One of the books I was most excited for in September was In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström. I was thrilled when it was a September Book of the Month pick, though I definitely would have bought this novel regardless.
|In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström|
|Setting||Sweden; United States|
|Number of Pages||405|
|Format I Read||Hardcover (BOTM)|
|Original Publication Date||September 7, 2021|
An arresting debut for anyone looking for insight into what it means to be a Black woman in the world.
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, fetishization, and tokenism, and what it means to be a Black woman navigating a white-dominated society.
In Every Mirror She’s Black follows three Black women as they navigate life in Sweden. Each of them has very different experiences and expectations, but they all want one thing: to be accepted for who they are and find a home in Stockholm.
The book is set up so that each chapter spends some time on each character. The order is consistent, though it does change between parts. This format gives the reader a sense of the unique lives they’re each living, more or less simultaneously. It also sets up some anticipation of when and how they might eventually meet… though I warn you, don’t get your hopes up too high. Their lives remain mostly separate.
Kemi, a Nigerian American living in Washington, DC, is a successful and award-winning marketer, but what she really craves is love. Her dating life leaves a lot to be desired; she encounters creepy, leering men with no inclination towards actually dating her, let alone settling down with her. Kemi hopes that by taking this new job in Stockholm, she’ll not only grow in her career, she’ll also have better luck in love.
Brittany is a first generation Jamaican American woman whose dreams of being a fashion designer were dashed early on. After some time modeling, she’s now a flight attendant. But when she meets Jonny (the man who runs the marketing firm Kemi is transferring to), Brittany’s life trajectory changes. A whirlwind romance won’t be nearly as sweet and carefree as she’d hope.
Muna was my favorite of the three. She’s only 18 when the book starts, living in a refugee asylum a few hours north of Stockholm. Eventually, she moves down to the capital and gets a job as a janitor in the marketing firm. So far, she’s faced the most tragedy, losing everyone she loves and struggling to find her place in a new culture so unlike Somalia. She only wants family and a sense of home, but try as she might, Muna always feels a sense of isolation.
Although there were things I liked about each character, with Kemi and Brittany specifically, there were times when I struggled to understand their choices or thought patterns. They sometimes frustrated me, even if their actions mades sense for their characters. Early on it was Brittany making some strange choices; later on, Kemi aggravated me. But in both cases, there was some character growth, even if it came super late.
In contrast, Muna is a character who I always understood and felt I could stand by her actions. My heart broke for her again and again. She is so smart and kind and has a lot to offer, yet for all her steps forward, life continues to deal her equivalent steps back. Out of the three, Muna is the character I was most rooting for.
Another character worth mentioning is Jonny, the strange and secretive man in charge of von Lundin Marketing. He’s really at the center of these other three characters’ lives in Sweden. Indeed, he recruited Kemi directly to work at his company, and he pursued a romantic relationship with Brittany. The only one he’s not particularly aware of is Muna, who works as a janitor at his and other companies. Jonny is a character who’s hard to pin down. On the one hand, knowing why he is the way he is, I was able to empathize and want to see him improve. On the other hand, knowing some of his past, it’s hard to forgive him or reconcile his actions. I suppose he inhabits that gray area between “good” and “bad.”
Beyond the characters, I enjoyed getting to know Sweden, and specifically Stockholm. Instead of a native’s perspective, we get to see it through the eyes of three different foreigners. As an added layer, all three of them are Black, and their unique experiences with racism offer a new look at the problems within the Swedish culture. In addition to struggling with the cold and distant nature of Swedes, we also get to see just how hard it can be to learn the language. While Muna has already been in Sweden a couple years, and thus speaks Swedish fairly well, Kemi is trying to learn and Brittany knows virtually no Swedish.
Speaking of languages, I also loved how much diversity of language there is here. In Every Mirror She’s Black is, of course, in English, but with the varied backgrounds of our characters and the setting, we also get to see numerous other languages. Naturally, Swedish is used a lot. Muna and her two roommates – all from Somalia – spoke Somali. She also spoke Arabic with a man in her refugee camp. Kemi, originally from Nigeria, speaks Yoruba with her family. On at least one occasion, Brittany’s Jamaican parents speak Jamaican patois. I only know English and Spanish, so seeing these diverse languages was enjoyable and educational for me.
In Every Mirror She’s Black shows the similarities and differences of Black women and how they’re treated in Sweden. Kemi, Brittany, and Muna are all wholly unique from each other, and as some scenes show, may not have much chance of ever being friends. And while they move in different circles and have different goals, they do each face certain constraints based on their identity. It’s not an uplifting or joyful novel, but it was one that is illuminating and thought-provoking.
I enjoyed In Every Mirror She’s Black for all the nuance and cultural diversity it brings. It’s a novel I imagine I’ll continue thinking about for quite some time, and I look forward to reading more books by Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström.
About the Author
Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, Nigerian American and based in Sweden, is an award-winning author, speaker, and photographer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, the Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, the Telegraph, the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Slate, and Adventure Magazine and on BBC, CNN, Travel Channel, and Lonely Planet, among others. In addition to contributing to several books, she is the author of Due North, 2018 Lowell Thomas Award winner for best travel book, and bestselling LAGOM: Swedish Secret of Living Well, available in over seventeen foreign language editions. She has been recognized with multiple awards for her work, including the 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year Bill Muster Award, and she was honored with a MIPAD (Most Influential People of African Descent) 100 Award within media and culture in 2018. Her photography is represented by the National Geographic Image Collection.
She is based in Stockholm.
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