The news: Africa Is a Country recently found something eerily similar in the covers of novels about Africa. Try guessing what it is:
If your answer is “they all have acacia trees set against a dusty orange sunset,” you’re correct. So are the designers all just huge Lion King fans? Probably – but as Quartz points out, the reasons for these similarities are a bit more complex.
Wow. These 36 images represent books about a sweeping range of topics and locations, from Nigeria and Mozambique to Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. A quick geography lesson will reveal that these are, in fact, not the same place:
But Knopf Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund says this image is recycled ad nauseam due partly to individual and institutionalized “laziness.” It’s easier resorting to tired clichés than it is to memorably engage with what makes a book unique or interesting – especially when it comes to Africa, a continent defined in the West by stereotypes and misconceptions.
“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he explains. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”
Poor guy: The results are images that reflect a “vague, Orientalist sense of place,” a presentation of “otherness” that’s both familiar and easy to digest. Understanding Africa as a monolithic whole defined by sparsely populated savannas is damaging in that it effectively erases the continent’s incredible diversity, from the bustling metropolises of coastal Ghana to the chilly winters of South Africa.
Oh, and the publishers seem to have forgotten that people live there, too. In fact, it’s probably safe to say people are central characters in most of these books.
But: This simplistic visualized “othering” is not exclusive to works about Africa, sadly. Anyone who’s read a novel set in the Middle East knows the deal:
Image Credit: Word Press
So what can publishers do to permanently rid the world of “veiled lady syndrome” and “acacia sunset-ism”? Mendelsund suggests designers be more proactive in initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, then responding with more accurate designs. If that fails, and the publishers insist on going with a stereotypical image? “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever,” he says.
As for how that’s working out, we turn to Sam Cooke: “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”
“Right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” Mendelsund adds. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”