Art in Writing: Alaya Dawn Johnson talks about The Summer Prince

Guest Blogger
Mar 12, 2013
Alaya Dawn Johnson makes her YA debut this month with The Summer Prince (ages 14 and up)—a heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the lush tropics of a futuristic Brazil—that Kirkus called “Luminous,” in a starred review, and National Public Radio said, “This is a book that doesn’t condescend…With grace and precision,The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old fashioned science fiction storytelling.” Alaya has stopped by OOM to talk about The Summer Prince and the important role that art plays in the novel. Thank you, Alaya! I think of writing (and, more broadly, storytelling) as an art, though it tends to occupy this liminal space somewhat adjacent to “real art” in public consciousness. And The Summer Prince is the story of June, a young artist in the futuristic city of Palmares Três. Which I guess means that in writing this novel, I have been guilty of a kind of metafiction–or, at least, meta-art. June’s ideas of art, what it should do, what it shouldn’t be, how far it extends, what kinds are good and what are worthless, evolves throughout the book, much like June herself. Early on, June says that she thinks that the only worthwhile art is transgressive. She dismisses the music of her arch-rival, Bebel, because the ruling women of their society approve of what Bebel does while mostly ignoring June. But June’s appreciation of both Bebel and her music deepens—“I realize that there can be transgression in beauty,” she says, after witnessing Bebel’s intensely perfectionist rendition of Chico Buarque’s “Roda Viva.” At seventeen, talented but perennially frustrated in a society where adults live into their second century and dismiss anyone under thirty as “wakas”, June loves art for its ability to shake the status quo. And when she encounters Enki, the summer king–a rock star, sex symbol, and political figurehead destined to die at the end of the most fabulous year of their lives–she realizes that she has found a fellow artist. Pretty much any artist has to deal with the tension inherent in an intensely personal expression being presented for public consumption. Over the course of her year with Enki and Gil (her best friend and Enki’s lover), June’s art travels that spectrum. She goes from the spectacle of hijacking the city for a light installation to the introspection of a series of pencil-and-paper drawings meant for no one but herself and her mother. She veers between overweening self-confidence and crippling self-doubt, extremes that most artists can identify with (not the least this writer). And Enki, who by the end of the novel has transformed his body and his humanity to something almost unrecognizable even to those who love him most, widens the scope of art to its event horizon. As June says to Enki when they first agree to collaborate: “You mean that when you chose to be the summer king, you chose to use your own body as a canvas that no one could ignore.” Alaya Dawn Johnson. (C) Alden Ford In The Summer Prince art can be a political transgression, and an engine of both self-inflicted damage and self-empowering metamorphosis. In their world of buzzing camera bots and corrupt politicians and the five-year cycle of brightly burning, dying summer kings, June, Enki and Gil use their art to expose injustice. They also use it to throw fabulous parties and spray paint stencils and annoy their parents and seduce their lovers—they’re teenagers, after all. But Enki articulates the power at the heart of every excess, the true thing that scares the century-old rulers of Palmares Três: “When the world is destroyed, someone must remake the world. I think you’d call that art.” For more about Alaya Dawn Johnson and The Summer Prince, check out NPR.org for an interview and an excerpt from The Summer Prince.   Alaya Dawn Johnson makes her YA debut with The Summer Prince, which she began writing while on a train, traveling three thousand miles across America. But her love of Brazil started much earlier—as a child listening to the music of João Gilberto, and as a young woman traveling there with her sister and cousin. Visit Alaya online at www.alayadawnjohnson.com and on Twitter @alayadj.