As the top-selling fiction book of 2019 — selling over 12 million copies by January 2022 — “Where the Crawdads Sing” has seen a degree of popularity that few books achieve. In addition to topping the New York Times fiction bestseller list for an astounding 153 weeks, Delia Owens’ first work of fiction was also selected for Reese Witherspoon’s book club in September 2018 and adapted into a feature film that was released last Friday. Catapulting this novel to an almost hyperbolic level of attention, Taylor Swift even penned an original song for the movie adaption of what she describes as a “mesmerizing story.”
Clearly, in the context of book sales and public attention, “Crawdads” is a major success story that has left millions of readers, including the likes of Swift and Witherspoon, with nothing but rave reviews. However, it only takes one quick Google search to see the thorny backstory behind this rose of the literary world.
For context, Owens and her former spouse, Mark Owens, spent 22 years in Africa — traveling first to Botswana and then elsewhere — working as conservationists, a period of time that Jeffrey Goldberg describes in detail in the New Yorker. The couple seemed to leave a trail wherever they went, earning “a reputation in the valley for their intolerance of local people.” They were expelled from Botswana in 1986 after attempts to rally international support against the conservation policies of the country’s government which is how the locally unpopular pair ended up in Zambia.
In 1995, almost a decade after the couple arrived in Zambia, ABC did a segment on their conservation work. In the segment, which aired in 1996 on national television, an unidentified alleged poacher was shot and killed. The details of this shooting have remained incredibly vague: The body was never found, the shooter was never officially identified and, as a result, nobody has been charged with the crime.
The discourse I’ve seen around this controversy has largely been sparked by cavalier questions about this murder. These questions are often subsequently met with claims that Delia Owens wasn’t involved or even less comprehensive responses arguing that it was her husband who was involved and that they’re now divorced. Regardless of these claims, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, Zambia’s director of public prosecutions, has confirmed that Owens — along with her former husband and stepson — are still wanted for questioning for the alleged televised killing of the individual.
While some readers seem to take solace in the fact that Owens has not been legally implicated in this unresolved murder — she has denied her involvement numerous times — there are clear connections between Owens’ time in Africa and her famous novel — some that Owens herself seems to draw. In fact, the author even said in an interview with Amazon that “almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning” and “there’s a lot of symbolism in this book.” Considering the parallels between Kya Clark, the protagonist of “Crawdads,” and Owens, it is hard to separate the art from the artist in this novel.
It doesn’t require too many liberties to read “Crawdads” — a story about a girl who’s accused of murder and actually did commit the murder out of self-defense — as a confessional tale for Owens and the allegations surrounding her time in Africa. Clark and Owens, both raised in the South, prefer nature to humanity and demonstrate reclusive personalities. When asked about her involvement in the shooting in an interview with the New York Times, Owens even validated her struggles with these kinds of questions by saying, “It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling.”
There are also connections between this book and Owens’ time in Africa beyond the similarities between Owens and her protagonist. For example, the jailhouse cat in the novel, Sunday Justice, has the same name as a man who cooked for the Owenses while they were in Zambia. In “The Eye of the Elephant,” a memoir written by Mark Owens, he recounts a conversation Delia had with this cook. According to her, the real Sunday Justice had “always wanted to talk to someone who has flown up in the sky with a plane.” She describes him asking if you get close to the stars when you fly on a plane and how she so graciously explained how far stars really are from Earth.
However, Owens’ retelling of this exchange doesn’t match up with Sunday Justice’s: When asked about this alleged conversation, Sunday Justice responded with a laugh. He had flown often, both as a child and as an adult, and went on to work for the Zambian Air Force after working for the Owenses. This discrepancy reflects the kinds of biases about Africans that are littered throughout the Owens’ other memoirs, as well.
Given the numerous occasions like this where Owens has unapologetically shown her discriminatory and racist colors, it’s peculiar — but unsurprising — that this story was picked up by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House. What’s even more telling than this book being picked up by a Big Five publisher is the success it was met with after being turned into a film. Raking in $17 million during its opening weekend, this movie clearly has not been sullied by the plethora of articles published by well-established news sources on the controversies surrounding Owens.
There is plausible deniability that people who have read the book don’t know about its suspected backstory. However, I am doubtful that the publishers, Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon and the directors of the movie were unaware of the murky events during Owens’ time in Africa. And yet, when asked about “Crawdads’” connection to the murder in Zambia, the film’s screenwriter, Lucy Alibar, told TIME that she was unfamiliar with it.
There are two possible interpretations of this statement: Either Alibar truly was oblivious to decades of Owens’ past, or she is not telling the truth. I am more inclined to believe the latter; I can’t imagine agreeing to write the screenplay for a book without doing background research on the author — and five minutes is really all you need to find Goldberg’s New Yorker exposé. So if she did know, why is it so easy for her to ignore a murder?
Even if Alibar was being truthful, her response is still problematic. If she truly didn’t know about this controversy, why didn’t she do her research before launching a story with a background she knew nothing about further into the public eye? While I’m posing these questions around Alibar, they should be asked in reference to all the influential people who have actively supported an author who made a bestselling career — not just with “Crawdads” but also with three memoirs — inspired by white saviorism and antiquated stereotypes about the African continent.
While we might not all have the same level of influence as Witherspoon or Swift, by consuming and promoting narratives like these, we are continuing to allow people to spread racist ideas while taking no accountability for those ideas. In the digital age, doing your research is easy. It’s unrealistic to expect perfection from an author, but there are certainly lines that should not be crossed, and Delia Owens, instead of acknowledging the lines she has crossed, has written a bestseller inspired by those very lines.
As readers and audience members, we need to stop separating ourselves from the media we consume. If you’re happily reading “Crawdads,” knowing its background, you’re a product of the environment of American pop culture — which is riddled with this kind of hypocrisy. People are quick to lay claim to the titles of “educated” or “anti-racist” or even “woke,” but these same people often turn around and actively consume racist media. As seen in the widespread support of this movie, this kind of media is not only acceptable but also economically profitable. And until we, as consumers, treat the media we support as a reflection of ourselves and our values, the long history of authors perpetuating racist ideas will continue to manifest itself in the form of bestsellers and movie adaptations.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Senior Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.