Pop Culture

Lupita Nyong’o on the First-Ever Sulwe Day and the Power of Fantasy—From Storybooks to ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’

Where in the world is Lupita Nyong’o? This time next month, at least in fictional terms, she will find herself in high-tech paradise, reprising her role as Nakia in the anticipated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (The Marvel sequel, directed by Ryan Coogler, arrives in theaters November 11.) But for now, the Kenyan-Mexican actor is off the grid, eluding introductory queries into her whereabouts. “Outer space?” I venture, tossing out a location at once satisfyingly concrete and comic-book fantastical. “That’s the answer,” Nyong’o says with a laugh. “That is my last and final answer.”

The interstellar woman of mystery is on the phone to discuss her 2019 children’s book, Sulwe, which is the centerpiece of a nationwide reading initiative this weekend. Timed with the third anniversary of publication, the inaugural Sulwe Day on October 15 is the culmination of a joint effort to donate some 60,000 copies to young readers in underserved communities. (Supporters include Simon & Schuster; First Book, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit; and Lancôme, with whom Nyong’o has served as an ambassadress since 2014.) There are also accompanying classroom activities and a special video with the author, whose face children might recognize for her Marvel fame, not to mention her resemblance to Sulwe’s bright-eyed protagonist.

Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o

“By making this book widely available, I’m hoping it’s going to get into the hands of the kids that need it the most, you know?” says Nyong’o, in her melodious way. “The power of imagination and storybooks cannot be underestimated.” The narrative follows a little girl named Sulwe, after the word for star in the Kenyan language Luo. With skin the “color of midnight,” she doesn’t understand why her family members’ complexions hew closer to dawn, noon, and dusk. The name-calling and alienation she encounters—stemming from a phenomenon known as colorism—sends her self-esteem spiraling, until a shooting star whisks her into the sky for a lesson about two sisters, Night and Day. There, a twinkling chorus points out that brightness isn’t only reserved for daylight, as proved by the sisters’ equal and opposite majesty. “While Day had a golden glow,” the book explains, “with Night everything had a silver sheen, elegant and fine.” 

The shooting-star voyage in Sulwe.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Illustrations by Vashti Harrison.

So it goes with Nyong’o, a glittering red-carpet presence from the moment she first arrived on the awards-show circuit in 2013, with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Her force-of-nature performance in the film earned her an Academy Award for best supporting actress the following year. Sometime after that rush into the limelight, Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico and raised mostly in Kenya, where her parents are from, got to reflecting upon early experiences that warped her own self-perception. “I had been deeply affected by colorism as a child—the preferential treatment of light skin—and I hadn’t really come to terms with the negative effects on me until I was a teenager,” she says, recalling a speech she gave on the subject in the mid-2010s. But she realized the target demographic was much younger; kids needed to hear those lessons “before the world had told them how to value themselves,” she says. “That was the child that I wanted to speak to, to kind of plant a seed in their minds of their self-worth before it was even challenged.”

Nyong’o, in her light.

Photograph by Micaiah Carter.

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