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:
- U Bein Bridge, preferably at sunset
- Temples, probably Shwedagon, definitely Bagan
- 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
And then ‘Burma: A journey Across Time’ (2015) by Matt Sims
Reason # 29
Thant Myint U’s publishers seem to have a fondness for the trope with ‘River of Lost Footsteps’, (2008)
Reason # 28
And it goes on, with ‘Burma or Myanmar: The Struggle for a Nation’ (2010) by Lowell Dittmer
As yet unpublished works are not exempt, for example David Eimer’s ‘A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma’ (2019)
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)
Reason # 25
A perennial on any list of books on Burma and serial U Bein bridge lover, ‘The Glass Palace’ (2002) by Amitav Ghosh
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)
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.
Reason # 22
A new addition, ‘Have Fun in Burma‘ (2018) by Rosalie Metro
And ‘My Myanmar Years: A Diplomat’s Account of India’s Relations with the Region’ (2015) by Preet Malik
Reason # 20
Even the respected David Steinberg is not immune, with ‘Burma: The State of Myanmar’ (2001)
Reason # 19
And not to be left out is ‘Myanmar: An illustrated History and Guide to Myanmar’ (2012) by Caroline Courtauld
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.
Reason # 17
And, ‘Myanmar: Beyond Politics to Societal Imperatives’ (2014) by Robert H Taylor
Reason # 16
Followed by ‘Burmese Lessons; A True Love Story’ (2010) by Karen Connelly
Reason # 15
Richard Crockett’s otherwise excellent book, ‘Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma’ (2015)
Reason # 14
And particularly out of context, is ‘Little Daughter’ (2010) by Zoya Phan,
Reason # 13
And ‘The Burma Spring’ (2015) by Rena Pederson
Reason # 12
Then there is Peter Olszewski’s, ‘Land of a Thousand Eyes’ (2006)
Reason # 11
Thant Myint U again, with ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’ (2011)
Reason # 10
A novel, the ‘Road to Rangoon’ (2015) by Lucy Cruickshanks, 2015
Reason # 9
Another novel, ‘The Missing Sister’ (2019) by Dinah Jefferies
Reason # 8
A third novel, ‘The Golden Land’ (2102) by Di Morrissey
Reason # 7
Not as popular as other guides, Culture Shock: Myanmar‘ (2013)
Reason # 6
With similar tastes is the 2019 ‘Insight Guides to Myanmar‘.
Reason # 5
Let’s not forget Amy Tan’s, ‘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.’
Reason # 3
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet. Actually, probably any edition of the Lonely Planet to Burma.
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)
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.
‘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.