This is the front cover of a new translation of one of my books. I want to report as truthfully as I can my first response to it:
I looked, I liked, and (since I couldn’t read the title) I wondered: Which book is it? What language? I must have forgotten that I had something coming out in Africa? or maybe India?
I looked inside, and saw it was Four Ways to Forgiveness, published in Finland.
The publisher is Vaskikirjat. I’d like to credit the translator and the cover artist, but since Finnish is a language of which I don’t know and can’t even guess at a single word, I don’t know who is which: (Käännös) Jyrki Iivonen, (Kansi) Jani Laatikainen, or (Taitto) Erkka Leppänen. In any case, my thanks to all.
Now I wish I knew if you, Reader, were as surprised as I was to find this is the cover of a book printed in Finland. And if you, like me, are a little horrified by your own surprise — but not surprised at it.
Finland is a nation of about 5 million people. As well as I can figure from the statistics, about 99% of this population is white.
The US is a nation of about 316 million people, of whom around 77% are or consider themselves white.
I believe everybody in Four Ways to Forgiveness is some shade of brown except for those described as black, and the slave population of Yeowe, contemptuously called “dusties,” who are a sort of pale greige. In most of my books, a minority of the characters, or none, are specified as white, while major characters or whole populations are described as dark-skinned.
With very rare exceptions, the cover art of my books in both America and England has utterly ignored specific descriptions in the text and portrayed the characters as white. Often strikingly white — pallid North European types — Finnish, maybe . . .
Many readers believe that writers get to choose the covers of their books. In traditional publishing, it’s a lucky author who even gets a look at the cover before the book comes out. Some of us who have gained a little clout get a clause in the contract that gives us cover approval, but our approval is ”not to be unreasonably withheld.”
Guess who gets to define “unreasonable”?
I’ve fought the blonde bimbos and the hairy-chested, blue-eyed Aryan heroes tooth and nail for forty years. Over and over I have been utterly defeated. Publisher’s cover departments are patronizing and impenetrable. We know what sells, they say. Covers with people of color on them don’t sell.
Cover departments are always absolutely certain that they know what sells. Blind certainty is a hard thing to overcome, particularly when it’s silently supported by a comfortably unquestioning acceptance of racial prejudice.
And so in a way it’s self-fulfilling, for if no one in America ever sees a book with a person of color on the cover, a book with a person of color on it may look quite strange, unfriendly, to something like 77% of possible American readers . . . Oh it’s something about Them, it isn’t about Us, I only want to read about Us.
Dear Finnish publisher and artist, I praise your spirit and thank you for giving my book this joyous and appropriate presentation.
May the publishers presenting my books in my own country look at it and take thought, and take courage from it too. It’s true, what this painting shows: if we bring the good spirit to the dance, we can dance together. There might even be a Forgiveness Day.