Thursday, January 12, 2017

Judging a Book By Its Cover

You’ve spent so much time writing your book, why wouldn’t you spend time on the cover design? Like the introduction, the cover design goes a long way in enticing readers to pick your book up in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or on a display shelf at the conference exhibit booth. Most importantly, it should be an image or a composite that conveys the themes of your book. For those who work with a piece of art, it should represent an artist or an emblematic theme that visually communicates what the book is about. (Like titles—subject of a later post).

Since the theme of my book is domestic slavery, I thought I would use a famous painting by a Peruvian artist (Francisco Laso) that depicts the “downstairs” conviviality of servant life in colonial Lima. Initially I chose this image because I loved it, and because it was one of the few paintings that did not incorporate domestic slaves as status symbols displaying the wealth of Spaniards. Neither did it use people of color as an exotic prop to highlight the normative ideals of European beauty. As critics of the painting have noted, the criollo boy plays a deferential role vis-a-vis the intense vitality of the two girls. The painting inverted—or at least complicated--a world in which Africans were slaves, Indians were servants, and Spaniards were owners.

Las tres razas, ca. 1859. MALI -- Francisco Laso de los Ríos

But years after I had secured the rights to use this image from the Museum of Art in Lima, I changed my mind. I ultimately ended up using another Laso painting. Ultimately, I chose this image because my book is about domestic slavery and servitude. The main characters are enslaved women and their owners. Because I deal principally with relationships that were not based on sexuality, I thought the image problematized our received wisdom of the power dynamics of these relationships.

Negrita Con Su Dueña, 1845. MALI -- Francisco Laso de los Ríos

For many scholars of domestic slavery and servitude, the mammy figure has been contested and at times vilified. She is ubiquitous in all slaveholding societies, yet she is surprisingly under-theorized--limited to a sexual object or located as the site of black maternalism within a hierarchical household structure. I maintain throughout Fractional Freedoms that these are theoretically insufficient frames to  think through what I call "thick" relationships of care-work. This image steers the onlooker into an intimate site of contested struggle and emotion--this was the work that I intended the image to perform.

Above all, a cover image should leave a lasting impression on the reader. Readers of this blog will remember the photo of the patriarch holding out his gleaming pocket-watch, taunting his greedy heirs on the cover of Dirk Hartog's Someday this will all be yours. And Harry Bridges with his laughing bride in the marriage clerk's office in Peggy Pascoe's What Comes Naturally. The cover is a great piece of real estate--don't squander the opportunity to build on it. Plus as previous blogger Karen Tani points out, it's a lot of fun!