Na’amen Tilahun has been around the science fiction scene for a long time — as a fan, a convention attendee, and a bookstore clerk. And now as a novelist! His debut novel, The Root, is coming out in June. I blurbed it:
“Na‘amen Tilahun‘s novel will make readers searching for variety in their SFF diets squeal with delight. The detailed world-building is strange and wondrous.”
Because we are both obsessed with the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race (or at least, he watches it and I’m obsessed), I asked him a ton of questions about drag queening. If you’d rather read a discussion of literature and toasters, just scroll down. We get to it.
RS: Who is your favorite contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race ever?
NT: This is a hard one. There are queens from each and every year that I adore and follow on social media long after the season is over. I love fashion queens, pageant queens, comedy queens, every kind of drag queen. Most of all though I love a queen that can make me laugh so Pandora Boxx, Latrice Royale, Bianca DelRio, Jujubee, Willam, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Shangela all rank very highly with me.
RS: Which Queen should never have been allowed on the race? Keep it 100.
NT: Oooh this is mean. I could go safe and just name one of the girls who exited first or second in one of the seasons but you said to keep it 100 so: Tammie Brown. I love vintage and I love kooky but I just do not get her, ever. But you know I acknowledge that a lot of the queens that I love, love her. Her jokes just make no goddamn sense to me.
RS: If you were on the race, what would you wear, what name would you use, and who would you play on the Snatch game?
NT: I think I would rock a lot of superhero inspired bodysuits. I would probably be a combination cosplayer/drag queen like Dax ExclaimationPoint…but better. I’d enter the workroom in a whole Manhunter (Kate Spencer) inspired look.
My name would be Hateretha Kitt.
I think in Snatch Game I would try to follow in the footsteps of Kennedy Davenport and push the envelope by doing a man, in this case Prince.
NT: Well my novel The Root features two main characters. There’s Erik, a former child star who left the business after a scandal and now lives in San Francisco and has just discovered he isn’t completely human. And there’s Lil who is basically a magic-wielding assistant librarian in another world that is slowly being devoured. There are a lot of other characters that get into the mix – mentors, parents, rivals. The novel jumps between our San Francisco and the alternate world and there are secret societies, shady dealings, betrayal, revenge, all that good stuff.
RS: You’ve been an advocate for diversity in SF, particularly in regard to race and sexuality. How did that work affect what you wanted to write about?
NT: I think it’s always subconsciously in my writing. The reason I’m such an advocate for diversity is because it’s the world I live in, it’s the people I see on the street and interact with at work and for fun. I’ve never lived in a city where I only knew white people or straight people. I always have had a diverse group of folks in my life and in my circle of friends. So when I write a book it’s natural to me that the characters I write about resemble the people I know. I also didn’t want to write an issue book where the story centered around a crisis of identity or coming out. Don’t get me wrong those books can be done really well but I always love the books where the characters are just queer or brown or disabled and while it’s part of the story because that’s their life it’s not the focus of the story. I want action and adventure for people who look like me and my friends.
I’m also confused by people who build homogeneous worlds, where everyone looks the same, feels the same, and has the same kind of relationships. Especially in speculative fiction which arguably is more about wish fulfillment than any other genre, why is this the world that you imagine? There are authors who are willing to imagine what our society will look like in thousands of years but they won’t look at their own assumptions and write a world were people are brown or queer or disabled or marginalized in any way. That’s ridiculous to me, we’ve always been here and always will be here.
Then again maybe they have thought about it and that’s the world they want to build, that’s fine, I’m just not interested. It’s especially astonishing when the work is set in a hugely diverse city like Los Angeles or the Bay Area or New York or London but the cast of characters never includes diversity.
RS: For many years, you worked at Borderlands, the San Francisco bookstore that specializes in science fiction and fantasy. What are some of the best experiences you’ve had there?
NT: Yes, I love them and still do some freelance stuff with them. I think the best experience was cultivating relationships with readers who shared my reading sensibilities. There were certain customers who I just had an instant rapport with and for most part knew immediately what book I wanted to recommend to them. These were customers who knew if I suggested a book they weren’t going to find it dripping with rape culture or racism or sexism. Borderlands has been my bookstore since I moved to the Bay Area and they’re a great supportive community.
RS: And since you’ve worked in a bookstore–Who should we be reading who we aren’t reading?
NT: Well I love Martha Wells her Books of the Raksura series is my favorite fantasy series of the last few years and her novel Wheel of The Infinite is one of my go-to re-reads.
Nalo Hopkinson has such a gorgeous way with language, her sentences are beautiful and her novels deal with trauma without making it entertainment. Love, love, love Sister Mine.
Larissa Lai wrote Salt Fish Girl which I think is a criminally underrated novel, moving in time from the ancient past to the far future it’s a beautiful novel about family and identity.
Oh and in that vein The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter which was really popular when it came out but a lot of people seem to have forgotten it – that novel is one of my Cyberpunk holy trinity (the other two are Melissa Scott’s brilliant Trouble & Her Friends and When Gravity Falls by George Alec Effinger).
I would also add N.K. Jemisin & Ann Leckie to the list but I can’t imagine there are many people who haven’t read them – I feel sorry for those people if they exist.
I’ll stop here because I could go on and on.
RS: DRAG RACE DRAG RACE DRAG RACE
NT: My top three this season are definitely – Bob the Drag Queen, Kim Chi and Chi Chi
The ones I just wish would go away are – Acid Betty, Robbie Turner and Derrick Barry
NT: I’ve been hoarding my own and intercepting everyone elses so that one day, one day, I can make a giant toaster Mecha that will not only allow me to take over the world but have the best mobile breakfast diner ever. I shall call it Papa Waffles and we will serve every breakfast food but waffles. Mwahahahahahaha! I shall rule all I see through a vast empire of toasted bread!
RS: This space left blank for you to say whatever you want about upcoming projects, things you’re excited about, which drag race contestants are going to win, how to raise Octavia Butler from the dead, roller derby, River Song, or whatever other topic you’d like to bring up.
NT: The main problem with trying to resurrect Octavia Butler is the question of consent. Does she want to be raised from the dead, maybe she’s happier not dealing with all these fools. We don’t want to fall into a Buffy situation. Although if we could get consent, whoo boy! The stories that woman wrote, the stories that were still inside her? There are few authors who can make me read trauma so deeply and still make the book exciting and almost fun. She had a skill for portraying life as it is, a series of intense ups and downs.
As for upcoming projects, I’m working on relaunching my podcast with my friend Chris Chinn The *New* Adventures of Yellow Peril & Magical Negro soon where we talk geek shit from a POC perspective. I also have a podcast called The Worst Queers with another friend that I’m working on getting up and running. After that’s done I’d love to work on a webcomic – I’ve had a couple pretty specific ideas for a few years now that I would love to see turned into a comic.
Also I’m in the midst of trying to invent a working Time-Turner so that I can have time to do all the projects I want to. Either that or becomes extremely rich so I don’t have to work full-time. Whichever comes first.