Design Me, Kenyalang 3: The Cover

(This is the third in a series of posts on the design of Kulleh Grasi's Tell Me, Kenyalang. Read the first one and the second one if you don't want to be confused.)

Most book covers are terrible for very predictable reasons: they are effectively designed by committee. An editor gives an idea to an outside designer who probably has not read the book; the marketing department has concerns; the publisher, who's paying for the whole thing, might not like a color; the author may demand that things be taken in a different direction. At Circumference, we do not have the luxury of being terrible for that reason because we are too small and do not have, for example, a marketing department to yell at us.

We still want the cover to be nice. But the purpose of a cover design is very different from the purpose of the interior design. A cover’s job is to make a potential reader pick the book up and buy it, while the interior's job is to support the text. The concerns of the cover are primarily financial rather than aesthetic or literary. As someone who cares more about ideas than things, this is less interesting. But a cover can still convey something interesting.

The cover of this book actually started before we’d published any books: we had to have an image to represent the covers of our first two books – two so that people could subscribe. Again, the cover’s reason for being is financial. But we had to have two book covers and they had to contrast. We had our logo – cyan, magenta, yellow, and black – and using yellow and magenta as the primary colors of the two books was easy. Camouflage was magenta – the title is still magenta – and, without very much thought, Tell Me, Kenyalang became yellow. And somehow it stayed yellow.

There were a number of different fake covers that we used which aren't particularly interesting. An inflection point happened when I realized that kenyalang was the word for the rhinoceros hornbill, a photogenic bird if ever there was one. It's a very strong and immediate image that's easy to visualize – just like the word camouflage. Problem solved! There are plenty of old Victorian paintings of hornbills. We could use one of them. But this is not right. A British colonial painter looking at a hornbill in the nineteenth century was seeing something very different that an Iban poet does in 2019. Colonial portrayals of hornbills don't actually have anything to do with this book.

A placeholder cover. What a fine-looking bird! I don’t remember where this image comes from.

Another image came my way. I discovered the work of Carol Rubinstein, which is really worth talking about at great length by itself. She went to Borneo in the late 1960s and spent several years living with Dayak groups, recording their songs and poetry. The Sarawak Museum in Kuching published two enormous volumes of her work as issues of the Sarawak Museum Journal in the 1970s (and a handful of selections of the poetry were published by other presses and ended up in Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies of ethnopoetics). The title page of one of the volumes features drawing of a kenyalang. Perfect, I thought, here's a kenyalang, one that has previous experience with poetry in translation. That's our bird.

Volume II of the Sarawak Museum Journal Special Monograph No. 2: Poems of Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak: Some of the songs and chants (Part II). This particular volume seems to have traveled from Kuching to Detroit, then, somehow, to New York, then to Singapore, where I took this picture and gave the book to Pauline Fan, who gave it to Kulleh Grasi who brought it back to Kuching.

Because of a desire to have this book match our first book, I took that photo of the kenyalang and turned it into a shape – the same thing I did to turn the image of a tree into camouflage. The first thing I did was to make it black and put it on a yellow background with the title treated just as in Camouflage:

First version of a cover with the kenyalang design.

This pretty clearly moved to the abstract: the drawing isn’t really recognizable when it’s just the front cover (though it becomes more recognizable when the flaps are opened). I like this: it’s striking. But it also seemed like I was inadvertently plagiarizing Andy Warhol’s design (and color palette!) for The Velvet Underground & Nico:

Andy Warhol's 1967 design for The Velvet Underground & Nico in unpeeled (left) and semi-peeled (right) states.

That’s a great design – particularly when the banana could be peeled off. But it doesn’t quite fit; and variations on that design are everywhere in Southeast Asia for the past few years, pretty quickly going from signifying a hipster to just being another part of vernacular fashion. And a similar issue came to light when I spent a little time in Borneo: just like the VU banana, the kenyalang image is on everything. Here, for example, you see it on the Sarawak Hornbill Tourism Award:

Good work, Gunung Mulu National Park!

Again there’s a reason that this image is popular. It’s a good design. But it also signifies preconceived ideas about Borneo: as the place where you go on a fancy vacation to see the orangutans. This is not what we were trying to convey. Kulleh’s poetry moves back and forth between the ancient and the modern: one of Tokyo’s airports is in there along with Iban mythology.

What I wanted was to keep the kenyalang but also mix in something else. I thought of the weaving designs that Bruce Mau used for some of Zone’s books in the 1990s:

Cover by Bruce Mau for The Decadent Reader (Zone Books, 1997) – the interwoven images are hidden by a translucent outer jacket. More info here.

Conceptually that’s maybe a little too direct in its equation of sex and death (though it’s a fine choice if you’re making a cover for The Decadent Reader) through intercutting images. Trying to do something a bit subtler but with the same kind of effect, I decided to use the kenyalang shape as a mask. It could be some kind of glitchy Blade Runner future city seen through the kenyalang. Here’s a version with a weird hotel in Lisbon filling that function:

It's hard to tell, but this shows the glassy insides of a hotel. There are weird dangling jellyfish sculptures as well.

I like the interplay between the organic shape of the kenyalang and the rectilinear lines of the architecture. But this is maybe going too far: that contrast I was trying to look for was already there. You can see the modern in the monochromatic background, the digitally processed shape of the kenyalang drawing, the typography. Things are starting to get lost; trying to figure out what the shape is as well as what's in the photography behind it is visually challenging. So I stepped back, and instead put in a photo I had taken from a river in Borneo, the forest and the sky above the water. It's not a particularly good photo:

But in context it works, and the cover seemed to snap into place. The trees mirror the trees that are on the front cover of Camouflage. And, with a couple of tweaks, that's how we ended up with this cover:

Dan ViselNovember 12, 2019