Interview from the summer Edition of Alt A Review we caught up with the Director/Novelist on a hot summers day in Brixton.
Before I was ten-years old my dad took me to the local library, I don’t know why he did that as I was not the oldest or the youngest and there was about 7 or 8 of us but from that moment I fell in love with books. In hindsight being in the library was like a haven from all the madness at home. I really loved reading I came from an incredibly dysfunctional family my father was a soldier in the Second World War he was suffering from what we now call PTSD, he was a great guy, but he was a mess. From reading I wanted to write, and it was not that I wanted to be a writer I wanted to copy those people. When I was about twelve years old my first story was published in a local newspaper,it was called The Pickpocket. I don’t recall where I saw an advert for a short story competition in London, I won. Psychologically those things were very important as someone thousands and thousands of miles away thought this kid could write and that was great.
As a writer very very quickly, I came across the works of Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembène and Wole Soyinka. There was a South African writer called Peter Abrahams who nobody seems to talk about him now as he left South Africa In the 40s or 50s and moved abroad. He lived in the UK for some time then he moved to the West Indies and he wrote a book called Mine Boy (1946), about working in the mines, about a character called Zuma from the North. I read this when I was about nine and I feel in love with the world of Zuma and the world of Mine Boy which was set in South Africa in the 1920’s or 30’s. For me I knew those characters, I felt like I was reading what I knew intimately, what I knew was beautiful. So, when initially I started writing I was trying to emulate, Iwas trying to copy the foreign writers, I was reading people like Faulkner,this was all in the library, so I just read what was in the library I didn’t know that they were seriously important writers, like Hemmingway. I was reading about cultures and societies that were faraway. Then I came across this African writer, which kind of unlocked something for me. Reading a lot and writing I eventually began to find what I would call my own voice, the thing that obsessed me.
I studied drama. I did a degree in Dramatic Art and in Nigeria before you go to university you have to sit an exam, I think the highest score was 300, it is called the JAMB (The Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, a Nigerian entrance examination board for tertiary-level institution). Dependent on how high you score you can study Law, you can study Drama, Literature or you can study whatever. I scored about 280 which was high, Law was seriously in demand, but I did not want to study Law what I really wanted to study was Literature, but I was about 16 at this point and I was reading a lot and I was looking for a course that was not as demanding as literature. Someone said do drama it is a lot of play acting so I kind of opted for Drama, not because I wanted to be a dramatist. I had not been to a theatre at this point. I had been to the cinema and had watched lots of Hollywood movies and had seen lots of Kung Fu movies. There was not a theatre in the town that I was born but I Had read lots of plays, all Wole Soyinka’s plays. I thought that doing Drama I would not have had to do that much. But it turned out that when doing the Drama Course, you also had to do the courses from literature, so I ended up reading a lot of literature. I think if you want to be a writer any university degree is good enough. But I quickly fell in love with the course and I wrote my first play Rain which won an award here in London. The play got a reading in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. My flight here to London was paid for by the British Council. I arrived in London and I stayed with the family behind the competition in Muswell Hill for a week. Because of that play winning it brought me to the attention of certain people, by this time I had already written the manuscript for my first novel and that was published. So, I came to London for a reading and ended up being here 30 years later. But essentially my first novel (The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond, 1991) was published, and it came to the attention of the Royal Court Theatre who phoned me in 1991 saying that they had read my novel and they would like me to write a play for them, they also knew about Rain. Even though my degree was in theatre most of my teachers where academics, they knew the theory well, but they were not playwrights or dramatist. It was at the Royal Court that I got a new kind of training, they invited me to be on the writer committee and the meetings would be weekly, to discuss submissions and commissions. So, every week I would read dozens of plays by some of the best, as the Royal Court was the best theatre for new writing. So, for two years I was there, reading all these plays and watching some of the best theatre directors in this country direct. I was very young, and it was this big adventure. I was learning by osmosis, I was not interested in directing at the time and it was not until 1992/93 I wrote a screenplay and I wrote that screenplay to be honest because I had been invited with several other playwrights to attend a workshop for playwrights who were interested in writing for TV. I was not interested in writing for TV, the big draw for me was we got paid £500 (laughter) that is why I went.
I see myself as a storyteller, I have just finished the second draft of my first novel since Burma Boy, I wrote a play last year for Birmingham Rep which they are talking about putting on for 2019. I have 3 or 4 projects that I have written in various stages. I am filmmaker, I am a playwright,I am director and I am a novelist and when I am writing a novel is gives me a lot of joy. I love poetry, but I write a poem every 15 years (laughs). I am not an academic or anyone’s ideal of a great academic, but it is a world that I love and have access to. I did a fellowship last year at NYU, when I do these fellowships I like to go there as an artist. When I am working on a movie it gives me a lot of joy.
Half of A Yellow Sun (Would you change anything?)
Honestly, I would not change a damn thing, I watch it and think I achieved the movie that was better than what I set out to do partly because it was so tough. Because the shoot was so tough it forced me to be completely honest not that I set out to be dishonest, originally for instance I had, we had about 15 nights that we were shooting, night shoots are very expensive, and, in the end, we ended up doing about 7 days. I had to change the setting which was a very simple thing on paper you just cross out the setting nights and you put day. I realised when I was forced to do that I was insecure, and I thought if set at night I can cheat with what you see you, you can still do that with day but when for example using big crowd scenes it means that everything must be choreographed everything has to be right. Noo No! I would not change anything the casting I would not change, it is quite amazing for us black people we talk about being discriminated against, but we can be extremely bigoted and self-hating. People wanted to lynch me because I cast Thandie Newton, people were angry because she was not Nigerian. I do not give a ……. so what, for me she was right, it took me 3 years to get her, she did not phone me and say Biyi I want to be in the movie. I had to persuade her. I was a big fan, I saw her in a film she did with Nicole Kidman when she was about 14 years old, many many years ago which I loved, then I saw her in Beloved, Beloved for me I love it, (the movie traumatises me) but she give an incredible performance. So, people who were angry with me and think I should have cast (Genevieve) a Nollywood actress, who in was in Half of a Yellow Sun and she is an amazing actor, but I did not feel she was right for that role. In the hands of a different director she would have been perfect. I am me and I say this to actors when they audition for me if you do not get the role it does not mean that you are bad it means that I do not think that I am qualified to get the performance that I want out of you that is all it means. Casting for me is a mixture of experience, you go with your gut instinct, with Thandie I just kind of felt it and I feel vindicated and I love her performance in the film. I would not change a damn thing. I nearly died making that movie I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and had thyroid. I am proud of that movie. The BBC have screened the film twice and they screen it because it works. It is one movie that I know fifty years after I am dead people would watch it. Film is a collective enterprise I had a great cast, I had an amazing cast and a great crew, and we got it right. Fifty I am proud of, yes totally different, you know.
Diversity: Are we moving into a more positive stage of Africans telling African stories?
I suppose the simple answer would be yes things are changing. But I think the establishment in the arts whatever that is was much more inclusive when I came here in the early 90’s. But on the other hand, I think a lot more of us are a lot more determined and so virtually every Black play that goes on now, occasionally we get something at the National, or Young Vic. But almost everything that is Black right now goes on at Arcola, Arcola is a great theatre, so I am not knocking it, I would like to have a play there at some point. It looks like a lot more is happening, but they have kind of shut us out of a few other places that used to at least feature one or two plays every other year. Now Arcola is like the place that we must all go to, but it great it is not just small plays but a lot of actors of Nigerian descent, African descent in positions of prominence so that is great.
Half of a Yellow Sun(2013) screened at the BFI as part of Black & Banned
Synopsis: Middle-class twin sisters Olanna (Newton) and Kainene (Noni Rose) must set aside their differences as they confront the turmoil of a civil war that threatens everything they hold dear. This drama-romance, adapted from the acclaimed novel of the same name, was initially banned by the Nigerian government for its depiction of the Biafran War. UK-Nigeria 2018. Dir Biyi Bandele With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, John Boyega Runtime: 111min https://whatson.bfi.org.uk
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