“Rise to the Sun” Torches the Illusion of Perfection

Leah Johnson, a Black woman with long black hair and a black shirt, smiles brightly at the camera

Leah Johnson, author of Rise to the Sun (Photo credit: Reece T. Williams)

For more than a year, we were unable to safely spend time near others. Some of us forgot what it was like to hug one another or see our families and friends, and unfortunately, that’s still a reality for many of us. But Leah Johnson, bestselling author of You Should See Me in a Crown, imagined and wrote Rise to the Sun, her second novel, which is set at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. Olivia, who just experienced a tragic breakup and is now an outcast at her school, flees to Farmland with her best friend to forget it all. Toni is one week away from college and reckoning with the loss of her musician-turned-roadie father, in hopes that the festival guides her like it used to guide her dad.

When circumstances force them to work together, they realize they need each other, and music, more than they thought. Rise to the Sun is about the different ways we grieve, the different ways we figure out how to be together, and the different paths we decide to take. It’s about forgiving ourselves for mistakes, shedding the idea of perfection, and finding love in spite of (or because of). The novel does what Johnson does best—exploring the ways all relationships (familial, romantic, platonic) shape us and our decisions. Bitch spoke to Johnson about messy Black girls, how live music creates a bond of its own, and how to move through grief.

What inspired you to write Rise to the Sun?

There are two answers to this. The first one is the much less sexy answer, which is that my publisher gave me carte blanche for my second book, and I knew that I wanted to spend a year or two writing and talking about something that is incredibly important to me, which is the influence of live music on self-discovery.

The story as it exists now, though, came together through a confluence of events: I wrote the book during the pandemic. I was feeling separated and deprived of this world that had meant so much to me—not the world at large but the world of live music. I was also thinking a lot about grief, because we were all facing down this constant sense of temporariness. Everything felt like it could end at any time, if you just step outside of your door, then your life—and the lives of the people that you love—would also be at risk. As much as Rise to the Sun is about a music festival and falling in love, it’s also a story about being afraid of things ending, and what it means to love people even when we know we could lose them.

What was it like writing about a music festival during a pandemic? What did you read, listen to, and watch to get that feeling? You’ve talked about Dave Grohl’s essay in the Atlantic as a source.

I’m glad you referenced Dave Grohl because I will bring this essay up literally every time I get the opportunity. It was about the return of live music, and about how—he describes it as a sonic cathedral—every night we worship inside of this sonic cathedral together, and the people next to us are no longer strangers. They become our family, for whatever time we’re there together. We’re chasing the same thing, pursuing the same type of freedom, and that is a type of bond that doesn’t exist outside of a space like that. That essay was really influential to me because it articulated so much about why I love live music the way I do, and why I felt so bereft when I no longer had access to it.

[Before the pandemic], every year I would go to music festivals—particularly Bonnaroo—with my best friend. That farm in Manchester, Tennessee, is my favorite place in the world. We take disposable cameras with us instead of doing everything digitally because there’s something really magical about being able to hold a memory in your hand. So, I’ve spent a lot of time looking through the pictures that we’ve developed over the years and just sitting with the analog-ness of those moments.

As far as what I was listening to, the book is named after a song by Alabama Shakes. I listened to a lot of Alabama Shakes, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Blood Orange, Clairo, Cigarettes After Sex, Rhye. I oscillated between two energies as I was working—this bright, warm, summer sound and this low, introspective, sort of sad music. The playlist that I refer back to when I think about writing it directly mirrors the way the book ultimately ended up feeling.

Jubilee: A Black Feminist Homecoming

Music is central to both of the books you’ve published. How and why do you use music for your writing?

When I was probably 12 or 13 years old, my little sister was in private school at this really small, conservative Christian institution. I remember going to her parent-teacher night with my mom, sitting in the hallway with a hoodie on and my sleeves pulled down over my hands (which my mom hated, but it was emo edgy culture to cut some holes in your hoodies), with my headphones in. I was listening to my MP3 player, which my brother had programmed because I didn’t know how to do it. My entire playlist was early Fall Out Boy, Say Anything, early Death Cab for Cutie, Riot! by Paramore—all emo, pop-punk music. I remember sitting in the hallway with my hood up, surrounded by all this Jesus propaganda, feeling like because I had access to what was in my headphones, I could be separate from this world that I had been entrenched in otherwise. All that other stuff is the person I’m supposed to be, but when I’m listening to this music, I have access to feelings and thoughts and articulations of those emotions that I could not begin to have—because I didn’t have the range to have them in my real life or because I was not allowed to have them. As long as I was listening to it, then, there, in that space—then I could have those things. I could be those things.

One of the things I wanted Rise to the Sun to do was reflect the ways that music gives us access to worlds and people and selves that we otherwise could not or do not believe that we’re capable of being, having, and accessing. One of my favorite interviews is with Carrie Brownstein, the guitarist and one of the lead singers in Sleater-Kinney. She did this interview with NPR where they asked her, when they founded Sleater-Kinney, what did they want the band to be? What did they want the sound to be? And she said, “I wanted the guitar to feel weaponized. I wanted it to be analogous to a voice that I didn’t yet have and may never have, which is to harness volume and a sense of the caustic and power and to interweave that occasionally with melody so that it’s something people can latch onto or be carried away by, that it could tell stories and sing on my behalf. And I wanted it to be trenchant, also a little scary.” There was something about that the first time I read it, where I was like, oh my gosh, yes, that’s it. I wanted something that I could be carried away by and lost inside of, and I also wanted to be found there. That’s what I hope Rise to the Sun does, and that’s what music has always done for me.

Rise to the Sun tackles grief in a couple of different ways—through familial loss and a tragic breakup—but it also centers healing. Why were both of those things important?

I did a panel recently with Jay Coles, the author of Tyler Johnson Was Here, and Jay said that his book talks about how getting older is like putting on a backpack and constantly putting things we grieve inside of it: our former selves, the people we’ve lost, the things we used to love. We are constantly putting different forms of grief into this backpack. And we have to carry this around with us, in our body, in our spirit. The grief is always going to be there, but we also have to find ways to happiness through that grief.

It’s important that we show young people that it’s possible to hold sadness and survival in the same hand that we hold happiness, freedom, joy, love, and also a little bit of tragedy. All those things can exist together at the same time. You don’t get love in exchange for trauma, but you can still have love despite having experienced trauma. Those are critical distinctions to make.

A lot of times, people only think about loss or grief in terms of losing people. In the book, Toni’s father has been killed in a really tragic way eight months before the book begins, and that is an explicit form of grief. But Olivia is experiencing grief too. She hasn’t experienced a death but there had been a type of death she’s also reckoning with, whether that’s a social death or the death of the self that she thought she was, or the self that her family thought she could be. I wanted to explore the ways that we’re all constantly experiencing loss to varying degrees. But loss is loss is loss is loss. So, how do we press past that? How do we figure out how to love not only in spite of that loss, but somehow because of that loss?

Rise To The Sun is a dark pink book cover that features an illustration of two Black girls intertwined and smiling

Cover of Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson (Photo credit: Courtesy of Scholastic Inc.)

Toni and Olivia are two totally different characters making serious life decisions and mistakes. They’re deciding between going to college or pursuing music, getting justice or keeping reputations intact. What was it like writing a dual-perspective novel, and what went into making these characters different?

If I had known how difficult it was to write a dual-POV novel, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But two things happened in my approach. One, I wanted messier portrayals of Black girlhood than what I wrote in my first novel; that was one of my primary objectives. [You Should See Me in a Crown’s] Liz is really hard to dislike: She’s top of her class, a great sister, a great friend, a great granddaughter. She’s constantly putting the needs of the people she loves over her own, and the only reason she pursues the thing that she pursues is because she’s trying to save her grandparents from having to pay for her to go to college.

But in Rise to the Sun, Olivia is not great at school, she’s pretty selfish, she puts her own needs ahead of most people in her life, including but not limited to her best friend, who has supported her through everything. She’s reckless, she’s impulsive. It was important to show that a girl like that is just as worthy of love and empathy as a girl like Liz. We have a real issue as readers, as humans, of holding Black girls who become Black women to impossible standards of perfection. We’re supposed to be workhorses, beasts of burdens, saviors, superheroes, and we’re supposed to do it all without ever misstepping, misspeaking, hurting other people, or harming ourselves. That’s impossible and it’s unrealistic, but past that, it’s unfair. I wanted the messy Black girl, the foolish Black girl, the reckless Black girl, to have an image of what this could look like. Yeah, you’ve made some mistakes. Yeah, you are heartbroken, but there’s a way to heal from that, and there’s a way to find love on the other side of that.

I’ve seen in early reviews, which I try not to read, people say, “I couldn’t like the book because I just could not get into the protagonist.” And maybe this book is a social experiment. Maybe it was me taking a chance and being willing to have people dislike the book because they dislike Olivia, if that means that I get to write a character who is honest and not a character interested in bending to the white gaze. I didn’t want to give white people a palatable Black girl. I want you to challenge yourself and think past what you thought Black girlhood is and what it should be, and realize Black girls have space and range to be this, too.

And Toni feels so close to me that sometimes I have a hard time figuring out who her character is and where I’m pouring my emotions onto the page. But it was easy to make Toni a foil for Olivia because Olivia is the kind of girl who is going to throw herself into every situation head first and heart first, and Toni is never going to do that. She’s very reserved, terrified of being seen, terrified of being left, terrified of being hurt by the people she cares about. She keeps her circle incredibly small so she doesn’t ever have to face that, but those are things Olivia has never allowed to limit her. Crafting the characters was like, if she is this, then she is this, and then figuring out retroactively: How did she become this? What could have happened in her past that made her into a person that is this afraid?

It’s important that we show young people that it’s possible to hold sadness and survival in the same hand that we hold happiness, freedom, joy, love, and also a little bit of tragedy.

I’m glad you brought up the messy queer girl because you’ve tweeted about this.

People have incredibly limited imaginations for what Black people are and can be, so if I have an opportunity in my books to complicate the assumption about who we are, then that’s what I want to do. I also wanted to throw up a middle finger to every person who’s ever held my book up as an example of, “Well, look at how successful this book was. If you just did this, then your book would be successful too,” which I have seen happen more times than I’m comfortable with. Don’t look at You Should See Me in a Crown as an example of what the ideal book about Black kids, Black queer girls, is. It’s an unfair, unreasonable standard to hold the book to, but it also snatches so much agency away from Liz, because her life is her life, and you can’t hold that up against the Black queerness that’s presented in a Kalynn Bayron novel or a Claire Kann novel or a Jay Coles novel. We’re all doing very different things and not one of them is more valid than the other. We’re all just trying to push the canon toward something more equitable, more inclusive, and more beautiful.

What message do you want to send to queer Black girls who read your novels, and what do you want to tell them that you wish you would have heard?

I want queer Black girls to know that perfection will not save you. Keeping yourself from loving other people and allowing other people to love you isn’t going to save you. Being afraid isn’t gonna save you. All these ideas we have about if only I did this, then I would be happy, if only I did this then I’d be worthy of love, if only I accomplished this then I could have this. You’re worthy of love right now. Today. This instant. You don’t have to achieve your way to it, you don’t have to work your way to it, you don’t have to earn your way into it. Thinking these external markers are gonna determine what you’re capable of or what you deserve, that’s not how this works. You deserve it because you’re human. You deserve it because you’re here. John Green has this moment in his most recent book where he’s talking about the meaning of life, and he’s referencing his late friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and he says, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here—and he just keeps saying it over and over again. It’s a really big world out there and there are a lot of mistakes to be made and you deserve to make ’em. Don’t hold yourself to this standard of, if I was better, then I could get the things that I deserve. No, you deserve them. You deserve them right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Arriel Vinson
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Arriel Vinson is a 2020 Walter Grant Recipient and Midwesterner who writes about being young, Black, and in search of freedom.