Thrilling and Suspenseful: Thu Interviews Author Nafkote Tamirat

Article by thudoan89

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nafkote Tamirat for her amazing debut novel The Parking Lot Attendant, a suspenseful thriller that takes place on an island where the unnamed narrator and her father are living with a cult. She traces backward to the mysterious circumstances and interactions with enigmatic Ayale, parking lots, and the Ethiopian-American culture in Boston that led them to their current situation. Nafkote is a master craftsman that weaves a fascinating coming-of-age story that deals with immigrant and national identity and will have you at the edge of your seat.

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Thu Doan: The Parking Lot Attendant covers immigrant identity, national identity, and it’s also a coming-of-age story. All of those things are certainly there. But I think the blurb on the back falls short in emphasizing how suspenseful and eerie this book truly is. Why did you decide to take your book in that direction?

Nafkote Tamirat: I have always loved mystery novels, detective novels, and thrillers. It was a genre that I almost didn’t want to admit that I loved as much as I did. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that you should always say what it is you like. It doesn’t matter how people view your literary interests.

I love how writers can transform a banal premise into a complex plot where every single detail becomes necessary in constructing a narrative with a satisfying, and often very disturbing “a-ha,” “oh no,” “of course” ending. All of those minor elements created thisclimax. I’ve always admired those skills.

As I was starting to write this novel, which began as a short story, Ayale and the narrator, who is always unnamed, and set within the Ethiopian community in Boston set itself quite naturally for a mystery-detective novel set up. The first few drafts, the island sections, were much bigger and that element of suspense was taken to a greater degree because part of the mystery was not only what is happening on the island, but the next step as well, and what is the island going to do next

The society of the island, its citizens, and the injustices that they inflict towards the natives. 

It adds another element to the mystery as well. At one point, it was so overloaded that it was difficult to discern what the story was really about. So it speaks to my profound interest and admiration for the genre as a whole.

TD: In light of our political climate, there are lots of questions circulating about how young people are being influenced today, what immigrants are “really” doing in our country, and cult-like figures. Do you think your book is timely in feeding into or detracting from our national hysteria?

NT: Yes, but I think that hysteria has always been present. The course that has brought our current president into office speaks to this. The atmosphere of terror in the United States has been there for decades, but not as extreme as it is now. The words and vocabulary were different. Previous presidents, despite all of their faults, were never quite as ludicrous as Donald Trump, frankly. Every time I would turn on the news, broadcasters and news stations, the font alone in which they report is red or gold. It drips down like blood. The language, “THE WAR ON DRUGS,” “THE WAR ON TERROR” is terrifying even before you get to the how’s and why’s. You get a sense that you’re under attack and everything is going wrong even before you get to the story, and you’re already nervous and scared so of course you’ll buy anything.

It took me six years to write the story and while I was writing it, I noticed that those things were all there. 

One of the benefits to living abroad has been seeing my home country from a third-party perspective. In France, where historically there has always been a stereotype of French people looking down upon crass Americans, etcetera, that’s definitely not the case now. But sometimes, the U.S. is given the short by other nations because of certain stereotypes, cliches, and larger than life characters that consume our news space. But there is so much more to the us!

On the other hand, looking from this perspective has given me the permission and liberty to see and say, “wow, those things are weird,” and accept them easily. I think it’s challenging to see that unless you are in a position like mine.

TD: How much of this book did you write in France?

NT: Most of it was written in France.

TD: Wow! Now, my next question has to do with immigrant communities. I think when you’ve been around a community comprised of immigrants, you’re exposed to an array of circumstances. People who have immigrated to the country at different times or times in their lives. All of these experiences are unique.

Have you read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche? (She has) In Americanah, Adiche distinguishes between Africa-Americans and Africans. The book shows how they are marginalized, how their philosophies and experiences differ, and corrects this. I see this so much in your book. Can you explain?

NT: Yes, the first generation of Ethiopians came to the U.S. because they were escaping the government during the Red Terror. They sought shelter, and it was a choice that they made out of their situation. 

Whereas my generation, we heard stories, we speak in Amharic, and we were absorbed in Ethiopian culture, but I speak English too, and all of my friends were American. The idea that Ethiopian culture was tied into a hole in the household was not the case for Ayale and the first generation. They were Ethiopian first, then American.

I think the ideal situation for them would have been to make money in America, send it back home, and eventually go back to Ethiopia and live a retired life there. 

A lot of people could not make it back for various reasons. Either they loved it here and didn’t want to go back. Or after a certain amount of time, you end up feeling disconnected from either place. You stayed too long and you’re still not American. It’s hard to assimilate because you don’t have the physical characteristics that allow you to blend in.

For my generation, you don’t belong to either culture because you’ve grown up in the western world, but your parents keep telling you that you’re Ethiopian.

But to add on, I love Americanah because I believe the tension and discussion between blacks, Africans, and African-Americans is important. The question of choice makes a huge difference.

For some African-American immigrants, it was a choice for us to come to the U.S. whereas it was inflicted for others. That narrative is totally different and it affects your experience in the U.S. and how you view the “American dream.” It leads to a different discussion about the U.S. and black identity. Not only does Americanah discuss those questions, but it has the audacity to be a happy story. We are so used to black people in fiction as being a part of a tragedy or a story of sadness. But Adiche discusses those things with such detail and intelligence, but it’s also great and wonderful because the main character is smart and goes to a great school. She has a fellowship. She faces romantic issues and gender issues. It’s so rare that black people get to have those nuances, and it breaks away from black people being the spokesperson for their communities and tragedies. It’s incredible to see what those stories can become and what identities can be developed. 

(Now we’re geeking out about the movie, Black Panther)

TD: While I was reading I thought, ‘Ahh! Why does she do that’ and getting so upset. I would have to remind myself that she’s only a teenager. But her age is so important to this story. Can you tell us a little bit about this character? How did it feel to put yourself back in those shoes?

NT: Haha, it made me wish that when I was in high school, that I could have had the wisdom of now, but in high school, which is impossible. The benefit of knowing that none of this will seem as important as it does now and everything will be ok.

I think the root of those feelings continue to adulthood. Those feelings of loneliness and isolation from people. How can you fully understand another human if its difficult to know ourselves? It’s something we grapple with now. I think these instances are astronomically more dramatic when you’re a teenager, but it’s not irrelevant at all. We contend with those emotions and experiences now, but adulthood just makes it more complex and tempered.

I enjoyed being back in that mindset because I came at it with more tenderness and compassion for the teenager. I drew a lot from own experiences even though the main character is not meant to be me at all. I get it now!

We do the best we can and I like to go back to that space to see concrete things that exist between the two states. You see that it’s not so clear, and I enjoy getting back into that headspace.

TD: Now the father and father figures plays a huge role in your book. No spoilers here, but at the end, he does something that is so powerful. Why didn’t you try to tie in his experience too? Do you think there’s another story to tell?

NT: Absolutely, I think it would be totally different story than the narrator’s. I completely agree and it was a deliberate choice. I wanted us to be in a myopic viewpoint of the narrator. I loved writing the father and it was hard to see what happens in the end, but it’s necessary. Not only is it important for her to see the ultimate sacrifice, but its also important to see that she didn’t know her father in the way she thought she did.

She’s young and her only experiences have been from living in Boston and what she’s seen. If it weren’t for Ayale, then I don’t know if she would have gotten closer to her father. Ayale was a divisive part in their relationship, another adult man in contrast with her dad. It was a blessing and a curse because it forced her to see past her limited experience, but also her father wouldn’t have done what he did otherwise.

When I look at my family, they have always been completely mysterious, wonderful, complicated human beings, but as their child, I only saw them as my parents. As I got older and started thinking about parenthood and kids, I realized that I had missed the plot.

TD: Do you think there’s a fair representation of Ethiopians in literature?

NT: Not yet, but that will change soon.

TD: Finally. Other than Ethiopians filling the occupation of parking lot attendants, which reminded me of Vietnamese people working in nail salons, what three character traits do you want your book to represent Ethiopians?

NT: 1. Humor and being funny. Ethiopian humor is very weird, great, and dark. It’s different from American humor. 

2. Intelligence. Unfortunately, when people have accents it translates to a lack of intelligence for those people, which I’ve seen with my family in restaurants and public settings, and it’s upsetting and disappointing.

3. And this is sort of a cop out, but that there is no trait of any ethnic group. Everybody is just as crazy, nuanced, weird, creative, and as complex as the groups are mostly represented. The default population gets to do everything. They get to be funny. They get to be drug addicts. Successful. But with smaller groups, we seem to be slotting between a narrow group of labels and categories. 

One thing I would really urge people to do is seek out fiction, movies, anything that highlights different ideas and characters and shows that we are not all the same! 

The Parking Lot Attendant: A Novel Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781250128508
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Henry Holt and Co. - March 13th, 2018

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