We interviewed Alaya Dawn Johnson author of The Summer Prince and Love is the Drug. Find the recorded interview here!
V: Hey everyone, I’m Victoria.
K: And I’m Kathleen. Today we have Alaya Dawn Johnson with us, author of our September book of the month, The Summer Prince. Alaya, thank you for joining us, all the way from Mexico City!
A: Thanks so much for having me.
K: The Summer Prince is a dystopian science fiction novel that takes place many years in the future.
V: We chose it for our September book of the month because it was incredibly well-written, took place in a futuristic world where no one had an assumed sexual orientation, and was polyamory-friendly. We’ve never seen anything like it before, and it was a very welcome addition. My full review is up on the site [LINK] if anyone wants to know more.
K: Alaya, our first question for you is, how did the idea for this book come to you?
A: Well, I have to say that my ideas tend to come from all sorts of directions, so I’d say probably the biggest influences–what I was trying to do, and what ended up becoming the novel–were…well, first, I had taken a trip to Brazil with my sister, who had studied there and learned Portuguese, and I went with my sister and my cousin when she was going to do some research in San Paulo, and basically, that trip was just one of these amazing, eye-opening experiences, I fell in love with Brazil, and I’d already learned a lot about Brazil before I went, but that, it just sort of solidified it for me.
It also kind of brought me to more conscious awareness of the African diaspora community within Brazil, the descendants of former slaves who had integrated in Brazilian society in ways that interested me so much just because of the parallels and the really stark differences I could see between how it had worked in the United States and how the African diaspora community worked in Brazil, because Brazil and the United States were, during the slave trade, two of the biggest importers of slaves and had two of the biggest populations of slaves–and, obviously, of their descendants.
So, how that society had moved past that point and how American society worked past that point were two things that really interested me.
I came back, I didn’t really think about it for a while, but meantime, I was writing other novels, and I was thinking about science fiction and how much I really wanted to write, like, this…super weird, trippy science fiction novel–like a social science fiction novel, kind of like the ones that Ursula Le Guin writes, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which had a major impact on me.
And at some point this whole thing kind of came together, especially because I had been thinking about how oppressively white those futures were. Ursula Le Guin in Left Hand of Darkness 100 percent was playing around with ideas of gender, and she definitely was doing other interesting things with what we would now call diversity and trying to open up the whiteness of her world, but I kind of felt like aside from that example there wasn’t a lot going on, especially nowadays, especially with the boom of science fiction and what we’re calling dystopian fiction.
Right now there’s a ton of science fiction being published, but so much of it was so white, so much of it so straight. So I kind of got this notion that I could write a science fiction novel that actually took notice of the rest of the world, put black people and the African diaspora front and center, actually open sexually–like, kinda use the power I had to create a whole new world and a whole new future for…a complicated good, I mean, obviously the world in The Summer Prince is not 100 percent wonderful, it’s not a utopia. I mean…In my own thinking of it, it’s a complicated utopia, but anyway.
All these things are wandering around in my head, and then I was watching this program about futuristic building technology. [laughs] And for some reason this really interested me, because they were showing this amazing idea that a Japanese company had had for building…taking advantage, in that particular case, of the waves that come into Tokyo bay. You can have hydroelectric power, and you can have geothermal power, but you can also have wave power. So if you build generators that harness the power of waves crashing against a shore, you can actually power a lot of things with that, and I don’t think that there’s much happening right now in that way, but it’s a thing that this company had thought of, and so they constructed this giant pyramid that was a city, but it was kind of vertical, and so all these skyscrapers hung from the vertices of all these, like, mini-pyramids, and there were these parks, and so obviously you can see, this is exactly where Palmares Tres came from, and I just like, my whole brain exploded when I was reading about that, and all of those things came together until I had the first, first kernel of the book, and of course the book is doing all sorts of other things, too, so it’s not…that doesn’t even really come to it, but that’s kind of like the three main things that were kickin’ around in my head when I was coming up with the idea.
V: Hmm, cool.
V: Well, part of what made me love this book so much is the clarity of the world. It had such a unique and full culture to it, and even though you showed us a lot of it, it seemed seemed there was a lot more to it that we never saw. Which was just really cool, I feel like in most dystopia and/or science fiction, you don’t seem to get a lot of that. So, how did you go about building the world? What was your favourite part of it, and what parts of it did we not get to see?
A: For me, world building is…it’s a lot of characters stuff. I’d always had the idea of making it, like, an open sexual society, but a lot of the nitty-gritty details of how that worked happened when I came up with the characters.
Gil came to me practically of a piece, he was the key character for me figuring out the world in a lot of ways because when I understood the dynamic between him and June, I understood how the story of the three–of June, Gil, and Enki had to play out, and so that was what helped develop a lot of it. And that’s true for a lot of the other world building elements.
And a lot of the stuff, the stuff that didn’t go in…I’d say that probably…in revision people asked me a ton of questions, I mean, you can tell that this is…in a lot of ways, when a world is succeeding, people are just like, “Well, how does this work? And how does this work?” [laughs] And so I sent this to a lot of my friends, and a lot of my friends are big [science fiction] readers, but they’re not, like, super young adult readers, and so a lot of their questions were sort of hilarious to me as a giant young adult fan, like, “Well, what do the adults do?!” “What happens when you have babies? Where are all the babies?” I’m like, “These are teenagers! How many babies do you hang around?” I mean, especially in a society where you’re not having a lot of children, you can live these incredibly long lifespans, so the chances of having a sibling your age would be much less likely.
So no, my characters didn’t really have close siblings, so that side of the world, like, where are the young parents? What happens to people…where are the kids playing in the parks? When I thought about it, I was like, “Well, maybe I should include a scene where there’s…” If I included a scene for every one of [their] questions, that book would have been like four times as long. [laughs] So I just kind of nodded, acknowledged they were totally great, valid questions, and I wasn’t going to write a book about that.
But I thought about it, I thought, “Well, of course…” You know, I thought about that thing that I just said, the siblings…the problem is that the siblings…the way that we in our world interact with siblings is because you only have a very short window to have children. In [The Summer Prince’s] society, there’s no window at all, you can live until you’re 200 and you’re fertile until you’re like 170. So that doesn’t come into play, so why would you necessarily have a lot of children at one time? So that was a thing that was interesting to me.
I touched on this a little bit with Gil’s mother, that she had a child very young, and that was very much a prejudice in their society, like, “When you have all this time, why on earth would you do it when you’re seventeen?”, especially because they infantilize children. And so that was another thing I didn’t touch on, that extended twilight period of adolescence, like [that] you’re twenty-five and you’re still considered a child. And I think those are the sorts of things that would be cool to explore more of.
Oh! Also, another thing I always thought was cool but I didn’t–I really could barely get into this–was the way the other parts of the world thought of them. Because Palmares Tres is very much–hopefully, this was clear in the book–it’s not a representative slice of what has gone on in the rest of the…kind of…land mass that is Brazil now, and in the future obviously is not politically Brazil but is still kind of part of that cultural heritage…that Palmares Tres went in one direction, a very matriarchal, very sex-positive direction, and the rest of that part of the world…it isn’t necessarily some horrible place, but it’s gone in other…it’s emphasized other parts of their culture, and it’s developed in other ways. And so I touch on it a little when they go to Salvador, but that’s like three seconds at the end of the book. You’d probably have to be reading, like, sentence-by-sentence, super…with a comb, practically, to get all of this stuff out of it.
But I was thinking about that, all of that stuff was wandering around in my head while I was trying to convey it, like just to the extent…even when they go and they…spoilers here, right? [laughs] Even when they…they’re visiting the town…visiting the town…okay, so they somehow end up in this small settlement, I don’t know how this happens, [laughs] they’re in a small settlement outside of Palmares Tres, and they see this interaction between this couple, and the interaction between that couple and the way that they talk about Palmares Tres, I wanted to be in stark contrast to the way that people talk about Palmares Tres within their society. They’re kind-of making fun of it, they’re kind of suspicious of it, and you can see, actually, the relationship Palmares Tres has with the immediate surroundings is very unequal, and they’re the dominant–they have that dominant power in [an] exploitative relationship, and so that was…all sorts of other stuff that I was playing around with.
So the answer to you question is, yes, there’s a lot of stuff, probably vastly too much, I could discuss it in an hour, so I’ll just stop now.
K: Thank you.
K: Our next questions for you is, do you have plans to write another book in this world?
A: You know after that extremely long answer you’d think yes! I’m going to write a tetralogy [laughs] but no. I, in fact, feel like one of the amazing things of writing science fiction is the ability to come up with such a complex thing and then leave it. Like, to leave that magical space to the imagination of the reader. Also, if you want to write lots and lots of books in one world, and I know people who write amazing books and their whole lives they spend in one world, exploring it and teasing it out…I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Ellen Kushner, if you are not then you should definitely be familiar with her because she writes some of the most amazing gay books on the planet. [laughs]
K: Ellen sounds really familiar.
A: The Privilege of the Sword…
V: I know I have heard of her but…
A: Swordspoint is her most famous book, and she’s basically been writing in the Swordspoint universe. [Swordspoint] has literally one of the highest gay romances ever written [laughs]. This book is so good. I didn’t even mention this, but Privilege of the Sword is like a hugely influential book on me too, and her treatment of bisexuality and the way she plays with expectations of gender and the identity of whom you are attracted to is really great. It’s one of those things when reading it I was like “I can’t believe that someone can do this in a book!” and it’s not marketed as YA but if you read it it’s the kind of thing that could have easily marketed as YA, if it had been published a few years later.
V: Well I definitely need to read that now. [laughs]
K: I gotta read this too. [laughs]
A: [laughs] Let me pause, I have a public service announcement, everybody needs to read Ellen Kushner right now.
V: So The Summer Prince was your first young adult novel, how did it differ from writing your adult books?
A: My adult books, well okay let’s back up, I’d say that the first two novels I wrote were in hindsight, if not actually young adult because I think in some ways we are talking about several things in one umbrella: one is the marketing category of young adult, the other one is writing for adolescents, and the other one is writing about the experience of being an adolescent. And those books I wrote kind of in the tradition of old school fantasy novels, which are very much about like 17 year old potboy goes on adventures, except I wrote them about a 13 year old girl who goes on adventures. But there’s a long tradition of that kind of thing and those books have been marketed as adult novels for decades and decades. And now I think books like Graceling and there’s others but I’m forgetting them, that kind of book, it’s becoming a young adult book in the sense of a marketing category.
So I’ll say that The Summer Prince is the first novel that I wrote from the beginning knowing that I wanted it to be all of those things. I wanted it to be written for teenagers, I wanted it to be about fundamentally the experience of being a teenager and I knew I wanted it to be in this marketing category, which I think is great and awesome. So all of those things, that was the first time I’d done it. And I don’t know if it really changed the way I wrote, honestly it made me feel kind of freer, because I just felt like everything that was going on with YA was so amazing and I felt like it was finally this space that was going to allow me to do all of the stuff that I wanted to do with my writing.
I’d written some books trying to be commercial and it didn’t really work, I loved those books, those are great, but in a lot of ways they are not the truest thing I wanted to do. When I wrote The Summer Prince to be truer to myself, I wrote it because I had to write it. I actually did not write a thing that I had under contract for a year because I was too overwhelmed with trying to write The Summer Prince. If anything that market, all those 3 things, made it possible for this book to exist. I’m not sure that I would have felt comfortable, the adult science fiction fantasy world can be very conservative, and I think “thank goodness!” that the YA world has so much more freedom to publish different and strange things. I just think this is an amazing Renaissance of literature for teens in general, but also of science fiction and fantasy literature for teens, like this astonishing Renaissance, and I’m just so honored to be part of it.
K: Yay! The next question, there have been some critiques about your use of Brazilian culture, are there things you would change if you could go back to it now?
A: Yeah, this is a great question. I think there’s a lot of things that I was thinking about [this and other] responses to this novel. First I have to say, if you are writing from outside your culture, as I am as an American woman writing about Brazil, obviously there are things you are gonna get wrong. I mean, that is not a “write whatever you want, whatever, you are gonna get it wrong, who cares what other people think”, obviously I care hugely what other people think, I care hugely about the opinions (negative and positive) about my book and about the work that I have done, obviously that feeling of someone having written about your culture and not understanding it is not a good thing, as a black woman I’m aware of that. I respect and I’m very grateful for people who have taken time to write about the aspects of this book that didn’t work for them. That being said, I think that I also as a black woman who has read books written by people outside of my culture, my modern black american culture, which is even more narrow than general black american culture…the fact that you are going to get things wrong doesn’t negate the value of doing it.
It’s very important to try to write about things that are not the most obvious things that you can write about, especially because just frankly most of the people writing literature in America right now are white people, and I feel like one of the big problems going on with YA is that the vast majority of the writers are white and so the vast majority of the worlds we are getting are written from that perspective and they are not trying to get outside of it. Even if they attempt to get outside of it, it’s inevitable going to result in mistakes and errors, some of them worse than others. I still think it’s worth doing, at the same time it’s also worth provoking those critiques and those responses, and I don’t think that there’s any book that can live without its audience, in a literal way no book exists without a reader. I mean it exists without a reader, but to that extent it only exists with the reader that is the same author. When you are going to publish a book, the book exists in this matrix of the response to it, it exists in its cultural context, that context includes the people who have another perspective, a very valuable perspective who can bring that to the table and talk about the book.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that I tried very hard to get it right, to the extent that getting it right as a concept that even makes sense because I think that culture is a moving target, it’s a very wide thing that I as a black woman can read a book and think that it gets it totally right and another black woman can read a book about the exact same subject and think that it gets it totally wrong, and I am not right and she is not right in the sense of some grand arbiter declaring one of us right and one of us wrong, it’s that we are both coming at it from a different perspective, and I think that to that extent both of our perspectives are valuable.
This is a long way of saying it’s hard and it’s complicated, and I don’t, in anyway wanna denigrate or dismiss the people who have had issues with this book. I really think it’s great, and I think it’s great that we have spaces where those things can exist side by side with the book. And I think that on some level, like I said it’s valuable, and I think there are times when things that are valuable that you do have to exist with things you wish you had done differently, or not even that you had done differently, but that you wish could be better, you sort of wish these things could be easier to deal with, but that isn’t exactly true but I think that the effort is important also.
V: Yeah, definitely. So our last question is, where do you want to see Queer YA go next?
A: I would love for there to be a great deal more of it [laughs]. I mean I think that we are kind of slowly but surely getting to that point. I think, like I said earlier, the industry, specifically the publishing industry, is so much more open to that sort of stuff than they have ever been, and I think that’s amazing. And more science fiction, this is my own bias [laughs], and more heroes, more people front and center, like there’s nothing wrong with having a gay friend but you know we also can not do that [laughs], they can also narrate their own stories, that’s cool too. I’d love to see more bisexuality depicted in fiction, just making it kind of like a thing that exists…
V: Yes! [laughs]
A: [laughs] I gotta say that was a revelation for me as an adult, like, “Oh, it’s a thing that exists?” [laughs] You can hear so much and valuably about being gay or straight, but there’s a long twilight of the Kinsey scale there that is a little obscured, and I think that’s a great thing, that YA is an amazing kind of space for that to be explored and touched on. Especially because it’s read by people who are younger and are going to be changing the world and developing it. The letters I have gotten! I was shocked to be getting letters from young men, teenage guys who are like “I thought your book was great!”, and I’m like, “Wait, you mean to write me, or somebody else?” [laughs] To me, the idea of making it just there, like existing and fine, and not like some weird thing you always have to walk around, it’s just one of the amazing things I think YA could do. Short answer is, just more variety and more of it, until finally people stop going like, “Oh, did you know this book was gay?”, like finally it’s just a normal thing, that would be amazing.
K: Yeah. Alright, that’s all of our questions, thank you so much for talking with us Alaya.
A: Thank you so much! It was great.
K: And listeners, you still have a chance to win a copy of The Summer Prince until the 24th of September. You can enter on our website, GayYA.org
V: This is our second recorded interview, so let us know if you have any feedback for us. Next month we’ll be talking to Laura Lam, author of our October Book of the Month, Pantomime.