How do you tell a good story?
Scratch that. Let’s start with something more fundamental.
What is a story? What is that magic thing that passes a message across?
What is it that classifies something as a “story”?
Ayeni Adekunle, a career storyteller is someone who knows a thing or three about stories. From his days as an entertainment journalist writing for Encomium to his current role as NET newspaper publisher and PR consultant, telling many stories to different people in many various ways is all he has ever done. So why is his latest storytelling project sparking so many varied reactions?
“A Very Good Bad Guy”, the recently released biography of 2face Idibia has generated hundreds of social media reactions and news print column inches. These have varied from strong praise and applause to outright condemnation and dismay depending on whom you listen to. To some, the book is an excellent foray into the fantastic world of 2face Idibia before and behind the curtain. To others, it is an abomination that should not even be called a ‘biography’. “392 pages of nothingness,” someone else raged over the weekend.
The old saying goes, “There are three sides to every story – both sides and the truth,” so I decided to settle down over the weekend with the controversial book and read it myself. What I discovered was quite eye opening, not just in the sense of finding out things about 2face that I didn’t know before, but in my very understanding of what writing and storytelling is.
The very first thing to jump out at me after the introduction and foreword was the format of the book – and I suspect this is where it would lose many people. If you were expecting a “conventional” prosaic biography that goes like, “I first met 2face Idibia when he was a shy, precocious teenager in Makurdi and I immediately knew he had something special in him and he would go far…” you are in for a rude shock.
Ayeni, who incidentally was 2face’s first-ever publicist and still remains his close friend, has not written anything at all! Or to be more accurate, he has not written any of the written content in the main book for the express purpose of this book. The book is a collection of news stories and clippings on 2face gathered over the past decade, most of which were penned by Ayeni himself as a reporter at Encomium, THISDAY and The Punch, or by NET newspaper which he began publishing in 2009.
“What?! A “biography” made up of old random newspaper articles? From page 1 to page 392? What is this? Did I just waste my money on this?” That may be what you are thinking at this point and that certainly is what a furious online reviewer thought while writing this recently:
“The author had good intentions, but his greatest undoing is his intellectual laziness. How can you say you are writing a Bio about a guy such as 2face, who is one of Nigeria’s all time biggest musical export [sic](besides Fela and KSA), yet you rely on a collection of old news clips and articles from Enconmium [sic], Punch Newspapers etc as the backbone and centerpiece of your Biography about a legend like Tu?”
At this point I launch into prolonged laughter. Because you are absolutely, utterly, hilariously wrong. Here’s why.
First of all, the news items and clippings used in the book are not ordered randomly at all. They are not arranged systematically in order of the book’s progression. The reader is made to examine 2face through a series of seemingly random time hops, which are actually very deliberate.
For example the first section of the book dealing with his dad kicks off with a story published on June 24, 2013 and ends with a story published on August 20, 2015. The next section which deals with his love life however, hops back to May 17, 2005 for a look at his brief relationship with Cath Taylor, daughter of ex Liberian President Charles Taylor (and what an escapade that was!)
Being that the book was published as a solitary effort by Ayeni’s NET newspaper and was not officially commissioned by 2face’s team, Ayeni has told a very compelling story and he has craftily inserted himself throughout the book without the reader realizing it all. Who funded the project? Who wrote the articles? Who published the newspaper the articles appeared in? Who published the book? Aha! Get it now?
Ayeni or ATG as he is more commonly known has his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout, having a private chuckle at you the reader, and you have no idea, bless you!
While you pick your jaw up from the floor, I should also mention that the method of presenting the story used in “A Very Good Bad Guy” is actually a valid way of writing biographies, because this seems to be a common recurring point of controversy. Yes fellow Nigerians – a collection of separate stories fused together to tell a new story can be called a biography. It is called an Anthological biography.
Yes. It’s a thing.
By way of example, search for the anthological biogaphy of Beth Slater Whitson, a 20th century American lyricist, written by Grace Baxter Thompson in 1981. Even novels adopt this style of writing sometimes, in which case they are called Epistolary novels. An example of a popula epistolary novel is Aravind Adinga’s critically acclaimed debut The White Tiger written in the format of a series of letters from an Indian driver to the visiting Chinese Prime Minister.
What’s more, it is not just anthologies that are the only variation on the “standard” prosaic biography that we are used to in this part of the world. Music can also be used to do the same thing. Yes, there is such a thing as a musical biography – an account of a musician’s life told only with their music. Don’t believe me? You can order the musical biographies of Quincy Jones, Lena Horne and Judy Garland as audio CD box sets online. Perhaps 2face will even have one of these someday.
The word “biography” is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “an account of a person’s life written, composed, or produced by another”. There is no hard and fast rule regarding its format. Biography =\= “Written prose account about someone’s life.” There are many ways of putting together a biography and Ayeni seems to have chosen a refreshingly different way that provides the most direct route into the life of 2face Idibia, devoid of the effusive praise, narrator’s opinions, clichés and general lack of focus that often characterise Nigerian writings on prominent personalities.
To the reader who is used to the “tried-and-tested” formula of writing biographies, this will either be a rude shock or (as it was for me) a welcome departure from the norm.
Going through the book, you will realise that the book is telling a very personal story about 2baba. If you were expecting a tale about the multiplicity of awards 2face has won and the backstory of each award, the shiny shows he starred in, the lascivious video vixens he cavorted with and the rock-and-roll lifestyle a la John Lennon or Jay-Z, there will probably be another book for you.
It is not stated explicitly, but the story told in “A Very Good Bad Guy” is the inside story of 2face Idibia – the story which means the most to him. It is a story of his growth as a man, his handling or mishandling of his personal relationships, his family and close circle of friends and his career.
Anyone who knows 2face to the depth of Ayeni will tell you that he is one of the most humble personalities in the Nigerian entertainment industry. He is not one who is unduly enthused by the trappings of his superstar status. At heart he still remains Innocent Idibia, husband, father, friend and business associate. “A Very Good Bad Guy” covers the part of 2face’s life that he considers to be the most meaningful. As for the parts left out, there will surely be many more great books written on this man.
It is my guess that this format of telling his story was used either as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Ayeni’s own journalistic achievements or purely for effect. Either way, it works well because the book (for those who are discerning and patient enough to grasp the subtlety in its structure) tells a very complete story of Inocent Idibia the man and 2face Idibia the artiste.
“A Very Good Bad Guy” was one of my most enjoyable reads this year and the biggest page-turning things about it for me were its unusual written style and its non time-bound progression. Rather than the typically prosaic story of the life of 2face from Makurdi to Lagos, the book instead keeps the reader well off the beaten path. For those who grasp its subtlety, it is a story of great depth and a very satisfying read about one of Africa’s greatest contemporary artistes.
If you have ever wanted to know everything about 2face that you once wondered about, from his women to his marriage to his finances to his kids and marriage, you might want to order this gem and settle down one Saturday afternoon with it like I did.
Totally worth it.