orientalist cliches

How to design the cover of a South Asian novel: include a shy woman in dupatta, the Taj, mangoes

Across the world, publishers package prejudice by pandering to readers' stereotypes.

A few days ago, Sinthujan Varatharajah, who runs a Facebook page called Roots of Diaspora, which collects stories about the flight of Tamils from Sri Lanka, compiled the covers of some South Asian literary novels works translated into European languages. No matter in which part of the subcontinent these tales were set, Varatharajah found that they employed the same motifs: dupatta-wearing women, the Taj, close-ups of hennaed brown feet, brides with nose rings, mangoes.


Image by Sinthujan V


Varatharajah was inspired by an article on the culture studies blog Africa Is a Country, which last week ran a collage of 36 covers of books written by African writers or with Africa as the theme. The books were set in South Africa, Nigeria, the Congo and further afield. Yet, as the article noted, the covers all featured the same imagery: an acacia tree in a crimson sunset.

"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,” the blog noted.


Image by Simon Stevens


Books about the Arab world are victims of the same stereotypes.  In a post on the ArabLit blog  titled Translating for Bigots, M. Lynx Qualey noted a pronounced fascination for veils. She turned to Adam Talib, who teaches Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, for an explanation. It's a question of fulfilling readers' expectations, he suggested. If the reader "finds an Arab woman not wrapped in ten layers of fabric, forced to marry her cross-eyed cousin, and pushed to the back seat of a car", they say, ‘What an unrealistic depiction of Arab women’,” Talib surmised.

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