By Olukorede Yishau
She was in a forest of a thousand daemons. Not D.O Fagunwa’s, but a modern one. Now, she has survived and her success story seems so good. But Lola Akinmade Åkerström had it rough.
When I first wrote about her in April 2021, she had just released her first novel, a novel rejected, rejected, rejected and rejected before it was accepted. That novel is ‘In Every Mirror She Is Black’. Its sequel, ‘Everything is not enough’, and another book, known now as ‘Deepest Well’, have got dual six-figure deals. Lola’s triumph will only make sense of I recall the struggle to get her first novel published.
It started this way: Lola, who is a Nigerian-American, is a naturalised Swede on account of her marriage. She didn’t start out writing fiction. Creative non-fiction and travel writing found her first. She wrote and published two non-fiction books— ‘Due North’ and ‘Lagom’.
The jealous lover called fiction staged a comeback while Lola was on vacation in Portugal’s Algarve region and reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’. She visualised a novel about three Black women and one influential white man. Right there she pulled out her notebook, outlined scenes, descriptions, characters, traits, features, interactions and quirks.
By May 2018, as Lola recalled in a July 2020 piece, the first five or so pages were ready and she was so ecstatic. She had a dilemma: “I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go with the book in terms of prose. Whether or not I wanted it to be pure literary fiction, which is what mainstream publishing expects from me as an African writer in the Diaspora. Especially, if I wanted to be taken ‘seriously’ as a literary writer. We needed to keep proving our command of language to primarily white audiences while writing stories mostly rooted in Africa.”
The war between literary fiction and upmarket fiction was eventually won by the latter after she struggled to get into the second chapter of a literary fiction book. She did not want to write a book that readers will struggle to get into.
“I didn’t want to hide what I wanted to say behind pretentious literary prose,” she wrote. So, she decided to write a novel that is in between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Lola engaged the keyboard and after months of typing away, a character-driven novel with relatable plots was born. She christened it ‘Afroswede’.
For a well-known travel photographer and author of Lagom, a book already translated into 18 foreign languages, you will expect Lola’s sojourn thereafter to be bump-free. But, in the forest of a thousand daemons that international publishing is, her road was rough and it only later ended in praise with publishing deals (in the US, UK, Canada and the Commonwealth) sealed for her debut novel now renamed ‘In Every Mirror She Is Black’.
She worked with a writing guru, Leigh Shulman, to get the manuscript ready for submission to a literary agent as required for mainstream publishing, but nothing prepared her for the heart-breaking rejections to come. To get an agent, she participated in a Twitter pitching initiative called #DVPit. Several agents requested her manuscript, but nothing came out of it. Later, in 2019, two-times Booker Prize finalist and Booker Prize judge Chigozie Obioma came to Stockholm, where Lola lives, to promote ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’. Obioma’s agent at the time, Jessica Craig, was also on the trip. Lola’s friend, Yomi Abiola, sent Jessica a brief email introduction. Lola and Jessica met for 30 minutes. Jessica loved the first draft when it was sent to her.
Lola and Jessica were so eager and positive that the book would be snapped up in an auction because it was “unique, different, epic, genre-crossing, and boundary-breaking”. But traditional publishers were nervous about it because the book didn’t fit into a clear category.
In the long run, seventy commissioning editors rejected the book and thirty-five others kept mute. On June 10, 2020, Sourcebooks Landmark came through with a pre-empt book deal to publish it in the US and Canada. On April 8, 2021, a deal for the UK and the Commonwealth was announced. Head of Zeus saw the vision and is running with it. On September 7, 2021, the American and Canada editions came out and the UK edition came out on February 2022.
The novel is about Kemi Adeyemi, a marketing executive, who is lured from the U.S. to Sweden by Jonny von Lundin, the CEO of Sweden’s largest marketing firm. Kemi’s immediate task is to help fix a PR fiasco about a racially tone-deaf campaign. It is also about Brittany-Rae Johnson who meets Jonny on the plane on his way to the U.S. This chanced meeting ushers the former model-turned-flight-attendant into a life of wealth, luxury, and privilege. It is also about a Somali refugee named Muna Saheed, whose day job is cleaning the toilets at Jonny’s office.
Their ordeals did not end in ‘In Every Mirror She Is Black’. One of the two-book deal Lola tweeted into existence, ‘Everything Is Not Enough’, will tell us more about them and Sweden’s discrimination against black women. The book, whose proof copies are out, will be released in October. It has the potential to outdo its predecessor. It is said to contain twice the drama of ‘In Every Mirror She Is Black’.
Lola tweeted a two-book deal into existence, now I am, on her behalf, writing a TV series into existence. Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO or any other streaming giant needs to option these books on three Black women. The series will open up Sweden like never before seen on global television.
My final take: If you are about giving up on your dreams, tarry a while because you never can tell what tomorrow will bring. Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s new two-book deal is sweet music, so sweet it overshadows the 70 rejections ‘In Every Mirror She Is Black’ earlier suffered. Now, Lola is having her well-deserved place in the sun.