In sharing the process of the designwork for Ari Honarvar's novel A Girl Called Rumi, I could talk about a number of different things. Like how I had an idea to fill the cover with different birds because the story is full of different birds, some real, some mythical, and I worked and worked to puzzle the birds together with the right balance of color and shape and in the end we scrapped the birds completely because to Ari's eyes they made the book look tropical rather than Persian.
It's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution. But another interesting aspect, and one that I haven't had a lot of chance yet to negotiate—and therefore write about—is working with elements from different cultures.
Ari grew up in Iran and now lives in San Diego, and A Girl Called Rumi is an #ownvoices story that speaks to her heritage. Here's the publisher description:
A Girl Called Rumi, Ari Honarvar’s debut novel, weaves a captivating tale of survival, redemption, and the power of storytelling. Kimia, a successful spiritual advisor whose Iranian childhood continues to haunt her, collides with a mysterious giant bird in her mother’s California garage. She begins reliving her experience as a nine-year-old girl in war-torn Iran, including her friendship with a mystical storyteller who led her through the mythic Seven Valleys of Love. Grappling with her unresolved past, Kimia agrees to accompany her ailing mother back to Iran, only to arrive in the midst of the Green Uprising in the streets. Against the backdrop of the election protests, Kimia begins to unravel the secrets of the night that broke her mother and produced a dangerous enemy. As past and present collide, she must choose between running away again or completing her unfinished journey through the Valley of Death to save her brother.
When Forest Avenue Press publisher Laura Stanfill first introduced me to the book, she gave me two calligrams Ari had drawn, for use in the design.
A Persian calligram is a form of art in which Persian letters, rendered in calligraphy, are used to create and adorn the imagery.
This one is of the Simorgh, a bird creature from Persian mythology and literature.
And this one is a hoopoe bird, which I thought at first was also mythical, but it's a real type of bird, one I'd never seen before and which totally looks like it should be mythical.
Both the hoopoe and the Simorgh are found in the pages of Ari's book. I loved the idea of using one of Ari's calligrams on the cover. What an elegant style of art, and what a wonderful way to evoke the cultural setting of much of the story.
Not too many years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to create such an image myself. But in more recent years the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation and movements such as #ownvoices have made me rethink which waters I should and should not dip my own toe into. The Persian heritage is Ari's, not mine. So it felt right that the art should be hers.
I chose the Simorgh because of how ornate the detail is and because the landscape format would give me more room to arrange the other elements around it. First I had to convert the drawing to vector art so that I could get rid of the paper background and change the color of the design at will.
Then I started experimenting with space, fitting in title and author name. Strategizing placement for a blurb. Playing around with design directions. I went a little crazy adding birds, as I mentioned before...
Working with Ari's calligram, I felt a little like a curator in an art gallery, A caretaker of the piece. Deciding on which wall to hang it, where to place the placard that states title and artist. I was hyperaware of my whiteness throughout the process, wondering which of my impulses were honoring Ari's heritage and story and which might be crossing the line into appropriation territory—or just plain messing with her art too much. Was it OK to add a hint of gold into the eye? I got online and looked up Persian green, Persian red. I looked at the colors of the Iranian flag. Was it OK/good to use these colors in the design or was that stepping close to stereotypes? I let Ari's thoughts guide me, and her interest in having the visuals elicit thoughts of Iran made me feel more comfortable working in that direction.
After some back and forth about color...
...we settled on what was essentially the original color scheme I'd been playing with, which was Persian red with accents of white and gold. (Well a gold that was more a yellow, but what is gold, anyway? A slippery color, somewhere between a yellow and a brown, something that faded a little too much into the red if it wasn't punched up.)
I'd thickened the font a bit, adjusted the Rumi in space a bit. And one important change to notice in the above sample, for a couple reasons: the blurb.
"A magical journey to a world of mystical delights enchantment, and revelation. It's a page turner that goes deep into the nature of reality beyond perception.” —Deepak Chopra, MD
One reason to take note of the blurb is OMG Deepak Chopra.
But it's also important because at this point we sent the cover to our distributor, Publishers Group West, for their look. The feedback we got was that the font, along with the presence of Mr. Chopra, was making them think of a nonfiction, rather than fiction, title. So then I was experimenting with type treatments.
I like to think I learn something with each cover I work on. Sometimes it's a new way to create something, a new skill, sometimes I learn something about myself. The font I chose originally I liked because it was modern and clean. Something that had some curves, which felt right against the curves of the calligram, but something that wouldn't compete with it. PGW was suggesting something more lyrical, maybe a calligraphy font. Ari suggested something like a font she uses on her website, also a calligraphy font. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram. And calligraphy fonts are too fancy to use in all-caps, and lowercase letters wouldn't fit as well in the space.
I tried a calligraphy font.
It didn't compete with the calligram after all. It was a fairly plain calligraphy font and I did a lot of altering to make it simpler and to get it to fit better, but even the introduction of lowercase letters worked better than I thought. And an adjustment here and there in the calligram to move one or two of the ornate scrolls filled the space the uppercase letters left behind.
Laura liked it. Ari liked it. PGW didn't like it. They suggested something softer. Maybe a script. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram, it will look too florid.
I tried a script.
As I said at the start of this post, it's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution.
All this talk of mine is simplifying things, of course. I didn't just try one calligraphy font, one script font, I did a bunch of experimenting with all sorts of different fonts, some I altered a lot to make them fit in the space. But each experiment taught me about me—how I can sometimes resist things and how sometimes I should just go for it and give it a try.
The type treatment that won out in the end was one that combined two fonts, a calligraphy font for the uppercase and a plain serif for the lowercase. I had to alter the calligraphy font to make it thinner to match the lines of the lowercase font. And the final touch was Ari's suggestion that the dots over each letter i be replaced with what she called a "Persian dot," which is a diamond shape. I'd considered doing this with various fonts I'd been playing around with because of the prevalence of that shape in the calligram, but I'd rejected it, thinking, was it edging toward stereotyping again?
That's the other thing working on this cover taught me. Be sensitive to these issues, yes, but don't allow that sensitivity to keep you from trying something that would honor the culture and setting of the story. Let that #ownvoices author guide you as to what's OK. She's the one who knows.
A Girl Called Rumi is due out in September of this year. More information is on the Forest Avenue Press site here. More on author Ari Honarvar is on her website here. And here's a bit of an excerpt to whet your appetite for this lovely book.
“Pretty much all good music is illegal, and the TV only has three channels—all boring news about the war,” said Reza. He circled his fingers on the dragon’s jade-green eye.
“Ah, so it is escape you seek,” said Baba Morshed, his eyes drifting up to Myna, who was perched on the tallest branch.
“Yes, when you tell your stories, Baba Morshed, I forget all about the war,” I said, following the morshed’s gaze to the top of the branch. “Plus, school is just full of rules, and so many horrible things happen every day...” My voice trailed off as my arms folded in a self-hug, my fingers touching the fresh purple bruises.