31 Reasons Why Publishers Need to Rethink Myanmar

If you buy enough books on Myanmar from foreign writers you start to notice something eerily familiar about them all.  It’s not just the content, though travel memoirs and political narratives are perennial favourites and Myanmar does seem to be becoming a popular ‘exotic’ setting for romance writers.

No, it’s something else.  The covers. 

When it comes to designing the front covers of their next work on Myanmar, many publishers seem to slip into a default mode, where a nation of such geographical, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, (ironically a diversity often trumpeted by these same publishers as the reason for that book’s publication) is diminished into three: 

  1. U Bein Bridge, preferably at sunset
  2. Temples, probably Shwedagon, definitely Bagan
  3. A leg-rowing Intha Fisherman on Inle Lake

Non-fiction, perhaps not surprisingly, given the travel narrative’s similarity with the travel guide, is particularly guilty, while fiction, despite the scope for more expressive interpretations of the narrative is just as lazy. 

This is not a criticism of the authors of these books.  I was lucky, many writers have no real input in the design of their cover even when that cover perpetuates stale imaginings which often bear little resemblance to the story.

So here it is, 31 reasons why publishers need to rethink Myanmar. 

Reason # 31
Not to be outdone by its rivals, the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Burma

rough-guide-1

Reason #30
And then ‘Burma: A journey Across Time’ (2015) by Matt Sims

a-journey-across-time-1

Reason # 29
Thant Myint U’s publishers seem to have a fondness for the trope with ‘River of Lost Footsteps’, (2008)

river-of-lostfootsteps

Reason # 28
And it goes on, with ‘Burma or Myanmar: The Struggle for a Nation’ (2010) by Lowell Dittmer

burma-or-myanmar

Reason #27
As yet unpublished works are not exempt, for example David Eimer’s ‘A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma’ (2019)

a-savage-dreamland

Reason #26
Do Bloomsbury really think the average reader is going to be convinced to buy a book on the legalities of constitutional amendment by slapping a photo of U Bein Bridge on the cover?  Apparently they did, because here is ‘Constitutionalism and Legal Change in Myanmar’ (2017)

legal-change-in-myanmar

Reason # 25
A perennial on any list of books on Burma and serial U Bein bridge lover, ‘The Glass Palace’ (2002) by Amitav Ghosh

the-glass-palace

Reason # 24
It pains me to say, but both of Jan-Philipp Sendker’s great books on the list. First up is ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats‘ (2013 reprint)

the-art-of-hearing-heartbeats

Reason # 23
Most of Daniel Mason’s original editions have a vague outline which could be Bagan, but I gave him the benefit of doubt, until this 2014 reprint of ‘The Piano Tuner‘, which, as if to make itself absolutely clear, has both U Bein bridge and Bagan.

the-piano-tuner

Reason # 22
A new addition, ‘Have Fun in Burma‘ (2018) by Rosalie Metro

have-fun-in-burma

Reason #21
And ‘My Myanmar Years: A Diplomat’s Account of India’s Relations with the Region’ (2015) by Preet Malik

my-myanamr-years

Reason # 20
Even the respected David Steinberg is not immune, with ‘Burma: The State of Myanmar’ (2001)

burma-the-state-of-myanmar

Reason # 19
And not to be left out is ‘Myanmar: An illustrated History and Guide to Myanmar’ (2012) by Caroline Courtauld

myanmar-an-illustrated-history

Reason # 18
Another classic, set in Bago but of course with a cover of Bagan is ‘The Jewel Trader of Pegu’ (2008) by Jeffrey Hantover.

jewel-trader-of-pegu

Reason # 17
And, ‘Myanmar: Beyond Politics to Societal Imperatives’ (2014) by Robert H Taylor

beyond-politics-to-societal-imperatives

Reason # 16
Followed by ‘Burmese Lessons; A True Love Story’ (2010) by Karen Connelly

burmese-lessons

Reason # 15
Richard Crockett’s otherwise excellent book, ‘Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma’ (2015)

blood-dream-and-gold

Reason # 14
And particularly out of context, is ‘Little Daughter’ (2010) by Zoya Phan,

little-daughter

Reason # 13
And ‘The Burma Spring’ (2015) by Rena Pederson

the-burma-spring

Reason # 12
Then there is Peter Olszewski’s, ‘Land of a Thousand Eyes’ (2006)

land-of-a-thousand-eyes

Reason # 11
Thant Myint U again, with ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’ (2011)

where-china-meets-asia

Reason # 10
A novel, the ‘Road to Rangoon’ (2015) by Lucy Cruickshanks, 2015

road-to-rangoon

Reason # 9
Another novel, ‘The Missing Sister’ (2019) by Dinah Jefferies

the-missing-sister

Reason # 8
A third novel, ‘The Golden Land’ (2102) by Di Morrissey

the-golden-land

Reason # 7
Not as popular as other guides, Culture Shock: Myanmar‘ (2013)

culture-shock-myanmar

Reason # 6
With similar tastes is the 2019 ‘Insight Guides to Myanmar‘.

insight-guides

Reason # 5
Let’s not forget Amy Tan’s, ‘Saving Fish from Drowning

saving-fish-from-drowning

Reason # 4
Perhaps the most well-known, with its striking blue background and evocative shadowing is Emma Larkin’s ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma.’

finding-george-orwell

Reason # 3
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet.  Actually, probably any edition of the Lonely Planet to Burma.

lonely-planet

Reason # 2
Sendker appears once more with ‘A Well-tempered Heart’ (2012).
(To complete the set, the French edition has an Intha Fisherman, the Swedish and Russian editions feature Bagan)

a-well-tempered-heart

At this point I got tired of crawling through goodreads and amazon, and I’m sure there are more covers out there, (I haven’t even started on the coffee table photography books or self-published tourist e-books), but this leads into my number 1 reason that in every way encapsulates the idiocy of pinning an entire nation into such narrow imaginations.    

Reason #1

Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees: Contested Identity and Belonging’ (2018) by Kazi Fahmida Farzana.  This is a serious book by a serious writer and published by a serious publisher (Palgrave Macmillan).  Given the nature of the work, you would think they would have taken special care and deliberation on the cover design. You would think wrong.  In a ‘critical analysis of the Rohingya refugees’ identity building processes’, what did the publishers decide on?
A (presumably Buddhist) ethnic Shan Intha fisherman!  

At this point, it is only fair to finish with a quick, honourable mention of those publishers who have worked around this lazy exotification:

Orchid Press’ ‘Land of Jade’ by Bertil Lintner

Harpers’ ‘From the Land of Green Ghosts’ by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Zed Books ‘Myanmar’s Enemy Within’ by Francis Wade

Counterpoints’ ‘The Trouser People’ by Andrew Marshall

Any book by Frank Kingdom Ward

Finally, Burmese Days.  Despite looking at over 25 different editions of Orwell’s classic, not one featured a young thanaka-wearing Burmese girl rowing a boat at sunset under U Bein bridge inexplicably towards Bagan. 

And if anyone is interested, here is the front cover for my book, The People Elsewhere.

 

31 reasons why publishers need to rethink myanmar

%d bloggers like this: