Why do all these books about Africa look the same?

A cliche rises in Botswana. (AP Photo/RIck Sammon)
A cliche grows in Botswana. (AP Photo/Rick Sammon)

Often, cliches are cliches because they carry a kernel of truth. But sometimes cliches are cliches because they are lazy and pernicious.

A meme triggered this week by the Africa Is a Country blog exposes the latter. A reader of the blog posted on Twitter a collage of 36 prominent books set in or about Africa, all of which seem to have the same sort of image on the cover: of a drooping, usually solitary acacia tree, suffused in the moody glow of sunset (or dawn, perhaps).

As the tweeter, Simon Stevens, notes, what's remarkable about this display is the diversity of authors and the subject matter of their work -- a range you would have no inkling of if you did, indeed, judge the books by their covers. "In short, the covers of most novels 'about Africa' seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King," quips Africa Is a Country.

Not long thereafter, the blog's Twitter feed blew up with readers praising the collage. Some offered their own--this reader picked apart the way South Asia gets represented by the publishing industry:

A decade and a half into the 21st century, it seems the specter of 'Orientalism' still hovers over the Western publishing world. Of course, not every book on Africa has a cover of a shrub in half-light, but such stereotypes -- in this case, of the sultry African wilderness -- still shape how whole swathes of the world get represented in the West.

Quartz raised the Africa Is a Country post with an established New York-based book cover designer at Knopf, who says the trend seen in the memes above is a symptom of "laziness, both individual or institutionalized." He goes on to explain the appeal of the stereotype: "We're comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it's safe. It presents 'otherness' in a way that's easy to understand."

But that "safeness" won't last long in a world where cosmopolitan, thinking people can reach each other so easily on social media. The curators of Africa Is a Country were delighted by the immediacy and vociferousness of the reaction to their initial post.

"It was obvious straight away that this was something that resonated with people's frustrations with tired old Orientalist cliches," says Elliot Ross, a regular blogger for Africa Is a Country. "It's also nice to see how bloggers and cultural critics from outside Europe and the U.S. are reading each others work."

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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