Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o now adds another title to her name: author. Her new children’s book, ‘Sulwe’, an ode to dark-skinned girls, has received raved reviews. The book is an empowering story of a girl who’s feeling left out because of her looks uses myth and fantasy to teach a lesson about accepting who you are and discovering your own beauty.
The ‘Black Panther’ star discusses her other favourite books, her ideal reading experiences and her guilty pleasures.
Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: Bryan Cranston’s memoir, ‘A Life in Parts’. Shel Silverstein’s ‘A Light in the Attic’. Mary Oliver’s selected poems, ‘Devotions’. Ryder Carroll’s ‘The Bullet Journal Method’. ‘Queenie’, by Candice Carty-Williams.
Q: What’s the last great book you read?
A: ‘The Sun Does Shine’, by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin. It’s a shatteringly beautiful memoir about his life on death row for 28 years for a crime he did not commit. It’s a real downer to read about something as dark and unfortunate as wrongful incarceration, but Mr. Hinton expresses himself with a heart incomprehensibly swollen with love and gives meaningful insight into his alienating experience. And he does so with a disarming sense of humour. His message is ultimately like a cold shower that sobers you up to the reality of injustice in the legal system but also lifts you up as you consider the resilience of the human spirit.
Q: Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
A: What makes a work classic? Who determines that status? I recently picked up ‘Dawn’, by Octavia E Butler, and I was stunned by how relevant the themes of the book are to today. I did not imagine that sci-fi would be an enjoyable genre to get into for me, but Butler writes with such a familiarity that the alien is welcome and intriguing. She really artfully exposes our human impulse to self-destruct.
Q: Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
A: I have never been skiing, but I have a fantasy about going on a skiing trip with a bunch of friends and spending my time alone, in a cabin, by a fireplace, dressed in a cosy fleece onesie, wrapped in a warm blanket with a big mug of hot chocolate, reading a big, fat, juicy book that I have been intending to read all my life, while everybody else does the skiing. I myself would never actually go outside to ski. Instead I would passionately share my reading adventures with my exhausted, sunburned friends at the end of the day, over hearty dinners that I did not cook.
Q: What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
A: I can’t imagine it’s unknown, but ‘An Exaltation of Larks’, by James Lipton, is a book on collective nouns that I read from often, and I wish more people knew about it. I am madly in love with collective nouns! They make language so colourful and ticklish. I love throwing them into casual conversation. I mean, wouldn’t it be fun to hear people talking about a shrivel of critics or a sprig of vegetarians or a worship of writers or an undulation of hills more often?! Admittedly, a lot of the collective terms in the book need updating to fit our more conscious times, but it does still possess an embarrassment of riches (wink wink!).
Q: Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
A: I love the playwright Jocelyn Bioh for her irreverence and hilarious plays about the African experience. I have watched two productions of her work, ‘School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play’ and ‘Nollywood Dreams’, both of which made me laugh hard and often. I love that she is not afraid of the melodramatic and that her objective in both plays was as much to have the audience have a good time as it was to say something meaningful. Plays about African subject matter can be so heavy (I should know, I was in one on Broadway!), that it’s refreshing to have a voice like Bioh’s in American theatre saying, “Hang on, funny things happen in Africa too!”
Q: What’s the best book that’s been made into a great movie?
A: I loved “Life of Pi.” I read the book first and I remember being convinced that it was based on truth until the very end. I was nervous about watching the movie because I had so enjoyed my imaginative version, but Ang Lee did not disappoint! I also love the 1974 adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’.
Q: What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
A: Easy: ‘Americanah’, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! This is a cheeky answer because I am producing the adaptation into a miniseries as we speak. It’s been a work in progress for over five years now and we are so close to rolling the cameras! ‘Americanah’ is a dramatic romance and a coming-of-age story, a class narrative and a comedy of manners. I first read it back in 2013 and I was struck with how exactly I related to Adichie’s depiction of the contemporary African immigrant experience. She captures it, expresses it, analyses it and celebrates it. It’s a story begging to be experienced visually.
Q: Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
A: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was my guilty pleasure while I was shooting ‘12 Years a Slave’. I needed something light and inconsequential to take me out of the harshness of the world of that film, and EL James did the trick! I haven’t read any of the sequels, though, and I haven’t watched the films either. I guess we can say that I am saving those for another hard role I may play in the future.
Q: Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
A: Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ once inspired me to break up with a boyfriend. I was reading the play at the time and, like Nora, I realised that he was not at all the person I had believed him to be and that our relationship was based on mutual fantasies and misunderstandings. So, like Nora, I got away to understand myself better.
Q: Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
A: Intellectually might be more important to me, because I prefer books that teach me something practical. I am, for example, the kind of person who reads the instruction manual cover to cover before I use a new appliance or gadget.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you learnt from a book recently?
A: Bryan Cranston includes a system to evaluate scripts in his memoir, ‘A Life in Parts’. I am in the process of adopting and adapting it for my own use.
Q: Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
A: Here is where I admit that I do not actually enjoy reading. I much prefer listening to podcasts and audiobooks. But my parents have always been avid readers so I read because it has been instilled in me to do so, and I appreciate how much more I learn and retain when I commit my eyeballs to the page. That said, I like to read nonfiction. Autobiographies especially. Graphic novels and comic books are cool too because they are the in-between of a book and a movie. I have a disdain for books about war. And mystery bores me these days.
Q: What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A: A book of Yiddish proverbs.
Q: You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
A: I would have Shel Silverstein, Dr Seuss and Charles M Schulz over to my place. I would introduce them to my favourite cuisine, Nigerian food (in the hopes that it might feature in their work), and then spark a conversation about their thoughts on virtual reality, AI and online dating. Dinner would naturally morph into a jam session with a parley of musical instruments strewn about the room, during which I would ask them to put their best works to music for my niece who loves to dance.