Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK

Debut novelist Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström joins Zibby to talk about the inspiration for her book, In Every Mirror She’s Black. Although she received 70 rejections, Lọlá knew her story about three Black women from all walks of life in Sweden was necessary to share with the world and her determination has proven industry gatekeepers wrong. Lọlá also tells Zibby about her experiences working as a travel journalist and how living all around the world helped her shape her characters and her story.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lọlá. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In Every Mirror She’s Black.

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström: Oh, my goodness, thank you so much for having me. So excited.

Zibby: I’m so excited for you. For people who don’t know anything about your book, tell them first about the book. Then I want to go into you and your life and publishing journey and all the cool stuff about you.

Lọlá: I absolutely love this book. In Every Mirror She’s Black follows the lives of three very different black women who end up in Sweden. The reason they end up in Sweden, for various reasons, but they’re all connected kind of loosely to a very influential Swedish man. This book chronicles their experiences, their happiness, their struggles, everything. It’s giving you a more nuanced view of a country I love, I call home. It’s showing you that it’s a lot more multidimensional, more complex than we see. I’m super excited about In Every Mirror She’s Black.

Zibby: It’s very exciting. Your characters are so vivid and real from this high-powered CEO who tries to get poached out of her job with this very skeevy boss. Then this new guy comes along and tries to whisk her away. He seems a little bit sketchy too, especially when we meet him in the context of the plane where he’s hitting on a flight attendant. It’s great because right from the start, you’re rooting for different people for different reasons and holding this guy at arm’s length and not really trusting him. It’s just very gripping from the very beginning.

Lọlá: Thank you. The book focuses on the three women, and so you never really learn about him except from through their interactions with him. He is not centered in the book. I think that was also something that I was very cognizant about when I was writing. You just see the different sides. That also makes him a multidimensional character as well based on three interactions. I really wanted to really with the women because they feel so real. They are real. Every single character is inspired by maybe a mix of different people, maybe different experiences. I wanted to create a book where people could either recognize parts of themselves in the journeys of these characters and kind of bring it down to earth in a way that feels really relatable.

Zibby: I like the way that you introduce people’s backstories. You could see this beautiful 5’11” model flight attendant as what she presents on the plane, but then you give us this glimpse of her in bed with her boyfriend and the complications. Why does she not want to get married to him? What’s holding her back? Why does she want to be flying all over the world? Then when we go with her to her next interaction on the next flight, you’re like, I am in this girl’s back pocket at this point. I totally get her. Who I am rooting for? Do I want her to be with — which guy do I want her — somehow, you just pull us right into who they are and their motivations by some of the little — I don’t know what it is — little pieces that you share with us.

Lọlá: Thank you. My characters, all of them are very messy. That was what I really wanted to show. You start off liking the character. Then you don’t like them. Then you like them. Then maybe you don’t like them. That was what I wanted to really show because that’s just how we are as humans. There’s some days you don’t like someone. The next day, you like them. I wanted show that first impressions aren’t enough to tell the full story about a person, of their experiences or their struggles. This was a book I really wanted to show that. Never take people at face value because you don’t know what they’re struggling. Kemi could be very confident in a conference room. Then outside of that, she just kind of implodes into herself because she’s self-conscious or body-conscious. With Brittany, she wants the finer things in life. Her parents struggled. Without knowing that, you might say she’s just a gold digger, but she’s not. In essence, she just wants to stop struggling and is trying to use an advantage, which is her beauty, to see if she can make life a lot easier. Then of course, Muna, which is my personal favorite character — you love Muna, right? Muna, I see a lot of my teenage self in because I was isolated a lot. I felt like this was who I am, but people aren’t getting to know me as a person. I see a lot of my younger self in Muna. That’s why I created that character. It’s a book that’s got scope and depth in many ways.

Zibby: What part of yourself? Why were you isolated?

Lọlá: I grew up in Nigeria. That’s where I’m from. Then when I was fifteen, I moved to the US. When I moved to the US, it was to start college. I was pretty young, but I was also coming with my own cultural background. When I moved into the US, I moved into society that wanted to predefine and box me and tell me this is who I was based on just the color of my skin. Oh, you’re black. Come in. Go to this group. You got this. You got that. For me, I was like, but why are you creating this box for me when it was uncreated where I was coming from? I fought against that a lot. With Muna, the first thing people see is she wears a . People already judge her without getting to know her. That character’s also pretty important and based in Sweden as well. Muna’s character, she’s Somali. I made her Somali because just statistics-wise in Sweden more of the African immigrants to Sweden are from Somali or Sudan. It made more sense factually to make her Somali than to make her Nigerian or . If I was rooting her in London, then maybe I could make her Nigerian or Ghanian. In that sense, I made her Somali, but I wanted people to connect with who she was as a person and get to just love her and see her. That was why I created Muna as well.

Zibby: Wow. Where were you when you came to the United States? What city? What town?

Lọlá: I moved to Maryland. Then I lived in Ohio for seven years and then moved back out to Alexandria, Virginia.

Zibby: Then why Sweden?

Lọlá: I met a man. My husband is Swedish. I met him, 2006. That’s how I ended up in Sweden. It’s one of those things where I didn’t know much about the country before I moved, so I just came in wide-eyed. Because I am a travel writer, I am a very curious person. Immediately when I moved in, I went deep beneath the culture. As I always say, if I’m going to plant some roots and grow a legacy somewhere, I need to know the quality of the soil. I really got deep, learned about the nuances of Swedish culture, learned the language, and even wrote a book that mindset. Having all that in hand, I’m like, you know what, I’m also a black woman here. Our experiences are not monolithic. There are so many women of color and black women that are leading different lives. I take three and then share their experience here. Like I said, it’s a lot more multicultural, a lot more multidimensional than we see on the outside looking in.

Zibby: Even on your website, you told the whole story. By the way, this is shorthand for how you know someone’s a great storyteller, is when you can’t stop reading their website. You really take us through the process, how did this become a book, your rejections, your business, all of it, and even how you thought of the idea and put us in Portugal or wherever with the wind blowing. I’m not doing it justice.

Lọlá: Absolutely. No worries. I started writing fiction when I was quite young. Then I became a travel writer, so moved into .

Zibby: Wait, talk about the library system that you made with your friend.

Lọlá: This is funny. When I was in my preteens, early teens, I went to boarding school in Nigeria. I used to write a lot of fiction, short stories, filled-up notebooks, handwritten. Then I had a sign-out sheet in my dorm room. My friends came and loaned my books. They’ll write their names, check them in, check them out. We did this for years. Then of course, as the years flew by, I kind of moved away from fiction and did more creative nonfiction. I wanted to rewrite a lot of those stories that I had written, but I was still struggling. I was like, why am I not able to rewrite a lot of those stories I wrote with an adult voice? It was when I was on vacation in Portugal — I had just finished reading Americanah, which I love. Then I was like, you know what, that’s it. Even though the character is not an author, you could tell she was really pulling from private spaces to fill those experiences in the book. I’m like, I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve lived in different cultures for longs periods of time. I know Sweden well from within my sphere. I’ve written a lot about Sweden. I know it culturally. Why not write what you know, people you’ve met, not people I’ve “met” met, but people that inspire your characters, places you’ve been? That was when I got the idea for the book. I got the idea that it had to be multiple women because our experiences are very different. There is still privilege even though you still go through similar struggles. Then I had to create because — I’m going to generalize now. Black women don’t really move to Sweden without a solid reason. It’s not like, oh, Sweden looks cool. Let me just move there randomly. We don’t. We go to Spain or Portugal or Italy. Chances are it’s either a man, maybe for work, maybe as a refugee, or maybe to study. That was how I brought the women and tied them in. I said, I have to create this character. That was how it started. The process to publication was rough.

Zibby: Tell me about that. You had a trillion rejections. I can’t believe it.

Lọlá: Seventy, seven-zero, rejections of the manuscript.

Zibby: For this book?

Lọlá: Yes, for this book.

Zibby: That makes no sense unless you really changed it.

Lọlá: We didn’t change much.

Zibby: You’re a really good writer. I don’t understand. I understand sometimes. Actually, I shouldn’t even say that. I don’t usually understand why things were rejected a million times, but I particularly don’t understand this one.

Lọlá: It shines a light into the publishing industry. I got seventy rejections for many reasons. One, the book spans genres. It sits between literary fiction and short fiction. It’s kind of upmarket. It’s in the middle. When we took it to a literary imprint, they were like, “We love it, but it’s too commercial.” We took it this way. “We like it, but it’s too literary.” Then they said, “We’re not sure about the audience.” It centers three black women on the mainstream level, so they’re like, “We don’t know how to position it. We don’t have the vision for publication because of our audiences. We don’t know if they’re going to be able to connect.” I’m like, “You mean the same audiences that connect with vampires, werewolves can’t connect with me as a black woman?” It was a painful seventy rejections. When I think about it, it’s emotional because the book deserves — I’m just grateful that we found Sourcebooks. Sourcebooks, they saw the vision. They heard my voice. They heard what I was trying to say. Then together, it’s coming out soon. I can tell you this. One thing I do want to say about the rejections is, for anybody that’s really struggling or feeling uninspired or frustrated, stay your course. More importantly, stay true to your voice. That was what a lot of people wanted me to change as well. They wanted, “If you take out these scenes… Maybe this might make people uncomfortable.” I’m like, what you’re saying is, take out my lived experiences or take out these people’s truths, and so I didn’t do that. I think that was also what added to the rejections, me not wanting to dilute reality.

Zibby: There just should be a better way to submit. Having been rejected a bazillion times myself, I feel your pain. I flash back to crying on a bathroom floor about the fact that this one book I worked really hard on was never going to see the light of day. It’s really gutting because it’s what’s in your head. People are saying, no, thanks. You’re like, oh, what does that say to me about what’s in my head right now?

Lọlá: Yes, absolutely. The thing with rejection is it’s usually not really about you, your work. You are talented. You know your voice. You know that this deserves to be published. Most of the time, it’s just the politics of publishing. That showed me the disconnect because a lot of the readers have really liked the book. We’ve been getting a lot of great reviews, which doesn’t coincide with what the gatekeepers were telling me, that there wasn’t going to be an audience. Sometimes the gatekeepers are the ones that actually block books that need to be out there from getting published.

Zibby: I’m so glad you didn’t give up. I’m just super excited about this book and how great a writer you are. It’s like if there’s a leak from ceiling. Just because one of the pots doesn’t catch the water doesn’t mean the water’s not falling. It’s still amazing. It’s coming no matter what.

Lọlá: Absolutely. I get it. Publishing always likes categories, but life is messy. Life is multidimensional. The most interesting books, to me anyway, are books that just tackle that, that messiness of life. Is somebody good? Is somebody bad? Is this romance? Is it contemporary? What is it? Just to capture or reflect reality or the way the life is. I am super grateful to Sourcebooks. That’s my US publisher. Then we’ve got a few other publishers as well. I’m super excited.

Zibby: That is super exciting. I have to introduce you, by the way — maybe you know her. There’s a black author in Sweden named Jennifer Dahlberg. Do you know her?

Lọlá: Yes, and we’re friends.

Zibby: You’re friends? Oh, my god, okay.

Lọlá: Of course. We tend to know the community of black women.

Zibby: I was like, I shouldn’t even say that. I’m sure there are a lot of people. When you said there are hardly any — anyway, she’s amazing. She’s been on the podcast. We did a book club.

Lọlá: Jennifer is amazing. She just has a new book out in Sweden as well, in Swedish. It’s a small community of black women, especially those that kind of have ties to America, that may be black American. They tend to know each other. Then I know a lot of different communities as well, Africans and refugees and Americans. Yes, absolutely, I know Jennifer.

Zibby: Great. Tell her I said hi.

Lọlá: I will.

Zibby: Do you have other books that you have? What’s coming next for you after this one? Did you already write your next book? Are you working on a book now? Are you doing more of the travel stuff still? I know you already have a whole nother side hustle, essentially.

Lọlá: I know. I recently found the word. It’s called multipotentialite. That word is for people that thrive on many different things.

Zibby: That’s me, by the way. I can’t do one thing at a time, so there you go. Thank you for that.

Lọlá: That’s you. You need to check it out, multipot. That’s why I do a lot of different things. My brain needs different things creatively. I think a lot of multipots, maybe when they were growing up, were kind of isolated a lot or felt like, why can’t you just stick with one thing? What’s wrong with you? There’s something awkward here. I do a lot of different things. I am working on fleshing out more of these characters, maybe even going to different points of views. I have other book ideas. There’s a lot coming on the horizon in terms of writing.

Zibby: Have you thought about writing a memoir?

Lọlá: Yeah. I’m not sure I want to open up that yet. I am grateful because I’ve had so many amazing experiences over my career. As a travel writer, I’ve been to so many amazing places with different publications. I think there’s a memoir in there. I have to get to the point where now I’m ready to write it. I feel like there’s still a lot of fiction that needs to come out, lots of stories of others that I can help share to keep fostering cultural connection. I think I need to keep doing more of that. Then, I focus on me and my memoir. I need to keep connecting others.

Zibby: All right. Well, when you’re ready, I’ll be ready. I would love to read it. Awesome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors? I know you’ve said with rejection and everything else. Even in the craft of writing, tell us a little more about when you sit down to write and how you do that and your process and how long these things take. What advice on that front?

Lọlá: With this book, I spent, actually, the first couple of months outlining the characters. I didn’t really start writing or putting the story together. I just started outlining scenes. I was like, ooh, this. I remember going, yeah, maybe I can try this, and kind of developing the characters first before I wrote. It took me about four months of solid writing to write the book, but months before. For me, my writing process is, I wake up early, try to get some words in. If I’m also on the train, I use my phone to get words in. It’s when the inspiration strikes. If I’m not inspired — I know a lot of writers say when you’ve got writer’s block or whatever, just write through it. I can’t. That’s why I move to a different creative field. If I’m not writing, I’m not going to force it. That means my mind wants to use photography to communicate right now or use something else to communicate. Then by doing that, it lets the writing side rest and come back refreshed. That’s just my own method because I do lots of creative things. I switch creatively so that it gets the others resting and then coming back fresh. Then the advice I would give aspiring writers is — I will say this E.E. Cummings quote. It says, to be nobody but yourself in the world that’s trying to make you like everybody else is to fight the hardest battle you ever had to fight, so don’t stop fighting, which means, stay true to your voice. The world is going to try and dilute it. Rejection, most of the time, isn’t about that you’re not good enough. Then that’s when you start feeling like, maybe I’m not good enough. Of course, you have to keep crafting and getting better, but your voice is valid, and so write. Write what you feel even if you don’t feel like it’s ready for publication. Just get it out because your soul wants to get it out. That’s what I will say. Just stay true to your voice because the world is going to try and dilute it.

Zibby: I love it. It goes back to your other people trying to put you in a box from the beginning. It’s same thing. Not everybody fits so neatly. Even with a traditional job — I don’t know about you, but I had a lot of — not a lot, but I tried to fit into corporate jobs. I’m like, no, I’m done with this by eleven. Now what I do all day? I like how the world is sort of moving more in this direction now, people doing multiple jobs.

Lọlá: Also, the blend of the work-life balance. The pandemic has allowed us to say, you know what, we actually have lives at home. Bringing that to the forefront, I hope, has made us more understanding of each other, more gracious to each other when the kid runs around in the back behind you in the meeting and just showing that that’s actually more important than the work we’re doing, is that life outside of the work.

Zibby: It’s hard to connect when you’re only bringing a tenth of yourself to the table. You have to bring all of it to really connect with other people. If that means my kids running in, so be it. Lọlá, thank you so much. It was so nice to meet you. I’m really, really and truly rooting for you. I’m so happy that this book is coming out and wishing you all the best. In Every Mirror She’s Black, thank you Sourcebooks.

Lọlá: Thank you. Thank you so much, Zibby. It was great to be here and to meet you as well. Thank you.

Zibby: It was fun. Stay in touch. Buh-bye.

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK

IN EVERY MIRROR SHE’S BLACK by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström

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