Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Post of Linkage: Book Covers and Race in Fiction

~raises an eyebrow~ Oh sure, that doesn't sound daunting at all.

But this is a serious issue, and it seems that the reasoning by the production side of things revolves around excuses like "it won't sell" or "people don't want that."

Justine Larbalestier, author of the Magic or Madness trilogy and most recently, Liar, has written a couple of posts lately about the issue of race. One is about the liveaction movie of Avatar, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The newest post is about the cover for "Liar."


In regards to Liar, the U.S. cover consists of a face, clearly female, clearly white, with straight hair covering her mouth. Theoretically, this is the main character, who is actually dark-skinned with short curly hair. Out of context, it's a nice cover, interesting, makes me curious about the story within. Taking in the context of the protagonist's ethnicity and appearance, the cover speaks to an old trend of "white washing." Larbalestier speaks eloquently about the issue, mentioning her own disgruntlement after various reviewers asked about the discontinuity.

Judging from the comments, it seems many "white" readers aren't hindered in their enjoyment of a book if the protagonist is a PoC. But there are some cases (I pause here to emphasize this is based on the comments I read and a general impression I've garnered over various blogs about race in literature--in no way do I believe my statements are gospel or founded in concrete numbers), where a PoC may not pick up a book with a character of color in it because there's a white person on the cover.

One of the points, as agent Kate Shafer Testerman expounds on, is that authors have little to no say about the covers of their books, i.e. whether there's a person on it or not, and if that person matches the description in the book. I, personally, enjoy seeing characters on the cover,but I'd like to assume those are accurate, that the artist is given at least a brief description. Jim Hines is lucky in that respect with the DAW covers for his fairy tale princess books, The Stepsister Scheme and Mermaid's Madness. But I think this is an especially important issue when the characters are PoC. It isn't something that should be frowned upon by publishers or prospective agents. If white readers aren't deterred by ethnic characters on the cover, but readers of color are deterred when the covers only project white characters, it seems all the more important to have characters of color portrayed.
AVATAR: The Last Airbender

Shifting to the Avatar film: I loved the television show. It was on Nickelodeon, and sometimes I had to hunt for it because they changed the days and/or times, but it was worth it. Lovely animation and an interesting story, centering around four kingdoms, each bearing strong Asian influences. The creators had consultants so those influences (especially in the fighting styles, but also, I imagine, on the clothing and archtecture) so it would be true to the various Asian cultures they're based on.

So why, oh why, is the liveaction film dunked in white characters? Where the only non-white actors are those playing villains? Here, Larbalestier quotes someone about why this may be, but the gist of the statement is that, for people who haven't been exposed to Asian culture, even the setting is a fantasy, not just the characters' magical control over the elements.

I find it incredibly unlikely that viewers will have had no experience whatsoever to Asian. Not a single Jackie Chan movie? Not a glimpse of anime on the Scifi channel (suffy channel now--yes, that's how I pronouce Syfy, but that's another rant), or a walk through the manga section of a bookstore?

I wonder if that is an assumption on my part, living in Hawaii, where these things are commonplace, but I'd like to think even the smallest small town in the most isolated area without a single Asian person living there, would have some sort of interaction with the culture. And I hope that the Asian influence on architecture, fighting styles, food and clothing are all still there, so why would the shape of a face or a tint of one's skin somehow throw a viewer out of the story or turn them off from watching the film?

~deep breath~

Ultimately, it seems like the issue is not with the people consuming the product, but with the people in control of how the product is viewed. Those people seem to be getting it wrong, adhering to older assumptions about consumers' reactions to people of color. I was wonderfully excited to hear about an Avatar movie. Now, even if the trailer looks intriguing, I don't know if I'm going to go. I don't want to encourage filmmakers to continue this. And I don't want to encourage booksellers, either.


Victoria Dixon said...

Well said, Sabrina! I didn't KNOW they'd done an Avatar film, but how disappointing to know they got David Carradine instead of Bruce Lee! (Making comparisons, obviously! LOL)

Sabrina said...


I like some of the actors playing these roles, too, but I just can't past the idea that, there are so many actors of various ages and ethnicities, why couldn't they find at least enough actors of Asian descent to play these main roles?