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Biyi Bandele who Came in from the Back of Beyond
GUEST COLUMNIST BY Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
He started out as Biyi Bandele-Thomas, and shocked the literary world with his amazing precocity. He was admitted to my alma-mater Great Ife (University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University) after I had graduated from the school where Prof Wole Soyinka was our Head of Department. The fire of creative arts burnt in him relentlessly, and he was from the beginning determined to conquer the world of literature.
He won the International Student Playwriting Competition with his play “Rain”, and travelled to London to receive the prize and did not return to his studies at Ife. He then in 1991 published his first novel, The Man Who Came In From The Back Of Beyond, that featured the younger brother of my classmate and friend, Owei Lakemfa, as the fictional protagonist named Lakemf. His play, The Female God and Other Forbidden Fruits, was in 1991 broadcast on the BBC World Service.
In his second novel, The Sympathetic Undertaker And Other Dreams, there is the story of the First Lady Mamagee of a country called Zowabia who poses for a photograph with a group of monkeys only for the editor of Zowabia News to write the caption thusly: “In the picture above, the Lady Mamagee is standing third from right.”
The poor editor was beaten to a pulp by irate State Security people for stating that “the Lady Mamagee – First Lady for short – was standing third from right or even right from third in a picture which she took with monkeys, and to wit, in a picture in which she happened to be the only human being!”
He was in 1992 awarded the coveted Arts Council Bursary in Britain to support his creative writing drive. He extended his frontiers to screenplay writing when he penned Not Even God is Wise Enough produced by the BBC.
Born in Kafanchan in 1967, Biyi Bandele has made a great career of publishing novels, writing and directing plays, shooting still photography, and making movies.
He earned plaudits for his theatrical work on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the filmic renditions of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun, the 2015 London Film Festival masterpiece entitled Fifty, a season of the MTV drama season Shuga, the first Netflix Nigerian Original series Blood Sisters, and a Yoruba language adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman entitled Elesin Oba – The King’s Horseman scheduled to premiere at Toronto International Film Festival this year.
It was such a shock hearing of the death in Lagos on Sunday, August 7, of the all-round man of the creative arts I fondly called Boy Biyi.
We always had our animated discussions on all aspects of the arts in the Surulere, Lagos home of our mutual friend Adewale Maja-Pearce.
I once invited him to join us at a made-for-television discourse on JP Clark’s work but he could not make it due to the exigencies of Lagos.
While in Lagos he devoted time to street photography that he always posted on his Facebook page.
I met him in London when I went to take a BBC short story prize, and he wondered cheekily that I was so unassuming unlike other Nigerian writers who printed “Writer” on their complimentary cards! He published my work in Homeland News that the venerable journalist Tunde Fagbenle founded in London.
Biyi passed away aged only 54, but he did enough work in his lifetime to ensure that he will never die. The Biyi Bandele truth is that he came ahead of his time, and ensured he covered all the lanes before his early departure.
As an Egba man from Abeokuta in Southwestern Nigeria, born in Kafanchan in the North, Biyi Bandele earned the distinction of becoming the citizen of the world. An intensely private person, he let his prolific work do the talking for him without ever veering toward self-promotion in any way.
He won the respect of the world in his self-effacing manner as he devoted all his time to creation of timeless works. He could comfortably fit into any part of the world but retained an eternal love for Lagos, the city he eventually died in.
London, England is another city that looms large in the Biyi Bandele oeuvre as exemplified in his 1999 novel, The Street, in which the eccentricity within the multi-racial assemblage finds meaning in the expression: “people reaching out to one another, searching for love.”
His 2008 novel, Burma Boy, tells the horrific story of the Second World War in which his father fought in, but Biyi brings to the story of the fourteen-year old protagonist, Ali Banana, humour and humanity transcending madness.
What is striking is that Biyi reaches out to all beyond any borders of paternity, maternity or consanguinity. Discrimination does not rank in his lexicon. Humour is his veritable vehicle, and he shares with me a love for the folkloric hero of the fictions of the Muslim world, Mullah Nasruddin, who in one of his stories told his wife not to put a stone slab on his grave when he dies because he would not want to knock his head against the stone when ascending to heaven!
In announcing his death on Sunday August 7, Biyi’s doting daughter, Temi, broke not a few hearts, thusly: “Biyi was a prodigiously talented writer and film-maker, as well as a loyal friend and beloved father.
He was a storyteller to his bones, with an unblinking perspective, singular voice and wisdom which spoke boldly through all of his art, in poetry, novels, plays and on screen. He told stories which made a profound impact and inspired many all over the world. His legacy will live on through his work.”
Biyi Bandele was the quintessential global citizen, at home in all the continents of the world. It is indeed astounding trying to understand how Biyi found the time to do all the work of his considerably short span.
It suffices to celebrate the fact that Biyi Bandele was a believer who stayed the course of breaking borders and building lasting bridges.