Everything is change and everything ends, but can old things become new again?
Check out Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of the acclaimed novel Trouble the Saints, and her essay below on publishing a novel for the first time in six years and writing about structural inequality, colorism, judicial and extra-judicial violence.
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
I wake up early these days, a few minutes after the sun. I had thought that mornings in the country would be blessedly peaceful, but honestly it’s a racket: donkeys braying, roosters crowing, dogs barking in territorial choruses, so many birds singing you feel their raw joy at the miracle of the rising sun in your bones. My insides twist every night with dreams I can hardly bring myself to remember—I was obliviously used to this before I started cultivating self-awareness, but it’s harder to bear now. There is less respite in the games of disassociation when you know what you’re playing. This is how I wake up: moving from the cacophony of my subconscious to the cacophony of a dirt road in rural Oaxaca. In between, when I am lucky, there is a momentary stillness, a place to appreciate where I am now, which is not where I have been. Hello, Alaya, I say. Today you have nothing to fear.
Mass has been canceled so the local evangelical church blasts its sermons with the dawn. Layered on top, from another set of speakers, public service announcements wish happy birthday to the Señora Lopez Merino and play Pedro Infante’s mañanitas. I roll out my yoga mat and do sun salutations to the actual rising sun, which I never saw in the city, and my dog—the first creature in my life I have cared for—noses my face as I stretch out my calves in downward dog.
This New Year’s I came to this same town, which I did not dream of living in, and drank mezcal and watched the stars and the moon and ate creamy apple salad. 2020 is my big year, I thought, and imagined how it would be: a big pre-pub book tour, with major events all over the US. A release party in New York City with all my friends and some big-name writers. I’d move back to NYC for the month of June, somehow find the money to pay for it. At last my new novel would come out, my first in six years, and with it an end to the necessary but sharp exile from my colleagues and industry in the US. I dreamed of attending conventions again and seeing old friends. I dreamed, let me be frank, of having more than a few thousand dollars in the bank.
The timeline shifted, the world changed. My visions of my career and life had to change as well. I feel very lucky that I have developed the flexibility to move with these changes, to imagine and create a new life on the fly: a new town, a new dog, scandalous mornings before the heat sets in. I miss my friends in the US. They populate the nightmares I remember: throwing a huge riot of a party and then realizing, after everyone has arrived, that we can’t be together right now, that we’re killing one another by just hanging out and enjoying one another’s company in enclosed spaces. I run around the party frantically, screaming at friends to leave. They give me disdainful looks and ignore me. My subconscious is saying: You wish you could see them again, but you know you can’t.
I don’t know how this book is going to do out in this strange new world we live in. In some ways, a novel about structural inequality, colorism, judicial and extra-judicial violence, the sacrifices we make to survive the oppressive systems of white patriarchy, is unexpectedly reflective of our national moment. But I haven’t been in the headspace to read novels since April and I know I’m not alone. Who will want to read about such heavy subjects when every glance through social or traditional media sears us with brutality? Is there catharsis at the end of my novel? I like to think so. It was so hard to write, I guess, and I’m so proud of what I finally managed to do. I reached my own catharsis when I finally understood how to fix the very last ten pages, a simple revision that required seven years of build-up to execute. One hour and it was done, Phyllis and Dev and Tamara’s story ended the way it needed to, and I cried. What were those tears? Sadness? Relief? Benediction? Or an understanding that everything ends?
At my uncle’s funeral a few years ago—he was a baptist preacher, so you can imagine the four-hour service, packed from altar to back doors, fanning ourselves with the programs—my other uncle performed a song: “Everything Is Change.” I think about that a lot. Everything is change. John Lewis fought his whole life for voting rights, and today the Voting Rights Act is gutted and elections with systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters are used to “elect” officials who will commit to continuing our disenfranchisement. Slavery never ended, it just moved to our prison system—an exception quite carefully included in the 13th amendment and duly exploited by the great-grandchildren of our founding slavers and their descendants. I remember when Obama was elected a number of Black representatives were also elected that same year. And to mark the historical accomplishment of these representatives, the headlines proclaimed, “first African-American representative elected since 1868!” It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what world we would live in if the great promise of reconstruction had not been so brutally and violently repressed. People keep bringing up the specter of a new civil war, but I wonder: do we have the chance of living through a new, sustained reconstruction? Everything is change, which means that everything ends, but also that old things can become new again. We don’t have hands like in my novel, but never forget, we do have power. Our ability to acknowledge reality but imagine a new kind of life and then fight for it—that’s still some juju.
We will fight and even the fight will change. Nothing will ever be all right. I am learning to make a small, local kind of peace with that. I can wake up a little after the sun, listen to the birds and Pedro Infante, untwist my insides bit by bit. My first novel in six years is coming out today; I have to feed the dog. She waits for me every day, patiently, with an absolute faith in the morning.
Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of Trouble the Saints, on sale in paperback now.