Lolá Ákínmádé Åkerström’s fiction debut—an award-winning Nigerian-Swedish travel photographer and writer living in Stockholm who has graced the pages of National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and New York Times—is a striking story. A unique distillation of commercial and literary fiction that feels like a tragedy, In Every Mirror She’s Black braids together the stories of three women—career-driven Kemi, ex-model Brittany-Rae, and refugee Muna—to explore what it means to be a Black woman in Sweden. This unputdownable read many have called “the perfect book club book” is preceded by the 2018 Lowell Thomas Award winner Due North and the bestselling LAGOM: Swedish Secret of Living Well. In this interview, Ákínmádé Åkerström talks freely about how In Every Mirror She’s Black upends mainstream ideas about Nordic society, her difficult journey to publication, and writing Black women.

JANE: Can you give us three book recommendations for people who loved this book?

LOLA: Absolutely. These are all books that I’ve recently read or am reading, really loved, and would like to share with people. Wahala by Nikki May is coming out in January. It follows the lives of three friends, but a fourth character is later introduced. The themes in In Every Mirror She’s Black are a darker and heavier but I just love Nikki May and that book. I finished it all in a weekend. The next book is The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw who gave the cover quote for my book. She is amazing. Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen. The book has been out for a while, but it’s just been republished. It’s the first in a trilogy and I had an interview with her recently for both our book launches. Her book is great because it helps you understand what it is to want a tribe as a Black woman and the many things that people take for granted. I’m currently reading and already loving Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Blackburn.

JANE: I can’t believe that your manuscript was rejected over 70 times. You’ve hinted that the way in which the novel contradicts the popular illusion of the successful Nordic social model might be to blame. How has the novel been received in Sweden?

LOLA: Yes. I think that is just one of the many reasons why the book was rejected. The book sits somewhere between literary and commercial fiction. Many of the imprints that do commercial said, well, it’s too literary for us and vice-versa. It centres Black women in such a mainstream way that a lot of the gatekeepers felt white women wouldn’t connect with it. And then it’s also showing a multi-dimensional view of Sweden, right? I live in Sweden. I’m a travel writer and I write about Sweden for several publications. I do love living here and it’s my new home. But I am also a Black woman living here. That means I also must share a balanced view of what it is to live in Sweden. We’ve yet to get a Swedish publisher, but we already have foreign publishers and interest. It’s just a matter of time before it comes out in Swedish.

JANE: The three women—Kemi, Brittany-Rae, and Muna—are divided by class, ethnicity, lifestyle, and more, but they all know what it means to be a Black woman in white society. Why did you choose to put these stories side by side? How do you see them in dialogue?

LOLA: I really wanted to tackle class, career, and culture. I wanted people to see that even though these three are navigating different spaces with different levels of privileges, they’re also feeling the same things: isolation and exclusion. Muna’s story was especially important to me because I used to visit an asylum centre for newly arrived refugees as part of a photography project and I met many people like Muna. I wanted to bring that story to light. With Brittany, I wanted to show the kind of Black woman that’s just tired of being strong, working, and serving others. She wants to be taken care of; she just wants what she wants. She’s done smiling for 20 years as a flight attendant to people that don’t care. Kemi is the stereotypical strong, successful Black woman who is very career-driven. I want to show her making mistakes and show that she also wants to be taken care of, particularly emotionally.

It’s been very interesting hearing feedback, and the overall response has been great which I’m grateful for. And then there’s been other responses from non-Black women saying, well, we could only connect with Muna. That made me think: oh, so you can only connect with the narrative of the always-suffering Black woman. The Black woman who wants to thrive or that’s tired of surviing is an issue for you. That’s very telling.

“It centres Black women in such a mainstream way that a lot of the gatekeepers felt white women wouldn’t connect with it.”

Jane: That’s shocking. You’d think the type of people who read more literary-minded books would find it easier to connect with the other two middle-class characters.

LOLA: Yes, yes. What I also love is that the type of people who can connect to the book exist across a spectrum. That’s why I wrote it in this way. I wrote it in very simple prose. I could have made it more literary and as a travel writer, I am more used to writing in that style. But with this story, I wanted to create something direct, precise, and tightly-written. I wanted you to feel it and get emotional. I didn’t want to hide their struggles behind flowery language. They just are. A friend of mine said the book feels urgent and I feel that’s true, especially in the Nordics and Europe.

JANE: As the two only Black women running in a white circle, one might expect Brittany-Rae and Kemi to become good friends. What was going through your mind as you were writing these relationship dynamics and figuring how these lives might intersect?

LOLA: I just wanted to reflect reality. Black women are not monoliths. We’re just not. We don’t all have the same values, experiences, desires, and so forth. I want to show that in a very real way and I wanted these women to be individuals. White people love to say that the few Black people they know should be friends. It doesn’t work that way. Think about it. These three women are all in very different socioeconomic classes. Brittany is married to one of the wealthiest men in Sweden. There’s no way she would interact with Muna in an organic way. They’re not going to be girlfriends. Kemi might recognise and greet Muna in the hallways at work, but she wouldn’t really be best friends with her. Britany and Kemi wouldn’t really be friends either. Kemi works hard. She is the successful Black woman who is also judgmental and feels like Brittany is just using her beauty to get ahead. There’s going to be some contention and that’s why Kemi comes off as disparaging.

JANE: In Every Mirror She’s Black is thoroughly political and weaves together so many intersecting issues without ever spreading itself too thin. What advice would you give to authors who wish to write a similarly ambitious debut?

LOLA: The publication journey was rough and that was because I stayed true to my voice. I knew that this is what I wanted to write, even though sometimes I got scared and worried about how it might be received. My advice is to trust your voice because the world is going to try and change it. There are many authors that see publishers change their style and message, and I’m grateful that I didn’t go through that. I had wonderful editors Christa Desir and Erin McClary at Sourcebooks. They heard my voice and what I was trying to say.

Even if it takes longer, it’s worth waiting to find the right editors who are not going to try to change your writing. One of Sweden’s largest publishers was interested in the book, but they wanted me to remove a lot of scenes and tone my voice down. I told them: No. The book had already gone through 70 rejections, and, at that point, my skin was leather thick. It also shows that there’s a one-dimensional image of Sweden which is being upheld, when in fact it is a very multicultural, multidimensional place.

“The publication journey was rough and that was because I stayed true to my voice.”

JANE: Many have called this the perfect book club book because it touches on so many issues without ever sacrificing ‘good ol’ storytelling’. What writers or traditions inspire your writing?

LOLA: There are so many amazing writers, you know, but as a Black writer, I feel that I must reference the amazing ones who have opened the space for us, like Toni Morrison. They’re the ones who made this journey easier for us in that sense that we can now come in and take up space. You told me you read this book in one day and that’s because it has a certain intensity that makes you want to keep reading. I’ve spent many years as a travel writer where my work must capture a sense of place in very few words (around 1000 words in certain magazines). Many years of writing in this way helped me write this book because I know how to use transitions to keep the energy going.

JANE: Ultimately, all these three women have tragic endings. It’s a really devastating story. Why did you choose to write sadness when so many want stories about joy?

LOLA: I am a joyful person, optimist and even idealist [both laugh], but I needed to write a book that reflected reality in that space. Being a Black woman in the US, even though the US is crazy, has its privileges. I love living in the Nordics and I’ve contributed a lot to the society through taxes and such, but I don’t have the same opportunities as others as an ambitious Black woman. There’s a concrete ceiling. This book is urgent and timely because certain spaces are still not available to Black women in Europe. Where is the European Oprah Winfrey? Where are the European Black women CEOs? There are still many spaces that are closed off to us, even when (and especially when) we’re the smartest people in the room. When you move to Europe, it’s almost like agreeing to being a second-class citizen. Just be happy and live your life in the corner.

It’s especially true for refugees. It’s one thing to publicly say, we’re bringing these people in. It’s another to then go and park them into a corner. Most people want to have a purpose in life. That’s a basic human thing and if you understand that truth, then you understand that people want to make a useful contribution, even if they are working in what people call menial jobs. Muna loved being a janitor: it gave her purpose and she did the job masterfully. It wasn’t that I just wanted to write a depressing story: I wanted to write a valid story that would ring true for many people. If we do not do these things, if we do not take care of each other, even the strongest people have breaking points.

Award-winning writer and photographer LOLÁ ÁKÍNMÁDÉ ÅKERSTRÖM has photographed and dispatched from 70+ countries for various publications. She is the 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year Bill Muster Award recipient. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, New York Times, The Sunday Times, Lonely Planet, amongst others. In addition to contributing to several books, she is the author of the 2018 Lowell Thomas Award winner for best travel book, Due North, and the bestselling LAGOM: Swedish Secret of Living Well. In Every Mirror She’s Black is her fiction debut. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter.

“I needed to write a book that reflected reality”: A conversation with Lọlá Ákínmádé ÅkerströmIn Every Mirror Black by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström
Published by Head of Zeus on 28 October 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Urban, Debut, Literary fiction, Women's fiction, Afropean, Suspense, Womanism
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Three Black women are linked in unexpected ways to the same influential white man in Stockholm as they build their new lives in the most open society run by the most private people. Successful marketing executive Kemi Adeyemi is lured from the U.S. to Sweden by Jonny von Lundin, CEO of the nation's largest marketing firm, to help fix a PR fiasco involving a racially tone-deaf campaign. A killer at work but a failure in love, Kemi's move is a last-ditch effort to reclaim her social life. A chance meeting with Jonny in business class en route to the U.S. propels former model-turned-flight-attendant Brittany-Rae Johnson into a life of wealth, luxury, and privilege—a life she's not sure she wants—as the object of his unhealthy obsession. And refugee Muna Saheed, who lost her entire family, finds a job cleaning the toilets at Jonny's office as she works to establish her residency in Sweden and, more importantly, seeks connection and a place she can call home. Told through the perspectives of each of the three women, In Every Mirror She's Black is a fast-paced, richly nuanced yet accessible contemporary novel that touches on important social issues of racism, classism, fetishisation, and tokenism, and what it means to be a Black woman navigating a white-dominated society.