10 November 2023
Novelist Lola Akinmade Åkerström writes about centring Black protagonists in a white world
A friend once shared an analogy he’d heard on the concept of perspective with me.
Imagine a circle, he said. Those standing in the middle of the circle are centered. The world – the circle – revolves around them and their needs. Now imagine those standing along the circumference of that circle, along its curve. Not only are they forced to stare into the centre of the circle and engage with those needs, but they also have a wider perspective standing along the periphery. They see each other, spot blind spots, and fully empathize with both the centered and the marginalized.
That statement stuck with me. As a Black woman living in Scandinavia, I’ve often stood on the edge of society despite being well integrated. After all, we’ve been conditioned to cater to the needs of the centred first through decades of not seeing yourself represented in media, senior roles at work, and within other spheres of influence.
I wondered what it would look like to centre the experiences of Black women in a predominantly white-dominated society. Where people would have to turn their gaze towards fully seeing and acknowledging the pain, dreams, and desires of those on the margins.
So, I switched the demographics of that circle in my writing. I needed to write fiction that would bring my readers on a journey of walking in the shoes of my three Black protagonists by placing them squarely in the middle. I needed to swap out the white gaze.
With my first novel In Every Mirror She's Black, I introduced readers to three very different Black women who end up on Sweden for various reasons. Kemi is an ambitious marketing executive looking for love, and career growth Brittany-Rae is a former model-turned-flight attendant who has been swept up by love, and Muna is a refugee simply trying to build a new life for herself. With my first novel, I created space for the women to have their own needs prioritized.
In my new novel Everything Is Not Enough, I also focus on one more woman – Yasmiin, a former sex worker-turned-celebrity makeup artist. I ask the readers to give the women grace as they stumble through life making very human decisions with consequences. I needed to write lush characters making gasp-worthy mistakes while muddling along. I was allowing them to feel their range of emotions without being held to double standards. The same space that those who have historically stood in the middle currently enjoy with ease.
The women are all loosely connected to the same man – uber wealthy CEO Johan 'Jonny' von Lundin. On paper, he is society’s metaphoric centre, a cis white, blonde, blue-eyed Nordic man. But in the book, I figuratively push him to the edge and prioritize the voices of all three women whose lives and actions he inadvertently impacts. Through my book, I wanted to implore readers to imagine a world where they aren’t always society’s number one. Where they get a raw and transparent look into the lives of people beyond their own social circles and spheres of influence.
I once read a Swedish review of my novel In Every Mirror She's Black where the reviewer, a white man, pointed out that the most interesting character in the novel was Jonny – a fellow white man. I found it fascinating that he was looking to see himself represented in a book about Black women. He went on to explain that it was because I, as the author, had written Jonny’s character with empathy. What his sentiment reinforced for me was the importance of representation. Of staring into a circle where you see people who also look like you taken care of, listened to, treated with tenderness, and given space to thrive and self-actualize.
And many other reviews have been equally enlightening. Once white protagonists are decentralized in literature and sidelined voices are pulled into the centre, many white readers simply can’t connect. Suddenly, Black characters are seen as distant, not fully formed, ungrateful. There’s an underbelly of discomfort. These are readers who haven’t spent decades catering to someone else’s gaze. So, the stories of these Black women feel innately unfamiliar to them.
To be excluded means you fully understand the centre because you’ve been forced to look at it for centuries. When the dolls you played with as a child and the books you read had no characters reflecting you. This also means you have a wider perspective in life and bring more cultural insight to the table because you’ve had to survive with less access. As legendary actress Viola Davis poignantly said in her Oscar acceptance speech; the difference between Black women and everyone else is opportunity.
Those of us who have been historically marginalized have been forced to walk in someone else’s shoes every single day, in addition to ours.
My books force readers to do the same.
Everything Is Not Enough is published in hardback by Head of Zeus
Read more on the importance of representation in literature from bestselling YA author Marieke Nijkamp