Book Reviews Smugglers Ponderings

Smuggler’s Ponderings: thoughts on The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A. Levine, March 2013, HC: 289 pages. Bought.

The Summer Prince

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Divider

I am going to preface this by saying that The Summer Prince is a book with very strong qualities that speak for it but also some pretty awful cultural appropriation with regards to its Brazilian setting.

Before I go any further, I should probably disclose my biases: I am Brazilian (born and bred), I am White (half-Brazilian, half-Portuguese), I am from Rio de Janeiro, I have a History degree (studying religious experiences pertaining to Indigenous peoples of Brazil at the time of early colonisation as well as extensive research about the Inquisition Visitations to Bahia in the 1500s). I love certain types of Samba and I hate Carnaval (yes, it is possible to both love Samba and hate Carnaval. Quelle surprise!).

And in retrospect, I should have known. I’ve had the book on my radar since before it came out and I was intrigued by it but also incredibly repelled by the mention of “lethal samba” in its official blurb (because: what.Is.That? I keep imagining a Ninja Sambista with daggers on his shoes: they samba but they can also kill you!). And even though I know full well how often blurbs miss the mark and how little authors have to do with them, the point remains that someone in the publishing venture connected to this book thought it was a good idea to mention “lethal samba”. But then the rave reviews from trusted sources started to pile up and I decided to give it a go.
So here we are.

The Summer Prince is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The biggest, most powerful cities have been destroyed and hundreds of years ago, a Y plague has killed off a great percentage of the male population. Pockets of civilization remain and thrive, amongst them the great city of Palmares in what was once the state of Bahia in Brazil. Palmares Tres is a great pyramid city ruled from the top by its Queen and her council of Aunties.

It is also a dystopia: Palmares Tres is presented as the best possible place to live, because its citizens have great freedom, technological development ensure people can live much longer, everybody loves life and there is dance and art as well as freedom to be who you are and to be with who you want to be (polyamory and LGBT relationships are the norm, no questions asked). But at the same time, on its underbelly there is a stench of poverty, of a strong class gulf between top and bottom, with those at the bottom living a less privileged life. There is also a powerful divide between old (“grande”) and young (“waka”) and between technology and tradition in a way that makes Palmares Tres a complex, vivid city.

And then once every five years a King is chosen by popular vote to be ritualistic killed one year later. At the time of his death, he chooses the next Queen as he dies. Thus, the Summer King has the power to choose the Queen but then has to relinquish the limited power that he has; this ritual a reinforcement of this matriarchal society whose roots developed from a patriarchy that has caused most of the damage to the world. Or, this is the official discourse from Palmares Tres’s top government and most of the book actually interacts with and questions this idea.

It is against this background that protagonist June undergoes a powerful transformation from girl to woman, from waka to grande. Her trajectory starts at a pivotal point for Palmares Tres: when the new Summer King is about to be chosen. The whole city – including June and her best friend Gil – fall in love with Enki, the bold, larger-than-life King. Gil and Enki fall in love with each other but so do June and Enki – the connections between each of them or all of them are fluid, artistic, beautiful and meaningful.

June is an inspired artist who understands the power of art for art’s sake as well as the incredible power that art has to subvert and to transform. Enki gets her as she gets Enki in all of his ephemeral glory. June’s story is also one of personal conflict, of attempting to understand the limits of social justice in connection to personal responsibility.

All of the above is what the book does really well.

Unfortunately, the book is set in Brazil and so obviously written by someone who is not Brazilian. And before anyone can say but “it is not really Brazil, because it’s in the future” or something equally disingenuous like that: the language used in the book is Portuguese; the location of Palmares Tres is still in Bahia; the book references Brazilian history and background. So yes: it is Brazil.

But a Brazil that only an outsider could write. Because the story focuses on the parts of history and culture that an outsider would highlight, and none of the insider knowledge that goes much beyond the surface. And I want to be careful here because it’s not like I don’t appreciate and admire authors who want to move the focus from Europe/US to elsewhere in the world. I also have read interviews with the author (and even briefly met her at BEA a couple of years ago) and I believe in her good intentions and that she tried to be as respectful as possible, which just goes to show that even the best intentions can go awry.

So for example: the use of language in the book drove me to distraction. Every single time a character mentioned their mother or father they would do so by inserting the Portuguese words mamãe (for mother) and papai (for father) in the middle of the sentence. But really, we only use those words when speaking to children or when speaking to another member of the family. The way it was used in the book – and it was everywhere – made the characters sound like they were either babies – or being ironic and making fun of each other. The best approximate example to describe this would be to say: imagine a whole book with teenagers and adults speaking to each other about their parents by saying “my mommy” and “my daddy”.

And you know, Brazil is a place of huge cultural diversity. This is also true within each state. So it bugs me that in Palmares Tres everybody seems to share the same religion (a syncretism of Catholicism and Candomble) and to universally love and dance Samba to the point of obsession. And yes: those religions, samba, capoeira are all part of our cultural make-up but those are also the only parts that most foreigners seem to know and care about so to see that reinforced and repeated ad nauseam is just off-putting. Like, for example the protagonist’s father who is a musician and who loves 20th century music and who visits the ruins of what once was Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach so that he could imagine where Tom Jobin saw the girl from Ipanema *rolls eyes to infinity*. (I don’t know a single Brazilian who can actually stomach that freaking song).

Not to mention certain liberties taken that make absolutely no sense to me. For example: in the book Carnaval was moved to Spring time. Given as how the society in the book has retained its roots in the religions of old Brazil, Carnaval should be held before Ash Wednesday, in the period before Easter – this is how the dates are set every year. Carnaval is not simply a random party that would be moved at will. It has roots and connections to religious background as well. And a lot of the songs and dances mentioned in the book are Bossa Nova and/or 20th Century style Samba and it just surprises me – given how this is Bahia and there are mentions to Capoeira and Blocos, etc – that there is no real mention of Axé music which is so popular in Bahia?

And ok, fine I know this is the future, but I am also still trying to wrap my head around just how exactly would Catholicism/Candomble so easily devolve into human sacrifice. That + pyramids: are Brazilians AZTECS now??! (Actual real question my Brazilian partner asked me when I was telling him about the book).

And those are the details that to most people – probably the vast majority of people who will read this book, who have already read this book – it will sound like “detailed” and “typical”, “realistic” and “recognizably Brazilian” (Oh hi, Publishers Weekly) but that to me read like all these hugely common stereotypes bound together and thrown at my face.

I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend The Summer Prince as much as it deserves for the things that it does really well. But…

28 Comments

  • Lenore Appelhans
    October 3, 2013 at 7:11 am

    One of my best friends is from Brazil (though she grew up as a US military brat) and her very Brazilian mother used to listen to the Girl from Ipanema without irony. Maybe the exception to the rule?

  • Ana
    October 3, 2013 at 7:20 am

    Ha! Or maybe there is NO rule, there are 200 millions of us, after all.

  • Caroline @ two girls, one suitcase
    October 3, 2013 at 7:35 am

    This was a really interesting review, thank you. I really appreciate hearing the viewpoint of someone who actually KNOWS Brazilian culture from the inside, rather than learning about it through books, films, and trips.
    I personally enjoyed the Summer Prince for the characters and the art, but everything about the dystopian world felt under-developed. I definitely didn’t understand how sacrifice could have developed as a legitimate way to choose a government, and to be honest, the whole system of government I found confusing and difficult to understand. Maybe that is realistic actually as real-life governments are pretty complicated too!

  • Ana @ things mean a lot
    October 3, 2013 at 7:39 am

    And this is why I love your blog <3

  • Paige
    October 3, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Oh, dear. I liked this a lot, but I knew that there was a chance I might be missing problematic stuff. Thanks very much, Ana, for laying it out so clearly and politely. I hope that Johnston is able to move into less culturally appropriative ground in future books.

  • KMont
    October 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Sometimes authors do indeed write their own book blurbs. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad.

    In my cultural ignorance of Brazilian life, I might have too wondered what “lethal samba” was but been intrigued and read and not known if this was an OK thing or not.

    “The whole city – including June and her best friend Gil – fall in love with Enki, the bold, larger-than-life King. Gil and Enki fall in love with each other but so do June and Enki – the connections between each of them or all of them are fluid, artistic, beautiful and meaningful. ” <—- This made my head spin.

    The rest took that head spin and put me on the ground. Just going to stay there for a bit and then move on. Definitely not the book for me. Sorry it was so disappointing in the cultural misappropriation way! Sounds like it tried too hard (to make a cool-sounding futuristic society) and ended up not trying, really, enough.

  • Stephanie
    October 3, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I wish I had read this before! I bought the book a bit ago and is next in line for reading. I still want to read it, but the main reason why it caught my attention was because it’s set in Brazil. I’ve wanted to visit Brazil for a couple years now (I’m Peruvian, yay!)

  • Becca
    October 3, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Hi Ana,

    I actually loved The Summer Prince, but thank you for this review. I’ll admit, the cultural appropriation pieces didn’t phase me precisely *because* I don’t know that much about Brazilian culture. But given your background, it makes a lot of sense that you would be able to pick out the authentic from what had been appropriated.

    I spent my undergrad studying about Japan, and as a result a lot of the recent books using Japan as a background irk me (Stormdancer, Shadows on the Moon, etc). The only one I’ve genuinely liked is the Eon/Eona duology, as to me that’s the only recent work I’ve read that distanced itself enough from actual historical Japan/China/etc. that I could take the liberties in stride.

    Anyway, thanks as always for the thoughtful discussion!

  • Lani Robb
    October 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I think this book was amazing! I just think there should be another one, I don’t like books ending bad….

  • hapax
    October 3, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    I have to admit that the thing that really caught me about the blurb was the names: June/Enki/Gil can’t be a coincidence. So I assume that this is a retelling of Gilgamesh from Inanna’s point of view?

    But I understand your disappointment about appropriation; sometimes ignorance IS bliss. After spending a good chunk of my life studying medieval Europe, there’s scarcely a historical fiction set between 400 and 1500 C.E. that doesn’t end up flung against the wall.

  • Jana
    October 3, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks for your personal insight into the book, especially since it made the review extremely thorough in a way, that, for example, the review written for Publisher’s Weekly would not be; I wouldn’t have access to the cultural ins-and-outs of Brazil, and I’d be forced to take the author’s word for it as far as popularity of types of music or the parental terms used. Your review and, therefore, your recommendation is much more valuable to me as a result!

    One nitpicky thing which I haven’t liked since this book first hit my radar (back in June, I think) is that it’s titled “The Summer Prince” and yet the whole conceit is that Enki is chosen to be the Summer King. Is this explained in any way or is it just ignored?

    In general, the concept for the book sounds interesting, and I’m sure that I’ll pick it up from the library at some point, but I don’t get the impression that I want to rush out and drop money on a hardcover version right now this very minute.

  • Ana
    October 4, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Hapax: I don’t think this is a retelling of Gilgamesh officially but I guess that reading is possible.

    Jana:

    One nitpicky thing which I haven’t liked since this book first hit my radar (back in June, I think) is that it’s titled “The Summer Prince” and yet the whole conceit is that Enki is chosen to be the Summer King. Is this explained in any way or is it just ignored?

    Yes, this is explained and it is a very important part of the story. I won’t say anything else because SPOILERS.

  • Jana
    October 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Ana: Oooh, interesting! Thanks for clearing that up (and further whetting my appetite)!

  • The Literary Omnivore
    October 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Word. It takes a lot of research to accurately depict a society you’re not familiar with. And when you’re worldbuilding off of it, you have to research deeply, because a culture’s roots dictate where that culture will go, be it in the same direction or differently.

  • wandering-dreamer
    October 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    IIRC (I read a lot of books right around the time when I read this) the book used a lot of non-English words in it and I wished it had a glossary so I could keep track of them and, since it didn’t, I wondered if the words were actual Portuguese or if they were made up (like the future-slang in Uglies). Based on your review it sounds like all of the words were in fact real words, is that correct?

  • Clara
    October 5, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Anecdote for anecdote, I know, but I don’t know any Brazilians who hate Girl from Ipanema, including myself! Haha.

    Thanks for the review. I was interested to see a book set here but knowing the author wasn’t Brazilian kinda killed that interest.

  • Maicon Vollzin
    October 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Good to know that this book isn’t going to be a good read for Brazilians. I’m really sick of outsider writes trying to write story set in — their own — Brazil and help reaffirm that here we just have Carnaval and Samba. I do appreciate when authors go find other places to set their books, but a minimal research in tremendously needed. It’s not knew to any Brazilian reader that most of foreign books and movies that takes place here use the wrong language — why just Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish? We don’t care, so they will, the producers that know the truth must think or don’t know it and take Spanish as granted — or focus on what they think is our cultural characteristics based on what they had watched on bad movies and TV series. I have never read something set in Brazil from a foreigner that was good or authentic. I’m looking forward to do so someday in my life — maybe when people start know our culture better. Really enjoyed your review!

  • Maicon Vollzin
    October 10, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    I forgot to say that I don’t like Carnaval or Samba, or beaches or things that outsiders think when they hear Brazil. And every time I listen to Girl from Ipanema playing in a store or anywhere else I wish my brain to blow. Some English versions are really good, but I’m sick from listen to Tom Jobim’s original song ever since I can remember.

  • mcm
    November 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    This is tangential, but “lethal” as the blurb uses it is just a figurative colloquialism to mean particularly effective or potent. “He has a lethal knuckleball.” “Your cocktails are absolutely lethal, Barb.” Etc.

    Your interpretation is cooler, of course!

  • mclicious
    February 13, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    This is a really interesting review! I’m catching it very late, because someone just linked to it in a listserv.

    It’s really eye opening to read your review, because when I read it, I found it interesting because while I’m not Brazilian, my dad grew up there and I was around Brazilian ex-pats as a kid, so I found it fairly authentic, from the limited-but-more-than-the-average-USian perspective I have. (And, to be fair, it is definitely a thing in the black community to say “mommy” and “daddy,” so Johnson may have been coming from there and transferring it to Brazil. I have adult cousins who say “mommy” unironically and not because they’re immature.) But looking at your review, I do notice the inaccuracies and generalizations. I think it’s better than most things, not because of intent, which is meaningless, but because at least the Portuguese is Portuguese (if you’ve read Going Bovine, you can see how Cameron’s favorite Brazilian singer has song titles in Spanish or Portunhol, but not Portuguese, even though there could be nothing easier than fact checking basic vocabulary when it comes to editing a book) and, while generalized, none of the history she describes is incorrect, right?

    At any rate, I’m pushing this book up the wazoo for all that it does a great job at brown people of all shades being brown people and also people, a great job at sex positivity, etc, but I appreciate learning more about what I might have glossed over in all of my excitement about the title.

  • Sheila Ruth
    February 17, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Hello,

    Just wanted to let you know that I saw your tweet of this in response to the Cybils, and I linked to it from my review: http://blog1.wandsandworlds.com/2014/02/book-review-summer-prince.html

    Your post really got me thinking and gave me a different perspective on the Brazilian cultural elements. I had already mostly finished my review when I came across your post, but I addressed it at the end. While I’m still glad to see a book like this set in a non-European/US-based setting, it does show how careful authors need to be in writing about cultures from the perspective of an outsider. Which isn’t to say that Johnson wasn’t careful – I found an interview where she mentioned doing research and sending it to Brazilian writers for comment – but even with that it’s difficult to write about another culture as an outsider in a way that captures the nuances of that culture. As I said in my review, there are no easy answers but I think it’s important to keep having these kinds of discussions.

    I did have one thought regarding her use of mamãe and papai. Because this is a world where anyone under 30 is considered juvenile, it may be that Johnson used those words intentionally to emphasize that people we would consider to be adults or young adults, are still considered juvenile in Palmeros Tres.

  • Felicia
    April 5, 2014 at 6:40 am

    I’m from Louisiana and although Mardi Gras and food are all that people seem to know about my state I still enjoy them immensely. I’m sure this reviewer can’t possibly speak for all Brazilians just as I don’t. And I’m almost certain as a Catholic I recall learning that Lent was some form of Latin meaning spring. And yes holidays are allowed to be moved. They have been moved in the past. Considering Christmas was not always on Dec 25th and was at one point during March and another time during January. All in all it is nice to read the views of a Brazilian about a book based in Brazil.

  • dosabanget
    April 25, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I think this is the inspiration for The Pyramid in the book.

  • Curvybookworm
    August 8, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I am late to this discussion, but I really enjoyed both the book and your thoughtful review. You probably won’t be surprised that I am a white North American who knows little about Brazil. I’m guessing that I’m typical of the primary audience for the book — so I wonder if the author kept the cultural references simple in order to avoid overwhelming her American readers?

    I wondered what you thought of Ian McDonald’s 2007 book Brasyl. (For those who have not read Brasyl it is a more complicated project, with threads set in 2006 Rio, 2030s Sao Paolo, and 17th-century Amazon River area. It is packed with Brazilian Portuguese terms and cultural references, not all of which are explained in the text and/or glossary.) I enjoyed this book too, but it was knd of a wild ride.

    Last, I’m hoping you can suggest other books set in Brazil. Thanks!

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