The Big Idea: Alaya Johnson

Vampires occupy a special place in modern literature, and are often used allegorically by authors to cast a light on current social issues and inequities. But does this allegory run the risk of minimizing the same social issues its uses as a jumping off point? In today’s Big Idea, author Alaya Johnson ponders this question, and how she dealt with it in her Jazz Age vampire novel, Moonshine.


Writers from Bram Stoker to L.A. Banks have used vampires and other paranormal creatures to evoke entirely human societal issues of racism and classism and general inequality. But when I had the idea for Moonshine, I was most excited by the way I could use the 1920s (and the rump-end of the Progressive movement) as a dynamic period in which to integrate issues of oppression with supernatural creatures. In my world, these are mostly vampires, the most hated and discriminated-against group, but also include djinni, faery, golems and other creatures from the traditions of the many immigrant groups living in New York City during its Jazz Age.

I also liked the idea of using the 1920s to highlight the vast disparities between the rich and the poor–to pull back the curtain a little from the image of glamorous frivolity that most of us have of the “roaring” twenties, and show that things were bad for plenty of people long before the crash and the Great Depression.

I will say upfront that Moonshine has a fairly light tone and a not-inconsiderable focus on romance, so if that’s not so much your thing, caveat emptor. But I tackled those issues of rendering people “Other” as seriously as I could. The first thing I decided was that even though I was going to be exploring the oft-used trope of “vampires as an oppressed minority” (Charlaine Harris, anyone?) I wasn’t going to have them replace the various immigrant and minority groups who were actually oppressed in the twenties. The act of replacing real oppressed groups with fantastical, over-idealized (or over-demonized) ones is problematic for a lot of readers. Mostly, I think, because it implies that real racism (and sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.) aren’t big enough problems to deal with on their own merits.

I tend to divide most paranormal stories (particularly vampires stories) into two broad camps: Society Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are real and known to society) versus Secret Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are secret and only known to a Select Few). So, the television shows Buffy and Supernatural are examples of the latter, while True Blood (the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries) and the Anita Blake series are examples of the former. While the racism metaphor can be evoked in Secret Vampire stories, it’s far more prevalent in Society Vampire stories. In True Blood vampires have “come out of the casket” and appear on CNN arguing for equal rights. This can be funny and illuminating if handled well, but I think it walks a fine line, because too much focus on the fantasy oppression at the expense of actual, lived-by-humans oppression can have effect of making oppression itself seem like a fantasy scenario and not deadly reality.

Which brings me back to Moonshine. I wanted to find a way to integrate the experiences of historically oppressed groups with my fantasy history of supernatural oppressed groups. But I also felt like I was writing in dialogue with the truly massive body of paranormal fiction that has been published in the past decade. I don’t claim to be an expert on modern vampire fiction, but most of the hero(ine)s have attitudes towards paranormal creatures that are outright bigoted and jingoistic.

The history of immigrant discrimination (particularly in the twenties) felt particularly apt to me, because it seemed to me that the attitudes towards vampires in these works follow similar faulty logic: “Some vampires are evil and kill people, therefore I have a divine/moral/foreordained right to judge–and kill–them preemptively.” To me, the moment that Buffy showed that a vampire could redeem himself without a soul (Spike), they had effectively given the game away for the morality of Buffy’s actions. And yet the show refused to acknowledge what it had done.**

Arguments against full protections for immigrant groups often go the same way. Indeed, no need to reach back into the Jazz Age when we have the horrifying example of Arizona in 2010. Immigrants commit more crimes, defenders say. If you’re Lou Dobbs, you apparently think that they’re also literally unclean (carriers of infectious diseases). Because of these spurious claims to higher rates of some undesirable traits, defenders of draconian anti-immigrant measures justify the blanket targeting of all immigrants, legal or otherwise.

The inherent injustice of this is apparent to a good many people without the fantasy context, but at least as far as I could tell, it was missing in the literature. So I wrote Moonshine in many ways as a response to the Anita Blakes and Buffy Summerses of the paranormal fantasy world– to show (hopefully) that it’s possible to use the metaphor without minimizing the real experiences of oppressed groups and also to take the issue of that fantastical oppression seriously.

As my main character would say: Vampires are people, too!

**As an aside, I think that was why Whedon completely screwed up the end of the sixth season–unwilling to follow-through through on the fascinating, if dark, logical arc of the story (and the worldbuilding), he had to twist both Spike and Buffy to fit the old categories of “good with a soul” and “bad without a soul” into which he had long since written far too much ambiguity.


Moonshine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit Alaya Johnson’s blog.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Alaya Johnson”

  1. This has nothing to do with vampires or your novel, but I loved the Javascript pull-cord gimmick on the excerpt page.

    (ok, now that I’ve gone click… click… click… view source… click… I’ll actually read the story excerpt…)

  2. …and the story itself rocks. Good concept, good characters, good setup for… I guess I’ll have to drop the ten bucks to find out what you’ve set up for, eh?

  3. I was already looking forward to reading the book, but this description makes it sound ten times as fascinating.

  4. And hopefully Borders will SHELVE THIS ONE PROPERLY. *seething rage*

    Johnson is awesome. Such a way with prose. I’ve been looking forward to this. High hopes for this book.

  5. I am 2/3rds thru MOONSHINE and love the book. Concept is strong, worldbuilding excellent, the heroine is superb!

    Interesting to get inside Johnson’s head a bit and see how/why she did what she did (so well!).

  6. A correction here; Spike wasn’t redeemed, Spike was restrained. He had no choice in the matter. Given a choice the Buffyverse vampire is cold, calculating, manipulative, and predatory.

    It is the nature of Whedon’s vampires to be the way they are. Some have potential, most do not, but in all cases Joss Whedon’s Vampires are the way they are.

    And let me point out that it was not his soul which kept Spike from being a monster, but the restraint implanted by the agency. For when Spike got his soul back he kept doing monstrous things to those he could do monstrous things to.

  7. Great piece. For some reason I hadn’t heard about Moonshine until now (and I read a lot of paranormal fiction), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it.

  8. What Alan Kellogg said about Spike is my opinion also. Personally, I hope to never watch/read another account of vampires OR zombies.

  9. I don’t see what ‘twisting’ Whedon had to do. Spike was a monster. He tried to rape Buffy. He also sold DEMON EGGS. (Bad plot idea, but still: he was selling very lethal creatures. The episode’s crummy, but it IS canonical.)

    This isn’t saying Spike never did good things, but quoting from the show itself: “…all of (his) actions were selfishly motivated. He had no moral compass, no understanding of right. Everything he did, he did out of love for a woman who was never going to be able to love him back.”

  10. I’m with Alaya. Yes, Spike was “restrained” by the chip from physically and *directly* hurting humans (Seasons 4-6). He also underwent excruciating torture at the hands of Glory and refused to reveal Dawn’s identity (Season 5). Would a “soulless” Angel have done that? Would any other vampire? No. He *liked* Dawn (he says he does). He *liked* Buffy. He protected them and showed that he cared about them on an emotional level, and by the end of S5, Buffy knows that she can trust him with Dawn, not because the chip keeps him from drinking her blood (because the chip DOESN’T keep him from driving her over to Glory’s apartment), but because he will actually protect her. He cared about Drusilla (Season 2-3, and for generations before the show began). That had absolutely nothing to do with the chip.

    The attempted rape of Buffy that occurred at the end of Season 6 is *exactly* the argument that Alaya is making here — it’s a cop-out — it’s the backtracking of the writers from at least a season of creating a character whose impotence in terms of his ability to commit direct violence was a gateway to present the truth of his emotional complexity — a truth which had been there all along (i.e., Spike *loved* Drusilla, whereas “soulless” Angel — and presumably, most other vampires — never loved anyone). It was a fascinating development. It was a potentially game-changing one. But instead of really utilizing the game-changing element, as they did with the idea of multiple Slayers (Faith was one of the most compelling storylines in the show, as was the denouenment of the “potentials”) they totally backed away from it and decided to give us a morality play about bad boyfriends and kinky sex.

    How much *more* compelling would it have been if the story was about a true redemption arc, a character who fought and struggled his way back from evil and sociopathy through trial and error, rather than a magic spell that “gives someone a soul.” Newsflash: Angel’s an asshole WITH a soul. Xander calls him out on that fact at the end of Season 1 when Buffy has been drowned and Xander can’t seem to get Angel to care. Meanwhile, “soulless” Spike spends a whole season moving heaven and earth to heal his ailing lover, then helps Buffy save the world from her de-souled boyfriend, then, still soulless, protects Dawn when, unlike with Drusilla, he has no PERSONAL interest in doing so.

  11. I think it’s interesting that you are comparing vampires to society and vice versa. Often authors convey they views about political and society issues. One only has to think about Michael Crichton and his views on the environment to get the idea.

    I think as long as the story is engaging, and your views have to deal with the actual story, than it’s okay to throw in some personal opinions. If they really don’t carry the story, than it should be removed.

    I enjoy reading about vampires because they are exotic and immortal. I think we all like that they are bad, yet thirst to be human again. I also enjoy that there are good and bad vampires, and I did enjoy the Buffy series and see nothing wrong with her killing vampires who were trying to kill her classmates. What I thought was strange was that no one seemed to catch on even after all the mysterious deaths.

    Congrats on your book. Writing a vampire book that hasn’t been done, is very challenging.

  12. I file Spike’s attempt at raping Buffy who he loves-in-some-sense-of-the-word with the rest of Whedon’s quiet comments on what men* will do to women they think they love.

    *And women too, but the comments on the patriarchy seem particularly sharp to me. Giles obeying the Watchers and stripping Buffy of her strength when she comes of age, for instance.

  13. Could it be that while others refused their vampire side, Spike embraced it? That for him becoming a vampire was a good thing, and so he accepted the demon that came to posses his corpse. In short, Whedon’s vampires are not soulless, rather the original soul loses control and the demon takes over. So instead of regaining his soul, Angel had his soul put back in charge.

    And let us not forget that the whole slayer story was a fraud to begin with. The Slayer was never a paladin, but herself in part a demon, a creature created to give humanity a false hope. Her purpose was never to destroy vampires entirely, but to give humanity a false hope. Until modern medicine enabled us to bring the dead back to life there could be only one. When two slayers became possible it changed the whole dynamic and made it possible for vampires to be destroyed utterly and completely.

    What I’m trying to say is this, that the whole set up was a lie to begin with. The Watcher’s Council was dedicated to supporting the lie, and the Slayer was created to create false hope. Buffy and her unexpected survival changed all that,

    Spike was a part of this, because he did something no one was supposed to do. He embraced vampirism, instead of denying it; and so allowing the demon to gain control. In short, Spike always had his soul; Spike was always in control. It was the demon that gave pseudo life to Spike’s corpse that was held prisoner. Spike was always in control, and humans are capable of greater evils than all but the most depraved of demons. (Think about it, what are all the evils you hear of but the result of human imaginations?)

    Long? Yes. Off-topic? Yep. But I felt it had to be said. Joss Whedon’s work has always been more complex than it appears, the involved and duplicitous morality of the Buffyverse is just an example of this. Think of it as Vampire: The Masquerade with a consistent cosmogony. But remember that what you’re told is not always how it works.

  14. To return from the Buffy tangent, I just wanted to say – I loved Moonshine, have read and reviewed it myself, and yet this Big Idea caused me to love it even more. I saw that vampires were placed side by side with immigrants, rather than placed in the place of them, and really liked it without really realising what a conscious choice it was, and how it addressed problematic tropes.

    Since subversion is my favourite thing in a novel, huzzah and time for a re-read. And huzzah for Zephyr, whose earnest concern about vampire rights is a breath of fresh air.

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