Book cover design is often grand, but sometimes publishers don’t get it quite right. Take for example the case of Nnedi Okorafor.
Nnedi Okorafor is an extraordinary science fiction writer, and she has the Nebula Award to prove it. Before she was quite so lauded, however, she had a strange and terrible interaction with her publisher regarding the cover design for The Shadow Speaker.
The Shadow Speaker is a young adult novel that was originally published in 2007 and received a James Tiptree Jr. Award. The book is set in 2070 in a time after a nuclear war that occurred in the early twenty-first century. It follows the story of Ejii who lives in a Nigerian village and is the 14 year-old daughter of her tribe’s former chief. Ejii is Muslim, and though her family has a complex ethnic background, she is undeniably African.
Which is why it was such a surprise when the publisher sent Okorafor proposed cover art featuring a white woman.
Yesterday Okorafor tweeted a comparison of that original image and the final version that she fought for. Though it is hard to see, the original images features the back of a young woman with pale skin and light hair with blond highlights. Okorafor was horrified by the proposed cover. The book describes Ejii as “black skinned”, and the publisher erased that identity. After some vicious back and forth between the author and the publisher – Okorafor said that she had to throw “a sh*t fit” – the publisher submitted a new cover. This one featured a woman with dark hair and skin. This one looked more like Ejii.
Though covers can serve as marketing tools, the also play a role in whether or not different people see themselves reflected in the world. Eliminating the cultural and racial background of a character has larger social and political repercussions, and I’m glad that The Shadow Speaker ended up with a cover that expresses who Ejii really is.
Now hopefully Okorafor’s current publisher will have a bit more respect for the identities of her characters.