An enigmatic, charismatic, possibly dangerous parking lot attendant rules an empire of Ethiopian parking lot workers, inextricably tangled up with the Ethiopian community of greater Boston as well as a mysterious, decaying utopian commune on a tropical island. The narrator, an intelligent and emotionally isolated young woman, pushes her singular self forward through each community, at once insider and outsider, welcomed and expelled.
In her first novel, The Parking Lot Attendant, writer Nafkote Tamirat pulls this narrator and these worlds together into one tight whole. While the book is full of fully realized characters and places, Tamirat deftly manages each so they don't overwhelm her story. She told Spine this cohesion, this ability to braid many narrative strands without losing the reader, was a skill she developed through forced exercises in brevity. First, though, she had to identify her subject matter.
Tamirat began with a phenomenon she witnessed in Boston's Ethiopian community, her community. "I noticed that there were tons of Ethiopians running these [parking] lots. Every single attendant. It was like my parents knew everybody. My mom worked at parking lots while she was going to school, my father did for a while, my uncle did. There are no parking lots in Addis Ababa. Where is this coming from?"
She was also thinking about colonization, and how she might upend past iterations. "I was fascinated by the idea of reversing the colonial process, and having it be an African country. The parking lot … could that be the beginning of an empire?"
Engaged, Tamirat began to write her way toward a series of short stories on her themes, but quickly found herself lost. At the time, she was enrolled in Columbia's MFA program. "I wrote these long, rambling short stories that were really confusing and verbose. By in large, the feedback was that they were too cluttered."
With one MFA workshop to go — one final chance to write within the structure of a graduate program, with at-the-ready critique partners — Tamirat placed severe restrictions on herself. "I'm going to only write short stories that are six pages double spaced, and no more. Six pages or less. That was when I started to really think about editing my own work. At first it was difficult, but then it became so liberating."
And instead of receiving feedback about what wasn't working, she started receiving input on her stories. "I felt like people were seeing what I wanted to say." One person who saw was a professor, Victor LaValle, who put in a good word with his agency, Watkins/Loomis, prompting Tamirat to send off a few stories. Armed with confidence and a firmer understanding of her best practices, and done with the coursework portion of her degree, Tamirat moved to Paris to work on her short story collection, with the final plan of turning it in as her MFA thesis. Then she received an email from Watkins/Loomis agent Julia Masnik.
"I’d told Julia in my query letter, before moving to Paris, that I was thinking of turning one of my short stories into a novel at some future point. In her email, which I received on my first night in my new apartment, she accepted me as a client and told me how excited she was about the novel idea, so I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and got to work."
Powered by coffee and silence, she wrote four hours every day before working afternoons/evenings as a nanny. Once again, she found herself simultaneously motivated by and lost among her words. As she reached the middle parts of the book, she had to stop reading other fiction writers, afraid they were creeping into her book.
After finishing the first draft and receiving rejections from publishing houses — "I was so devastated, so crushed" — she put the book away, completely, for six months. As with the forced brevity, the forced break brought clarity. "That was when it really felt like my own. It was wonderful to take this lump of words and chop things away and try to mold it into the story I wanted it to become."
Toward the end of the process, Henry Holt editor Caroline Zancan, who would eventually accept the book, contacted Tamirat. "She wrote me a letter, explaining where I could improve the book, which was huge, because I desperately needed direction as I worked on the last few drafts."
All the bumps along the way, the forced breaks, the plot untangling — Tamirat says without it, her book wouldn't have been this book. "I don't think the book I had a few years ago was this book. I do believe it's the best book I could have written at this point in my life. I'm so happy with this book in a way that I really wasn't a few years ago. … I'm so happy, and so grateful."
Find Nafkote Tamirat on Twitter @NafkoteTamirat.
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Susanna previously wrote for the online design community Dribbble, helping transform their occasional blog into the online publication Courtside. Her bylines also include AOL News, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.