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Lola Akinmade Åkerström Is Telling The Right Stories
(It's a Lola thing.)
Hello! Welcome to Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, attention, wonder, and the power of simply getting out there and having a go at stuff.
As I write this, Storm Arwen is barrelling into Scotland, bringing with it gale-force winds, stinging rain and a worrying new trend in naming storms after fictional fantasy characters. On behalf of fellow nerds, I implore the Met Office: leave it there, guys. The last thing our frazzled nervous systems need is a Storm Sauron or Hurricane Voldemort. We can’t take. Try flowers or birds or something.
(Or chocolate bars! You must admit, Storm Curly Wurly has a nice ring to it.)
Anyway, while the wind attempts to lever the roof off my wooden cabin, I’d like to introduce you to someone who’s always curious about what she can do next, and never stops acting like it.
In 2010, I attended my very first travel writing conference in Manchester - an intimidating affair, as I knew exactly nobody and had published exactly nothing. I felt like a fraud - or more accurately, like the person attending a posh, fancily-dressed party who misheard it as “fancy-dress” and turned up dressed as Big Bird.
This feeling lasted until the third lecture of the day, given by Lola Akinmade Åkerström, on the subject of telling a good story.
Not only is Lola supremely accomplished (we’ll get to that in a minute), she is also a whirlwind of positive energy, with the rockstar charisma to take over a room, but she uses it to hold space for other people, encourage other voices and champion the ideas she believes the world needs.
The result is that in her presence, you feel fully heard and understood, you get all your self-confidence back, and you walk away a bit dumbstruck because oh wow, I never knew that, and it changes everything. Lola will make you see the big picture, and glimpse the place you want to occupy within it.
All this makes her a terrific teacher, and I’m so glad she was the first I ever had in travel writing - and I’m even happier that over the last ten years she’s become a good friend as well. She’s the best of folk.
Also, she’s astonishingly talented. And by talented, I partly mean she’s really hard-working. Lola is a master-craftsperson of everything she puts her hand to, in that she just goes for it, with everything in her being, until it pays off at the highest level she thinks she can achieve.
As a travel writer, she’s won so many awards that they take up most of the space on her Wikipedia page.
As a photographer, she’s represented by National Geographic Image Collection. (Yep, you heard me.)
During the pandemic, she co-founded Local Purse, a start-up that connects artisans and local guides around the world with online shoppers across the whole planet.
She’s written for every major travel magazine I know of. She’s been pretty much everywhere I know of. If she hasn’t yet done a particular thing, the reason is almost certainly time. (Just give her time. Let her get her breath back. Can’t be easy doing almost-everything.)
The line that connects together her dizzying constellation of vocations is her ability to tell a good story - and when we sat down a few months ago to have a chat over Zoom, from which the following interview is excerpted, she was on the verge of having her first novel published:
On the 10th of this month, in the middle of the official book tour and amidst a shower of rave reviews, Amazon picked In Every Mirror She's Black for their Gifting Guide for Fiction: Editors' Picks, alongside titles from Sally Rooney, John LeCarre, Susanna Clark, Matt Haig, and some weird little book by Frank Herbert called Dune, maybe you’ve heard of it?
It’s safe to say Lola’s debut novel has landed with all the power of everything else she’s done. It’s a rare thing. (More correctly: it’s a Lola thing.)
And to return to her mad skills as a teacher, as I write this, Lola’s self-paced storytelling course on her own teaching platform (did I mention she has a teaching platform?) is discounted by 50% , for anyone interested in bringing a bit of her magic to the way they write about the world…
Now, onto our chat.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and to remove all my incredibly annoying interruptions (honestly, do learn to shut up, Mike).
Mike: So - Lola! As usual, you seem to be doing absolutely everything right now. Why is that?
Lola: Well - I recently found out there is a group of people called multipotentialites, and when I found out I felt like oh my god, I finally found what I am. And now I don't feel crazy.
Mike: So, like the Greek hero Odysseus, who was pretty good at almost everything. And I know you’re pretty good at almost everything because I read your Wikipedia page...
Lola: *laughs* I didn't know who initially created it (now I do), but it's a huge honour.
Mike: So you grew up in Lagos. And this is a part of the world that I know nothing about - and I learned it’s the second largest city in Africa?
Lola: Cairo I think is the biggest? [It seems to depend on how you define the edges of the city. eg. Wikipedia puts Kinshasa before both Lagos & Cairo.] But Lagos is over 20 million people, and Nigeria itself is 250 different tribes, over 500 different languages...
Mike: And it’s enormous. So did you grow up in Lagos or the outskirts? Before the age of 15, were you a city girl?
Lola: We grew up on a barrier island. There's a lagoon that separates it from Lagos Island and the mainland. So I grew up on that barrier island, but then it was still just a kind of suburb. I grew up close to water, but I'm a crap swimmer - when your parents are scared of something, they're gonna transfer it to the kids. And when you see the Atlantic Ocean right there, it frightens you, the waves are just terrifying. So even though we went to the beach, we didn't really swim much.
Mike: Right. The Atlantic’s unpredictable - like the difference between a dog and a cat. The English Channel is, ‘there’s a good boy’ - but the Atlantic, it'll just claw you at any moment.
Lola: So I do consider myself a city girl - I went to boarding school starting from the age of 9 or 10. And that was out in the countryside. I did that for about five years, just out in the country in a boarding school. And that was where I developed real growth. And it's not like a fancy English boarding school, this is like, you have your pail of water on your head, you go to the nearest village to go get the water, you study by candlelight because there's no electricity. I will say it was one of the best times of my life, because it was a kind of boot camp for kids, to create grit and resilience and be able to adapt quickly, and be productive in any situation.
Mike: So, that leads me to a question. I would describe you as a quietly driven person - you're very good at understanding when to step back and change gear, but you also seem very ambitious in a healthy way, always trying different things. So how much of that comes from that formative period of your life, how much of that comes from your parents, and how much of that awoke in you separately from those things?
Lola: A bit of everything. I grew up in a family of travellers, so my grandfather was in the shipping business, and my dad is a geologist - I mean he's retired now, but as a geologist, we travelled a lot. And that’s when you start developing your strengths. Am I a more creative person? Am I an analytical person? What do I like, or don't like? And I realised I’m a person that thrives on lots of different things. Now, why it feels like I do a lot of things is because I already know what drives me, is because I've lived in a place with lots of different cultures, and know the need for cultural understanding, making sure we understand each other or at least give space and respect to each other even if we don't agree. It’s about wanting and creating that environment. And so that translates into all I do, whether photography or writing or whatever.
I think what makes it easier, or maybe clearer for me, was finding my own unique voice very early on. I wasn't just trying to follow trends. It's very easy to just get swept up in a trend. Trends are like waves in an ocean. Most metaphorically softer waves are, What are the new tools, new technologies, new platforms to tune your voice? But you don't try to swim in those big waves because they may drown you. You need to surf those waves. So my voice has always been consistent - but it's also adapted and evolved (like adjusting my stance on a surfboard), obviously, the more you know the better. But there is a certain deliberate consistency. I hope people feel like, she's still the same, no matter what she does.
Mike: It does seem like you have these core strengths that you always return to, but you're also keen to experiment with whatever comes along...
Lola: Yeah, exactly. And very early on, I discovered I have five strengths, which gave me a sense of self confidence so that wherever I go, I can make changes based on them. So: I’m a really good problem solver. I'm a team player - I can figure out the dynamics and figure out what else is needed, and see if I need to adjust and help. I’m a creative person. I'm a versatile person, being open-minded - and I'm also a very quick study, which means I can quickly learn to be productive in something. So those five strengths are what’s helped me pivot. Productive right away feels like, wanting to get doing something. Then you do it, then you switch, and you learn to be productive again, and then you switch. It's because you know your strength. Just work with your strengths.
Mike: I mean, on top of everything else you’re now a novelist.
Lola: I’m actually coming full circle there. When I was in boarding school, I used to write fiction, that was actually how I got into nonfiction. I used to write dozens of short stories in notebooks, filling them up - and we had a sign-out sheet for them, so I was running my own little library of my own. A lot of my classmates, once I go on the book tour, they are going to bring up those anecdotes because they used to sign out for those. So, because I hand-wrote those books, they'll sign them out, the person reads it, brings it to the next person, they sign them out and so on...
So most people don't know that that was actually first, before photography, long before travel writing. It was always fiction. I wrote so many stories. I have the synopsis of many stories now. I wrote the synopsis so that if I want to rewrite them as an adult, I can do that. I have about 25 novel ideas, but one of them I started rewriting as a adult, and I was still struggling to kind of finish it for many years. And I was like, why is that?
The teenage fantasy is more wild, and then as an adult, you become a bit more cynical - but then I realised the reason I was struggling was I wasn't as close to the book, I wasn’t close to the characters, so I was having a problem creating a connection with them. So this new book is a book I was supposed to write now - at this stage of my life. Bringing in all the different experiences I've had, all the different people I've met...I felt like I needed to live a little bit more, to be able to arrive at a certain believable authority.
Mike: So, regarding the own plot twists in your life - at the age of 15 you went to the University of Maryland?
Lola: Yes. In the States. I actually started at a community college, and I transferred a year later, because I was still too young. Then they decided I was ready at 15 for a university, so I started, and then transferred for my final few years at University of Maryland, graduated at 19. My first degree - and then I got my second degree later, but started work at 19 in Geographical Information Systems.
Mike: That was your career for a long while. Considering all the things that you're doing now, are you here because you were always restless? Presumably GIS work was well-paid with a more solid career arc. When did you feel like it wasn’t the right one for you?
Lola: I always knew extensive travel in some form would be part of my future- I just didn't know how it would manifest itself. So even when I was a GIS programmer, I would really mete out those vacations to travel as much as I could. And what also kept that job exciting was - GIS is spatial geography. It's exciting! You're working with maps and spatial information, it wasn't just straight programming, it was a bit more interesting and creative. But I think I knew that I'd always write fiction. I love to travel, and I wanted to write about my experiences when I travelled.
In 2002 I volunteered for an expedition, and that was when I put the two things together - to look at National Geographic and think I want to be a photographer and do this properly. Because it's another thing to actually be there, and say, this is it. This is why they do it. So I was in Fiji when I had that epiphany, in one of the most amazing places in the world right now, one of the most remote locations in Fiji - people generally stay by the beach, but we were out in the jungle. I thought, I get to write about this and share it with the world. This is what I want to do. When I came back, I started plotting my exit strategy,
Mike: And I met you ten years later. I’m not blaming you for all the terrible things that I've done in my career, but it’s a fact you were one of my first teachers in travel writing, via various conferences.
Lola: I used to work as an editor with Matador Network at the time, and I was talking about ground level writing. David Miller was the very first editor that I worked with. And I really credit. David for opening my eyes in this way - and as the one editor that said yes, the very first time. And they taught me how to write transparently. It's evolved and my voice has strengthened, but that's kind of how that progression started.
Mike: Okay, speaking of travel writing, and since you’re living in Sweden - what actually is a Smörgåsbord?
Lola: A Swedish buffet! Like, a spread of lots of different traditional Swedish items that's eaten during main events and main festivals, midsummer or Christmas. And there's even something called Julmust, I don't know how to describe it - kind of a ginger-beer type of soda? It's the same thing, they just change the labelling, they call it påskmust, which is for Easter, and then Julmust for Christmas - it’s the same thing. So that also gave me insight into Swedish society and recycling. In fact, there's a scene in In Every Mirror She’s Black where one of the characters comments on it:
“Swedes were excellent at recycling, Muna noted. So excellent that they ate the same food at every celebration, Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, it didn’t matter. She was staring, once again, at meatballs, cured salmon, pickled herring, and prinskorv - prince sausages…”
Mike: So am I right in saying you've lived in a lot of different countries now? How many is it?
Lola: For long periods of time I've travelled a lot - have been in some places maybe a month, a few weeks. But I don't really count those. I know some people stay somewhere one or two weeks and say “I lived in this country”? No. You vacationed there. So for me, it’s really only three countries I’ve lived in, I will say the US, Nigeria and Sweden. Even if you live somewhere for a year, it's great you lived there for a year, but - if you really feel you got under its skin, then you can claim you really lived there.
Mike: *heavy irony* Are you claiming that going somewhere for a week and then writing a Best Things To Do In [x] article, you're saying we can't do that now?
Lola: *laughs* We all make mistakes when we are younger. But there's nothing wrong with writing that as long as you turn it back to your experience. If you want to write a superlatives list. Make it your superlatives. Not saying “the best” but saying “my best”. You can give somebody a pass, if they make it their own superlatives. And I feel that also gives you the freedom to be a bit weirder.
Mike: Right - like, we have to somewhat fit the market, but we also need to pattern-interrupt…
Lola: And that's the thing - it’s owning who you are. Very early on, I was frustrated by a lot of the industry expecting me to be a certain way, or do a certain thing, or champion certain causes, and- I'm just being me. We should inspire others to exist as their own individuals and not a monolithic voice of representing different causes or different things. Some people always want to define you, so they can put you in a box. Then you become excluded.
I talked about this in a TEDx talk: once you kind of operate outside of people's expectations, then you just naturally become impossible to ignore.
Mike: So with that in mind, what do you wish more people were curious about? What are the things at the moment where you want to grab some people and say, This is so interesting, so why are you not heading in that direction?
Lola: Wow, that's a great question. Let me think about it…
I think people should stop worrying about relevance, and focus on evolution. When you keep focusing on staying relevant, you can't easily pivot away when you feel like, Oh no, I'm living my life for other people. You feel pressure to keep up, do things this way, say these things, otherwise I will fall behind. But when you think about evolution, you're actually evolving to the best version of yourself in that time of your life. You're not supposed to stay stagnant. I'm not supposed to be, say, the older lady trying to keep up with 18-year-olds. It just doesn't make sense. But I still see people trying to do that. Why don't you let your voice evolve instead? So for me, that's what I always focus on is: what's the next version of my voice?
I just saw this quote recently - “lighthouses don't go running around an island looking for boats to save. They just stand there shining.” That’s by Anne Lamott. It’s fabulous.
Mike: So will you now be introducing yourself to other people? Who & what is your identity right now?
Lola: I'm just a visual storyteller, or just storyteller. And then if they want to know more about my boring life, then I share. But I guess I'm a storyteller, and use different platforms to tell stories, the right platforms for the right stories,
Mike: I have to say, I usually find a little dirt on everyone just to flavour my interviews, and - I couldn't find a single person who had anything bad to say about you. And, well, it's a little bit selfish of you actually, Lola.
Lola: *laughs* I'm sure there are some private WhatsApp groups out there. But - I'm just a normal person living my life, and I don't stir up controversy for the sake of it, I know when to use my voice to add gravity to a cause I like if I feel it will move it forward. But I'm just - I don't talk if I feel my voice isn’t needed at this time. Although I don't stay totally silent either, because I think a lot of people feel like if you stay silent, then you're agreeing with something, especially when it comes to racism. A battle is fought in many ways, right? So there are foot soldiers, the calvary, the generals, you don't know what their plan is, but there are some who are quiet there and still in the fight. So there are many ways to be an activist. For me, I do that a lot through my work and trying to challenge, to understand what we think of each other, and look for a bridge to build.
Mike: Now that you're a novelist, you now have a new channel for doing this, and novels are a great way of delivering impactful ideas in a way that people feel but they don't recognise as argument, because it's entertainment. Are you feeling a bit more of a fire to use your fiction in this way?
Lola: Yeah. I've always had things to say and I've said them in different ways. Somebody was asking me about an article I did for the New York Times about raising mixed kids. And the person was asking, Did you get a lot of hate and pushback? Surprisingly, no, hopefully because I write in a way that even if the person doesn't agree, there is a nuance there that makes them pause and think. Maybe to think “even though I don't agree, that’s fine because there are many ways to confront these issues.”
I’m nuanced with these things because it lets people think. If I came aggressively at somebody, now we're not open to each other, and we're not gonna listen. When I wrote the Lagom book, that was a more objective book, it said, these are the good things and these are bad things, take what you will. And now this novel says, Okay, what if we take some of the not-so-good things, and show society and the people dealing with this not-so-good situation. How does it manifest?
With this novel - there's so many voices that we don't hear about in Sweden. Sweden is a lot more diverse than it shows globally. Sweden has a kind of one-dimensional image that's still kind of global. And I want to also show Sweden to itself, to say that you are actually a lot more multi-dimensional than you want to admit, and that it's okay to accept you're multi dimensional. Once you accept that you're complex and not perfect, then people can connect better with you. Sweden doesn't want to show that it's vulnerable. But vulnerability is what makes people connect with you, makes people see you in a different light.
To give an example, the Lagom book is in 18 different languages - except Swedish. It's like saying, there's nothing we can learn from you about ourselves. It makes sense, because I study cultural connection and understanding, and if you feel like there's nothing you can learn from an outsider, you will have blind spots because it's usually an objective third party that shows your blind spots. So this novel is - I have something to say, but to say it, I address lots of different voices in Sweden that we never hear about, that are equally as important. I use just three of them.
Mike: Now that you have the book coming out, you've proved to yourself and the world that you are this kind of storyteller too, which you know you’ve always been from the beginning, but we haven’t. But now, do you feel like, okay, I can go back to all these stories that I had when I was growing up? Does this feel like a new mission you’re embarking on?
Lola: Not so much proving to myself. But moving to a place where I’m not compromising, Because, you know, this book got over 70 rejections. At some point you wonder when do you keep going and when do you stop? But some of the comments on what they wanted me to change, I knew I wasn't going to compromise...yeah. So I think I got to the point where I was comfortable enough to take the rejection and accept it and not feel like I needed to bend.
So with a novel now, I hope it now opens up more space for me to explore more fiction writing, because that was my first love. And the people that have read this book said the story is very fast paced - it's like the emotions don't end until 400 pages. And that came from many years as a travel writer, that’s the intensity, because when you're writing a 1200 word travel piece, you have to grab the reader from the beginning, and keep their interest until the end. Yeah, my travel writing has helped with some of that too.
Mike: Is it going to go in the other direction? Do you think the process of writing a novel will affect the way you're doing the other work that you're doing?
Lola: I actually just taught a three week travel writing course with some students who started with storytelling, and one of the students was majoring in creative fiction. And you could tell in their nonfiction work. So it’s true. As I told you, fiction was my first love. And when I write nonfiction like my travel stories, there's a certain way I write them. When you're studying fiction or some of your favourite writers, you see how you’re drawn to them by the cadence and the rhythm of their writing. And when you bring that from the beginning from that fictional world, and then you start writing nonfiction, you're gonna be like okay, how can I make this feel like everything is still true? What are the right words to pick?
So coming from fiction, for people that write fiction, they can actually find travel writing easier because they have that storyteller’s-eye way of writing, as opposed to, say, tech writing or business writing, which can lead to a more clinical approach to travel writing.
So that’s my advice to new travel writers: if you don't read fiction, you need to consider that as part of your reading, and you need to read all sorts of other things that aren’t travel writing, like biographies and everything else. All of this is learning to write what you want to write. There's nothing wrong with utility/service writing, and listicles and so on. But if you want to get into the narrative travel writing, then reading fiction and reading stories and allowing authors you like to influence the way you write - it’s important. Do that.
Mike: Thank you, Lola! This was a treat.
Images: Lola Akinmade Åkerström.