I am delighted to share an honest and thought-provoking interview with Monika Singh Gangotra about her picture book on colourism, Sunflower Sisters, illustrated by Michaela Dias-Hayes.
Born to Indian parents, Monika grew up in New South Wales and now lives in Birmingham with her husband and children. Monika has experienced colourism throughout her life and wants to “help change mindsets about beauty within our community and empower our children to carry this through to future generations. We are all beautiful, and the colour of our skin does not change that one bit.”
Best friends Amrita and Kiki are getting ready to celebrate family weddings. We experience the preparations through Amrita’s eyes. Aunty keeps suggesting ways to try to lighten the bride’s skin and Amrita questions why. Amrita’s Mum stands up to the colourism and helps Amrita see that we are all beautiful exactly the way we are.
The conversations feel completely authentic. The phrasing and language hasn’t been condensed and the subject of colourism is tackled head-on. This may feel confrontational or triggering to some people but as Monika will explain in her interview, Sunflower Sisters is based on real conversations from Monika’s life and ultimately the book ends with an uplifting message of hope. Michaela’s gorgeous sunflowers and stunning illustrations add warmth to the book.
Children who have not experienced colourism are likely to have questions after reading Sunflower Sisters, and there is a fantastic information page at the back of the book on colourism. But now, let’s hear from Monika in her own words why Sunflower Sisters is a much-needed diverse picture book…
Hi Monika, thank you for talking to me about Sunflower Sisters. First, can you tell us a bit about the book, and what inspired you to write it?
Sunflower Sisters is a story that follows two best friends, Amrita and Kiki, on their journey through self-love, sisterhood and the power of loving one another. Specifically, this story focuses on the issue of familial colourism and how we can tackle this with love, kindness, acceptance, strength and honesty.
Colourism is an issue that has followed me throughout my whole life and continues to do so to ALL South Asians in some way. With a deep-rooted history related to colonialism and caste, colourism has become incredibly engrained in the way South Asians view beauty and success. South Asian pop culture is saturated in colourism and our exposure and ideology is incredibly high. As I began to work in the beauty industry, what I was taught to believe about what is beautiful became incongruent with what I saw and felt for myself. And I wanted to create change. I feel social change is incredibly powerful through children and it is our responsibility as adults to help steer them in the direction of love.
I also wanted children to have some books on their shelves that are rich in diversity, representative of multicultural communities, relatable characters, contexts and adventures. Books that empower readers to make positive change. Further, I wanted more representation for the way we live our lives; the buildings, our clothes, our neighbours, whilst also addressing and raising awareness of cultural issues and cultural wonders that are still alive and present today.
Do you think there is a lack of awareness about colourism outside of Black and brown communities? If so, why do you think this is?
Yes, absolutely. Colourism is incredibly dense within its own communities and is often perpetuated by our own people. Like many other elements of racism that are coming to light, our generation is coming to learn what that means for us, particularly this issue of colourism. Colourism as a construct often goes missed because it is so engrained in the way we view beauty and in the language we speak, so much so that the word “Gori” (fair) has become synonymous with the word Beauty. Growing up it wasn’t something we wondered about. It simply was just that way.
What kind of research did you undertake when writing the book?
Sunflower Sisters is written from my lived experiences of colourism. The phrases you read in the book are all taken from real-life comments and scenarios that I have experienced and been witness too. The editing process of the story was conducted by a Black-British editor who also has her own lived experiences of colourism. Further, there was also consultation with black, anti-racism experts to ensure this potentially sensitive and triggering content was dealt with accurately and lovingly.
Are you worried about how the book will be received within Black and brown communities? Do you think there may be some resistance?
Due to the nature of the topic of colourism and the way we have chosen to tackle it head on, I am sure it may be confrontational and triggering for many. However, it is the goal that this book will provide hope to its readers. So far, I am so grateful that many of the readers have responded with resonance, understanding, openness, love and just as important, willingness to learn from those readers who admit they don’t know much about colourism.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
There are many things that I hope readers will take from this story.
- Hope. Things can change and we can do it with love.
- Representation. For readers to see themselves in stories that they can relate to. Where they live, how they dress, the language they use, their experiences, relationships and journeys.
- Education. Learning about colourism and its impact.
- The strength love has in making change.
- The importance of loving yourself and loving one another for who they are. This journey of self-love is always changing. It can be difficult to love yourself every day. We will have good days and bad days. However, we can choose to love others, always. The importance of being someone’s sunflower is a large focus in this book. “Loving one another for who we are is a great way to change the world.”
The sunflower as a symbol of strength and pride and beauty is very powerful. How did you come up with this as the motif woven throughout the story?
I remember growing up and watching my mum walking around the front yard of our coastal home in the early morning. The sun high in the sky and the most beautiful and brightly coloured birds chirping loudly, eating from all the fruit trees she had planted herself – pears, guava, peaches and a mango tree to name just to name a few. As more and more birds began to come to our house to eat and party, Mum felt there wasn’t enough fruit on the trees to feed them all so she began to buy large bags of bird seed to scatter on the front yard. This bird seed mix included sunflower seeds and before we knew it, we had these incredible sunflowers growing in our front yard. As tall as can be. These were some of the best days and the most beautiful images of my mum that I carry in my heart and I can see them ever so clearly when I close my eyes and think of home. This image of my mum and her sunflowers is how this book came to be. I feel that sunflowers grow their best when they are surrounded by the warmth of the sun. I also noticed that some of the sunflowers looked towards one another. This is the imagery that I have used in the book to describe the important relationships between Amrita, Kiki and their mothers. Amrita looks up towards her mother for love and guidance (as the sun). Her mother provides her with a safe environment to grow full of warmth and love. Sisterhood is explained through Amrita and Kiki being sunflowers for themselves and also one another. They know that when their sun isn’t there, they can look towards each other, always be there for one another – unconditionally.
How did you feel when you first saw your characters and story brought to life by Michaela Dias-Hayes’ illustrations?
Full of love and joy. The synergy between my words and Michaela’s art was fate. The way she incorporated prints from clothes she had seen from my own personal wardrobe and the way the characters were represented, all the way down to Amrita’s room looking like my very own daughter’s bedroom brought me so much joy.
Do you have a favourite illustration in the book?
I love the bathroom scene. The colours and the way Daddi is illustrated reminds me so much of my Daddi, right down to the sliders. But my most favourite page is the very last. The colours, the diversity, little hints of my own story and journey in the colours and prints used. My heart sang when I first saw that page and Owlet Press lovingly gifted me a framed copy of this spread to hang on my wall.
Diversity in children’s publishing is a hot topic right now. Which other diverse children’s books are you loving at the moment?
These are just a few of the books we absolutely love:
- Eyes that Kiss in the Corners
- The Proudest Blue
- Omar, the Bees and Me
- Julian is a mermaid
- Nen and the Lonely Fisherman
What advice would you give to writers of colour trying to break into the industry?
Write the stories that you want to see out in the world. Keep writing, keep submitting, keep going. There is room and your voice is important. And find a team that helps you carry through your authentic self and doesn’t ask you to hide away your uniqueness. Never compromise who you are just for a break in the industry.
Thank you, Monika, for such an honest and heart-felt interview.
Sunflower Sisters by Monika Singh Gangotra and Michaela Dias-Hayes was published by Owlet Press, 6 July 2021
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion.