I have had opportunities to attend book reading events, those events where a famous or not so famous writer comes around with a new book which has won some acclaim (which often means it won or was runner up or got honourable mention for an award or other). The said writer gets to be grilled by readers and reviewers eager to dissect the book and postulate on the overt and covert “message” that can be found therein. One thing that I often find interesting most of the time, but which can also get irritating on occasion is the quickness of the aforementioned readers and reviewers to dissect said book and bring out passages which they can link to some other books (if any) that the author has written. They mostly do this reinforce the opinions they have about the writer, his background, ideological leanings influences or even his sexual orientation, if the writer hasn’t written any other book they still pick the one being read and try to pick out references which can indicate that author is an “homosexual Marxist” or some other fancy label they feel to give him
I was reading a review of the movie adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun the other day and the reviewer kept talking about how, the characterization and plot and thematic preoccupation and all those other things film connoisseurs hold dear were not up to par in telling the story of the Nigeria/Biafra war like the author wanted it to be told. The reviewer even went as far as suggesting that the Half of Yellow Sun movie director decidedly sold the HOAYS book short because he isn’t even Igbo. To this reviewer, the movie failed to pass across the message that that the writer of the book who held an opinion of an event, which was conditioned by her ethnic group’s opinion of that event, wanted to pass across.
I found the review pretty disconcerting, however I could not say exactly why until I watched Dwayne ”the Rock” Johnson’s Hercules. Here at last was a movie that was not concerned about any message, a movie which only wanted to make a story which people enjoy telling,into a movie they could enjoy watching. This reminded me of the reviews that followed Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus which were mainly about the fact that it was a gripping coming of age story (which it totally was),and the fact that with that wonderful book she has become one of the foremost voices in the new generation of African feminist writers. (John Grisham wrote A Painted House, which is also a coming of age story, but the last time I checked, the book hasn’t been acclaimed as the foremost anything). It seems in Africa we are always keen to label things and people, even if we have to examine every, page, every paragraph every sentence and every word in a book, we would do it in a whim, if only it would help us find collocations that will allow us say “yeah this writer is passing across this message because he is a member of this and that group and he has this and that background.” We do that for every literary work we see and when we can’t get a message out of the given work we describe it as meaningless.
One thing I also usually find funny is that people are quick to, for example label Chimamanda as a feminist because she wrote Purple Hibiscus. With that kind of thinking, Anne Rice would be a Night walking Blood drinker, Stephen King would be a creepy old dude who stalks graveyards and baby sitters and JRR Tolkien would be a time travelling impostor from middle earth. The novel or the movie is not a news report or a documentary; neither is it an essay, so a book writer or a screenwriter is not and shouldn’t be regarded as an expert on a particular issue on the basis of a book alone. My first thoughts after watching the HOAYS movie and reading the book is that it was a suspenseful well written story set in the civil war. It is a story first of all, conceived from someone’s imagination and it has no business telling me who the good guy was between Ojukwu and Gowon (Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country does that pretty well).
When I decided to watch the Half of a Yellow Sun movie what I wanted to see is the conflict between Olanna and Odenigbo and Kainene and other characters. So I will not take my opinion of the Nigerian civil war from HOAYS. For me fiction is not the actual account of an event, it is an account of an event pulled from someone’s imagination, which may likely make it somewhat embellished, (which is why enjoyed Dan Brown’s Da Vinici code as an action packed adventure, even though I am a Christian). A work of fiction is to be judged by its artistic merit first of all, so for someone to say that a movie is rubbish because it is doing what it is supposed to be doing, telling a story instead of giving a social commentary is grossly unfair. The argument is not whether Chimamanda is qualified or not to have an opinion about the civil war, the argument is that Half Of A yellow Sun is not qualified to be a reliable source on the Nigerian Civil War. I laugh when I listen to people who tell me that some stories are rubbish because they haven’t learnt anything from them. Like that fellow who asked me why I “wasted my time” watching George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I said a prayer for his poor soul
(TO BE CONTINUED….)