On the Saturday that I took my family to the Lagos premiere of the film adaptation of my novel Half of a Yellow Sun, I watched my parents and tried to hide my anxiety. I wondered what they would make of it, but my worry went beyond the film. It was similar, in its sense of unformed discomfort, to what I felt when I first showed my father the finished manuscript. I had wondered then if, after reading, he would think it worthwhile that he had spent so many long hours answering my questions about the Biafran war, lifting layers of his memory that had long lay untouched. I was relieved that he liked the novel. I was mildly amused, too, that he spoke of the accuracy of my small details – as though most had not come from him.
And now, with the film, I worried even more. Images, when compared to words, have a greater immediacy, almost an inherent vulgarity. I feared that my father’s experiences, first fictionalised in my novel and now translated into film, might seem to him a violation of sorts. The novel, I imagined, had at least left his memories intact; fiction gives the reader room to imagine characters for themselves.
Film is different. So powerful can images be that they challenge your memory of the real, and sometimes they overtake the real. As they did for me: when I was writing Half of a Yellow Sun, I imagined the character Olanna as a cross between my sister Ijeoma and former Nigerian beauty pageant winner Bianca Onoh (whom my friends and I greatly admired in our teenage years, and who went on, incidentally, to marry the former Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu).
Now that I have seen the film a number of times, it is Thandie Newton’s strong, nuanced portrayal of Olanna that comes to mind. Such is the power of moving images.
My father is a quiet, decent, stoic man, a man who does not complain. I used the stories he told me to create a character very unlike him: a loud-talking, hyperactive professor, so unusual that he wants his houseboy to call him by his first name. Odenigbo is intensely political while my father is not. Odenigbo suffers losses similar to my father’s, but faces them without my father’s stoic resolve. In short, Odenigbo is not my father. Yet I felt anxious about the film. Perhaps because I feared that Odenigbo on the screen – so flawlessly portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I think is one of the best would sear itself into my father’s memory, and challenge what he remembered and how he wanted to remember.
My parents were in good spirits. They had travelled from Nsukka to visit me in Lagos, and had come a week earlier so that they would be present at the premiere. I watched them as they watched the film. In the dim interior of the theatre, I could not make out their expressions. My mother winced a few times. She laughed. She and my father whispered to each other. (Married for 50 years, they share a lovely friendship and they bicker and laugh in equal measure.)
Afterwards, they both said the film was “very good” and the scenes were “believable”, the kind of platitudes that further fed my anxiety. My brother-in-law complained that the film was not political enough. My brother joked that the car used in the film never went to the mechanic. My cousin chortled about the sex scenes. My sister, who was a child in Biafra, talked about the air raid in the film, how real it seemed and how exciting she, as a child, had found the dugout earth bunkers, where she played with crickets. She did not remember sensing the terror around her. My mother told her that she had internalised the fear.
“After we settled back in our lives in Nsukka, whenever you heard a loud sound, you and Ijeoma would start to shake uncontrollably. It took years before that stopped,” my mother said. My sister did not remember that. But she had suddenly remembered something else: a checkpoint. She turned to my father and asked about a road checkpoint, with soldiers. She remembered something happening, something about my mother that had terrified her and my other sister.
Memory brings memory. My mother seemed surprised, ruefully sad, that my sister now remembered the checkpoint armed by Nigerian soldiers at the end of the war. She had told me this story before, while I was researching the novel, but new details emerged. The war had ended and they were on their way back to Nsukka to begin to put their lives back together. Nigerian soldiers stopped and harassed them, made my father do some physical labour because he was bespectacled and so clearly an academic, a member of the privileged class that had given intellectual weight to the secession. I remembered this story as one example of the many excesses of the Nigerian soldiers, poorly trained, newly powerful, arrogant in victory.
In the new version of the story, told in the aftermath of the film, my mother added that the soldiers had threatened to beat her, and that my father, to protect her, had jumped on one of the soldiers, and that she begged him to stop, terrified that they had survived the war with their three children only to have her husband killed at a checkpoint. I was surprised. I had never heard this before. I turned to my father. He mumbled something, an acknowledgement of the memory, and looked away. He said nothing else. I tried to imagine him, tired and worried and afraid, lungeing at an armed soldier. What had been a story about soldiers doing what soldiers have done at the end of many wars – harass civilians – now became something entirely different: the specific story of a husband keen to protect his wife, of a wife keen to preserve her family.
After we saw the film, my parents referred to Biafra more often in a week than they had in years. They remembered with grace, humour, sadness, ruefulness. “It was really like that. It was really like in the film,” my mother said. She talked about their hurried evacuations from towns, about people pulling along tired children and stubborn goats.
“I remember a man whose goat refused to move and he kept pulling and pulling and finally had to abandon the goat. That goat must have been the only thing of value he had left,” she said.
Often, I wondered if she was thinking about her father. He and my paternal grandfather were the greatest losses my parents suffered in the war, but their deaths are the least-discussed parts of my parents’ memories. Especially my mother’s. She has never spoken in detail about her father’s death. He was an Igbo businessmen who lived in Cameroon in the Forties, and was determined that his first child, even though a girl, would get as good an education as any. My mother idolised him. He died in 1968, in a refugee camp. In the photo of him that survives, he looks proud and accomplished and stern, but there is a slice of laughter in his eyes. A story my mother told often about him was of the letter he had sent her when she was away in boarding school, written in English, that began with the words “my dear son”. She thought he had mistakenly mixed up “daughter” for “son”, English not being his forte, and when she told him the correct word was “daughter,” he replied, “I know the difference. I just want you to know that I believe you can do anything a son can do.”
When I was growing up, my paternal grandfather existed in our lives as a warm and wise memory. My father talked – and still talks – about him almost every day, referred to him, recounted his words, even symbolically toasted him at family celebrations. But I do not know much about his death, perhaps because my father himself does not know. He, too, died in a refugee camp. My father was unable to go there for months because the roads were occupied by Nigerian soldiers, and when he finally saw the site of his father’s grave – a mass grave behind a secondary school that had been turned into a refugee camp – he bent down and took a handful of sand which he has kept ever since. When my father first told me this, it was, for me, a new and startling side to him. An awareness of a dramatic emotion I had not imagined of him.
After Half of a Yellow Sun was published, there was some interest from film-makers. Biyi Bandele stood out from the beginning. I admired his work, his world view and his fierce intelligence. But I chose, early on, to stay away from the process, refused even to read the script. The novel meant too much to me. I could not bear to see what is a necessary part of the process: what would be kept in and what would be left out. It was a self-preservation mechanism I wanted to see the film as a finished product, a medium related to but separate from my novel, so that I could be free to be honest, to love or hate it or be indifferent to it.
The only thing I felt strongly about was that the film be shot in Nigeria. The only thing I feared was that foreign actors might adopt that generic accent that is put on by non-Africans playing Africans and is unrecognisable to any actual African.
But it was Biyi Bandele’s film, and that alone was reason to be hopeful. Bandele’s directing is brave, unafraid of emotion, but perhaps his greatest achievement is in his casting choices. The film has a remarkable ensemble cast, a collection of sparkling performances, all of which somehow seem essential, even the smallest roles.
Onyeka Onwenu – my casual cast suggestion, which I doubted Bandele would consider – is one of the best musicians Nigeria has ever had, and in playing Odenigbo’s mother has proved herself an actor of intimidating talent. When I heard that Bandele had cast Anika Noni Rose to play Olanna’s acerbic sister Kainene, the character I most admired in the novel, I was puzzled. She was too beautiful to play Kainene. Most of all, she was American, and I thought a British actress would fit better. But I could not have been more wrong. Her Kainene is perfect: crackling, alive, confident, deliciously droll. Joseph Mawle brings a sensitive and utterly disarming Englishness to the character of Richard, Kainene’s lover. John Boyega, who plays Ugwu – the soul of the novel – is the film’s funny, moving and powerfully human conscience.
Article written by Award winning Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and culled from Telegraph UK
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