FIYAH: Welcome to our first Black History Month here at FIYAH. As part of our celebration of this illustrious time of year, we are interviewing black SFF writers from across the globe. Our third interview is with the dynamic and authentic, Na’amen Tilahun. We so appreciate him taking the time out to speak with us today. Let’s hop right to it!
FIYAH: How important for you was it have black characters on the cover for The Root?
Na’amen: Really important. The whitewashing of covers is something I’ve had interest in for a while and have written about before. I even collect the examples I find – the original hardcover of Dawn by Octavia Butler, Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks, Larissa by Emily Devenport just to name a few – because I distinctly remember reading books that described characters that looked like me and feeling the elation of connecting with a character closer to my experience only to flip back to the cover and realize they had put a white person on the cover. I remember how angry that made me and the hurt that it caused. I didn’t want my cover to whitewash my characters or put them in shadow or any of a dozen ways black skin is kept off the covers of books.
I was extremely lucky that my editor and publisher allowed me a lot of input on the cover. They asked me for celebrity references for who the characters looked like, they asked for my preferences on clothing choices, hair, face, pose, all of it and sent me updates on the art as it evolved for comments/critiques. I think the experience spoiled me honestly because I know that will be far from the case for each of my books but I’m so happy it’s where I started. I love the cover for The Root & the cover for the sequel The Tree is just as amazing.
FIYAH: What would you say to writer struggling to find their voice?
Na’amen: To be honest I don’t know how much I believe that every writer has a specific personal voice. For me I’m more interested and invested in the way an author’s voice changes and grows as they themselves change and grow. If you are in search for your voice I would say don’t let that be your priority. Just write, write, write.
But if you do believe in a personal voice? You might be in for a long search and sometimes finding your voice is not as important as the journey to finding your voice. And if/when you do find it don’t let that be a stopping point – like, “Oh, I’ve made it. I can stop working as hard now.” One thing I definitely do believe is that often when a writer starts thinking that what they’ve just produced is the greatest thing they’ll write? That’s when they start to get stagnant and stop trying.
You should always be striving to do something new, do something innovative, tell the story you want to tell the best way you know how and the voice (of the piece at least) will find you.
FIYAH: What was the worst writing advice someone ever gave you?
Na’amen: It wasn’t direct advice but honestly the many, many (MANY) people who I had workshops with who would ask me why a character was black or queer if my story didn’t revolve around identity. This wasn’t advice per se but it was meant to teach me that characters who weren’t cis, straight, white men didn’t belong except in stories specifically about identity. This is total bullshit of course and I did my best to ignore it but it’s a more subtle way to make writing programs hostile to marginalized writers.
A good response to this nonsense in writers groups I’ve found is turning the question around and asking the person why all of their characters are white and waiting for them to articulate their own ignorance. It turns an annoyance into a game really
FIYAH: What are your strengths as a writer that you absolutely love?
Na’amen: This is a really hard one for me. I don’t know that there’s much about my writing that I absolutely love. I’m black and queer, two groups that historically aren’t encouraged by society to believe in ourselves and the art that we create. I love creating art but am still working on loving the art that I create. Even when others give me praise an automatic response is for my inner critic to bask for half a second before explaining all the reasons they are coddling or lying to me. It’s a long hard road to believing in yourself and I’m unsure the path has an end the goal is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Or to quote Sarah Hagi -“God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude”
FIYAH: Who is a writer with a career path that you would like to emulate?
Na’amen: I don’t know if there’s one specifically but there are definitely authors where I want to emulate aspects of their career. I love the way Nalo Hopkinson combines her writing with teaching and educating others. I would love to incorporate more of that into my writing. I want to write all of the SF/F because I love all of the SF/F – urban fantasy, space opera, high fantasy, steampunk, noir, alternate history, weird fiction – so I appreciate the way China Mieville subgenre hops in his novels. I definitely admire N.K. Jemisin’s willingness to experiment with style, voice and perspective in her books. And Rachel Swirsky’s willingness to deal with the darkest aspects of human nature without flinching. It’s hard because so many of my favorite authors are still in the process of establishing their careers and making a name for themselves so it’s hard to trace their career path and want to emulate it. I do hope I’m on the Jeff VanderMeer track who also started outside of the big five publishing houses and has carved a stellar career for himself.
FIYAH: Being black and queer is definitely a hard road to travel as a creative. We have a few people on staff who fall into those categories. What do you see as the way forward in getting those dealing with those marginalizations to love their work sincerely?
Na’amen: I think the first step is connecting to a writing and reading community that honors your identity and perspective. I’ve always wanted to be a writer but my confidence definitely increased when I started to talk and connect with other marginalized authors. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one out there trying to break into a predominantly white gatekeeper establishment gave me hope. Not to mention discussions within the community that center marginalization are better advice than most of what is printed in predominantly white writing magazines.
Getting affirmations about our work is also very important. People say that you should write for yourself and to a certain degree I agree but getting feedback from people who truly see themselves in your work can be one of the most satisfying feeling and what keeps you going. For myself I write a lot of what I wished I could have read when I was growing up. Having others tell you that they love your work or connect to your characters can be so helpful because you begin to see your work through the eyes of others, of those who really love it. I’m a perfectionist, if I had my way I would do so many editing passes, so often when I look at my work all I see are the things I would change. Knowing other people connect to the work helps me see beyond the errors to what other people love about it which helps me love it more.
FIYAH: What served as the inspiration for The Root? How long do you intend on having this series go?
Na’amen: All my novel plots tend to be a lot of smaller ideas that come together to form a whole. There was religion of course, which is a subject I’m always interested in, and the original imagery of angels compared to now. I wanted to play with the idea of the monstrous and the beautiful. I wanted to write an urban fantasy with black and multiracial characters to represent the my friends, family and world but also have these portal world elements. I wanted to show marginalized folks in an adventure that didn’t deal explicitly with their identities but still acknowledged those as important to their perspective in the day to day world. I was tired of their being one queer character in a series introduced in book 3 of a series or the one black man who knows the streets as our only representation. There are some other things about mortality and immense power that don’t become apparent until the end of the sequel so I won’t say anything about them but sufficed to say it was a lot of smaller inspirations that started to fit together to form something larger.
It’s going to be a trilogy – The Root, The Tree & The Fruit – and then the story of these characters is done. One of the things about my ideas if that I often know exactly how I want to end a story, I know where the major characters are going to end up when I start writing. Some things change as I write, for instance there was going to be an endgame romance between two characters that is no longer happening, but for the most part I know when I want it to end.
I will admit that I have some ideas for a potential fourth book in the same world with some of the same characters but it would be a standalone and do a time jump of about ten years and focus on two of the child characters as teenagers.
FIYAH: You mentioned China Mieville so which book of his would you say is your personal favorite? And if you don’t have a personal favorite book, how about a character (feel free to go for this question too even if you have the latter)?
Na’amen: Of his books my favorite is hands down , Embassytown. First I just love the language of the book but also it brings together a number of my lit kinks as I like to call
– An actual alien culture that feels alien and isn’t based on an “exotic” POC culture
– Meta, god so much meta, subtle references to other creators works & pop culture
– A strong decisive protagonist who’s dealing with their life the best way they can
– Complex and caring human relationships
In terms of favorite character I don’t think I have one for Mieville. I like his plots and worlds but don’t connect wit the characters as much but one of my favorite characters in SF/F in recent years is by fantasy author Martha Wells. She has a series called Books of the Raksura – which is about matriarchal, bisexual, shape-shifting flying lizard people – features Moon who is one of the few male protagonists I’ve connected with so thoroughly. He’s empathetic and caring but guarded and not afraid to stand up to people in power when he thinks they are wrong. I adore him. I have reread that entire series probably five times and cannot wait for the final book in the series to come out this summer.
FIYAH: What’s on your bookshelf currently waiting to be read?
Na’amen: Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin & Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliot both of which I bought as soon as they came out but the third books in each trilogy are releasing this summer and I’m waiting so I can reread the first books and just mainline the whole story all at once. Also Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn and Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.
FIYAH: How many things are you working on currently and when might we see them hit the world?
Na’amen: I’m one of those people that tends to hop around from project to project so I probably have about five to ten novels at any time sitting at 10 – 40k words. Currently I’m trying to concentrate on three different projects:
– A queer erotica novella series centering on a 30-something black man who arrives in Salem and discovers he’s the descendant of Tituba and rightful leader of a sprawling network of witches that covers many different disciplines. It will explore his year and a day of service and the connection between magic, sex and religion. Tentatively titled: The Trials of Ebo Jones
– A so far untitled Noir/SF standalone novel that follows a queer-demisexual werewolf who is one of the survivors of a genocidal regime and whose fellow survivors are being picked off one-by-one which he’s being framed for.
– There’s also a YA novel about a bigender black city teenager sent to stay the summer with family they’ve never known in Louisiana. They end up in city that’s not on any map, in a house filled with mostly black women, some living, some dead, all of whom have a story that ties in with the protagonists own journey. Tentatively titled: Red Road Home.
As for when, I don’t actually know right now. I don’t have an agent or anything so whichever of the latter two books I finish first is going to be my agent search manuscript. The erotica series I will probably end up self-publishing but haven’t made a concrete decision yet.
FIYAH: All of that sounds boss and we look forward to all your work being released into the universe! We’d like to thank Na’amen again for taking the time to kick it with us. It’s been a pleasure!
Where you can find Na’amen’s work: