The Dangers of a Single Book Cover

The historian Simon Stephens discovers a meme in the book covers of novels set in or with African themes.

The ubiquitous "acacia tree with sunset" in East Africa. It is also on the cover of most novels with African themes. (Credit: Niels Photography, via Flickr CC.)

The other day, Simon Stevens, a historian of the struggle against South African apartheid, posted a composite image of book covers of books with African themes. The conclusion that, shamefully, whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever kind of writing you do, if you write a novel “about Africa,” chances are you’re going to get the acacia tree treatment. And the orange sky.  And that even everyone’s darling, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, is not excused. As Stevens summarized: “Like so many (wildly varying) writers on Africa, Adichie gets the acacia tree sunset treatment …” So whether Wilbur Smith or Wole Soyinka, Rider Haggard or Bessie Head, apparently you get the same cover imagery.

See for yourself.

That opened the floodgates of comments. As the Nigerian-based writer and researcher, Jeremy Weate,  tweeted icily: “Funny that. Nigeria is not known for its acacia trees.”

The journalist Edna Mohamed wrote on Africa Is a Country Facebook page: “I hope one day we can finally upgrade to baobab trees or something.”

In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.

Another reader, Alice Kewellhampton, added that when it comes to Chimamanda Adichie, she also gets a special meme for her UK editions, the “soulful-black-woman-with-colourful-smudges” look.

Three years ago, Tom Devriendt pointed out a similar issue in a post here on Africa Is a Country. Then he noticed the cover similarities between Aminatta Forna’s novel The Memory of Love and 2008 Commonwealth Prize winner Lawrence Hill’s novel as The Book of Negroes (which had it own troubles). For good measure, and to confuse you more, the French version of Hill’s book used the same image and was titled Aminata.

But fiction “about Africa” is not alone in getting this sort of treatment. M. Lynx Qualey, over at ArabLit pointed out the obsession with veils on the covers of books set in the Arab world, in a great post “Translating for Bigots.” She quotes Adam Talib, and we’ll give him the last word too: “Publishers can sometimes package books for bigots.”

Further Reading

The land of the freed people

‘We Slaves of Suriname’ (1934), by Afro-Surinamese author Anton de Kom, was the first study of Dutch colonial rule from the perspectives of the people who resisted it. It is has been published in English for the first time.

Take it to the house

On this month’s AIAC Radio, Boima celebrates all things basketball, looking at its historical relationships with music and race, then focusing on Africa’s biggest names in the sport.

El maestro siempre

Maky Madiba Sylla is a militant filmmaker excavating iconic Africans whose legacies he believes need to be known widely—like the singer Laba Sosseh.

Madiba and Mali

There is a remarkable connection between Mali and South Africa, dating back to the liberation struggle, and actively encouraged by the author’s work.

A devil’s deal

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.

Red and Black

Yunxiang Gao’s new book takes a fresh look at connected lives of African American and Chinese leftist activists, artists and intellectuals after World War II.

The Dar es Salaam years

In the early 1970s, Walter Rodney, expelled from Jamaica, took a post in Tanzania. In Leo Zeilig’s new book, he captures those exciting, but also difficult years and how it formed Rodney.

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.