Red Sari: An Analysis of S. Asian and Diaspora Book Covers

Originally posted on Mary Anne’s old website, in March of 2009.

This project grew out of my own experiences having a book published by a major American publishing house.  My original cover was an ‘artsy, literary’ cover, but under market pressure, the cover was changed to an image of a brown-skinned woman with wet skin, wrapped in a red sari.  I had heard that this was common for the covers of S. Asian books, so I eventually decided to do some research and see if that was actually the case.

My initial results were originally presented at the 2008 SALA Conference in San Francisco, and I want to thank the conference attendees for their responses and for their encouragement that I publish this material online.  I hope you’ll find it interesting and helpful.
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Red Sari: The Argument

I found in the covers I surveyed, the book covers designed by major American publishing houses for books authored by S. Asian women tended overwhelmingly to incorporate the following design elements:

  • women’s bodies
  • truncated, often faceless/headless
  • bodies that were still, not in motion/active
  • sexualized poses
  • red saris
  • red in general
  • food
  • plants (generally small and/or related to cooking)
By contracts, books authored by S. Asian men featured:
  • ancient paintings
  • people in motion
  • buildings or cities
  • large landscape features, such as bridges, mountains
  • abstract images
  • just the author/title
  • blue
Interestingly, some women started out with the typical women’s covers described above, but over the course of their career, as they won awards and gained critical acclaim, their later covers developed to look more like men’s covers.  This would seem to indicate that the type of cover that S. Asian male authors receive by default are designed to signal ‘this is a serious, literary work.’  Whereas women authors’ covers are designed to signal something else entirely (that the books are sexy, accessible, popular, easy reading…), and if they want their work to be read and taken seriously, they have to earn that right before they’re allowed covers that reflect that assumption.
The inherent danger in this for S. Asian women authors, of course, is that if they are writing serious literary works, but their books are being marketed as simply sexy popular fiction, then the books and authors stand in danger of a) missing their real audience, and b) being dismissed.
As an anecdotal piece of evidence for this claim, when I presented this paper at SALA, one of the audience members admitted afterwards that she had seen my book when it came out, and hadn’t read it, because she had assumed based on the cover that she knew what would be inside, and had assumed that she wouldn’t find the book interesting.  This is the sort of thing that makes a writer want to scream.

Bodies in Motion: Original Galley

I’ll start with a close look at the evolution of my own book’s covers, and then present various covers by major S. Asian writers, female and male.

After several years writing and publishing in small presses, I finally sold a book to HarperCollins, a major American publisher.  I was, of course, thrilled.  They were a pleasure to work with on the book, and I loved my original galley cover.  Galleys are sent out to reviewers, and this cover offers:
 – the pages of a book
 – a suggestion of motion (as in the title)
 – a green tint perhaps reminiscent of palm leaves
 – a ‘literary’ tone
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Bodies in Motion: Revised Cover Image

When they sent Bodies in Motion out to book buyers, my publisher received marketing feedback that ‘this book is about food and sex, so why didn’t you put either on the cover?’  (Please note that this is a loose paraphrase of words that I heard third-hand.)   It’s true that three or four of the twenty stories included have food as a central motif; similarly, two to three stories include explicit sexual scenes, and several do have characters who must make decisions about whom they date/have sex with/marry.  Personally, I wouldn’t have characterized the book as being ‘about food and sex.’  Thankfully, neither did most of the reviewers.

Nonetheless, my publisher chose to revise the cover to center on the image below. Note:

  • her head is chopped off
  • she’s not actually wearing a blouse, as you would if you were really wearing a sari; the fabric is simply wrapped around her, and some of her bare hip is visible as well
  • her skin is wet, and the fabric is taut, wet, and translucent
  • there’s an odd focus on one nipple — perhaps the lens flare was an attempt to camouflage obvious nipples?
  • her hand points at her crotch
  • and of course, she’s wearing a red sari
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Bodies in Motion: Alternative Revision

I expressed some of my frustrations with the revised cover to my publisher, and while they didn’t agree with my assessment that it read as overly sexualized, they did generously attempt to offer me alternatives.  I want to take a moment to emphasize here that my editor and art department didn’t need to go to this extra effort — my contract only gave me the right to see the covers; I didn’t have any actual right to require revisions, or to sign off on a final version.  They extended me that courtesy, and I appreciate the work and time they put into the attempt to satisfy my requests.  Unfortunately, the alternatives they presented didn’t help all that much.

In this one, we still see:
  • only half her body and face
  • a red sari
  • and a seductive pose / expression
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While in some ways you might consider this image an improvement, since at least we do get to see her face, I also found it less striking from a design standpoint.  We were also fairly short on time at this point in the process — the book would be coming out soon, the cover needed to be finalized, there weren’t that many options of images of S. Asian women out of then-available stock photography, the budget didn’t allow for an entirely new photo shoot, and I was about to leave the country for a month’s travel in Sri Lanka.  So we compromised.

Bodies in Motion: Final Cover (HC)

I asked them if they could at least Photoshop the revised image so that her sari was opaque, rather than translucent, and so the fabric over her breasts would appear less taut, and if they could please remove the focus on her nipples.  They agreed, and this was the final cover for the hardcover edition, which came out in 2005.

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Bodies in Motion: Original Trade Paperback

The trade paperback edition was published in 2006.  Note:

  • cropped in more tightly, so that her body occupies more of the page
  • still no head
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Bodies in Motion: Foreign Editions

Bodies in Motion was translated into six languages:  German, French, Brazilian, Spanish, Italian, and interestingly, Serbian.  These are the covers from those publishers. As an interesting side note, notice that several of the books have new titles — apparently it’s common practice for publishers to change the title, and in most of these cases, I didn’t even know what the new title would be until the book had already come out.

German edition:
  • no woman’s body
  • is the flower or butterfly supposed to signify tropical?  Neither image is particularly relevant to the contents of the book.
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French edition:
  • woman
  • red sari
  • but relatively non-sexualized
  • almost as much weight given to buildling
  • overwhelming blue
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Brazilian edition:
  • woman’s face
  • veiled?  or is that supposed to be mosquito netting?  None of the characters in the book are veiled.
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Spanish edition:
  • cut off women’s faces
  • red sari (or sari-like dresses)
  • but non-sexualized; focus on mother/daughter relationship — the types of relationships that are, in fact, central to the book’s content
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Italian edition:
  • naked woman
  • sari fabric
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Serbian edition
  • leaves are back!
  • palms exotic in Serbia?
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Progression of South Asian Women’s Covers

So to reiterate, I plan to argue that in general, when South Asian women publish debut fiction with major American publishers, unless they have prior literary credentials, they almost invariably receive the ‘red sari’ cover, as if that it is the only possible way to market their work.  By gaining literary credibility (through awards, generally), women authors may progress eventually to the type of covers that male authors receive, that signal ‘literary text.’

My own case with Bodies in Motion is complicated by the fact that I primarily wrote and published erotica for a decade before I turned to more mainstream literary fiction, and by the fact that while Bodies in Motion is a mainstream literary work, it does have a strong focus on sexuality in many of the stories included.  So let’s look at some work by other South Asian female authors, who don’t necessarily focus on sexuality, love, or marriage in their work — or no more than male authors do.
PLEASE NOTE:  I have tried my best to track down the original cover for each title discussed, but I may have gotten some wrong; the web can be misleading in this regard, especially for older titles.  Please do let me know if you find an error, so that I can correct it.

Anita Desai

Anita Desai is one of my favorite S. Asian diaspora authors; for a lovely introduction to her work, I recommend the short story “Winterscape,” found in the anthology StoryWallah.

Cry the Peacock was her debut novel, published in 1963.  She was one of the first S. Asian women authors being published, and I would guess that some of the publishing industry’s assumptions about such women’s work had not yet had time to form at that point.  That might explain the innocuousness of her cover.
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Her next title was Fire on the Mountain, published in 1977 in hardcover.  Note that it features a woman’s face that is still, not in motion.  She wears a red sari, and this face also appears quite young.  Given that the protagonist of the novel is an old woman, whose great-granddaughter comes to visit, presumably the publisher decided that a young girl made for a better cover image than an old woman.
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This novel won the National Academy of Letters Award and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.  Interestingly, the 1990 paperback edition offers a landscape of hills.
In 1978, Desai published Games at Twilight.  This cover features a child (female?) behind a veil.
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In 1980, Desai published Clear Light of Day.  Again, the red sari, and the woman hides her mouth.
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Clear Light of Day was short-listed for the Booker Prize, a major award.
In 1982, she published a children’s novel, The Village by the Sea, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to track down an image of the original cover (Heinemann, hardcover) for this title yet.
In 1984, Desai published In Custody, her second novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was also eventually (1993) made into an award-winning movie by Merchant Ivory.  This cover is unusual, in that it’s illustrated, and the focus is on a building.
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In 1988, she published Baumgartner’s Bombay, which featured a male protagonist.  Note that the shop is given almost as much prominence as he is.
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In 1999, Fasting, Feasting came out, with a sensuous focus on food, and a very modern, artistic design.  This title was her third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
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In 2000, Desai published Diamond Dust and Other Stories, and the now orange sari returns, with the woman entirely hidden except for her hand.
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Finally, in 2004, she published The Zigzag Way, set in 20th century Mexico.  The motionless figure is hidden behind hat, clothes, and shadows.
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In 2006, Anita Desai’s daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker Prize.  We’ll come back to her in a bit.

Abha Dawesar

Babyji

  • Queer text
  • Implied nakedness, eye drawn to crotch
  • Feet, jewelry
  • Sari fabric
  • Youth — looks like a child’s limbs; protagonist is 16

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French Edition:

  • Still sexy (open, pouting lipsticked lips)
  • Much more realistic — and hey, an entire face!

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V. V. Ganeshananthan

Love Marriage

  • Debut novel, 2008
  • Woman in red sari, emphasis on demure pose; head covered, hands protecting self

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Minal Hajratwala

Leaving India

  • Queer text
  • Hajratwala was journalist first; established credentials
  • Still red sari
  • But also palms

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Kiran Desai

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

  • Debut novel, but by daughter of famous literary author
  • Impressionistic, no women
  • Curving image resolves to monkey’s rear end

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Inheritance of Loss

  • Desai’s second title, after literary reputation established
  • Abstract, birds and sky
  • Blue, not red
  • E. Asian design, oddly

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Ginu Kamani

Junglee Girl

  • Debut novel, 1995
  • Aunt Lute: nonprofit, multicultural women’s press
  • Overtly sexual pose
  • Sari? Some sort of exotic garb
  • Red toes and hands

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Bharati Mukherjee

Tiger’s Daughter

  • 1971
  • Full face
  • Sari Hand appears to be pulling sari / hiding

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Wife

  • 1975
  • Full face
  • Red sari

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Jasmine

  • 1989
  • Full face
  • Red sari

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  • Full face

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The Holder of the World

  • 1993
  • Unusual author/title
  • Plants as decoration, not focus

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Leave It To Me

  • 1997
  • Truncated hands
  • Mehndi


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Desirable Daughters

  • 2002
  • Three saris (two red), implying women’s bodies hidden behind them


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The Tree Bride

  • 2004
  • Small flowers
  • Why not tree??


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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Arranged Marriage

  • 1995
  • Sari woman
  • Balanced with building
  • But word on building spells out ‘romance’

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Mistress of Spices

  • 1997
  • No face
  • Red sari

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Sister of My Heart

  • 1999
  • Two women’s faces

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The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

  • 2001
  • Plants

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The Vine of Desire

  • 2002
  • Plants

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Neela

  • 2002
  • YA female protagonist
  • Face
  • + doll!!!
  • Red sari

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The Conch Bearer

  • 2003
  • YA, male protagonist
  • Much more of his body
  • Seems more active (holding conch)
  • Happy expression

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Queen of Dreams

  • 2004
  • Truncated body/face

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The Palace of Illusions

  • 2008
  • Building!

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Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things

  • Small plants

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Amitav Ghosh

Circle of Reason

  • Debut novel 1986
  • Antique painting

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  • Reissue
  • Boy’s face
  • Overlaid with red sari, but also a lot more

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The Shadow Lines

  • 1990
  • Antique painting
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In An Antique Land
  • 1992
  • Man in motion (note feet walking away)

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Calcutta Chromosome

  • 1995
  • Science fiction
  • Bees!

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The Glass Palace

  • 2000
  • People in motion
  • Bridge
  • City in background

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Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma

  • 1998
  • Sketch or old painting
  • Body in motion (dancing)

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Incendiary Circumstances

  • 2006
  • Candles, wall

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The Hungry Tide

  • 2004
  • Tiger (active: contrast to Desai’s monkey)

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  • 2004
  • People in motion
  • Landscape
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The Imam and the Indian

  • 2002
  • Man Walking

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Sea of Poppies

  • 2008
  • Boat and Ocean

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Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter

  • Debut novel
  • Jazz focus
  • Static black men

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In the Skin of the Lion

  • Man turned away
  • Building

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The English Patient

  • Man obscured by sand
  • Desert

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Anil’s Ghost

  • Female protagonist
  • Woman’s face
  • Dressed in white tank, not red sari

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Vikram Seth

The Golden Gate

  • Bridge

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A Suitable Boy

  • Novel focuses on arranged marriage
  • Woman in red sari, non-sexual
  • Note: same as Mohanraj French edition, reversed position

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An Equal Music

  • Blue!
  • Man’s partly-dressed boy
  • Novel focuses on affair among European musicians

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Two Lives

  • Two Faces (small)
  • Memoir

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Shyam Selvadurai

Funny Boy

  • Queer text
  • Effeminate male face

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  • Truncated body part
  • ‘Swishing’ hand

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Cinnamon Gardens

  • Straight female protagonist
  • Lake
  • Arch suggestive of building

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Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

  • Person in motion
  • Blue!

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Salman Rushdie

Grimus

  • Debut novel
  • Abstract animal

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Midnight’s Children

  • Very ususual literary treatment for SA novel — no indication of India!
  • Blue

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Shame

  • Author/Title

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Satanic Verses

  • Mostly author/title
  • Some blue
  • Butterfly — relate to theme of book?

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The Moor’s Last Sigh

  • Woman’s face
  • But also man on horse
  • Interaction; she seems to be looking at him; he looks out at us

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Shalimar the Clown

  • ‘High Literary’ cover

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Men Don’t Read Books by Women

The research was carried out by academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London, to mark the 10th year of the Orange Prize for Fiction.

The report said: ‘Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men.’Consequently, fiction by women remains “special interest”, while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style.’

*Link is broken*

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/may/29/gender.books

Conclusions

Women start out with covers that may generate sales (sex sells), but which prejudice readers and reviewers to assume that these are ‘family-oriented’, which is generally code for ‘chick-lit’

Given already existing prejudice against books with a woman author’s name on the cover; this cover trend serves as an additional strike against women authors’ literary recognition.

Counterarguments

Do women simply write more stories centering around marriage, sex, and romance, with covers that reflect the contents of the book?

Perhaps, but not in large enough degree to justify the immense discrepancy in cover art. Many of the men’s titles did actually center on romance.

Also, even were that true, it may well be that women publish romantic stories because those are the ones they can publish (c.f. The Arrangement).

Final Recommendations

Women (queer) authors: responsibility to resist temptation to only write books that they think will easily sell, despite agent/publisher pressure

Readers and reviewers: responsibility to seek out books by women (and queers), and attempt to give fair evaluations of literary quality

Editors: Stop stereotyping! Enough, already!

Thank you!

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