The Dangers of a Single Book Cover: The Acacia Tree Meme and “African literature”

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

“Like so many (wildly varying) writers on Africa, Chimamanda Adichie gets the acacia tree sunset treatment. Whether Wilbur Smith or Wole Soyinka, Rider Haggard or Bessie Head, apparently you get the same cover imagery.”

We’re obliged to Simon Stevens, a reader who put together the picture above and pointed out that 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.

As Jeremy Weate tweeted icily: “Funny that. Nigeria is not known for its acacia trees.”

Edna Mohamed wrote on our 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. All together now (h/t @meowmusiq):

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. Here’s what he wrote back then:

I received my copy of this year’s Commonwealth Prize winner Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love in the mail the other day.

Not that I don’t like its cover (or the book), but this is just silly.

And here’s why:

Some of us (in Canada, Great Britain, South Africa and India) also know 2008 Commonwealth Prize winner Lawrence Hill’s novel as The Book of Negroes and sure, this is the Australian edition’s cover, but still…

And finally:

Fiction “about Africa” is not alone in getting this treatment. M. Lynx Qualey over at ArabLit pointed out the obsession with veils 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 culture wars are a distraction

When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.