Sulwe (Amazon | Book Depository)
Written by Lupita Nyong’O Illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Published by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers (2019)
ISBN: 1534425365 (ISBN13: 9781534425361) Borrowed from NLB Singapore’s Overdrive. Book photos from E-book.
I have been intrigued by this title since I have seen it shared in the kidlitosphere community – not so much because it was authored by a Hollywood celebrity – but because I am a fan of Vashti Harrison’s art (I featured both of her Little Dreamers here and here for our #WomenReadWomen2019 theme). When I saw that it was available via Overdrive, I immediately read the e-book version. I am sure the actual physical copy of the book is even more awe-inspiring.
Sulwe feels bad about the way she looks. Her midnight-coloured skin is much darker when compared to the rest of her family whose golden glow seemed like the ticket to making friends, being popular, and yes, being a star. She tried most everything to make her skin much lighter, including using make-up, erasing the darkness in her skin, and praying with hands clasped to the heavens to please please please make her skin lighter.
The above image is not unfamiliar to me. Colonized brown-skinned women have been brainwashed into perceiving their skin colour as inferior – ugly even – using Western conceptions of beauty as the sole standard to emulate. Lupita Nyong’O very subtly introduced that concept here in the form of a wondrous myth that Sulwe was privileged to witness, by some dab of magic – call it an answered prayer with a twist.
In this mythological tale narrated by an itinerant star, it was shown how being fair-skinned is equated with being “lovely, nice, pretty” whereas being midnight-skinned made people call you “scary, bad, ugly.”
While I initially harboured a few reservations about the story as is my wont with celebrity-authored children’s books, Sulwe won me over with its starry-eyed-truth and vulnerability. In the Author’s Note, Lupita Nyong’O shared how she was also teased and taunted as a child because of the colour of her skin, and how it took her a long time to feel beautiful inside and out. As I was reading the backstory, I thought that it would be good to also have a narrative about accomplished dark-skinned women having insecurities and vulnerabilities – exploring realistically how this is an issue one continually navigates throughout one’s life mainly because of the societal expectations leveled against women, especially women of colour. But I suppose that will be a story for another time. 🙂
#WomenReadWomen2019: 37 (out of target 25): Kenya