric, some of them, not all of them and by that, I mean they were unorthodox. Take Uko Atai, for instance, I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of his lectures that I attended, but I did learn from him. There was a place on campus called Old Buka where you were always sure to find him. He would be holding court with students. Always over some beer. So I learnt quite a bit from him at Mama Risi’s little beer parlour at Old Buka. It wasn’t just Uko Atai though.
My professors kind of saw my potential and realised that it would be a good thing for me if I found a publisher. I wanted to be a writer so if I found a publisher, it would make more sense for me to concentrate on pursuing the trade of writing rather than come back to Ife. It made sense. In any case, I was going to go away, anyway, so I was just telling them because I could. I was in Ife which was at the time as messed up as any Nigerian university but also one of the best. It was free, there was no tuition fee but I still had to hustle, to work to pay my way through university. There were no tuition fees but you still had to live somewhere, you still had to eat, you still had to buy textbooks.
One of the reasons I only attended a handful of Uko’s lectures, a fewer even of other lecturers was because I spent most of my time hustling just to survive. One of my hustles was to find someone who had something to sell and to find someone else who was looking for that same thing to buy. That’s how Jeff Bezos started Amazon. The one tiny difference between me and Bezos is that I sucked at it. I didn’t merely suck. I was pretty abysmal. Luckily, with my other hustle, I was pretty good. My other hustle was writing, which meant that I could pass for a journalist if I wanted to. By that, I mean that I don’t think I had the talent to be a journalist, but I could write so I got away with it. I would go to The Guardian newspaper every week. There was this editor called Amma Ogan, she was quite legendary, she was the editor of The Guardian-on-Sunday, I would go there, pitch ideas to her and try to get her to pay me in advance because I was broke. I was always broke (laughs) It wasn’t easy; things weren’t easy. So getting the opportunity to travel was quite important, really.
LitVo: So, let’s talk about Kaf, because the Kafanchan I know is predominantly Muslim, so how was it like for you before the famous Kaduna riot?
Biyi: You know, when I was growing up, Kafanchan was a very different place. It was full of Muslims, full of Christians, it was very multicultural. I grew up speaking everything, -pidgin, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Tiv, Idoma… and I felt that was normal. With my friends, everyone could speak everyone else’s language.
LitVo: That means you can speak Hausa too?
Biyi Bandele: Of course, I speak Hausa. I haven’t lived in the North since I was in my early teens, but my comprehension of extra-verbal Hausa culture is still much more sophisticated than my comprehension of Yoruba culture, which is not to say that I do not understand Yoruba culture quite well. I do. But sometimes when a Yoruba person says something to me, I have to try and decode it, but if a Hausa person says something to me, I don’t need to, it just decodes itself (laughs).
LitVo: My next question if you will indulge us, I’d like you to tell us the scariest form of racism you have encountered.
Biyi Bandele: You mean abroad?
LitVo: Yes, please
Biyi Bandele: You know I’ve lived in London for over thirty years and I’ve also lived in Paris for about two years and then New York too but racism is a very complex thing, it depends on where you are. In England, the kind of racism they used to have there, before Brexit at least, was often very, very sophisticated, it’s almost like gaslighting, like when someone slaps you, and you say stop slapping me but then they flare up and say “I’m not slapping you, something is wrong with you, why would you say I’m slapping you?” That kind of gaslighting. When someone does something basically horrible to you and then makes you feel like something is wrong with you for complaining, there’s that kind of racism in England. It’s very sophisticated.
On the other hand, you know London is one of my favourite cities on earth. You can be anything you want in London. It’s free and freeing in its unique way. Basically, nobody gives a toss. And by that, I mean, Londoners are not easily impressed.
When I lived in Paris, I would often travel back to London. A Parisian friend of mine who sometimes travelled with me once said to me – I think we were on Oxford Street. Or somewhere in the West End – “wow! so women can dress like this here?” So, I asked her like how, they were just dressing like any western person and she said if a woman dressed like this in Paris, there will be heckling her on the street you and women who will spit at you. She said if you dress like this and got off a train, some man will follow you all the way home. Not in London. In London, no one gives a flying…
In the US, in New York at least, the racism is more black and white, very very clear. In a way, it’s a much more kind of honest racism (laughs)
I can’t point at one specific incident but if you are black, you will experience it. If you’re African and speak with an African accent you will experience it.
LitVo: I’d like us to go a little political considering the recent rise in violence and police brutality going on especially in the country, young people leaving the country in droves, do you advise we stay back and make the country better or go elsewhere for bigger opportunities?
Biyi Bandele: If there’s an opportunity anywhere in the world, I say you should go, definitely go. But wherever you go, cherish yourself and your culture because that’s ultimately what defines you. If you go, thinking you are escaping something from Nigeria, you will eventually encounter something worse. Go. By all means, go. Remember though, every country in the world has its own serious problems, right now especially.
In Nigeria, we have this epidemic of police brutality but the police are not our problem, the police are attack dogs owned by the ruling class. Take #EndSARS. #EndSARS was powerful, I was completely in support of it, but it kind of missed the point.
#EndSARS was like a situation where someone sets a pack of brutal dogs on you but instead of holding the owner culpable, you say to the owner, to the perpetrator, I have a serious problem with these nasty attack dogs, why don’t you put them on a leash? Of course, our leaders are not really the problem. If we all stood in front of a mirror and looked at the image staring back at us, there, right there, stands our problem. Our problems are us! And I mean that in the best sense. If you agree that you are part of the problem, then you are part of the solution.
LitVo: Who are the government? The people are the government.
Biyi Bandele: Yes, in Lagos, for example, in the past three months, I’ve been thrown into a black Maria by the police. I’ve had a police officer pull a gun on me. And I’ve had encounters with police officers who see me and hail me, like “yoh Jamaican” so I tell them I’m not Jamaican and when we get talking, and then they want to talk about films, about books, like everyone else. (laughs)
LitVo: That’s quite revealing, let’s delve into writing. We interviewed Okey Ndibe about the obvious segregation between Nigerian writers at home and abroad but I would like you to talk about what ANA has now become, the endless dramas and so on. How did we get here?
Biyi Bandele: To be honest, occasionally, I see ANA members insult each other on social media but I try to keep out of it because sometimes, it just seems really based on tribal lines and I can’t respect that from anyone. There was a man who was president of ANA I think
LitVo: Mr Denja?
Biyi Bandele: Yes, yes, we are Facebook friends, there was a point about two years ago when there was a spate of vicious attacks on him and I was like, “wow! This guy must be really horrible”, then I read stuff by other people defending him and it also made sense, so I thought, I’m not going to make a judgement on this guy based on the attacks.
It doesn’t mean he’s a saint, I don’t know, but I think the division in ANA is a reflection of the wider divide in the country. Writers and artists are meant to be visionaries, people who go into dark places and shed light on it. It’s unfortunate when they become the people who actively spread prejudice, who spread ignorance, who spread stupidity and malice which quite often is what you get.
You know whoever runs ANA has a connection with the government, in most countries, it’s a good thing but in Nigeria, if you are connected to the government, people think you are compromised.
Since we are talking about the division within ANA, there has always been one but I think the main difference now is that people are sophisticated in the use of social media to spread their malice and I’m speaking as someone who is actually friends with people from both sides of the divide (laughs)
LitVo: Well, that’s very interesting, so you do believe there is a divide between Nigerian writers at home and abroad?
Biyi Bandele: When people talk about writers abroad, yes, I live abroad but I’m always here. To be honest, I hear about the divide and I can’t situate myself in that argument because I’m conversant with both situations. You know there’s one thing about Nigerians, Nigerians don’t know Nigeria enough (laughs) quite often, they know a little part of it and then see other people as “those people.” For me, I see all Nigerians as my people, in a real way.
LitVo: You are the real Mr Nigeria, seriously. Let’s talk about a book of yours, The King’s Rifle. There was this particular scene that caused a debate in the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation book review group I moderate on WhatsApp, it was when major Wingate cut himself up through his tendon and still found the strength to “walk” to the living room, some were of the opinion that maybe adrenaline had a lot to do with it while others were of the opinion that the scene was exaggerated.
Biyi Bandele: That’s interesting because when I wrote the book, my editor at the time also had a serious problem with that chapter.
LitVo: Oh wow
Biyi Bandele: Yes, she thought it was fiction and I was like “it happened!” I didn’t make a single thing up there. I made up the dialogue but it was all true, it did happen.
LitVo: You mean, the whole episode happened?
Biyi Bandele: Yes, it happened. I swear! So that’s the thing with life, real life is more surreal than fiction. For the rest of his life, he had a big scar on his neck. So yeah, it actually happened. He had malaria, when I was describing how he felt in that particular case, I was extrapolating from my own experience of malaria, some forms of malaria make you go crazy, they call it cerebral malaria. So, it wasn’t just adrenaline, malaria drove him out of his mind.
LitVo: Okay so let me ask the question that everyone who reads The King’s Rifle must have asked themselves: Why did Wingate and Damisa have to die? Why?
Biyi Bandele: Oh, I mean with Wingate, there was a plot reason, I wanted to write a book about Nigerian soldiers and I didn’t want to have a white character as colourful as Wingate all through. He’s a kind of character who chews the scene. So I – obviously – for plot reasons had to kill him off very early. Damisa had to die because it was part of Banana’s rites to a passage as a kid. What turns him into a man is not just killing people, it was losing this person who was like his father.
In the first draft of the manuscript, the character now known as Banana was called Balangu…you know, like the meat. He was meant to be the ‘Charlie Charlie.’ When I was in Kaf, we would go and watch Indian movies and there was always a character in those Bollywood films we called “Charlie Charlie”, the comic relief. Banana was meant to be the comic relief and the book was supposed to be about my father who had joined the Army and gone to Burma when he was a teenager (Not quite as young as Banana). But When I read the first draft of the book, I realized that I actually didn’t know a lot about my father because the character that was based on him was one dimensional, it was just flat, while the only character that came alive was Balangu – Banana – who I’d made up. So I got very disheartened and almost gave up on the book but I went back and started writing the book around Balangu, and as I was doing that, I read an autobiography by an English guy who had been based in Enugu in the 1930s, he volunteered to become a soldier and he also went to Burma and met a lot of Hausa guys. One of them was called Ali Banana and I thought: “what a name!” So I changed the name of my character from Balangu to Banana.
The character based on my dad is the guy who got shot in the foot and he gets sent back to India. But what Banana had in common also with my dad is that my dad in 1944 in Burma had a breakdown, he went completely crazy and they sent him back to Nigeria because he lost it. And I think what precipitated his breakdown was that in April 1944, he received a telegram (a wire as they used to call it) that his father had died and my Dad had joined the Army as an act of defiance to his dad, so that completely flipped him. Till the day he died, he had parts of metals like bullets, that Doctors decided were just better to leave inside him than take out. But you wouldn’t know that because each time he talked about Burma, you would think it’s this place where they went to have a party and I used to think that Burma was a fun place. That’s the parallel with Ali Banana, you know he loses Damisa who is like a father to him?
LitVo: Exactly, the picture is now clear. That means your book which is also known as Burma Boy is about your dad?
Biyi Bandele: Well yes, it started out as a book about him, I had uncles that were more open to me than my dad, they told me things about my dad that he normally wouldn’t say about himself, so it became about that.
LitVo: In another interview you granted, you described your dad as “a man on a life-long trauma-induced, one-man campaign to eradicate all forms of unhappiness”
Biyi Bandele: (Laughs) You know, I remember a time in London when there was a nasty winter, I ran into another Nigerian born in the UK, who was very gloomy, he said to me “people like you, always pretending to be happy” I was completely taken aback because I mean, what the…? But then I realized, maybe there was an aspect of me finding absolute bliss in the most bleak situations that actually came from my dad. It’s not a “pretending to be happy” it’s basically you, finding nirvana, finding happiness in the moment, no matter how terrible things are. It’s just celebrating life and knowing that nature is cruel but nature is also beautiful. It may explain my deep affinity for Afrobeat. That’s Afrobeat without the “s”. In the way Toni Morrison called herself a Jazz Writer, I am very much an Afrobeat Writer. An Afrobeat artist.
Some of Fela’s most exuberant albums were made in the year 1977/1978 when the military attacked his house, when they killed his mother who he was very close to and he never recovered from her death. But if you listen to some of those albums, they are just so exuberant, they are just so incredibly exuberant. Judging from the way a lot of people copying him now choose to copy him, you’d think Fela was angry all the time. I can tell you that I saw him on the stage many, many times, I had conversations with him, and he was the funniest person I’ve ever met. I’ll tell you a story but don’t put it in the interview. Or you can put it, it doesn’t matter
LitVo: (Laughs) Let’s hear it then.
Biyi Bandele: When my first book was published, The Man Who Came in through the Back of Beyond I came back to Nigeria in 1992 and I went to the Shrine, I saw Fela perform that night and around 5 or 6 in the morning, before he went home, he was sitting with all the girls around him, eating Akara and I went up to him and gave him a signed copy of my book and I told him: “When I was at university, I used to come to the Shrine every week. Watching you perform was more important to me than attending lectures. I learnt a lot about writing from observing you and Egypt 80.” Then I gave him a copy of the book and he looked at it and laughed! He looked at one of the girls and then he turned to me and said “Biyi, you get dirty mind o, how you go call book, man wey enter from behind?”
LitVo: Wow! I wish we can just continue to talk about life and everything, this interview has been nothing short of enlightening and educating Mr Biyi, I’m really grateful for the opportunity and time.
Biyi Bandele: Oh no, it’s nothing. It’s been great talking to you. Thank you.
Fatima Salihu is a writer, spoken word artist and an activist who has been described as a hurricane in her passion and dedication to literature and arts. A graduate of Mathematics from Bayero University Kano, she has her writings published both locally and internationally, in prints and online. She has performed on stages including at TEDx. Her debut collection of poems is titled Sketches. She’s presently a pioneer student of the School of Politics, Policy and Governance (SPPG). The Deputy Editor, Literature Voices (LitVo) and Moderator, Hill-Top Book Chat Review. She can be contacted via: Email- firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook/ Instagram – Phateema Salihu, LinkedIn- Fatima Salihu