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Ajiri Aki

on fellowship, joy, and making every day worthy of the “good china.”

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Ten years ago, Brené started the Daring Interview series on her blog. It quickly became one of our favorite features. Now, we are relaunching the series and adding in a few new questions, including some from the late James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio, and Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir.

It was 12 years into living in Paris, France, that Ajiri Aki realized she had changed. She was a different person from the one who had been living on the hamster wheel of busyness working in the fashion industry in NYC. She had found the North Star she had always longed for but felt was elusive no matter where she was in the world — it was joie de vivre, the French saying for joy in everyday life. “Now I work to live and don’t live to work. I am willing to stand in a long line at a boulangerie just for the chance to chat with my baker and get the best bread. I love properly taking lunch, sitting at cafés, and think of my vacation time as sacred,” she says. 

The idea for her book, Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, filled with beautiful photographs, is separated into five lessons on embracing French culture no matter where you are in the world and was born out of a blog post Ajiri wrote in May 2020 called “A Case for the Good China.” In it, she shares how much in her childhood that she longed for her mother, a consummate hostess and connector, to use her collection of wedding china and other things the pair collected over weekend trips to garage sales for family meals. Her mother’s response was usually, “Not today. I’m waiting for a special occasion.” 

Ajiri’s mother passed away before she was 40 when Ajiri was just 12, and Ajiri made a promise to herself to live life as though every day is worthy of “the good china,” which she sees as a metaphor for anything you love. Ajiri feels transformed by her time in Paris. “When I was working in fashion in New York, I was working around the clock to advance my career and my status. I attached my self-esteem to what I did for a living. I wasn’t truly happy, though, and I rarely found moments of joy that weren’t attached to an agenda. I always felt unsatisfied and didn’t know how to just be.” Now, Ajiri not only appreciates the idle moments when they come but seeks them out. “These are the kind of moments that often inspire some of the essential ingredients of joy — curiosity, creativity, connection, celebration.”

 

Ajiri Aki in front of a bakery in Paris
When living in New York City, Ajiri Aki (pictured on a favorite corner in Paris) worked as a magazine editor and stylist and on fashion exhibitions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the City of New York. Now Ajiri runs a lifestyle brand called Madame de la Maison, where she stocks antiques and linens in the hopes that people will “elevate moments around the table to celebrate every day.”

Vulnerability is . . .

Like getting naked. It feels a little embarrassing and scary to let others see what we look like under all the clothes, embellishments, and armor, even though it is who we truly are.

What role does vulnerability play in your work? 

I am constantly styling, designing, and writing things that make me feel very vulnerable, even though I know they are meant to inspire joy and encourage people to live a joyful life. I put my ideas and thoughts out into the world, wide-open for criticism, which is so hard for me to not take personally. The hardest part though, for me, is loving what I’m doing and seeing how people feel touched by it yet still wondering if what I am doing is important in any way. 

Is it making a great change in the world? Is it innovative, a medical breakthrough, or set to compete with all the tech companies? No. But I have to try to write and create with confidence, knowing that not many Black women are getting the attention and press that my work is getting and knowing that I want to encourage those around me to embrace moments of joy every day. 

Most recently, with the release of my book, Joie, I shared my personal observations on how French culture is driven by finding joie de vivre — joy in life — a little bit every day. I wove personal stories with cultural ideas and was fully ready for people to tell me that I have no idea what I am talking about because I am not a sociologist or journalist, but that hasn’t been the case at all.

What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity, and how do you move through it?

I often feel like I don’t belong or shouldn’t be allowed to sit “at the table,” especially since there aren’t many women of color sitting around “the table” in the entertaining and design world. It can be really hard for me to silence the thoughts that no one wants to see a Black woman in this space talking about joy and galavanting around Paris living a good life because the conversation around Black women is often about the struggle, hardships, and fighting. 

For a few years, I didn’t even want anyone to know that my brand [Madame de la Maison, an online shop that stocks linens and antiques] was led by a Black woman. I was happy styling and sharing my work while trying to make sure no one would see my hands or my face. I finally came out and have stayed visual as the founder of Madame de la Maison and my various projects. However, I have to constantly keep moving through these feelings of shame and self-doubt by literally writing down reminders and accomplishments to reread and remind myself to keep showing up. 

I have to remember that my work and writings are just as helpful and necessary toward encouraging people to embrace joy in the midst of the challenges of daily life as well as pushing against discrimination and helping reshape how many people in the world visualize Black women. 

A collection of photographs from Ajiri's book, Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life.
From left: Ajiri’s colorful collection of scarves; after 14 years in Paris, Ajiri savors lingering in one of her favorite cafés; Ajiri with her two children on her balcony that overlooks the city; shopping secondhand is one of Ajiri’s passions. She can often be found perusing a flea market.

It’s often difficult to share ourselves and our work with the world, given the reflexive criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture — especially online. What strategies do you use to show up, let yourself be seen, share your work with the world, and deal with criticism? 

Although it makes me incredibly uncomfortable, I try to share a video of myself on Instagram weekly to consistently push myself to remain in a place of pride and sharing. When people criticize me online, I try to ignore it, or pretend that I am ignoring it by not responding, especially since there is no way to always know if it’s a real person or a bot. 

When the criticism comes from a real person, the only thing I can do is repeat to myself that the world is full of different ideas and opinions. It has also helped to keep a journal of “gains,” gratitude, and accomplishments to review when strangers criticize my work to help me rebound.

Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life. 

When I open my door to welcome people into my home, then spend an afternoon or evening around my table, this is always a moment of pure joy to me. To be in fellowship is always a joyful moment for me. However, I equally love leaving my home alone on a sunny day to walk to a café in Paris, sit on a terrace, and watch the world pass me by. There is something about sitting on a sunny terrace while people walk by that reminds me that I am alive and just one tiny person in this giant world. 

Ajiri Aki having lunch on a riverside in Paris.
“There’s life, and then there’s the good life,” says Ajiri. “No matter if we’re in Paris or at home, we all want to live the good life. You know, the kind of life that doesn’t always feel rushed. When you savor small moments such as sitting in a manicured garden brimming with fragrant flowers or enjoying a long, leisurely lunch.”

Do you have a mantra, manifesto, or favorite quote for living and loving with your whole heart? 

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t done.” — Lucille Ball

What is your favorite word? 

Joy.

What is your least-favorite word? 

Reimburse — because I can never spell it correctly. 

What sound or noise do you love?

Birds chirping early in the morning.

What sound or noise do you hate? 

Adults blowing their nose loudly.

What is your favorite curse word?

Scheiße, which means “shit” in German.

A collage of childhood photos of Ajiri.
Scenes from Ajiri’s childhood growing up in Texas, where her Nigerian-Jamaican family found community with their big extended family and other families from their church. Ajiri’s love of the hunt for antiques began in childhood when she would garage-sale-hop with her mother (pictured) on weekends. Many of the photos from Ajiri’s childhood were lost. She says: “It’s probably why I am so obsessed with finding other people’s belongings at flea markets. I hope someone went to a garage sale in Round Rock [a North Austin suburb] and found my pictures and my mother’s stuff”; photography courtesy of Ajiri Aki.

A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck and injury to turn off when it comes on? 

Heavy metal.

Favorite show on television? 

Ted Lasso.

Favorite movie? 

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. 

What are you grateful for today? 

My daughter coming home for lunch and telling me how happy she is to have lunch with me on Mondays. 

If you could have anything put on a T-shirt, what would it be? 

“Not today, Satan!”

Favorite meal? 

Oxtail stew.

A talent you wish you had? 

Photographic memory.

Favorite song/band?

I have so many. Love Will Come to You, by the Indigo Girls, and Wide Open Spaces, by the Chicks. 

What’s on your nightstand? 

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, by Maggie Smith, and Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, by Ingrid Fetell Lee.

What’s something about you that would surprise us? 

I was bucked off a camel at a church fair in the fifth grade and am now terrified of riding horses.

Your six-word memoir . . .

From the blues, toward brighter hues.

 I have to remember that my work and writings are just as helpful and necessary toward encouraging people to embrace joy in the midst of the challenges of daily life as well as pushing against discrimination and helping reshape how many people in the world visualize Black women.

 

Ajiri in front of her favorite shop, Éphémère fleuriste.
Ajiri picks up fresh flowers every week from her favorite shop, ephemere fleuriste. In addition to featuring Ajiri’s beautiful personal stories of life in Paris, her new book, Joie, also features interviews with some of her favorite locals, like a baker, a garden tour guide, and a writer, and travel guides to places like her favorite weekend getaways close to Paris and where to find her go-to local specialty stores.
Lauren Smith Ford headshot

By Lauren Smith Ford

Lauren Smith Ford is the editor in chief of brenebrown.com and the senior creative director at the Brené Brown Education and Research Group. She has written for Texas Monthly, Elle, Southern Living, Teen Vogue, and Glamour, among others, and when she isn’t spending time with her three daughters, she can be found on the pickleball court.

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