The baby universes
T minus three weeks
When you write a novel with a main character who suffers sexual assault, it turns out that people tend to ask her the same questions that they ask nonfictional persons. Well, how bad could it have been? It was only his fingers, after all. Why did she put herself in that position if she didn’t want it? How do we know if she’s telling the truth? Are you aware this makes her less likable? Who wants to hear about something like this? Are you a pervert? Do you hate men? You’re just making this shit up for attention, aren’t you?
The answers are trivial (Very bad; The trauma lies only partly in the details of the act, and mostly in the violation of our autonomy; She trusted him; We give her the benefit of the doubt, the way we do any other mostly reliable narrator; I am aware, and I am sorry for what it says about our world; I want to hear about it; This is a judgment, not a question; I don’t, but I wish they would question themselves more; Of course I am, that’s what novel-writing is, making up things that are worthy of your attention, but that doesn’t make it false), but the questions reflect a cultural-level, chronic gaslighting of victims that precisely mirror all of the questions we survivors endlessly ask ourselves.
This is not, of course, a coincidence. It wouldn’t be half as easy for abusers to gaslight their victims into silence and complicity if society weren’t constantly reinforcing the message. The world tells us we’re liars every damn day; abusers simply push their home court advantage.
The Library of Broken Worlds comes out in three weeks. My personal experience of letting a new book into the world changes with each novel. I am calmer this time than I was for the last seven. That reflects who I am as a writer now, which is also who I am as a person: steadier in myself, grounded in my life, willing to confront hard truths, willing to be kinder. I’m also confused about the market and worried about sales and terrified that everyone will hate it and even more terrified that people will read it and think, “what on earth was this writer trying to do”? No book is for everyone, and an Alaya Dawn Johnson novel is probably a more niche product than most.
And yet, I can’t help but be proud of what I achieved with this novel, with the broken things I was able, finally, to confront with kindness. I wrote a character who embodies certain aspects of my own experience that I wish I had seen modeled in the literature that I read as a teenager. I wrote an outsider-insider, a bisexual trauma survivor, a young woman who takes her destiny into her own hands without making that choice seem easy or inevitable. There are many, many differences between Freida’s far-future, AI-heavy quasi-utopia and the patriarchal dystopian funhouse we live in today. Freida is not a stand-in for a younger version of myself. Nevertheless, a book is a baby universe birthed from the seeds of your own soul, it is the white hole spawning out of the black. And when it leaves me behind on June 6th, I will never again have that intimacy with Freida or her beloved Library that has been my refuge for so much of the last seven years.
What a strange magic it is to release a book. I will give the world a universe, and some will love it and others will regard it with bafflement or distrust or simple disinterest, and no matter what, it will no longer be mine. Freida will live a thousand thousand lives in the minds of her readers, and each one will be subtly different from the other: different connections made, different characters beloved, different stories daydreamed after the last page is finished. Each novel spawns a galaxy of stories centered around a supermassive book-like object, bound by its gravitational mass but orbiting their own stars, telling their own stories. Fanfiction makes this phenomenon obvious, but it’s always been true, and always will be. Humans are storytellers, and each story we are told is also a story we tell, if only to ourselves.
Thank you all so much for subscribing to this newsletter, which I have sadly neglected. But here’s some good news for you patient observers of A Stranger Comes Home: for at least the next four weeks, I will post something every Tuesday. I am calmer this go-around, but the absolute truth is that I am at a critical point in my career and I need to do everything I can to get the word out. This is my first YA novel in nine years, and seven years in the making. I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the stars to align. This, of course, puts me in an awkward position. On the one hand, I love the book and think it’s worth your attention. On the other, there are many wonderful books and not a great deal of time or money in our collective late capitalist nightmare. If you can’t buy it, recommend it to your local library. Check it out of the library and leave a review on Goodreads. If you can buy it, pass your copy onto a friend (or even buy them another!) I won’t be doing many appearances for this novel, since they involve travel from rural Mexico, but I will be in Los Angeles for the book launch, details soon-to-be-announced, on Tuesday, June 6th. I will also be signing books for a store where you can order signed copies, if that’s something you’re into.
Finally, preorders are everything for a new book! Please consider pre-ordering The Library of Broken Worlds (in the US/in the UK) and help make it that much more likely that the sequel I am currently researching will also, one day, be a baby universe released into the world.
I leave you with some words from Freida herself, as she argues with the Nameren (the war god who wants to kill her) over the nature of storytelling…
“You promised me a story—” “I gave you one.” “Stories ought to explain themselves,” he says. She shakes a finger. “Not all of them. Not all the way. Where’s the joy without a little work?” The god is nonplussed. “Joy?” And the girl, she reaches her hands toward his snout and smoky horns, but she does not touch. “What about missing-third-act stories? Or surprise-fourth-act stories? Or stories where the narrator dies halfway through? Stories where nothing is resolved because in reality no one knows anything? Stories without plots, stories with incredible crystalline honeycombs of plots that no one understands all the way through but the narrator and the cleverest readers? Portal stories, but the subtype where you never go back home and never know why or how you were hurtled away in the first place? Or myths that explain everything and nothing? Or legends that leave the reasons a mystery? What about all the mystery, Nameren? All the mystery that is the beating heart of every kind of story?” He snorts. “Those aren’t stories, they’re trickery.” “Do you remember the tale of the piper in the town plagued by ghosts? What happened after the piper led the ghosts to the desert?” “They dried out.” “But what happened to the piper?” “Her children built their houses in the crowns of the anthills that sprang up where the ghosts had withered. The red ant gave them the gift of corn wherever it grew, and the black ant gave them children whenever they wanted. Ever after they stopped marking a difference between men and women.” She takes a step, just one step closer. “Yes, but what happened to the piper?” He hasn’t realized. “I . . . I don’t know.” “But it’s still a good story, isn’t it?”
Have a wonderful day, thank you for subscribing, and may you find your joyful stories.
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