Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson has been recognized for her short fiction and YA novels, winning the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” which also appears in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (2015), guest edited by Joe Hill. Her debut YA novel, The Summer Prince, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her follow up YA novel, Love is the Drug, won the Andre Norton Award in 2015. A native of Washington, DC, Johnson is currently based in Mexico City, where she received a master’s degree in Mesoamerican studies and now plays in a bossa nova band.

In Trouble the Saints, Phyllis LeBlanc is a juju assassin who passes for white in an alternate 1940s New York City. After years of contract killing with lethal knives, she wants out of the business when she gets back together with her ex-boyfriend Dev Patil. He’s a police informant with paranormal powers that allow him to see future threats against the people he touches. But breaking out of the business while the country is on the brink of joining World War II sure as hell won’t be easy. How did the premise come together for you?

I had the idea for the first section first, which began life as a novelette. I’d been interested first in questions of violence, in what people take for granted in noir stories (and most historical fantasy, for that matter), and shine some light on people and power relations that normally go overlooked. But it was only after I moved to Mexico that I decided to expand that original story beyond the confines of the noir format and include the two other POVs to deepen and expand Phyllis’s story.

The three points of view form the novel’s structure: Phyllis’s first-person POV in the first third, Dev’s first-person POV in the second, and then her friend Tamara’s in close third person in the last section. It gave me the sensation of zooming out from Phyllis’s take on the events of the book. What was the effect you were going for with this structure?

When I realized that I wanted to expand past that original noir framework, I had the choice of maintaining Phyllis as the narrator or moving to the people closest to her. I chose to switch POVs because I felt that as a character study of Phyllis, it gets more interesting to test her own view of herself against others’ views of her. I liked the idea of showing how she changes as the “lens” of the story zooms out, as you say. Tamara’s section switches to third person to heighten this effect and to bring the end back to the beginning, as we understand more about the origin of the saint’s hands and the structural inequalities they were meant to combat.

The saint’s hands are where the magic comes in. They run in Phyllis’s family. Her great-uncle could tell a card just by touching it, and her great-great grandmother picked up lightning in storms. Phyllis uses the power of her saint’s hands for wielding those lethal knives. Tell us about how you devised the magic system for them.

Honestly, I resisted the idea of this novel having a “magic system” for the longest time. I wanted the magic to have a very light touch on the novel; I was more interested in it for its metaphorical possibilities than its logical implications. But probably around the third draft of the manuscript, I realized that my refusal to think the hands through as a system in and of themselves was actually undermining their thematic potential. So with the help of my editor, I really dug in.

What helped me was reading a lot more about traditional magic “systems” in the African diaspora, specifically conjure and herblore in the American south. Also, living in Mexico and spending significant time in many small towns and traditional communities has really helped me expand my understanding of the way different people understand the presence of magic—using as expansive a definition as possible here—in their own lives. That helped me see that it wasn’t only something that western writers play with in these abstract games of fantasy worldbuilding, but an important aspect of actual, living traditions that have their own logic that must be respected. Or, to put it another way, as Latin American writers have frequently observed, “magical realism” is actually just realism (theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1973/01/the-yellow-trolley-car-in-barcelona-and-other-visions/360848/). I had to find my realism while imagining a lightly alternate history for 1940s New York. The saint’s hands of my novel don’t have any direct analog in conjure traditions, but they are fully realistic within them.

If the saint’s hands are meant to combat structural inequalities, why does Phyllis call the power from them a latter-day flood and a plague?

Because she’s angry. She has regarded the responsibility her hands represent as a divine punishment, even as she exploits their power. But of course, as the story goes on, both her own POV and the perspectives of Dev and Tamara provide greater depth and nuance to her somewhat glib condemnation.

Before heading to Little Easton with Dev to make a break from contract killing, Phyllis finds out that someone is killing off people with saint’s hands. And the ones born with saint’s hands are Black. I was wondering if you were commenting on this country’s history of killing Black people that we keep seeing today.

The destruction of Black bodies and lynchings are happening today because they were happening back then because they were happening a hundred years before because white European imperialists committed the great crime of stealing our ancestors from Africa and enslaving them in the Americas. Which is to say, this is a novel about the legacy of abuse and terror, so it’s meant to evoke both the past of the novel and the future (our present). What I wanted to make very stark was that the killing of Black and other marginalized people of color (let’s not forget that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by the police than any other demographic in the US: lakotalaw.org/news/2017-11-21/native-lives-matter-the-overlooked-police-brutality-against-native-americans) is often and explicitly about our power, not our powerlessness. It is because we still have power, despite centuries of oppression, that white racists are afraid and motivated to commit some of their most violent acts of brutality.

Why did you want to set the novel at the dawn of World War II in an alternate 1940s New York?

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of legacies of trauma for a long time. Most people alive today who are descendants of enslaved Africans don’t have to go very far back to find an enslaved ancestor, maybe six or seven generations. My own maternal grandfather was born in 1899, and his parents were alive during the Civil War. We can think of it as ancient history, but it isn’t: It’s still a painfully close, living history of trauma, even if most of our elders haven’t liked to go into the gory details. So a lot of my motivation was an attempt to understand my own history, my own parents and grandparents, why they made the choices that they did, and how trauma has shaped all of us.

I appreciate how you dispel the myth of the North being the haven from racism that it never was. Because racism by any other guise would be just as systemic. We see this when Phyllis takes her niece and nephew to Central Park because their mother is too dark-skinned, and when Tamara and Dev aren’t allowed to visit Phyllis while she’s recovering at a segregated white hospital. Was that part of your intention of writing about NYC during this period?

Absolutely. The notion of the North as this oasis of equality (even now) is one of the more egregious ahistorical myths of our times. If anything, the fact that the racism was less overt made it far more insidious. Black people in the North had certain, limited freedom compared to those in the Jim Crow South. But it was not a great deal more and could be ripped away at any moment. The existence of sundown towns was just one of the many ways that the North systematically discriminated against Black people.

What kind of research went into building this alternate 1940s NYC? What books or archives did you look into to capture the feel of Phyllis and Dev’s world?

I enjoyed a lot of novels and short stories written in the twenties, thirties and forties, particularly by writers like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. I spent a lot of time looking through online archives of restaurant menus, street plans, contemporaneous autobiographies, and other material that helped me contextualize the world. In the seven years I spent writing, I went through a great deal of material, but it tended to be more as I needed it as opposed to one big research burst.

You’ve written historical fantasy novels set in New York City before. Your Zephyr Hollis novels take place in the Big Apple during the Roaring Twenties. What draws you to writing period pieces about NYC?

I just love NYC a lot. I love the spirit of artistic ambition that’s drawn generations of people there. But I’m also very much aware of its flaws and of how brutally it has treated those generations of artists, particularly artists of color.

At the center of this very noir-flavored novel is the love story of Phyllis and Dev, both of whom are of mixed-race heritage. Are their relationship and their ability to navigate the race politics of the time by passing your way of playing with some of the conventions of the traditionally white genre of noir?

I have semi-jokingly called this book an “anti-noir” novel, because it’s using noir to upend its traditional racial hierarchies and explore complex legacies of oppression and how we as POC have navigated them. I’ll note that though Dev is mixed-race, he can’t pass for white. On the other hand, he isn’t Black, which does afford him some meager privileges with the white people around him (compared to, say, Tamara). All of these nuances are at the heart of the novel, because the main characters’ racialized status is at once something imposed upon them by the white power structure but also the product of their very idiosyncratic histories, cultures, and personal experiences. Phyllis, for example, is “mixed” in the sense that she’s a light-skinned Black woman, but she is fully Black in the sense that both of her parents were Black, and culturally, she’s very much part of the community and an heir to its legacy. Her passing wouldn’t mean anything if she weren’t—she leaves Harlem to “pass” because that’s not who she is.

Did you have any noir archetypes in mind when you were coming up with their characters?

Phyllis as a character was really the spark that gave me the whole story. I was thinking of assassin archetypes, honestly, and how so many modern stories tend to use violence as a shorthand for strength and power. And yes, I thought, that’s true, but it’s far from the whole story. Who is most drawn to using violence to get power? Do they get it? What do they sacrifice? How does that change when we’re talking about people who structurally, in our white patriarchal society, don’t get much, or any, power? Can they take some back? What does that do to them? Beyond any notion of justice, does that use of violence take them out of that white patriarchal structure, or does it embed them within it even more? Once I had Phyllis, Dev came naturally as her foil: the innocent youth who thought he could save her, but didn’t understand the game she was playing and thought she could win. And Tamara, as her friend who has made many of the same bargains in spirit if not in deed, gives her a mirror.

You tweeted back in November 2019 that what really draws you to a book isn’t genre, plot, or character (though related), but rather emotional honesty. What emotional honesty were you going for in Trouble the Saints?

I wanted to write characters who fully confront the choices they have made, bad and good, and who struggle to make better ones, though they never wholly succeed. I don’t think emotional honesty in fiction necessarily refers to that—there are plenty of emotionally honest books I can think of with fully self-deluded characters—but I wanted, in this book, to have the characters confront themselves in such a way that the reader is, hopefully, encouraged to do the same.

In addition to writing novels and short stories, you write and perform music. Could you tell us a little bit about your US-Mexican soul/blues/folk hybrid band Cananea and how it formed?

It came together because of a counter-cultural bookshop/coffee shop called Marabunta in Coyoacán, Mexico City, where I would go a few days a week to work on my novels. I eventually got to know the owners, one of whom also plays blues guitar. He heard me singing at a party, and we decided to try to start a band. He got his old guitar teacher involved, and then we found an amazing bassist and drummer. The music has a lot of storytelling elements—we even have a three-part song cycle that’s an extremely condensed fantasy novel. The mix of genres wasn’t too deliberate—just a reflection of the extremely eclectic music I grew up listening to, but wonderfully fleshed out and deepened by the work of the whole band.

Sadly, Cananea is now on hiatus due to the pandemic lockdowns and losing a few members, though we’re trying to figure out how we can keep making music with one another remotely.

Sorry about Cananea being on hiatus. What you all are doing sounds so cool! Did any of your songwriting feed into writing Trouble the Saints or vice versa?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure out how to write a song for Phyllis, Dev, or Tamara specifically, though a lot of the music gives me the same kind of feeling as the novel—bluesy, dark, nostalgic but defiant. There’s one in particular, “Morning After Song” (youtu.be/0PfjUiZegPE), that I think relates a lot to Tamara’s character.

What’s the next writing project you have coming up?

I have a collection of short stories forthcoming from Small Beer Press called Reconstruction and other stories. More details to come (as with everyone, the pandemic has moved a lot of my plans), but I can say that the title story is very much of a piece with this novel, and could even be considered a kind of (thematic) prequel.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.