anatomy of a book cover

Yesterday, I met the woman who designed the cover – and layout – for What the Oceans Rememberand it was wonderful.

I’ve just finished the proofreading and indexing stage and while this was painstaking, detail-oriented work, I also revelled in it. Not because of the indexing, which made me want to poke my eyes out with a fork. Rather, much of my revelling has to do with the fact that the book has been so beautifully designed – from the cover right down to the insides. Even in its current form – a bunch of photocopied pages bound in cerlox – it feels good to hold it, page through it, see it come together. It’s a thing of beauty, an art object, and I can’t wait to hold the actual book in my hands in a few months.

And that’s exactly what I said to the designer, Lara Minja, of Lime Design.

So let’s look more closely at the glorious cover…


I don’t remember exactly how I replied when I was asked for cover preferences way back when, but I suspect my answer included some combination of colour, texture, layers, and collage. I’m nothing if not predictable that way.

One thing I do remember is that at some point, I sent along some low resolution scans of mid-nineteenth-century watercolour paintings of Sarah plantation (where my ancestors were enslaved) from Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum collection.

“Plantagehuis met oprijlaan en tuin.” January 1867. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
“Aquarel voorstellende het hospitaal op planate Sarah” Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

And then I got back to whatever it was I was doing at the time

Later, having read and thought through the manuscript some more, Wilfrid Laurier University Press’s senior editor, Siobhan McMenemy, weighed in with a thought that it might be an idea to somehow include a page from the accounting registers – documents produced by the Dutch administration to determine the amount of compensation slave owners were eligible for after the abolition of slavery. What she had in mind was a wash of an image, a hint, in the background, of some of the names of the enslaved.

That sounded good to me, too. But beyond that, I had no idea what to expect.

The alchemy of cover design is something I can’t even pretend to understand, but suffice to say, Lara did an incredible job.

The cover for What the Oceans Rememberis everything and more than I could have imagined, and it represents the book more evocatively than I ever could have imagined.

The cover image is a series of layers, each one a facet of the story itself.

The main image is a watercolour dating from around 1860. The description states that it depicts Nijd en Spijt and Alkmaar plantations along the Commewijne River in Suriname. In the eighteenth century, Alkmaar was a coffee plantation and later, became a sugar plantation. By the mid-nineteenth century, it had grown to become one of the largest plantations in the country, with almost 450 slaves.

“Zicht op de buurplantages “Nijd en Spijt” en “Alkmaar”, aan de Beneden Commewijne rivier” Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
Nijd en Spijt – which translates to Envy and Regret – was a coffee plantation. Much smaller than Alkmaar, it has nevertheless played a large role in Surinamese history and folklore. This is because one of its owners, Susanna du Plessis, was known as one of cruelest and most violent slaver owners in the colony.

This violence isn’t visible in the paintings; indeed, the enslaved are completely invisible. And yet, there is much that I love about this painting. First and foremost, the riverside setting, along with white house and the palm trees, allows one to imagine this as an idyllic, Caribbean getaway, even as the Dutch flag centres this as a colonial space. The lighting is diffuse, watery; this appears to be a fully cultivated dreamspace at the edge of the South American rainforest.

Dreamspace. Diffuse. Watery… but also: Appears. Seems. Allows. Imagines….. This painting is simultaneously about the artifices that sustained colonial societies that depended on enslaved and indentured labour, and about the lush, abundant beauty of this place.

Here, for example, is a photo I took of Frederiksdorp, a former coffee plantation and later police post, now resort.


But behind this watercolour, washing through the painted sky, hints of handwriting bleed through, in this way highlighting the dark underbelly of this imagined tropical getaway: the complex, violent, and harsh realities of a slave society, and indeed, of notorious enslavers like Susanna du Plessis. This is a page from the record of Sarah plantation, where a number of my ancestors were enslaved.

The ledgers bleeding through into the watercolour…

Finally, the main image is criss-crossed with latitude and longitude lines. To me, these represent not only the complicated migrations – both forced and voluntary – that brought the enslaved, the enslavers, and later, the indentured, to Suriname, but also the memories of oceanic travel, where latitude and longitude markings notated in logs and journals by ships’ captains and crews are the only signposts, the only way to mark time and space during oceanic crossings, and in some instances, the only way of marking the passage of life into death.

Layers. Textures. Collage. Colour. This cover has it all, and I’m absolutely in love with it. It is not only a beautiful design, but it is also a deeply meaningful one. Having seen a proof of the inside, I can tell you that it’s just as evocative.

Thank you, Lara and Lime Design. This cover is magic.

Want a preview of the book? Advance readers’ copies available for request at NetGalley. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book – both its cover and its content!


(c) Sonja Boon, 2019

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