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In Conversation With Author Lola Akinmade Åkerström On Visual Storytelling And Drawing On Personal Experiences To Create Works Of Fiction

In Every Mirror She’s Black is not Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s first foray into publishing. As an award-winning travel writer and photographer, she has already released two bestselling non-fiction books (Lagom and Due North). But her debut novel – which focuses on the lives of three Black women in Stockholm – adds yet another string to an already impressive bow.

Readers are first introduced to Kemi, who is lured to the city after being poached by a major marketing agency. Next, we meet Brittany-Rae, an air hostess and former model who travels to Stockholm for love. And finally, there is Muna, a refugee who is starting life anew in Sweden. All three orbit the same enigmatic Swedish CEO – but you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Inspired by the author’s own experiences, In Every Mirror She’s Black explores the particular ways in which race and class intersect in Swedish society. Following on from our October Book Club, we caught up with her to discuss the process of crafting her three protagonists and what she hopes readers will take away from the novel.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself…

I’m a visual storyteller who uses various platforms to tell cultural and social stories inspired by my travels and time spent with different cultures. Before becoming a professional travel writer and photographer, I spent more than twelve years as a geographic information systems (GIS) programmer and system architect. So I consider myself a multipotentialite with equal access to both her logical and creative sides.

I’m a visual storyteller who uses various platforms to tell cultural and social stories inspired by my travels and time spent with different cultures.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I was around ten years old I saw some photos in a magazine and wanted to craft a story around the lives of the people in them. I wrote tons of short stories throughout my teenage years, so getting the chance to write fiction now feels like returning to my first love.

You’re a travel writer by trade – has this work manifested itself in your book at all?

Many readers say they felt Stockholm was the fourth main character in the book based on the way I described the city and incorporated its traditions into the everyday lives of my characters. In terms of writing, as a travel writer, you often get 800-1,200 words to write a gripping story. So, In Every Mirror, She’s Black was written with the intensity of a series of 1,200 word stories stitched together, which gave it that feeling of being a page-turner that never let up emotionally.

You’re also a photographer. Do you ever visualise your characters before writing them?

That’s how I always start creating my characters. I visualise every physical aspect of them before ever assigning virtues and personalities to them.

That’s how I always start creating my characters. I visualise every physical aspect of them before ever assigning virtues and personalities to them.

In Every Mirror, She’s Black focuses on three Black women from different cultural backgrounds – Jamaican, Nigerian and Somali. How did you approach research for each character?

I’ve got such a broad cultural network so it was relatively easy to get inspired. None of the women is inspired by a single person but rather, an amalgamation of so many people and experiences, including my own.

Did you find any of the characters particularly challenging to construct? Why?

Brittany was the most challenging character for me because, as the author, we don’t share the same values, but she is completely valid. Her feelings and thoughts must be fully acknowledged and I wanted to give her space to make mistakes, be completely weak and vulnerable. This is a common wish most Black women want. The privilege to be seen as a full human who is afforded the same breadth and depth of emotions as other people.

"Brittany was the most challenging character for me because, as the author, we don’t share the same values, but she is completely valid."

Do you have a soft spot for any of them? Why?

Muna, because she is the written form of my teenage self. While I didn’t move to the US as a refugee, I did move alone at the age of 15 to stay with extended family, and a lot of the feelings of isolation, lack of belonging, and exclusion Muna feels are real and raw for me. Plus, my first job at 16 years old was as a janitor.

A lot of the feelings of isolation, lack of belonging, and exclusion Muna feels are real and raw for me.

Your personal trajectory mirrors that of one of the protagonists, Kemi, in that you were born in Nigeria, educated in the US and are currently working in Sweden. To what extent is she based on you, if at all?

That is the extent of my similarity with Kemi. I often say Kemi as a character was me being a little lazy as an author because I even give Kemi some of my own physical attributes and cultural background. Most readers think this is a semi-biography because of these similarities with Kemi. Rest assured, it is not.

You currently live in Stockholm. Are your own experiences of living in Sweden as a Black woman reflected in the novel?

Absolutely. Many personal experiences were sprinkled throughout the book. For example, when Ahmed [a Syrian refugee and close friend of Muna] utters that iconic line of not wanting to die in paradise doing nothing, that was inspired by real words spoken to me. The part where Kemi meets two Nigerian men at the bus stop, or walks past two women who observe her like some weird specimen, were also inspired by my experiences. I was already married and in a relationship when I moved to Sweden, so none of Kemi’s dating experiences mirror mine.

"Many personal experiences were sprinkled throughout the book."

Brittany abandons a stable, long-term relationship for Jonny, and Kemi nearly does the same (albeit for another man) later in the novel. Can you talk about their motivations?

It’s the same basal emotion people share of wanting something better or thinking the grass is always greener on the other side. Despite her physical beauty, Brittany still felt like she didn’t have the ultimate privilege wrapped around her shoulders. She was also tired of serving others, so when Jonny and his intensity came around, she was an easy target. Kemi is drawn to power and being a powerful executive herself, she’s looking for love in a partner she considers an equal in every sense of the word.

Jonny is a white man – an extremely wealthy white man at that. To what extent do you think these power dynamics impact Brittany’s decision to uproot her life?

Brittany believes that her relationship with Jonny gives her proximity to the ultimate white privilege in society, and that it would shield her from the fact that, as a Black woman, she is still the least protected person in society.

All three women orbit Jonny in some way. Kemi is his employee, Brittany is his lover and Muna – well, I’ll let people read the book to find out that particular storyline. However, he has very different reactions and relationships to all of them. Can you unpack the varying ways he perceives them?

I often say there is a huge difference between loving a Black woman versus taking directions from her as your boss or CEO. All the negative stereotypes are conferred to the Black woman boss while all the “positive-sounding” stereotypes are conferred to her as a love interest. This is also why Jonny as a character simply tolerates Kemi at work, is sexually obsessed with Brittany, and doesn’t want Muna anywhere near his orbit.

Fetishization goes beyond sexual preference. It actually flattens three-dimensional warm bodies into cold caricatures simply for one’s own pleasure. Where one picks and chooses which part of the person one wants to taste and which part one wants to hate. Or, like I aptly describe in the book, tasting a person like cheese on toothpicks handed out at a farmer’s market with no intention of making a purchase while flicking the toothpick away after consumption.

I often say there is a huge difference between loving a Black woman versus taking directions from her as your boss or CEO.

In this sense, what does Jonny represent in the novel?

Sweden.

Can you explain the title of the book, In Every Mirror, She’s Black?

The original title was changed after lots of internal brainstorming within the publication team. In essence, [the protagonists] are met with stereotypes the world has crafted on behalf of Black women wherever they go. They will always be seen as Black first before they open their mouths.

Without giving anything away, the novel’s final page is a real punch to the gut. Did you experiment with any other endings?

This was the only ending that organically came to me. I know the characters so well that I knew exactly how each of them would react in different situations.

What do you want readers to take away from the novel?

To me, the power of In Every Mirror, She’s Black is that everyone will walk away with something different. It could be anything from fully understanding that Black women are not monoliths to the effects of denial on not confronting issues, and how isolating and excluding even the strongest among us can end in tragic loss. There is no one specific “Black culture.” The same privilege of treating White people as individuals is long overdue for Black people.

To me, the power of In Every Mirror, She’s Black is that everyone will walk away with something different.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently wrapping up editorial notes on my second novel which will be published in Autumn 2023, and which will bring back most of the characters from In Every Mirror, She’s Black.

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