Susan over at Coloronline reposted a wonderful review of SHINE, COCONUT MOON by teen blogger, MissAttitude, a.k.a. Ari (I love that she has a "Male Monday" theme).
In the comments thread, a couple of people mentioned that they were disappointed or upset by the cover. I've heard this complaint before -- the cover has been described as "exploitive" and "objectifying" of young women.
And I don't disagree. I've written bits and pieces here and there about the SHINE cover story, but here is the full background:
When my editor first asked me about my thoughts on a cover, I said, "I'm fine with just about anything as long as it's not a headless woman." You can see, by looking at the cover, how far my opinion went *grin*.
My editor said that she had suggested the cover have an image of a "modern-looking" Indian teen. However, this idea was poo-pooed because another South Asian novel came out in the same year with an Indian woman's face on the cover. So, in order to make my novel stand out and be noticed, they went with a whole different image.
My editor emailed me, saying, "I really hope you love this cover as much as we do. We think teens will snatch it off the shelves."
I have to say that she's probably right. When I think back to my teen self, I would have positively drooled upon finding a cover like SHINE's in a large, mainstream bookstore, right there next to bestsellers and glossy novels that had been made into films. To find the sexy, tough, hip image of a South Asian teen girl was unheard of when I was a teenager, and when I look around at the shelves of bookstores today, I'm afraid not much has changed.
For South Asian women, it's a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we're absolutely thrilled that there is SOME representation--especially if that representation is not of the usual, passive, submissive, sari-clad, new-immigrant variety we're used to seeing on television and in movies. On the other hand, yes, it absolutely objectifies young women as does all of the mainstream media we see every single day.
I feel so strongly about the issue of objectification of women that I may have fought harder on the cover issue, if I hadn't had another--to me, more important--battle to wage: the back cover photo was an image of Krishna, the Hindu deity. Some non-South-Asians may see an image of Krishna and see no problem with it representing the entire vast swath of brownness that is the South Asian diaspora. However, South Asians come in many different shades, languages, and religions.
SHINE is about a Sikh family. The battle to have the back cover changed was absolutely necessary for me to fight for a number of reasons. But the main one being that South Asian history (not unlike other geographical regions) has been rife with butchery over religion, and one very recent period was in the eighties, between Hindus and Sikhs around the invasion of a Sikh temple and the subsequent assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Keeping the image of Krishna could have been seen as a positive thing, or it could have been seen as an insult, depending on who was looking at it. I didn't want to take that risk. It's a volatile issue, and I didn't want it to become the focus of a novel that deals with the post-9/11 Sikh experience in the U.S., particularly as it relates to three generations of Punjabi, Sikh women.
Thankfully, my editor gave me her unwavering support, and took my feedback to the cover designer and whoever else needed to know these things. The back cover was changed to a gorgeous, sensual image of a young woman dancing. I was delighted.
Let me just say, here, that the bigger battle for me was the one about accuracy. Having an image of a Hindu deity on a book about a Sikh family was not about opinion or interpretation. It was just wrong, as in it was inaccurate. And that would have been a misrepresentation of the contents of my novel. For that, I was willing to battle till the very end (luckily, I did not have to). The image of a headless woman? Well, that is problematic on another level, but does it inaccurately represent the contents of my novel? Not really. If we'd nudged the camera up just a teeny bit, we'd have had a young couple: a hip, young, Indian-American woman and her boyfriend.
I've seen posts up in the blogosphere about Justine's cover for LIAR--about the fact that yes, the publisher changed the cover to reflect the African-American protagonist, but that's not enough because the model still fits the (white) ideal of beauty.
All true. I absolutely agree. The images of Black and brown people are habitually air-brushed to be lighter, our features finer, and our hair straighter in the same way that women's bodies are air-brushed to be thinner, with bigger breasts, flawless skin, longer legs, etc. This (what I refer to as the) "selling of lies" is a huge, very prevalent problem in our society. The damage of these acts is enormous and takes a tremendous toll on the health of our society as a whole (I'll do another post on this at some point).
On the other hand, I completely understand that Justine waged the battle about accuracy and misrepresentation. The light-skinned model on the cover with the curly hair is a whole other layer that we haven't even gotten to. I'm not saying we should not rage and voice our dissatisfaction. We absolutely must. That is what creates the ripples of change we so desperately need. What I'm saying is that we, as creative-types who must sell our work in a consumer-driven set-up, are having many, many battles thrown our way on a daily basis. We make decisions about which of these battles to take on, while at the same time retaining some version of our health and sanity.
The battles around representation are critical--they are also about accuracy. Most images we see on billboards and in magazines have been touched up to reflect the prevailing ideals of beauty and cultural acceptability. Women actors in Hollywood, for example, must always be shorter than their male leads. Because of this, camera angles and apple boxes are used to create that illusion, even if the female lead happens to be taller. Why? To support some archaic notion of women as smaller, helpless, in need of a bigger male protector? Could be. But the key word there is "illusion." As in not real. Inaccurate.
When there are so many inaccuracies, sometimes we have to start with the big, glaring ones and work our way up--always, always keeping in mind that this is a long term process. My dad always said, "It's better to fight smart than to fight hard." I'm often reminded of his words as I navigate both my personal life, as well as my professional and creative one.