Alaya Dawn Johnson lives and writes in New York City.
Alaya Dawn Johnson has written a number of novels for adults (including the delightful Zephyr Hollis series), and now she's venturing onto the young adult shelves with The Summer Prince, a complex science-fiction narrative set in post-apocalyptic Brazil. The action takes place in the city of Palmares Tres, which is entirely contained in a giant pyramidal structure on a bay, surrounded and fed by giant algae vats. The city is ruled by women, through a system that mixes technology, politics and quasi-religious ritual. Teenager June Costa is the heroine, along with her best friend, Gil, and a boy named Enki, who's just been elected as the city's Summer King. We've selected The Summer Prince as an NPR Books Exclusive First Read, and we asked Johnson a few questions about her story.
What was your inspiration for the great pyramid city of Palmares Tres?
The very first inkling of it came from watching a documentary on radical urban planning. A design team based in Japan had an idea for a hollow pyramid vertical city, much like Palmares Tres. The concept of algae vats came separately, because I wanted something that would at once symbolize the most progressive and regressive aspects of the society. The algae vats produce the hydrogen that powers their fuel cells, making the city essentially carbon-neutral. But the algae vats also force the poorest residents of the city to live with an ever-present stink and represent the social stratification inherent in Palmarina society. As for the impetus to set it in Brazil, I've long been fascinated by the history of the African diaspora there, and the differences between the diaspora cultures of Brazil and the U.S. I wanted to create a future that wasn't American and wasn't white and wasn't patriarchal, but still of course had many social ills and struggles — some unique to the era (Luddism vs. post-humanism) and some universal (rich vs. poor, age vs. youth).
Without giving too much of the story away, can you explain the system of sun and moon years?
The big, defining feature of Palmares Tres government is its system of summer kings. The idea is that women "Aunties" rule, led by a queen with a term limit of 10 years. Men aren't entirely shut out from this system — in fact, they have one of the most important roles in the government — but it's strictly delimited. The citizens of Palmares Tres all elect a king once every five years. This "summer king" rules for one year, as a sex symbol, rock star and political force, and at the end of his year he is sacrificed after choosing who will be queen for the next five years. In the story, these kings cycle between moon years and sun years — a moon year is what we would call a midterm election, and a sun year is when the queen has reached her term limit and a new woman must be chosen. Over the centuries, this system has evolved so that the moon year (i.e., midterm year) summer king is a ceremonial puppet required to pick the current queen. Because of this, the moon year king is always one of the youth of Palmares Tres and serves as a figurehead instead of a politician. This corruption of the system has gone on for so long that it's become traditional at the start of June's story.
The system of sacrificing kings seems barbaric to us ... but the Palmarinas love their city and its traditions. Why are they so important?
As Enki says late in the novel, the sacrifice might be harsh, but it's pretty much the ultimate system of checks and balances. A man guaranteed to die in a year is difficult to corrupt. Someone willing to give up so much for their home will have a unique and perhaps profound perspective on who should lead the government for the next five years. But the system doesn't just seem barbaric to a modern reader — other people outside the city (like the ambassador from Tokyo 10 and residents of Salvador) also view the summer king system with bafflement. Palmares Tres is a society born out of a distinct, idiosyncratic utopian vision formed in the midst of an apocalypse. I would say the residents of Palmares Tres respect the strength of that history and their remarkable ability to rise from the ashes of the old world. But not everyone in even Palmarina society agrees with the summer king sacrifice, or the place of men in their society.
Our heroine, June, calls herself "the best artist in Palmares Tres." But she doesn't mean just painting or sketching ... what does art mean to her?
June's definition of "art" is what I call pleasantly wide — to her (and Enki) art is a method of manipulating the environment to create transgressive symbols that illuminate often uncomfortable truths. As the story goes on, she starts to see art as something that can be purely beautiful for its own sake and also politically transformative, but it's never only about pictures on paper (or murals on walls). In modern parlance, June likes art installations, the bigger the better. She likes flash mobs and impromptu parties and participatory, interstitial modes of creation. She likes political stencils and holographic dioramas. She is interested in anything that might make a statement at this stage in her life, because I think she's searching for the kind of art that speaks to her the most. I very consciously decided to make June's idea of art broad because it reflected the wild variety of art I've had the chance to see by living in New York. And since Palmarina society is far more progressive than our own, I wanted her wide view of art to be fairly unremarkable.