Where The Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing: the controversy behind author Delia Owens, who is wanted for questioning in a murder case

Where The Crawdads Sing is now available to watch in UK cinemas but the plotline of the acclaimed novel has close similarities to Delia Owens’ own life. 

If there’s one film that has been eagerly anticipated this summer it’s the Hello Sunshine production of Where The Crawdads Sing. The Daisy Edgar-Jones-fronted movie is now available to watch in UK cinemas and is based on the Delia Owens novel of the same name.

The 2018 novel was quickly catapulted to fame when, in the same year, Reese Witherspoon selected it for her Hello Sunshine Book Club. By the following year, it had risen to the top of bestselling lists worldwide, and by January 2022, the book had sold 12 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books of all time.

It’s safe to say, then, that many of us have either read or are at least familiar with the book. But not as many people know of the controversy that surrounds the book’s author and, as a result, this new film adaptation.

Upon the book’s release and rise to prominence, many highlighted its use of “tone deaf” language, its reliance on age-old stereotypes and its parallels to Delia Owens’ own controversial past. It’s a lot to unpack, but it’s enough for many to give the original book and new film a wide berth.  

Where The Crawdads Sing
Where The Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya (Edgar-Jones), an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina

So, what is the controversy surrounding Where The Crawdads Sing?

Well, to start with, much of the current discussion revolves around Owens and the similarities that have been drawn between Owens and Where The Crawdads Sing’s protagonist, Kya, played by Edgar-Jones in the new film.

Both Kya and Owens were born and raised in the southern states of America around the same time, and Kya’s desire to live in a remote part of the world is also reflected in Owens’ life, where she strove for relative solitude and moved to a remote part of Africa in 1974 with her then-husband Mark Owens.

Mark and Delia Owens
Mark and Delia Owens in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

The pair spent more than two decades in Zambia, the former British colony known as Northern Rhodesia. It’s here that they took on the roles of conservationists intent on saving elephants from poachers and corrupt government officials. It’s a story that was the focus of the 1996 segment of ABC news show Turning Point and a documentary entitled Deadly Game: The Mark And Delia Owens Story.

Most interestingly – and controversially – the documentary included the filmed murder of an alleged poacher, a clip which can be found on YouTube today. It’s explicit and in the shocking segment that shows the dead body, neither the victim nor the person(s) who delivered the fatal shots is identified. It’s for this 1995 murder investigation that Mark, Delia and Christopher Owens (Mark’s son) are all still wanted for questioning to this day.

Their alleged involvement in the case is suspected due to Mark Owens’ statements that he believed people should shoot poachers and ask questions later. As of now, the trio are wanted for questioning around the case and not explicitly for the murders themselves.

Delia Owens and lawyers for Mark and Christopher Owens have issued denials concerning any wrongdoing or involvement. 

Delia Owens
Delia Owens is the author of Where The Crawdads Sing.

Zambia’s director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, confirmed this even after Owens’ rise to fame. She said: “There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia. They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.”

In The Atlantic investigation about Owens, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg describes it as a “small part of a larger story, one that more closely resembled Heart Of Darkness than Born Free”.

The work of Owens and her then-husband being related to Joseph Conrad echoes the white saviour complex that many believe Owens has demonstrated not only in her novels but also in her early life. Before Where The Crawdads Sing, Owens found fame in her previous memoirs. Mark and Delia Owens’ co-written 1984 memoir Cry Of The Kalahari was an international bestseller and chronicled their zoology research and time as lion conservationists in the Kalahari desert, which covers Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. 

Within their books, the Owenses’ use of language demonstrates archaic views around race, Africa and white superiority. As The New Yorker highlights, the website of the Owens Foundation previously referred to Africa as “the Dark Continent” and throughout their second book, The Eye Of The Elephant, the Owenses expressed a desire to live in an “Eden-like” Africa, free of the complications created by the presence of humans. 

In Secrets Of The Savanna, they even issued a strong call for human population control in Africa, claiming that “despite the ravages of Aids and a plethora of other diseases, Africa’s populations continue to outstrip the carry capacity of the continental resource base”. 

Mark and Delia Owens
Mark and Delia Owens in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

Mark Harvey, a former friend and colleague of the Owenses, told The New Yorker that the pair earned a reputation in the valley for their intolerance of local people. He said: “Their whole attitude was ‘Nice continent. Pity about the Africans.’”

Similarly, PJ Fouche, a professional hunter who managed a hunting concession in a game-management area outside the national park where the Owenses worked, said that Mark Owens developed a “proprietary” feeling about the park’s wildlife. “He didn’t want them [the African people] to be anywhere near his animals. That’s how he saw the animals, as his.”

If you’ve read Where The Crawdads Sing – or indeed watch the movie – it’s worth noting that the novel involves majority white characters,  and when Black people are portrayed, it’s done so in a condescending manner. One example of this is reflected by the way the jailhouse cat, Sunday Justice, takes its name from a real-life Zambian man who previously worked in the Owenses’ camp as a cook. 

Where The Crawdads Sing
Where The Crawdads Sing is out in cinemas now.

While for many, separating the art from the artist is an easy enough thing to do, it’s always worth noting just how close real-life controversy can weave its way into the material.

Speaking about the 1995 murder that Owens is still wanted for questioning in, the former Zambian national police commissioner, Graphael Musamba, said the absence of a body has always hindered the case. He said: “The bush is the perfect place to commit murder… The animals eat the evidence.”

It’s an already eerie sentiment but grows more unsettling when you realise that “the animals eat the evidence” is also a line in the prologue of Where The Crawdads Sing.

With the release of the new film, many have criticised the production as a whole and wondered why so many big names – including Taylor Swift – are attached to it. One Twitter user asked: “Where’s our moral compass?” while another underlines that Where The Crawdads Sing “utilizes racist stereotypes in regards to its characters of color. It never should’ve been published, let alone made into a goddamn movie.” 

While this film may be one of the more talked-about ones of the year, it’s worth looking at why Where The Crawdads Sing has garnered so much attention.

Where The Crawdads Sing is out in UK cinemas now. 

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