ENGLISH VERSION: Dagens Nyheter: Lola Akinmade Åkerström – “Sweden is the most open society run by the most private people”

Here is the translated version of the feature interview that was published on June 8, 2024, by Dagens Nyheter (the Swedish equivalent of The New York Times).

Text: Sanna Torén Björling – Translation: Lola Akinmade Åkerström – Photos: Anette Nantell & Josefine Stenersen

Lola Akinmade Akerström’s books about being a Black woman in Sweden have received international prizes and a large audience, but have been snubbed by Swedish publishers.

– I love Sweden, but it is not easy to live here. I am subjected to microaggressions almost every day.

It’s only a few hundred meters between the hotel and the venue in Västra hamnen, but the wind in Malmö is bad for the hairstyle, and the shoes are high-heeled. Lola Akinmade Åkerström doesn’t think it’s appropriate that she, the evening’s guest of honor, arrives on foot and sweaty.

She gets into a taxi, wearing a long, shiny black dress.

– Assimilation is not integration. How can someone demand that you give up a part of yourself, your identity? she says during the stage talk at Minc, a municipally owned startup incubator that helps start-ups.

The conversation is in English and has the title “From tech to text”, but spans writing, Swedishness and being non-white in Sweden.

– You have to find environments where you feel safe. Like hair salons.

The response from the audience is one of immediate recognition, laughter and nodding. Many have read her first novel, “In Every Mirror She’s black”, and leave the room with a signed copy of the sequel, “Everything is Not Enough”.

The first time I hear Lola Akinmade Äkerström speak is during the winter, at the American Embassy’s residence in Stockholm, where she is invited in connection with Black History Month, which is observed every year. On Instagram, US Ambassador Erik Ramanathan describes the debut book as a “hitting exploration of the complexity of Black women’s lives and struggles in Sweden and globally. Such stories about identity, belonging and resilience are powerful tools for reflection and conversation.”

During the panel discussion, I wondered myself how come I don’t already know more about Lola Akinmade Äkerström, an award-winning author, photographer and travel journalist, who has been published in the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Forbes and National Geographic, among others. She is a Swedish and American citizen, writes about identity and about belonging to a minority, about Sweden, about resilience.

“This morning on TV4”, writes Lola Akinmade Äkerström in an email to me a little while later, “they warmly recommended a new crime novel about a Nigerian prostitute who was ritually murdered in Stockholm, written by a Swedish man. At the same time, my books – about being Black women in different socio-economic classes – is not interesting enough to be published here”.

Onoaralolaoluwa Akinmade was born in Lagos, Nigeria, the eldest of four daughters. The long first name roughly means “God’s ways are mysterious”, the girl was nicknamed “Lola”.

Her father was a geologist, mother a nurse. Lola went to boarding school. It wasn’t a fancy school, she explains, but one where you had to learn to get by. Sometimes the electricity went out, the students fetched water a couple of kilometers away and had to carry it on their heads.

Lola read and wrote her own stories which she illustrated with pictures she cut out from newspapers and magazines. She created a library of her own creations and shared them with her classmates.

The family was not wealthy, but upper middle class and could travel, sometimes through the father’s work for an Italian company. When Lola Akinmade was 15 and had just finished high school, they went to the United States. The idea was that she would return home to study, but due to a protracted teachers’ strike in Lagos, she stayed and started college.

– In Nigeria we usually say that you study what your parents are willing to pay for, she says.

It became Information Systems. After graduating from the University of Maryland, at 19, she got a job as a programmer in Dayton, Ohio. But she had more interests than IT and reading.

– I had played rugby in Maryland. In Dayton there was no women’s team, so I started one. We trained with the boys – got pretty good, competed regionally (DII).

When she returned to the East Coast – after seven years in Ohio – she snagged a spot on an even better, semi-pro team (DI). At that point, rugby was more than a hobby.

She lived in Alexandria, just outside of Washington. Something else also happened there – on an international online dating site, Lola Akinmade Äkerström became acquainted with a Swedish man. What started as a chat, became a physical date in Stockholm – where she happened to have a stopover on the way to London – and deep love. She left the American metropolis for Lidingö, got married, had a daughter and a son.

It is now fifteen years since she came to Sweden, and that means that Lola Akinmade Äkerström has lived exactly the same amount of time in her life in three countries.

– Home? For me, it is not a place. I feel at home when I don’t have to justify my existence. Where I can just be, she says.

She mixes Swedish and English, sometimes finds it easier to express herself nuancedly in English, which is also the language she writes in.

– I became “Black” when I came to the United States. There I stood out, became part of a minority. But I’m glad that I had that experience when I moved to Sweden. It meant that I recognized and was able to identify what happens, of how you are treated as a Black person and a woman.

We meet at a patisserie in the center of Lidingö, not far from where she lives.

It was more than homeland and civil status that changed in that moment. She didn’t find a rugby team here, nor a parish she stuck with – but she managed to create a new career.

– I had always written, taken pictures, traveled. It took me five years to leave the IT industry, but when the BBC published one of my reports, I dared – and jumped out into the unknown.

She has visited more than 80 countries, written travel reports and photographed. For some years now, she has also been writing novels, and sees herself primarily as a storyteller.

– I am a storyteller and I choose the form according to what is to be told. It is the story that is important.

For a photo project, she spent a lot of time in 2015-16 at Solbacka, the former boarding school that became an asylum center during the refugee route. Some of the people she met there she wanted to portray more deeply and took their experiences into her first novels. In “In Every Mirror She’s Black”, the reader follows three Black women who end up in Sweden, where their lives partially intertwine: Kemi, who on impulse leaves the US for a well-paid job in Stockholm, the Somali refugee Muna, and Brittany, a model and flight attendant who had had enough of serving others.

But the first books Lola Akinmade wrote were not novels: first was the travelogue “Due North”, then “Lagom. The Swedish Secret of living well”. It came out in 2017 and – as the name suggests – is about Sweden, and about how Swedes function. Temperance and jantelagen.

When I follow Lola Akinmade Äkerström over a few weeks and hear her perform – in Copenhagen, Malmö and Stockholm – she returns to her observations of Sweden.

She dresses up for every occasion, regardless of whether there are three or four people coming to a small English-speaking independent bookstore on a back street in Copenhagen, or a couple of hundred. Patterned or glittery dresses, shoes with heels and narrow straps.

She says things like:

– Sweden is the most open society in the world but is governed by the most closed people. It is noticeable even in the little things, many are obsessed with their close relationships.

However, her outlook is not always comfortable. Not infrequently, she experiences that Swedes brace themselves up, resist what she wants to say.

– I’m not just talking about “cinnamon buns”, I’m also talking about “Ahmed” and others who have doctorates but make a living as taxi drivers. Seeing that two things can be true at the same time – what is good but also what is not – does not make Sweden weaker.

She has met many, new arrivals and other immigrants, who don’t think they are taken into account in Sweden. People who want to contribute with knowledge and experience, but who don’t get the chance to do so, who are sorted out if nothing else out of thoughtlessness and convenience, she believes. The experience is that their expectations and demands for meaningful employment and real entry into society are met with a shrug, she explains:

– But not being seen breeds contempt. If Sweden doesn’t do something, the new arrivals will no longer just be grateful. To only demand gratitude from someone is also to deny that they have something of value: “Be content with what you got.

During “Swedengate”, the debate that flared up in 2022 about the (old) phenomenon of having a child’s friends wait in another room while the family ate dinner instead of automatically inviting them to a meal, Lola Akinmade Akerström wrote an article in New York Times. Here was an excellent situation, she thought, for more Swedes to examine themselves, take in that the whole world has made a laughing stock of us and wonder what on earth we have been doing?

In front of a bookstore audience in Copenhagen, she addresses the debate and says:

– Sweden had held its stomach in for so long that it was barely possible to breathe – one must always be so perfect! Now you could have let go of your belt and laughed a little at yourself. It’s also when you show your vulnerability that you connect.

The Danish audience nods, asks questions about her view of the Nordic region.

After dinner at the hotel, she is serious and joking at the same time. In laughter there is darkness, in seriousness there is light, and she comes back to one thing:

– I love Sweden, but I want Sweden to get better and I think we must be able to talk about difficult things. There are no shortcuts.

For Lola Akinmade Äkerström, it’s about recognizing how different types of racism look and work, even when it’s unconscious and barely visible.

She compares it to the United States, saying that the debate about race and racism there is admittedly often painful and infected, but also nuanced. In the United States, the term “race” is used to describe a self-perceived identity, as opposed to ethnicity. In many contexts, such as applications, people themselves are allowed to state how they see themselves.

Lola Akinmade Äkerström says that, there the soil is torn up, but it also leads to the loosening of the soil – so that new seeds can germinate. If you stomp on the ground instead, it becomes completely hard. Everything new is suffocated.

Concretely, the perception of Black people also differs, and she explains the difference between what she encountered in the US and in Sweden:

– There, people can complain that a Black person got a top job because they don’t like Black people for some reason, but no one doubts the Black person’s competence. In Sweden, you are met with raised eyebrows: “What? You made it? That was really good!” As if Black people are less capable.

Subtle, disparaging words or actions belong to so-called microaggressions, which are based on prejudices or preconceived notions. Sometimes they happen consciously, sometimes unconsciously.

How can they express themselves?

– It can be anything from physical pushes, as if you aren’t there, to being ignored or questioned. Ideas you put forward are taken up by someone else, who gets all the credit.

They often have similarities with what in social psychology are called domination techniques, i.e. elaborate, sometimes almost imperceptible, bullying or ostracism. On a professional level, she says, it can be problems getting the same job assignment, visibility and opportunity as others with equivalent qualifications. It sucks, she has friends who fell into depression, who couldn’t live anymore.

Support is found among friends: She has a network of non-white women in Sweden, many of them active in creative professions.

-With them you can feel at home: Nothing has to be explained.

Lola Akinmade Äkerström has been awarded several times for her work. Last winter, the book “Everything is Not Enough” was nominated for the Outstanding Literature Fiction Award by the NAACP, one of America’s most influential civil rights organizations, at a lavish gala in Los Angeles. The German translation of “In Every Mirror She’s Black” has just arrived; “Lagom” has been translated into 17 languages.

In Sweden, it has been trickier. She says that she has sent her manuscripts to almost 30 publishers but got no response. A large Swedish publisher said that “some things can be more difficult for a Swedish reader to agree with”, could she consider rewriting parts of the character “Muna” and her perspective?

Jessica Craig, Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s literary agent, knows that the Swedish book industry faces challenges, and that translated literature is often difficult to sell, but still believes that the books would find an audience:

– Lola’s voice is unique, and she writes fantastic characters. Her books are relevant, thought-provoking and entertaining, she writes about Black women in Sweden, but I think the stories are relevant throughout Europe. To me, it was obvious.

A long day with several performances ends with a dinner with friends in Malmö.

They (Jessica and Lola) met for the first time in 2019, in Stockholm:

– I was completely taken by her. She came to our meeting straight from a work trip, dragging heavy camera equipment. I remember it struck me that I had probably never met a Black female photographer before.

And how she laughed! I was immediately curious about what she wrote, says Jessica Craig.

The author herself says that yes, of course she has been sad many times by the rejections.

– But I’ve let it go, many authors get rejected – although I can’t help but wonder what the publishers mean by “a Swedish reader”? Apparently not a person like Muna, or like myself – who has lived here for many years and has children born here – or other non-whites.

A third book is on its way out. The fourth is currently taking shape in her head. She does this mainly for her Brown Swedish children, not for her own sake. She tries to tell them to trust themselves and that they can certainly become the CEO of IKEA.

She divorced last year and, not least for the sake of the children, she will remain in Sweden, at least for a while.

– I would love to stay here, but honestly – I don’t know if I will be able to do it. Everyone wants to be seen, listened to, recognized for who they are. That’s all.

Facts about Lola Akinmade Åkerström

  • Born 1978 in Lagos, Nigeria. Raised in Nigeria, lived in the USA and since 2009 resident on Lidingö.
  • Author, photographer, travel journalist, systems architect.
  • Wrote several books, among them two novels: “In Every Mirror She’s Black” and “Everything is not Enough”, which was nominated for the NAACP Image award for Outstanding Fiction in 2024.
  • A third novel is coming next year.
  • Received several prizes and awards, e.g. Newsweek Future of Travel Award winner for Storytelling (2021) and MIPAD 100 (Most influential people of African descent) award within media and culture (2018).

Lola Akinmade Äkerström on her sources of inspiration

• “Oprah Winfrey and Mo Abudu have always been important to me in terms of what it means to truly be yourself and to reach your full potential as a Black woman – against all odds.”

• “Ava DuVernay, Amma Asante, Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba and Issa Rae are all examples of filmmakers creating nuanced, multifaceted narratives about Black women.”

•”Writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Kim Golden, Onyi Nwabineli and Sadeqa Johnson all describe Black characters in complex ways.”