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.