How to design book covers about Africa without falling into clichés

Surprise—no acacia tree
Surprise—no acacia tree
Image: Illustration by Rod Hunt for Granta
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Yesterday, I wrote about the troubling visual clichés that seem to recur on the cover of every book about Africa: an acacia tree, a sunset, an arid plain. A graphic that ran with the story (via the blog Africa Is a Country), showed a remarkable visual sameness across 36 diverse authors and settings. When it comes to Africa, no matter the subject matter, publishers are inclined to slap together a folksy vision of the savannah.

Since the story was posted, a few designers have written in to say, “Not ALL book covers.” And it’s true—there are some notable exceptions. I highlighted one in the original post: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel Americanah, designed by Abby Weintraub. I’ve always admired the cover of the 1982 Penguin edition of J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which recasts the Bible story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as a commentary on the limits of penance in apartheid South Africa. On Twitter, Rod Hunt rightly called our attention to his wonderful illustration for the cover of Looking for Transwonderland, a Nigerian travelogue published by Granta.

. @mbd_s @qz cover I did for Looking for Transwonderland (Nigeria) for @GrantaBooks doesn’t http://t.co/g1xuKRW1LL pic.twitter.com/lQKburYAHM

— Rod Hunt (@rodhuntdraws) May 13, 2014

Meanwhile, Steve Connolly, the managing director of Penguin Random House, South Africa, objected to the whole premise of the story.

For those who think that most book covers of African novels are the same, leave your screen, go to the bookshops. They are not. — Steve Connolly (@SAbookman) May 13, 2014

Connolly suggested that we look at the recent fiction list of Umuzi, a South African imprint of Random House Struik. So here are the covers of The Thunder that Roars, the journalist Imran Garda’s debut novel; and Jason Staggie’s Risk, a Tarantino-inflected story of friends who go on a series of drug-fueled heists intended to bring about pan-African unity. Fair enough—not an acacia tree in sight.

Image for article titled How to design book covers about Africa without falling into clichés
Image: Umuzi Press

But let’s be clear: Whether or not a few covers manage to break the mold, the Western system of representing Africa is terribly broken, and not just in the realm of book design. Until we start fixing that, these covers that get it right are still just exceptions that prove the rule.

In Case You Missed It: The reason every book about Africa has the same cover—and it’s not pretty