publishing trends

Why do so many books by South Asian women writers have the same kind of covers?

The covers mostly seem to feature saris and fair women – fair in both senses of the word.

Most readers automatically assume that book covers represent the content of books. That the covers will give us a clue to what lies within. However, investigating the covers of books by South Asian women, it was clear from the outset that this commonplace and commonsense assumption simply does not hold true.

As any casual browser would have noticed, South Asian women’s book covers typically and generically depict saris, pan-Indian women’s faces, jewelry, henna-ed hands and feet, bodies and segments of bodies. This kind of representation – so noticeably oft-recurring that it almost becomes a bad joke – really brought to our attention how pervasive it is, practically throughout the publishing industry, particularly the Western publishing industry.

Moreover, apparently it is not just South Asian writing in English that is prey to this kind of visual mis-representation, but works in other genres too; Middle Eastern literature, for example, typically depicting veils and hijabs and women’s eyes peering out behind coverings. And this is sometimes regardless of whether the book’s emphasis is even on women.

So our question was, what do these book covers represent? What images are they meant to convey? What messages do they carry?

The discoveries

We began with a study of the role of book covers through the ages, which has changed drastically. In the process, we uncovered fascinating aspects of book publishing and book promotion practices within the industry.

We found out how authors become the brands for their books, and how these brands are manipulated and managed. We also learnt the decreasing role of the artist/designer, and the increasing role of marketing teams of publishing conglomerates. It may surprise readers to find out just how little – if any – input authors typically have, on their covers. Then again, avid and informed readers do not necessarily pay a lot of attention to the covers – such devices as book covers tend to be more uncritically consumed by the less initiated.

We compiled a database of over 400 contemporary book covers of our chosen genre for closer analysis and detailed study. We found that there were a few typical “themes” which kept recurring on those covers. For example, not just women’s sari-wrapt bodies, but often, truncated bodies, segments of bodies, eroticised and even sexualised bodies; and equally, not just women’s faces, but truncated faces, lowered eyes, women not only represented ‘in part’, literally, but also very often, alone.

In our analysis, we extrapolated from the implications and symbolisms of these insistently recurrent themes, and the power differentials underlying these. To our surprise, we often noticed book covers being “recycled” – sometimes identical covers, or segments of one cover, would be used on another book altogether. Almost as if to suggest these very books are interchangeable. Or of a series/type. (Which they usually are not.)

We also compared those covers published for a Western marketplace and for an Indian marketplace, and flagged up the differences. The divergences are considerable, as one might expect. (Those for the Indian market were far less traditional, conservative, and exoticised; they tended to be more contemporary, playful, modernised.) We surmised target audiences, and social messages being conveyed by covering books with such images, and discussed what identity constructions were being offered and encouraged, and where.

In the course of our close, detailed study, we took on broad concepts of the Gaze, the Male Gaze, the Voyeuristic Gaze, and the power of the Gaze. We incorporated the notion of the “world-as-exhibit’. We discussed the role of photography, used for imperialistic purposes in the time of the British Raj, and continuing to enable the impositions of groups in power on the less powerful. We broadened our discussion to issues of visual representation, and joined in the fascinating debate around how representation could actually create the very realities they are supposedly depicting.

Our conclusions?

Well, we had many, but here are a few: we concluded that that in our case study of South Asian women’s writing, book covers were intended to represent a genre in such a manner that it makes for quick and easy visual consumption. These covers clearly signal particular types of books, or genres, rather than reflecting the content of each individual book. The covers also play to the gallery and tap into stereotypes of Indians and Indian cultures. They present a flattened, generic, pan-Indian womanhood, which supposedly stands for Indianness. This kind of representation can be insidious and undermining.

These covers brand cultures, countries and regions simplistically, homogenising rather than recognising geographical, cultural, and historical diversities. They offer an exoticised but “safe” set of cultural differences for cultural consumption. The occasional erotic covers could be for titillation purposes, as well as a referral to the time-immemorial, feminised East. In summary, we found that the type of consumption encouraged is fairly consistently masculine, patriarchal, capitalistic, and recalcitrantly Orientalist.

It would seem however, these covers do their job in branding and selling books effectively, even if it means categorising them unfairly, labelling them inaccurately. They have created a recognisable public identity or face for this genre, whether or not that face really fits the books they front. They certainly make us rethink the purposes and uses of visual representation.

Lisa Lau is a lecturer at Keele University, specialising in postcolonial theory and literature, South Asian writing in English, and gender studies. She has co-authored Re-Orientalism and Indian Writing in English (Palgrave, 2014) and Indian Writing in English and Issues of Visual Representation: Judging More Than a Book By its Cover (Palgrave 2015).

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.