Monika Singh Gangotra is the author of the glorious picture book, Sunflower Sisters. With the most vibrant, eye-catching and spectacular artwork by Michaela Dias-Hayes, Sunflower Sisters is a celebration of colour, of self, of friendship – whilst offering a window into the lived experiences of those affected by colourism. We’re very excited to welcome Monika to MyBookCorner today, to share her motivation behind her book. Grab a cuppa, this is a wonderful interview…
I know what you may be thinking. What could she possibly know about colourism? Being of slightly fairer skin does not exempt you from being exposed to the harmful conversations and cultural pressures of colourism, let me tell you.
There was an ongoing underlying fear that if I were to become darker skinned that I would be seen as unworthy. Unworthy of love and unable to attain success.
I remember conversations regarding the colour of my skin starting from the age of 6 when I was discouraged from playing outside and taken out of swimming lessons for the fear of getting a tan if I stayed in the sun for too long. Now I’m not saying that I was going to be a swimming gold medallist, but outdoor childhood fun always had a sinister undertone because of these constructs of beauty drilled in to us at such a young age. Colourism followed me throughout my whole life. We grew up with an exposure to South Asian pop culture that held standards of beauty that were unattainable, because fundamentally changing the colour of your skin is impossible. Almost every song and every Bollywood film at some point would make reference to how being fair is a preferred aspect of beauty when it comes to skin colour and you could only be a heroine in your own life if you were fair too.
At my engagement I was told that my “forehead looked dark” so leading up to my wedding, I was told to stay indoors and try various facemasks to achieve that “bridal glow” implying that I would only look beautiful if I remained fair and that could change on any given day if I didn’t follow the rules. Strangers would approach me when I was pregnant and suggest I drink lots of saffron milk to ensure I had a fair skinned child and in my experience, when a child is born there are three things people want to know. What is the baby’s gender? Which parent does it look like? And finally there is a comment on the colour of their skin. Is the baby gori chitti? (literal translation “fair white”) and if the baby is of a darker skin tone, it is commented that it has a pakka rung (literal translation “ripe colour”) and is always said with an undertone of disappointment.
I was advised when attending social South Asian events that certain colours, such as yellow, would make my skin look darker and that I should probably choose another colour, no matter how much joy wearing it would bring me. These comments made by loved ones and strangers alike were not malicious. The comments and guidance were always well meaning and not intended to hurt us. They were done so because they thought they were protecting us and helping us live a life full of opportunity – ones that we would simply not be offered if our skin was darker. I believe they did not know any better and these words have become deeply ingrained in the way we speak when we describe another person in our community.
My new children’s book is not aimed at demonising or shaming them but rather aims to lovingly show those in our community that these comments and ridiculous standards of beauty do not in any way determine one’s attractiveness, success or happiness in life. These comments can instil irrational shame and fear and can be harmful. And when you are continually exposed to this at such a young age, you may not know any better, and if you do it requires an immeasurable amount of strength to fight back against this when it is such a normal part of your everyday life.
A large part of who you become is shaped by colourism from the way we view ourselves and the way we view beauty in others. I have heard many stories over the years about people from the South Asian community regarding colourism and although we are exposed to this in varying degrees as individuals, I believe there is not a single South Asian person who hasn’t been privy to such comments throughout their lives, whether it be directed towards them or those they love. Sunflower Sisters sheds light on this issue and how we can lovingly help change mindsets about beauty within our community and empower our children to carry this through to future generations. It starts with our children and it comes from us as grownups to recognise these harmful conversations and to try and reshape the way we speak.
We are all beautiful, and the colour of our skin does not change that one bit.
Sunflower Sisters by Monika Singh Gangotra, illustrated by Michaela Dias-Hayes, is published by Owlet Press on 6th July 2021, £7.99 paperback.