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.
What books are on your nightstand?
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.
What’s the last great book you read?
‘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.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
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.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
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.
What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
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!).
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
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!”
What’s the best book that’s been made into a great movie?
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’.
What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
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.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
‘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.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
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.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
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.
What’s the most interesting thing you learnt from a book recently?
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.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
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.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A book of Yiddish proverbs.
You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
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.