Some of us have been following the debate over the cover image on the US edition of Justine Larbalestier's forthcoming novel, Liar. And groaning, because sometimes the decisions made about covers seem just, well, baffling. Or maybe not. Either of which option is a little depressing.
The Ya Ya Yas take this topic on by examining an enormous array of Asian Americans on YA fiction covers. Funny that all the figures need to be so far away or shadowed that you can't see their faces, or close up so all you can see is eyelashes or belly-buttons. And that's not even getting to whether the figure in fact looks like someone from the community the book's set in, or is after a kind of generic "Asian-American" look, whatever that is.
I did a quick check of the covers of books on my shelf with South Asian protagonists and here's what I found. They don't de-brown the characters, not quite, but they often lighten them up, face them backwards, hide their faces, or do that heads-cut-off thing that seemed to be a trend in YA girl novels in general. Or the images are so close-up that the girl is all eyelashes, or all bellybutton. Where there's a sari, it's usually red or orangey-red or goldish, like a wedding sari, you know. It's always Banarasi, regardless of the region of the subcontinent used in the book. It also always has a gold border, because heavens, don't we all walk our teens about dressed in gold-bordered saris all the time? There are of course no regional differences evident in these covers at all, so that a book set in a southern family is likely to manifest clothes and jewelry straight from the windows of Delhi boutiques.
None of which would matter, of course, except that as Justine points out in her blog, most readers have no idea that the author didn't personally endorse the cover decision.
In the realm of the adult literary market, Mary Anne Mohanraj takes the conversation in another direction, when she analyzes covers of books writen by South Asian women and men. Sawnet features multiple covers by a number of books by South Asian women, a few of them adult-YA crossovers. I'm especially intrigued by Mary Anne's observation that the books by women in her sample featured bodies that were still or at rest, not active or in motion. Come to think of it, that's true for every single YA book I've seen with a South Asian female protagonist. And now I'm thinking, is Shyam Selvadurai's Swimming in the Monsoon Sea the only YA book with a South Asian male protagonist? And yes, the kid's active on that cover, throwing himself into the water in a great energetic arc. And the color is blue-green, no reds in sight. Mary Anne, you may be onto something!