Literary Aesthetics

December 1, 2008

1 The Woman Warrior (Vintage)

This is the third cover (circa 1989) for Maxine Hong Kingston's pivotal 1975 memoir about her Chinese American girlhood and identity. The first featured an illustration of an Asian woman's face and a samurai; the second was a distorted Chinese landscape painting overlaid with shadows of an Asian face; and here is the third the most subtle focusing just on the ghost-like face. The fragmented, blurred or distorted Asian face is a popular trope for Asian American book covers.

2 The Street of a Thousand Blossoms (St. Martin's Press) Gail Tsukiyama's sixth novel, published in 2007, is a World War Il epic about two brothers in Japan. Both title and cover depict a floral motif that commonly appears in books by Asian American women.

3 Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins) Mary Ann Mohanraj's 2005 short story collection tells the stories of two Sri Lankan families over some 60 years. Mohanraj, a former erotica writer, incorporates a fair share of sexuality into her stories but why must the cover's sari-clad figure be headless? [Note: I found at least four other books with headless sari-wrapped bodies.]

4 The Love Wife (Vintage) Gish Jen's 2005 novel about intercultural family dynamics features a large cast of characters: a meddlesome, dying Chinese mother in-law; a Chinese American man and his big-boned, blonde wife; two adopted Chinese daughters; and a long-lost cousin/nanny from China. The cover tries to capture the novel's complexity via images of a segmented Asian face and a flower. Gotta have those flowers.

5 Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf) This 2007 short story collection from Pulitzer Prize winner Jumpha Lahiri, chronicling the lives of Bengali Americans, defies the usual markers of Asian American writing but what is going on here? Is that the Ring from Tolkien's trilogy?

6 No-No Boy

(University of Washington Press)

On the cover of John Okada's 1978 novel about a young man who refuses to serve a country that has imprisoned him there is a lot going on, between the maniacal face and the Japanese rising sun pupils. But it certainly grabs your attention.

7 Yellow

(W.W. Norton & Company)

Don Lee's 2002 short story collection focuses on the lives and loves of Asian Americans living in the fictional California coastal town of Rosarita Bay. The main character in the title story grapples with his Asian identity and looks, but is there no other way to symbolize this than the distorted face?

8 Aloft (Riverhead Books)

The main character of Chang-rae Lee's 2004 novel is 60-year-old Italian American Jerome Battle, who faces various mid-life crises; his only joy is flying his plane above Long Island. This book features several Asian American characters, but interestingly the cover is adorned only by clouds and Battle's plane nothing Asian American about it.

9 The Disinherited (Picador)

Han Ong's 2005 novel follows Roger Caracera back to the Philippines where he claims a large inheritance from his father's corrupt sugar business. This cover suggests that Asian American male authors may have it better when it comes to book covers: note the lack of any Filipino or foreign references. The book didn't get great reviews, but it might win for my favorite cover on this list.

10 Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Amitav Ghosh's 2008 novel, the first of a planned trilogy, follows the voyage of the ibis, a ship transporting coolies to Mauritius. Even though this is a historical novel set in 19th century India, the cover designer avoided the obvious and went for the sublime. [OK, I guess this can be seen as "floral" but it's beautiful.]