After praising the remarkable cover of One Day I Will Write About This Place last week, I came across a post at the blog Africa is a Country which called out some less creative cover designs for African books:
I’ve come across a couple other examples like this previously.
Book covers about Muslim women courtesy of Arabic Literature in English:
And South Asian women publishing in the U.S. courtesy of South Asian Women Writers:
I encourage you to check out the links to these blogs, each one of them has interesting commentary.
Looking at my own reading for this blog, out of the 12 African books I’ve posted about I found two more African acacia trees:
(That doesn’t include Half of a Yellow Sun, which is included in the example above. My copy had a different cover, without the tree)
I’m not sure what to make of all this. Obviously these are cherry-picked examples and lots of books don’t follow these patterns. I think that’s important to remember. We’re not talking about all books. But the patterns in those images are pretty striking.
Book covers function as advertisements and as such, they need to send you signals as to what they are about. Book covers from Africa and the Middle East and South Asia aren’t unique in having repeated identifying traits. There are stereotyped cover design elements that might indicate a mystery novel or a romance or a book set in Paris. So what’s the problem?
The thing that strikes me the most is that I was completely unaware of some of the signals I was reacting to. Since I’m actively seeking out books from many parts of the world, these covers are successful in drawing my attention as something I might be interested in. I could probably have told you that books from South Asia are likely to have women in dressy saris on the cover, but I never noticed the fact that those women’s faces are consistently obscured in favor of their bodies and clothes. I have looked at those books with acacia trees and recognized that the books were set in Africa, but I never realized that it was that tree on the horizon giving me that signal.
In the case of the acacia tree, I don’t see a problem with the use of the tree itself when it is appropriate to particular books, rather it seems like problem is overuse of a single symbol and how broadly it is applied. At least for a book set in Paris, I can name any number of stereotyped images that might evoke the locale- the Eiffel Tower, a sidewalk cafe, a baguette, a beret, an outline of a map showing the river. Not very innovative, but a lot of variety just for a single city. The acacia tree is used to indicate Africa quite generally (though probably not North Africa). Embarrassingly, I can’t think of a single image (other than perhaps photos of Nelson Mandela for South Africa) that would signal to me that a book was set in any specific African country.
Beyond that, there’s also the question of focusing on location in the book cover in the first place. Are books from ‘exotic’ locales like Africa or Asia more likely to be marketed with a focus on their setting? Probably. (That feels like a weird question for me to be asking, considering that this whole blog is about reading books based on their location. Hmm.)