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The acacia tree treatment
May 14, 2014 9:29 PM   Subscribe

“If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”

The quote comes from this otherwise fluffy piece of commentary.
posted by Herr Zebrurka (67 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
They recently added Acacia trees to Minecraft. Admittedly, they do look nice against a sunset.
posted by monospace at 9:44 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


BAAAAAAAAAAAAA SOWENYAAAAAAAAAA MAMABEATSEBABAH!!!
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:46 PM on May 14 [21 favorites]


Ahem. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba, please. Carry on.
posted by narain at 10:11 PM on May 14 [26 favorites]


Asides from the link - which has examples not just of books about Africa but also books about Muslim women - there's also issues with cover art for YA with lead female characters, especially when one of the protagonists is POC.

Previously: Coverflip - depicting contemporary books as written by the opposite gender.
posted by divabat at 10:25 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Perhaps it's complete and total ignorance or perhaps it's just that of the many things one sees in Africa, acacia trees are the most memorable (particularly backlit) and thus the most iconic.

There's more to London than the Eye, more to New York than a (frequently headless) Statue Of Liberty, more to Europe than castles, and more to Asia than a pair of chopsticks. Yet these are all front cover icons that roughly orient the shopper in 20,000 pixels or less.

That said I do love all those variations on the same theme. It feels like one person procrastinated for a month and then squeezed out thirty covers in a day.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:29 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


and more to Asia than a pair of chopsticks

You mean a whiteouted partial view of a woman's face, half-hidden by a fan.
posted by sukeban at 10:32 PM on May 14 [11 favorites]


London and New York are cities with iconic structures in them but there are still covers of books set in them without the Statue of Liberty or the eye. Africa is an ENTIRE FUCKING CONTINENT. They aren't really comparable.

I wonder if this doesn't apply as much to YA/middle grade books, though, because Nancy Farmer's books have some pretty beautiful covers.
posted by NoraReed at 10:49 PM on May 14 [8 favorites]


Yep, it's ignorant. Acacia trees are not the dominant image one might associate with Biafra (Half of a Yellow Sun), or colonial Kenya (Out of Africa) or apartheid South Africa (Cry the Beloved Country). They're not even botanically correct for Heart of Darkness, which is set predominantly in the Congo river basin. They're just lazy shorthand for "this is one of those books about that continent that has a lot of savanna!"
posted by ChuraChura at 10:59 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]


Maybe the cover designers are closet Maiden fans.
posted by benzenedream at 11:02 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is more like putting the Grand Canyon on the cover of any book set in the Americas.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:05 PM on May 14 [12 favorites]


London and New York are cities with iconic structures in them but there are still covers of books set in them without the Statue of Liberty or the eye. Africa is an ENTIRE FUCKING CONTINENT. They aren't really comparable.

Actually they are very comparable in that one single icon has been chosen to represent far more unique environments than one human could experience in a lifetime. Who cares if it's a thousand environments or a million? The visual shorthand is just as hopeless for both.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:06 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Mary Ann Mohanraj talks about this as it applies to South Asian (female) writers publishing in the West.
posted by divabat at 11:06 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]


If we're going to have one icon for Africa though, it should really be this.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:08 PM on May 14 [13 favorites]


Who cares if it's a thousand environments or a million? The visual shorthand is just as hopeless for both.

Well, since generally the audience for these books knows more about a single fucking city that's culturally important to white people than an entire goddamn continent that isn't, I think there's a fucking difference.

You can do the whole "it's just as bad when you generalize everyone" thing as much as you like but the fact is that when that generalization is rooted in a legacy of colonialism, racism, exploitation and erasure, it is worse than using the Statue of Liberty as a shorthand for New York. Especially because at least the Statue of Liberty is IN NEW YORK CITY.
posted by NoraReed at 11:13 PM on May 14 [26 favorites]


See, I would have my eye caught much more by, say, a book about African middle-class life with a perfectly ordinary suburban scene on the cover. When I see acacia trees and sunsets, I think "white colonialism".
posted by maxwelton at 11:25 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]


The Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island. It is not in New York City. It is not even entirely in the state of New York, if the Wikipedias are to be believed.
posted by Yowser at 11:26 PM on May 14


oh my fucking god you can see it from New York City no one cares about your municipal boundaries

as soon as the Statue of Liberty is one of like 5 shorthand images for the entire continent of North America and they start putting it on the cover of books set in Alaska and Mexico City I will start giving a shit
posted by NoraReed at 11:32 PM on May 14 [45 favorites]


if you want to get all technical and commafucking about it these aren't even in the acacia genus anymore because that mostly applies to the ones in Australia but everyone knows what we mean when we say "acacia" especially when it's so nicely illustrated on a bazillion redundant book covers
posted by NoraReed at 11:37 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Ahem. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba, please. Carry on.

Which translates roughly to "hey, look, a lion!"
posted by Itaxpica at 12:15 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Which translates roughly to "hey, look, a lion!"

It's a little more complicated than that.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:40 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


They're not even botanically correct for Heart of Darkness, which is set predominantly in the Congo river basin.

Actually, a little sleuthing turns up that that image from the Heart of Darkness cover is in fact from the Congo rainforest. And looking at numerous other covers for HoD, they are predominantly of the rainforest/river through rainforest school. So book cover Africa has at least two ecosystems.
posted by Tsuga at 12:54 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


Isn't this true of every single book, basically?

I mean maybe not literary fiction by middle aged white dudes, but aside from that? Every genre and every permutation of issues/characters has its cover design cliches.

My favorite has always been chick lit and shoes.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I don't know, I think it is a bit much to call these books out on their trees as if (1) each tree was the same, or (2) any of the trees were actually representative of a "legacy of colonialism, racism, exploitation and erasure" of Africa.

Some of these books are taking place in the savannahs, where baobabs and/or umbrella thorns grow. In fact, the baobab alone is a huge source of sustenance (and income) for South Africa at least; one of the commenters from the link remarks on the exclusion of the baobab (apparently without irony), yet to me clearly that tree is represented on several of the covers (picture an upside down tree, which is what the baobab sorta resembles, and then look at them again).

Sure, there might be better representations for specific areas of the African continent, but the idea that the trees serve as a handy shorthand, like the Statue of Liberty suggested above, has merit, and it doesn't seem like a particularly egregious shorthand to use, either. Not like they're showing ivory tusks and poachers, or depicting native Africans as savages, etc.

Associating these covers with "colonialism and racism" seems pretty farfetched to me. Feels like you want to have another discussion and are forcing it into this one. There are many, many more objectionable images they could have chosen for the covers that might reasonably inspire that reaction, but honestly these covers are pretty damned tame.
posted by misha at 1:21 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I mean maybe not literary fiction by middle aged white dudes, but aside from that? Every genre and every permutation of issues/characters has its cover design cliches.

Why are you assuming books written by/for/about people in Africa are a genre? They are just books. By your logic, do you expect every book set in Norway to have mostly the same cover?

We're still keeping sweet spaceships for hard SF though, right?
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:21 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


We're still keeping sweet spaceships for hard SF though, right?

SPACESHIP!
posted by misha at 1:27 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Some of these books are taking place in the savannahs, where baobabs and/or umbrella thorns grow.

The problem is when the book behing an acacia cover is a political thriller set in Lagos (pop. 21 million).
posted by sukeban at 1:29 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


(As for SF, it seems that Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon has avoided cliché covers, at least)
posted by sukeban at 1:33 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Why are you assuming books written by/for/about people in Africa are a genre?

You should finish reading the sentence you quoted.

"every permutation of issues/characters"

I guess I could have added setting to that?

But I think my point was clear.

This is a really nitpicky criticism to make of an extremely valid point, which is that there exist book cover design cliches. Including the acacia tree cliche for books set in Africa.

(That said, one of the covers in the collage in the link is actually a still from the movie version of The English Patient, which, what else were they going to use on the cover of The English Patient? I haven't read/seen that, but I'm assuming that if the movie takes place next to a tree that it's probably vaguely appropriate to the setting?)
posted by Sara C. at 1:38 AM on May 15


You should finish reading the sentence you quoted.

"every permutation of issues/characters"

I guess I could have added setting to that?


Which brings us to the point of this FPP: that cover designers are treating an entire continent as a "setting" in a pretty stereotypical sense. Call it a genre, settting, permutation of issues or whatever - the point remains that a lot of the books coming out of or related to anywhere on the whole continent are marketed as "Africa books", which you clearly wouldn't do with "Europe books" or "US books".
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:41 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


There's more to New York than a (frequently headless) Statue Of Liberty. . .

one single icon has been chosen to represent far more unique environments than one human could experience . . .


So don't make the Statue of Liberty into synecdoche New York?
 
posted by Herodios at 3:50 AM on May 15


The Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island. It is not in New York City. It is not even entirely in the state of New York, if the Wikipedias are to be believed.

It's still a lot closer than the average acacia tree is to the average African city.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:53 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I fully expect to be utterly disappointed by book cover art and concern myself with the contents. By now I assume the two are decoupled, having distinct missions. Otherwise I would miss out on content I might enjoy!

I would think that the covers are produced on deadline by departments who have measured how many seconds one gets to draw a reader to a one book in a crowd. The fact that people read these things may point to a triumph of content over cover.

I am all for going back to a nicely colored plain field with the title and author. The first thing I do with a hard cover is discard the jacket. If booksellers sold a decal the size of a trade paperback I'd stock up.

I feel quite lucky to jump from a Millions review to my kindle app and never really deal with the dissonance between cover and the real goods.
posted by drowsy at 5:20 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I have never read a work of fiction set in New York that had the Statue of Liberty on the cover, except perhaps a few immigration narratives, where it would make sense.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:24 AM on May 15


That said, one of the covers in the collage in the link is actually a still from the movie version of The English Patient, which, what else were they going to use on the cover of The English Patient?

The one with Ralph Fiennes on the front is The Constant Gardener and it is a composite rather than an actual still. You can see it in more detail on Wikipedia and it gets double points for representing British people in Africa with an acacia tree and Big Ben.
posted by ninebelow at 5:46 AM on May 15


which you clearly wouldn't do with "Europe books" or "US books".

Given that we regularly let audiences who actually live in the US and ought to be much more familiar with its geography know that they're somewhere east of Austin and south of Cincinnati with four to seven notes on a steel guitar, it's not like we cut things that much finer at home.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:12 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


hey guys look it's an extremely stupid cliche that forms a small part of a larger pattern of western ignorance of and indifference to the particularities of an entire continent

oh but I guess other cliches exist

that is a point
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:35 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


The point is, uh, Statue of Liberty and steel guitar notes, there couldn't possibly be anything problematic in the way the publishing field approaches race and geography. Go about your business citizen, nothing to see here.
posted by happyroach at 7:19 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that this is considered the "safe" option. I read Americanah, loved it (everyone go read it), and wanted more, but I was actually momentarily put off by the cliched Half of A Yellow Sun cover. One awesome thing about Americanah was how real it made Lagos for me (though most of it is not set in Lagos, it is set very convincingly in other places I know much more about), and the tree/sun cover of Half of a Yellow Sun just made me think of some construct of generic Africa, the very opposite of the vivid specificity I was enjoying in Adichie's writing. Of course this was wrong, you can't judge a book etc, but it's not clear to me why signalling banality would be a good marketing strategy for literary fiction.
posted by yarrow at 7:33 AM on May 15


That's right Rustic, and besides, everyone from the south is a racist hick.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:55 AM on May 15


"Other cliches exist" is a nothing of an observation and doesn't reduce the interest of the OP as an instance of the larger, incredibly old pattern of ass-ignorant, lazy, often racist Western portrayals of Africa. That was my point.

Those other cliches are also bad, but the attitude that people should let a dumb convention slide because the world is awash in dumb conventions baffles me.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:14 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


oh but I guess other cliches exist

not ALL cliches

but it's not clear to me why signalling banality would be a good marketing strategy for literary fiction

Safe middlebrow comfort reading makes up a lot of this kind of "literary fiction" (...not ALL literary fiction) and the predictability and banality are a key part of its marketing. The idea is that buyers will respond to the promise of cozy cultural tourism that the acacia-tree packaging represents; it's all about selling a friendly, unchallenging experience of the cultural other to stoke the buyer's self-image as a curious, liberally-minded reader. I mean, you have to remember that "literary fiction" as a marketing category basically means comfort reading for the college-educated — a commercialized version of the challenging art of some time ago, packaged as more "difficult" and less banal than it is in order to flatter the buyer.
posted by RogerB at 8:47 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


The thing is, all those little cliches aren't all that dumb in that, in the shortest amount of time, they clue us in to the fact that this next bit is set in LA or New York in the 1920's, or Feudal Japan or whatever. If you had to communicate to the average person that "this is a story set in Africa" and could only use a 4"x4" bit of paper back cover, I'll bet you the cost of lunch that the more successful you are in that mission, the more likely someone is going to point to your image and say "white imperialism".

If you're trying to be sensitive to these kind of things you can either opt for a more generic cover that would work just as well for most any book, or, because it's safe to use the Theme Building or the Golden Gate to say "some of the action in this story takes place in California" file the serial numbers off of anything set in Africa and move the location to Whiteguynesia or Caucasianistan.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:52 AM on May 15


OP here. They've removed the nicest part of the article, which was the picture that compiles 36 examples.

What's interesting is that not only books that offer a "friendly, unchallenging experience of the cultural other" get the tree cover. There are at least four Nobel laureates in there.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 9:04 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


The thing is, all those little cliches aren't all that dumb in that, in the shortest amount of time, they clue us in to the fact that this next bit is set in LA or New York in the 1920's, or Feudal Japan or whatever.

This particular trope is super super dumb because the same cliche is used to represent the equivalent of L.A. and New York and the Upper Midwest and Belize and the Yukon, at any time over the last two hundred years or so. It's like using the Statue of Liberty to represent every one of those places.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:10 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Except that the Statue of Liberty is a singular object white the genus acacia is pretty widely distributed.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:21 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


If you had to communicate to the average person that "this is a story set in Africa"

Why is that the mission? Why should Heart of Darkness have a cover that A) doesn't accurately represent its own luridly described setting, a jungle, and B) is almost identical to that of Cry, The Beloved Country, a completely different novel set in a completely different place? C'mon.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:33 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Africa is not a monolith. At least give it the decency of differentiating it by country, if not by city like you all were doing with USA.
posted by divabat at 10:04 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Except that the Statue of Liberty is a singular object white the genus acacia is pretty widely distributed.

Then why isn't it also used as the shorthand cover for Australia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and two-thirds of South and Central America? And why is a tree the go-to symbol for urban stories? And what one tree would you use to encompass Vancouver, Miami and Mexico City?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:35 AM on May 15


Because, sadly, even more singular and/or racist tropes get used for the Middle East and India. Australia gets Uluru.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:03 AM on May 15


Why is that the mission? Why should Heart of Darkness have a cover that A) doesn't accurately represent its own luridly described setting, a jungle...

"Actually, a little sleuthing turns up that that image from the Heart of Darkness cover is in fact from the Congo rainforest. And looking at numerous other covers for HoD, they are predominantly of the rainforest/river through rainforest school."

So what you're telling me is that you have a problem with them using a picture of the Congo to describe a story set in the Congo because trees from the actual Congo aren't Congolese enough. Doesn't that strike you as a bit strum and drangy?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:18 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Because, sadly, even more singular and/or racist tropes get used for the Middle East and India. Australia gets Uluru.

Oh, well, as long as we're equally uninformed and reductive.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:21 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Kid Charlemagne: that still doesn't explain Rustic's point B, or HerrZebrurka's gallery of ALL THE AFRICAN STORIES having ALL THE SAME PICTURE.
posted by divabat at 11:21 AM on May 15


ALL THE AFRICAN STORIES having ALL THE SAME PICTURE.

One thing that makes this a kind of complicated thing is that, actually, not all "African" stories have the same picture.

My copies of Out Of Africa*, Heart Of Darkness, and The Poisonwood Bible don't have acacia trees on them.

It's not part of the collage, but my copy of Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight doesn't have acacia trees on the cover, either. Neither does my copy of Waiting For The Barbarians. Neither does my copy of Long Walk To Freedom. Neither does my copy of Cry The Beloved Country. Neither does my copy of Things Fall Apart. Neither does my copy of Little Bee (that one doesn't get a Big Ben, either).

The author goes on to talk about a few other weird book cover cliches about Africa-based novels that aren't the acacia tree thing.

The acacia tree is a problem, and yes, it signals a reductive and probably racist/colonialist way of thinking about an entire continent full of diverse landscapes, characters, and stories. But when you reduce the conversation to "all African stories use this", you dilute the power of what you're talking about. Because it's worth thinking about why certain African stories use it, and others don't. (To my mind, it has to do with how cheap/mass-market/airport-ish the particular edition is, and whether there are other familiar signifiers like a famous author or a movie based on it.)

Also, yes, it is relevant that basically all book cover designs except for a teensy minority dealing with white Western male non-genre issues are brimming with terrible cliches. It really is a shorthand to get the right demographic to pick up your book (and non-threateningness/easy grokkability really is the main goal), and unfortunately most of the time it's about moving hunks of paper for profit and not about real artistic expression.

*Well, Out Of Africa does tangentially as part of a still from the movie, which, like, again, what else were they going to do?
posted by Sara C. at 11:42 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Okay, I'm out. You're right, Kid Charlemagne. I concede the larger point. It's actually not unfortunate that book covers in general are riddled with dumb cliche, and we should actively encourage it: Cliche is, in the last analysis, extremely good. We should definitely also make sure to include at least one Confederate navy jack in every portrayal of the American South, and every movie about Brazil should have at least one shot of the Cristo Redentor.

Please gloat over this huge victory at your leisure.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:57 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Are they published elsewhere? Some of the links above talk about how different countries approach bok covers differently.

And no, I won't agree that it helps make sales. As some of the comments in the links show (e.g. POC YA protagonist, Coverflip), the generic-ness of the covers plus the fact that they don't actually highlight the actual content of the book ends up alienating would-be readers because there's nothing to show them "hey this book seems like something you'd be into". It's "oh, yet another safari/sexy Indian/White teen savior story, nbd". Completely misrepresenting the author's work.

And just because it happens to almost everyone doesn't make it OK or permissable, especially not when the authors themselves have been trying to fight this for ages. If "oh it happens to all of us" was enough of an excuse we wouldn't get much social progress at all.
posted by divabat at 11:57 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Are they published elsewhere?

Probably, but all the books I mentioned are the US edition. As far as I could tell from looking at the collage, a lot of the acacia tree covers were non-English editions, anyway.

What jumped out at me, looking at the collage and looking at actual books I own that take place on the continent of Africa/deal with "African" issues in some way, is the following:

- Early editions, either hardcover or trade paperback, of literary fiction, are less likely to have an acacia tree and more likely to feature inventive non-cliche cover design.

- The more critically acclaimed/"important" a novel is, the less likely it is to have an acacia tree on an early/trade-paper edition of the book.

- Genre fiction taking place in Africa will almost always have acacia trees right off the bat (see for instance the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series).

- Memoirs are more likely to have an image of the author than an acacia tree.

- Anything that was adapted into a movie is likely to have the poster or a still from the movie as the cover. If that image included an acacia tree, so will the book cover. Cry The Beloved Country lacks an acacia tree because the cover features James Earl Jones and Richard Harris prominently rather than any particular focus on the landscape.

- Once something has been in print for a long-ass time, all bets are off. Doris Lessing tends to get acacia trees, while Chinua Achebe does not, and Heart Of Darkness is a toss-up.

- I actually do think that setting within Africa has more to do with it than people are willing to admit. A book set in Tanzania is more likely to get an acacia tree than a book set in Nigeria. Though obviously there are many counter-examples one can point t. (Again, I'd guess that this is probably later more mass-market editions, which tend to generally show less care with the finer details like "wait a second isn't this book set in Lagos?")

- Needless to say, I bet book set in Egypt or Morocco don't ever have acacia trees on the cover.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Look, Africa has gotten, and continues to get a raw deal, but I'm pretty sure that's not been a result of the picture on the cover of books set somewhere in Africa (or even that bloody papyrus font, which oddly enough, none of these seem to use). If these book covers all featured things like spears and Zulu shields I'd be right there in the "Oh for fuck's sake!" camp. But a relatively innocuous tree that's actually found on the continent and probably chosen by a photo editor who probably also thinks that a maple tree is great icon to represent British Columbia because Canada, right? I find it hard to get really worked up about that.

My original point was that we are all ass deep in cliches pretty much all the time and, and, for the most part, we don't so much as bat an eye. If the overdubbing of the dog squeaky-toy noise that is the cry of the bald eagle always get a bye, but a tree that is at least actually found in Africa (or anything else that is too African / not African enough/ too generically African) sends everyone off for a round of garment rending and assumptions of malice, I think it's equally likely that we'll see less literature from or involving Africa than we will more geographically appropriate book covers.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:01 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


So African writers who are talking about the inappropriateness of covers depicting the works of themselves and their compatriots is "garment-rending" and should just shut up about it because they're not also "garment-rending" about bald eagle cries?<
posted by divabat at 1:11 PM on May 15


a photo editor who probably also thinks that a maple tree is great icon to represent British Columbia because Canada, right?

I think this gives the lie to the whole thing, though.

Because here's the thing about Canadian books:

1. They're very rarely marketed on the front cover with visual shorthand for Canada. Books taking place in British Columbia don't tend to have maple trees on the cover, as a rule.

2. A book that takes place in Canada doesn't have to be a Canada Book in the way that a book that takes place in Africa has to be an Africa Book. Which is especially sad when you remember that Africa is a continent, not a country.

3. You might not even know which books are Canadian. The only thing that comes to mind for me when I hear "Canadian novel" is Anne Of Green Gables. A book taking place in Canada or being written by a Canadian author is not a factor at all in selling the book. I have a feeling that there are tons of authors I like who are Canadian and write books set in Toronto or something and I wouldn't even think of that as remarkable in any way.

I think it's interesting that nobody can come up with a good Western/white/dominant-culture counterpart to the acacia tree for "Africa Books". Because, no, actually, books set in New York don't typically have the Statue Of Liberty on the cover. Books set in London sometimes have Big Ben or a phone box or the changing of the guard on the cover, but only the dumbest genre pulp in the shittiest mass-market editions. And you don't see books that take place in Liverpool or the Yorkshire Dales with Big Ben on the cover, as a rule.
posted by Sara C. at 1:15 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I was referring more to the more local phenomenon of calling the Acacia tree a symbol of the "legacy of colonialism, racism, exploitation and erasure" (when, it's mostly an overused image of type of tree found in sub-Saharan Africa), claiming that "all the African stories" had this same cover (when we all know that all the Africa stories have their title and author name in Papyrus and that THAT is the worst thing ever) and, of course, strawmaning the argument of whatever anyone who doesn't immediately agree that this is so much worse that the CIA saying, "AIDS in Africa? Fucks given: 0" back in the 80's. But you know, whatever.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:48 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


whatever anyone who doesn't immediately agree that this is so much worse that the CIA saying, "AIDS in Africa? Fucks given: 0" back in the 80's.

Who said that?
posted by divabat at 2:14 PM on May 15


But a relatively innocuous tree that's actually found on the continent and probably chosen by a photo editor who probably also thinks that a maple tree is great icon to represent British Columbia because Canada, right? I find it hard to get really worked up about that.

You're aware there's more than one country in Africa, right? The equivalent isn't maple leaf:all of Canada; it's maple leaf:all of North America, including Guatemala and the Northwest Territories. It's like putting a maple leaf on the cover of Like Water For Chocolate and Call of the Wild.

strawmaning the argument of whatever anyone who doesn't immediately agree that this is so much worse that the CIA saying, "AIDS in Africa? Fucks given: 0" back in the 80's. But you know, whatever.

Come the fuck on.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:43 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


NoraReed: "if you want to get all technical and commafucking about it these aren't even in the acacia genus anymore because that mostly applies to the ones in Australia but everyone knows what we mean when we say "acacia""

Uh...so I saw the post and I thought, "What's an acacia?", and then I looked at the linked site and thought, "Oh, those trees. I see" and now you're telling me they're not acacia, which is great and all, but then...

What is the actual name of these trees we're discussing?

misha: "picture an upside down tree, which is what the baobab sorta resembles, and then look at them again"

Ok, and now I'm thinking maybe I'm misunderstanding baobabs, but google image search is either telling me I'm right, or everyone else is wrong in the same way I am. Mangroves are the ones that look like upside-down trees, right? Baobabs look like giant carrots stuck halfway into the ground, right?
posted by Bugbread at 10:20 PM on May 15


The problem is when the book behing an acacia cover is a political thriller set in Lagos (pop. 21 million

That's a fair point. What cover would you think might be more representative?

I've seen more than my share of political thrillers with shorthand covers, too. Usually, there's a gun/badge superimposed over a flag/iconic symbol/monument/map representative of the setting. For a political thriller set during the cold war, for example, you might have a gun with the hammer and sickle symbol and a flag behind them.

So maybe substitute a book cover with a smoking gun superimposed over a map of Nigeria (grey, with Lagos highlghted in red). Not really sure that the new cover is better than the acacia tree image, but, yeah, it does fit the genre.
posted by misha at 11:24 AM on May 16


I think most of us agree the covers are lazy and can empathize with the frustration over that. We recognize that they are jut cheap shorthand publishers use to interest the general audience, rather than representative of the content inside the book, which is worth more than a stock image, the equivalent of B video footage in lazy news human interest features highlighting "trends". I don't think anyone has said that kind of generic shorthand is their preference, or that no one should be bothered by it when it happens.

This is where, I think, this thread goes off the rails, at least for me:

You can do the whole "it's just as bad when you generalize everyone" thing as much as you like but the fact is that when that generalization is rooted in a legacy of colonialism, racism, exploitation and erasure, it is worse than using the Statue of Liberty as a shorthand for New York. Especially because at least the Statue of Liberty is IN NEW YORK CITY.

What I think is a little absurd here is declaring this lazy shorthand is worse because racism. Various species of acacia trees are not equivalent to a wild-eyed witch doctor with a bone in his nose (which is an actual image some conservatives used to depict the President of the United States).

Yes, a racist stereotype would be worthy of that level of outrage, but to my knowledge colonialism and acacia trees are unrelated. Why assume these covers are representative of anything more than an economical marketing strategy?
posted by misha at 12:04 PM on May 16


Colonialism doesn't just mean that initial point where one country invades and occupies another. It also refers to the repercussions of that event - including the highly limited and stereotypical conceptions made about the country/continent/culture - the whole "Africa is a Country" problem. And this is reflected in things like marketing and literature and art - how Africa ends up being reduced to just acacia trees and safaris.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the "single story" and how dangerous it can be.

Out of Africa: Western Media Stereotypes Shape Images

Charity, Philanthropy and Media Stereotypes: Africa’s new colonialists?
posted by divabat at 4:54 PM on May 16


man, there is literally no bottom-of-the-barrel dumbness that you could link to in an OP that wouldn't make people trip the fuck over themselves to defend it and prevent an actual interesting discussion.
posted by threeants at 1:17 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]


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