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Half of a Yellow Sun and Biyi Bandele: A Match Made in Wartime Hell (and Literary Heaven)

By ZODML on 28 Feb, 2013

It is no longer news that Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun is being adapted for the big screen. The novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, is set during the Nigerian-Biafran War, which claimed the lives of about three million people and explores its impact through the twisting stories of a university professor, his lover, her sister, a British expatriate and a young houseboy. Filmed in Nigeria, the movie is being financed by Nigerian private equity with some support from the British Film Institute (BFI). It features international stars Thandie Newton, Dominic Cooper, Genevieve Nnaji and Chiwetel Ejiofor as members of its cast.

The director and screenwriter behind this effort is Biyi Bandele, the Anglo-Nigerian author and playwright. Since his 1991 debut novel The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond, Bandele has consistently displayed versatility in his writing skills and carved a unique niche for himself in the literary world. An Obafemi Awolowo University drama graduate living and working in London, Bandele has written three other novels including The Street, The Sympathetic Undertaker and Burma Boy (published as The King's Rifle in the US). His theatrical works include Rain, Marching for Fausa and Two Horsemen. Bandele has also adapted many novels for the stage, including Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Aphra Benn's Oroonoko and his own novel The Street, but Half of a Yellow Sun is his first movie project.

Biyi Bandele's involvement in the film undoubtedly sprung from his shared interest in the central theme of the novel: war. Discussing the project in an interview with the Nordic Africa Institute, he said:

I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a literary conference when she was writing the book, and she told me what it is about and it happened to be about something that interested me. I was writing Burma Boy at the time, and I said let's exchange manuscripts. So I saw the book very early and I liked it. I took it to the film producer and said that you should read this; I think this would make a film. So I started working on the book not knowing that it would be this incredibly successful novel.

A closer look at some of Bandele's works shows that madness presented from a historical perspective is a recurrent motif, a focus that Bandele traces to his childhood in the same interview:

I have only become aware of that [the theme of madness] when I have read the reviews. I suspect that it probably comes from my childhood. I was born in 1967, which was the year when the Nigerian civil war, the Biafran War, started. The war ended when I was less than three. My first few memories of the world were when I saw former Biafran solders coming back to Northern Nigeria. Many of them were amputees or had completely lost it. It was a common sight when I was a kid to see completely naked men walking along the street. It made a big impression on me.

This notion of madness and a dark sense of humour are especially present in Burma Boy. The novel, which tells the story of Nigerian soldiers fighting on the side of the British against the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War, originated in his father’s stories about his experiences in the war. It deals extensively with the stupidity that accompanies war as well as its naivety, captured in the words of Ali Banana, the novel’s central figure: “The story of the day is that King Joji, monarch of Ingila, is fighting a war in a land called Boma and he wants our help” (Burma Boy, p.42).

Ali Banana is an eager thirteen year old who lies about his age in order to enlist with the army so he that can remain with his friends. He makes it to India, but a case of chickenpox means he has to stay in hospital while the rest of his battalion go on ahead to Burma. Nevertheless, Ali is determined to experience the war theatre first-hand: the great heat, the long marches, the surprise attacks. Much of the regiment’s time is spent defending their camp (called the 'White City'), which is constantly under attack from the Japanese. The enemy's relentless assault wears everyone down and the reminders of their determination are everywhere, most notably in the sight and smell of “the decomposing bodies of nearly two thousand Japs strung in an endless array of morbid contortions on the concertina wire encircling the stronghold.”

The dangers increase and the story culminates in a furious firefight in which most of Banana's comrades are killed. Ali Banana seems to become younger and younger in the course of his wartime experience, only to be suddenly aged by the worst of experiences: at the end, he is naked as a baby but also "looked to be about fifty years old". Bandele offers an interesting and largely unexplored perspective on the experiences of African soldiers in the Second World War in a hilarious way while highlighting the absurdity of Africans fighting in a war that did not particularly concern them.

Bandele’s plays feature fictional settings in which characters address social, political, and moral issues pertaining to Nigerian life. The weaving of the historical, aesthetic, stylistic and thematic threads as distinctly revealed in Burma Boy and his other works points towards the origins of some of the struggles facing present day Nigeria, a subject also tackled by Adichie in Half of a Yellow Sun.

Adichie drew on her own parents' experiences during the war in crafting her novel and presents to the audience, much like Bandele, the ugly incidents that a war carries with it such as betrayal, loss of lives, famine, epidemic, oppression and hatred - all madness of a sort.

In an interview featured on the website created for the novel, Adichie said:

I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don't ever want to forget. I have always known that I would write a novel about Biafra.

This fascination matches that displayed in Bandele's work and suggests that in his hands, the Half of a Yellow Sun movie will prove to be an intriguing and insightful take on this key aspect of Nigeria's history.

This piece was originally posted on September 14, 2012.

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