The Unexpected Politics of Book Cover Design
Jenny Bhatt on Subverting Gender and Class Stereotypes with Design
“Do you need the word ‘killers’ in the title?”
“Is it a murder mystery, thriller-type story?”
“Are these people on the cover all the suspects?”
More than protective packaging or nifty artwork or content representation, a first book cover is the essential, tangible face of the writer’s labor. It is also an introduction to the writer’s ethos, identity, and personality. And, in my case, it’s inspired a number of questions.
That last point was at the top of my mind when I began considering well-meaning design suggestions from readers, writers, friends, social media connections, family members, and my book’s editorial team. In a Facebook group, a reader declared that if they didn’t connect with a book’s cover within ten seconds or less, they would walk (or scroll) on by. On Twitter, an editor complained about books with faces on their covers, saying they didn’t like to see faces on characters they hadn’t met yet. One of the several book marketing newsletters I subscribe to polemicized about how books by writers of African origin often had the copycat aesthetic of an acacia tree against a sunset while books by writers of Middle Eastern origin typically got the woman-in-a-veil treatment. At a literary festival, a desi writer with several books out cautioned against putting brown faces on the cover. “Or mangoes, sarees, or spices because that’s just about exoticizing for a white readership.” My own editor was keen on a graphic, precise, and dramatic aesthetic.
As the ideas streamed in, I kept revisiting an old coffee-table book titled An Ideal Boy. During a 1999 work-related trip, I found it in the New York City Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Its bright pink and blue cover shows a young boy and girl standing erect and staring straight out with somber doe-like brown eyes and unsmiling bow-shaped red lips. While their bodies are proportioned to make them look about ten, their faces look as if the weight of the knowledge of all that is to come has aged them before their time. Inside, there are about a hundred or so charts that were widely used during my school years in India (and were used until very recently): visual aids to educate us on moral values, behavioral standards, daily habits, everyday use objects, human anatomy, people’s occupations, and more.
Created by unschooled artists, based on national guidelines prescribed by the Indian government, and mass-printed locally, they were unevenly illustrated in a grid-like layout and often contained spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. And, as some of us understood once we were old enough, they conditioned our deep-rooted sociocultural prejudices about gender, class, religion, caste, color, age, and race.
My earliest memory of these charts involves one that showed various men in uniform, arranged in a grid, titled “Our Helpers,” with the Hindi phrase “Humaare Sahaayak” underneath it. Our class teacher would tack a large version of this chart on the blackboard and point to each individual on it, calling out the captions and having us repeat them. The men looked oddly similar with unsmiling expressions, standing or sitting erect at their places of work. Ship captain, army officer, pilot, teacher, farmer, policeman, doctor. And then, two women in a single box: a nurse dressed in all white, holding a needle and syringe, poised to inject a toddler who was clinging to his mother. Both women smiled pleasantly as they leaned toward each other, holding the child between them.
When the next “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” essay-writing exercise came up during English Composition, more than half my classmates wrote about wanting to be that friendly, calm, caring nurse. The rest wanted to be either the loving mother, the authoritative teacher, or, a glamorous air hostess (mostly girls from rich, expat families.) Half-heartedly, I chose teaching. At least, I thought, I could brandish a rule at bothersome children and read plenty of books.
In another chart, titled “Women on Work,” we had smiling women, mostly in monochromatically-colored sarees, working at tasks like cooking, farming, sewing, teaching, phone-responding, typing, and more. The only two women not wearing sarees were a nurse (again) and a tennis-playing, short-skirted one titled “sports girl.” This chart had made my stomach drop as if I’d been suspended at the top of a rollercoaster. If I didn’t want to be like any of the women here, where would I land? Would I become, like my mother, a full-time housewife? I looked at her as she swatted at one sibling complaining about something, called out to a second to finish a chore, and force-fed a late lunch to a third.
Looking at the charts now, they are dispiriting reminders of how the gender-driven, class-driven, and caste-driven cultural values illustrated in them had influenced my eventual career choices—paths taken and not taken. Nor was this about my conditioning alone. My parents, subject to the same programming, had balked at my request to do a fully-funded joint master’s and PhD in engineering. Their rationale was that, within our caste-community, it would be impossible to find a higher-educated husband. My older sister, who had opted for the arranged marriage route, had badgered me to go the same way; when I refused, the entire family shunned me for almost a year. Whenever I visited extended family in India, variations of the “Why are you still single and working without a man to take care of you?” question stung like bees unhived.
Despite a couple of other life-altering influences like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I had remained highly conflicted about these beliefs all through my working life. Going off-script by focusing on mostly male-dominated career options over marriage and children had not turned out to be as personally rewarding as I’d hoped.
When I returned to India in mid-2014 to write full time, a new government had just come into power. During my first two years there, proclamations about “Good Days” through improved livelihoods and more jobs than the country had ever seen were aired and shared across all media. The leadership’s new mantra was that, with India’s “demography, democracy, and demand,”—“decisiveness” added for Western media interviews—she was going to change the world. Yet, all around me, while people’s aspirations and optimism rose to new heights, the economic numbers did not follow. In Gujarat, which I had only visited on brief vacation trips before but now called home, there were near-daily stories about farmers killing themselves because they were unable to pay off their debts when the monsoons didn’t favor their crops. At the time of writing this, as COVID-19 has brought most of the country to a standstill, the occupations of many more are at even greater risk.
So, when I began writing a story collection in 2015, I couldn’t help but fixate on the role of work in our lives. As a single, childless, middle-aged woman, my entire existence, identity, and financial wellbeing had been inextricably linked to my abandoned career. My preoccupation with re-forging all those aspects of myself played out in my fiction, too. Exploring the lives of working people—auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more—helped me see how the intersecting issues of gender, class, religion, caste, age, color, ethnicity, race, and nationality had shaped my own circumstances, luck, and career trajectory.
And, while I had based each story on whatever inspired me at the time—an image, a question, a song, a place, a real-life incident, an ancient folk tale—they were all driven by the socio-political realities around me: stories like this one, about a state’s chief minister advising nurses on strike to not sit out in the sun while protesting because they would darken their complexions and ruin their marriage prospects. And this one, about women risking everything in order to gain more financial independence through menial work.
Right around that time, I also discovered some subversive, contemporary versions of those school charts. Here, children did not act per those traditional, respectable ideals and women did not play by the scripts of being good mothers, domestic goddesses, and nurturing caretakers. The Mumbai-based artist, Priyesh Trivedi, designed some of these as satirical social commentary where, for example, his “Ideal Boy” offers a joint to his father and vandalizes walls. This kind of subversion folded into my storytelling too.
A book’s cover is both art and commerce. It has to make a reader pause their scroll-on-by behavior on social media and compel buying behavior. This also means staying au courant with design trends, which, at the moment, point toward a singularly striking object or image on a vivid background or interesting typography. I veered in the opposite direction with a cover, designed by the Indian artist Harshad Marathe, showing a multitude of brown faces: people at their workplaces. I wanted to acknowledge those educational charts as artifacts that had shaped both my life and these stories while placing them in a new context. Every story in this collection is about rejecting, for better or for worse, predetermined scripts about the working life.
Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt is available via 7.13 Books.