Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The SHINE Cover Story

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.


Anonymous said...

I've read my copy of SHINE at least three times, and it wasn't til reading this post that I even realized there was a guy on it next to her. I had to search him out. It is so refreshing to have to search for the white male on the cover for a change.

Neesha Meminger said...

Ha! Anon, thank you SO much for your comment. You have no idea how I will cherish it :).

MissA said...

Interesting back story. i never noticed Mike!
I agree that as a teenager, I do think the cover is cool :) I'm sad that you lost the battle for a face but I'm glad you won the bigger battle aganist inaccuracy!

Megan Crewe said...

Great post, Neesha! And very wise. There are so many battles and it's impossible to fight them all at once--fighting smart sounds like the way to go. :)

Cassandra Mortmain said...

This is the first I'm reading about any length of your book, and I have to say it's a great introduction. I am definitely going to track it down now-- and good on you for having the sense to fight smart. It's a truism so many of us would do well to embrace, not because so many people are fighting hard, but because then, instead of being daunted into passivity, people might fight at ALL if they knew ot do it smart.

Shveta Thakrar said...

Hi, Neesha!

I know you want this blog to be your main one, but would you consider mirroring it to your LJ account? That way, more people (including me!) could keep up with your entries. I think there are ways to make people comment here, if you prefer that.

cleemckenzie said...

I hear your issues, Neesha. Not only do you have to learn to fight smart, you have to decide which of those fights are worth the battle scars.

Neesha Meminger said...

Shveta, I'll see if I can get it to feed into LJ. Thanks for reminding me!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic, thoughtful post.

Carol H Rasco said...

I am grateful to Ari and to Susan for leading me here starting via Susan's Sunday Salon (see Susan, the Salon is sure worth it today, I am learning new things from Ari's posting about SHINE, the comments left there, this posting and the subsequent comments). I believe the "choose your battles" lesson is a key lesson to be learned in life as well as "seek the facts." Had you not spoken up after Ari's posting, Neesha, the comments could have veered in a direction not reflecting the truth of what occurred; this way we all learned the truth, and from that truth some valuable knowledge. Thank you!

Laura Atkins said...

Thanks, Neesha, for giving such a thoughtful and detailed account of how your cover was designed. I can totally understand the decisions you made here, and the complex situation an author is in when responding to something like cover design. I admit, when I saw the cover I wondered, but felt mixed myself. Yes, it does offer a different sort of image, one that in many ways is more mainstream, which could be seen as both a good and a bad thing. We function within this market-driven capitalist society, and to a certain extent have to accept that "marketing" is going to try to appeal to that. The battle you chose about the back cover makes deep sense, and good for you for taking a stand. It can be very hard as a new author to be pushy, though it sounds like you did it in a most considerate way. I'll try to visit your blog more often!

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