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A couple of weeks ago, a storm erupted in the blogosphere over the cover of Justine Larbalestier's upcoming book, Liar. Justine posted about it here, and her post includes links to other posts if you're interested in following the conversation further.

From Justine Larbalestier's post: "Micah [the main character] is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover." She also included a photograph of the US basketball player whom she pictured Micah as resembling (Alana Beard, if you want to google her).

The US cover features a white girl, despite objections from the author.

There's a lot more information in Justine's post, but the basic problem is this: publishers believe that putting a picture of a black person on the cover of a book will put off potential buyers.

I'm just one person. But I'm a passionate reader and have been all my life. I blog, I post on facebook and twitter about what I'm reading, I'm a member of a book club, I talk to friends (many of whom are also passionate readers) about books all the time.

As a white, middle-class, heterosexual British woman, I am interested in stories that reflect other experiences. I want to know how it feels to be black or Asian, or First Nations, or Australian Aboriginal. I want to know what it's like to live in Japan, or Vietnam, or the Congo. I want to know how a gay man or woman experiences the world through which I slip so easily with all my privilege.

It's easy to write about me, and it's boring to read about me.

So that's why I seek out books that do not reflect my own experience. Another reason, one that I think is far more important, is that everyone needs someone to identify with. Here is an essay by Pam Noles on the lack of minorities in science fiction and fantasy and how this affects people of colour.

Justine Larbalestier has a passionate post entitled Why My Protags Aren't White. The entire post is well worth reading, but I'm going to quote just a small part of it:

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Dorothy Koomson is a bestselling author whose covers feature black people - that doesn't appear to have put off readers.

A quick glance through my most recent fiction reads brings up the following:

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, in which Carribbean culture is transplanted to a sci-fi setting.
Jazz and Beloved by Toni Morrison, about whom I hope little needs to be said.
Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill, in which the main character is a gay policeman.
Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave, a memoir by a man who was caught up in the first wave of HIV cases in Australia.
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman, about a lesbian Jewish woman coming to terms with her past.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a painful but beautiful book chronicling the struggles of a Spokane Indian teenager.
The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale. The main story centres around a heterosexual couple who have a second chance, but the novel's true success story is a gay man with Down's Syndrome, pretty much the only character who emerges happy and well-adjusted.
Song for the Night by Chris Abani, about a child soldier in an unnamed African army.

(It would be interesting to see how many of those books featuring people of colour actually reflect that on the covers.)

I...don't quite know how to wrap this up. I just feel it's important to get the message out to publishers that readers are interested in books about minorities.

Oh, yeah, I know. To publishers and marketers: STOP WHITEWASHING BOOK COVERS. STOP UNDERESTIMATING YOUR READERS. STOP BEING RACIST.

There.

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June 2014

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