You’re about to read a chapter an excerpt from Rise to the Sun, Leah Johnson’s sophomore novel, currently available for pre-order in advance of its release on July 6, 2021. Johnson’s award-winning debut novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, was released in paperback this week!
We also have an interview with Leah Johnson to discuss what it means to center the wholeness of Black queer girls in her work, which you can be reading right now! (Well… as soon as you finish this excerpt.)
My summer is ending the way every summer of my life that I can remember has ended: setting up camp in the relentless sun of Farmland Music and Arts Festival’s seven-hundred-acre land next to a person that gets it, gets me. It’s perfect. It’s familiar. Until the person across from me speaks up, and I remember with startling clarity that nothing is the same as it has been in summers prior.
“Toniiiiiii,” Peter whines from his seat in the grass. “This would go so much faster if you would just let me help.”
Peter pulls off his worn Oakland A’s hat to shake out his black curls before readjusting it, brim to the back. He’s got his legs crossed just a few feet away from where I’m setting up camp, and I’m doing my best to ignore the big, brown, imploring puppy-dog eyes he keeps shooting my way. They’re almost irresistible, even for me.
I grunt instead of responding and pull the netting more securely over the top of the tent. Things are much quicker when I just do them myself. It’s no offense to him, it’s just a fact.
“Being an island isn’t in our nature as humans, T-Bone! Just look at John Tyler. They called him the ‘president without a party’ — never even stood a chance at a second term. You know why? He isolated himself.” He’s clearly been streaming one of those documentaries they used to show us in APUSH for fun again. When the only response I offer is a stare that says You’re earnestly comparing me to a dead white man in conversation again, Peter? he sputters, “Okay so maybe the aesthetics are a little different but the point stands!”
I wince at his volume and he adds, “Oops. Sorry, T. I get riled up about the pre-Reagan presidents.” He taps on his phone screen and brightens. “Hey! Someone just posted that they saw Bonnie Harrison at the taco cart. We have to go. Right? Definitely. I know how you feel about Sonny Blue.”
He’s right, Sonny Blue is my favorite queer-fronted folk-soul duo of all time, but I’m too focused on the task at hand to answer. He waits a beat before speaking again. Peter has done this since the day we met at this festival six years ago. He has no problem filling in all the spaces in a conversation that should, theoretically, be occupied by me. I try not to say more than absolutely necessary though. This, like my working best alone, is yet another brick to add to the impenetrable Toni Foster Fortress.
Peter is the only one who’s ever managed to work his way past my defenses. Six years ago, our campsites were right next to each other out here — him with his Uncle Rudy and me with my dad — and I couldn’t shake him the entire weekend. No matter how withdrawn or sullen I became, Peter just kept popping up, asking questions, insisting that I try his signature s’mores recipe over our shared bonfire. It was like he didn’t even notice how unsociable I was. I couldn’t seem to shake him. And eventually, somewhere between his forty-third fun fact about a dead president and his twelfth story about breaking a limb due to his ungainly awkwardness, I forgot that I wanted to.
He stands up and it’s like watching a clown unfolding as they climb out of those tiny cars — how did he ever manage to look so small? He throws his arms around my shoulders, even though it’s pushing 95 degrees under the midday sun and I’m in the middle of stomping a stake into the ground, so he just narrowly misses getting kneed in his ribs. He squeezes me hard like he’s afraid I’m going to try and escape, which goes to show how well he knows me.
“I love you anyway, my platonic life partner,” he whispers. And for a second, I’m tempted to return the line, out of instinct alone. When people say they love you, you tell them you love them back, my brain reminds me. But I don’t really do that sort of thing.
I pat his arm twice, suddenly and overwhelmingly eager to get out of this embrace and onto what we came here for. This isn’t a weekend for declarations of our BFF status, or time for Peter to employ his mom’s “lead with love” child-rearing techniques to therapize me. We’re not even here for the shows, though that’s a nice added bonus. We’re here so I can figure my life out. That’s it. I can breathe a little easier when Peter pulls away, and I almost feel guilty about it. But I don’t let myself. If I make room for anything other than drive, I think I might just lose it. I take a deep breath and finish stomping the stake into the ground instead. And just like that, the campsite resembles the way it looked last year and the year before that and every year since I was old enough to walk.
When I feel myself drifting toward what — who — it’s missing though, I shake my head as if I can physically clear it. I try to focus on the world moving around me. The crack of our neighbors opening two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a feather-light laugh from a campsite across the way, the sound of the Farmland radio station playing through the speakers of my truck.
“And don’t forget to sign up for the Golden Apple competition!” The emcee’s voice is so boisterous and radio-artificial, it’s easy to cling to. “It’s a time-honored Farmland tradition, and we have reason to believe that this year is going to be extra special. Right, Carmen?”
A woman’s voice chimes in, raspy yet commercial. “Definitely, Jason. This year’s judges are the best lineup we’ve had in years. A life-changing opportunity for these competitors for sure. And we can’t forget the other exciting competition this weekend: #FoundAtFarmland…”
My attention begins to drift as the hosts keep talking. Farmland is famous for a lot of things — being one of the biggest music festivals in the country, essentially launching the careers of some of the biggest bands in the world — but the thing they hold in the highest esteem is the Golden Apple. A talent competition that gives amateur musicians a chance to play in front of a panel of headliners as judges, and whoever wins gets a chance to play on stage with one of the bands on the last day of the festival.
It’s one of the biggest draws the festival has to offer, and it’s a massive hit every year. This year, it’s being held for the chance to perform with Kittredge, one of the biggest alt-rock bands in the world and coincidentally, my dad’s former employers. He tour managed for them for most of my life, and before them a slew of other bands out of the Midwest, but never any that took off the way Kittredge did.
“You hear that, Toni?” Peter calls from inside the truck, where he’s attempting to charge his phone in my finicky lighter outlet. “They’re talking about your big break!”
He leans his entire upper body out the window and air guitars with no rhythm. I want to laugh, but the idea of a big break — of a moment on a stage that determines your entire life — is too close for comfort. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be a star. I just want some answers.
I pull the hard case that now houses my favorite acoustic guitar — a beautiful mahogany Fender my parents gave me for my fifteenth birthday — out of the truck bed and lean it against the side of the truck. It’s adorned with stickers from all over the world, designations of all the places it’s gone. The limited untouched spots are reminders of where it has yet to go. Incredible big cities, dusty dive bars, and huge venues all decorate its exterior. It’s a tapestry, cohesive in its narrative: a patchwork life that took my dad farther away from me than I could ever wrap my head around.
But right in the center, shiny and fresh where the rest have dulled with time and wear, is the newest addition to the bunch. A crimson and cream welcome home, hoosier sticker from my freshman orientation at Indiana University last month. Mom must have snuck it on there when I wasn’t paying attention as I was packing last night. I’m almost surprised she didn’t slap her Maurer School of Law sticker on there too just so I don’t forget exactly where I’m supposed to be headed. The sight of it makes my stomach churn, just like every other reminder of where I’m supposed to be headed next week.
I know Peter doesn’t quite understand why this is so important to me or why I end the conversation every time he tries to talk to me about college, though I know he’d do his best if I tried to explain it. It’s just that Peter is all about big dreams and big loves. His dad is this huge mixed-media artist who sells his installations for like a billion dollars per piece, and his mom runs an Etsy shop hawking artisanal jewelry to other white women that’s designed to help them find their “soul source” — whatever that means.
Peter could tell them he wanted to major in Bowling Industry Technology and they’d be happy (he did briefly entertain this for a month in tenth grade after watching a documentary on the history of the bowling ball). The Menons are the kind of family that choose passion over logic every time. And it’s worked out for them. But it’s not like that for most of us.
I busy myself with arranging our air mattress inside the tent while Peter drums up conversation with our neighbors, a couple of girls in sorority tank tops and high ponytails with a UT Knoxville bumper sticker on their Jeep. As grateful as I am that he agreed to come with me this weekend, I breathe a little easier at the moment alone. I can feel myself slipping, despite my best efforts to swallow down all the anxiety that’s been bubbling up in me since the moment we got to Farmland. All the memories that refuse to stay locked away, all the promises my dad made to me that are now going to go unfulfilled.
The thing is, no one could have prepared for the way we lost my dad. But that didn’t change the gnawing emptiness that had taken up residence inside me over the past eight months.
I don’t know if I believe in a higher power or life after death or any of the stuff the minister said at my dad’s funeral. But countless summers spent at the greatest music festival in the world, on a former farm in Rattle Tail, Georgia, along with sixty thousand other music fans, watching sets from on top of his sunburnt shoulders taught me one inalienable truth: that somewhere in the light-years of space between the spiritual and the scientific, between the known and the ineffable, there’s live music.
There’s Jimi Hendrix playing a two-hour set at Woodstock that revolutionizes rock and roll forever. There’s Beyoncé becoming the first Black woman to ever headline Coachella and delivering a performance that redefines a culture. There’s Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk in ’65 and Queen reuniting at Live Aid twenty years later. Live music is a True Thing: It holds the keys to the universe, and all you have to do is pay attention.
If you ever have a question, my dad taught me that live music held the key. And I can’t help but believe that too. Because I’ve never been more in need of guidance than right now.
My mom has made it clear since I was a kid that what she wants for me is stability, consistency. That she wants something more for me than the type of life my dad led. I have to do something concrete, something real. Which means college. Not because she’d punish me or cut me off or kick me out or any of that if I didn’t go, but because it would break her heart to see me end up like my dad. Constantly running toward a dream that would never be realized.
I won’t do that to her. I can’t.
I want to trust my mom’s belief that starting at IU will give me the direction I’ve been searching for, but my gut is screaming at me that my purpose isn’t to sit in a classroom in Bloomington reading the Brontë sisters and trying to recover from a Kappa party the night before. When I think about college, my hands start to shake and I can barely breathe. But when I think about not going, I draw a complete blank.
My mom has no doubts that the reason why I’ve been flailing so spectacularly in the past few months was a result of my grief. But the bigger part, the even scarier part, is that I’m almost eighteen—almost a bona fide adult—and I have no idea what I want to do with my life. And I know now, with stark clarity, that none of us has time to waste when it comes to figuring it out. My dad was a prime example of that.
My dad always said when people get on stage they just know. It’s what happened to him. When he was eighteen, he picked up his guitar, and he played in front of an audience for the first time during an open mic at a coffee shop in Bloomington. And just like that, he was sure that being a part of putting good music out into the world was how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Even if I wasn’t going to be in the music industry like him, he said, there was no lying on a stage.
Whatever you were running from, whatever you should be running toward, would reveal itself under all those lights.
This festival isn’t where he found his purpose, but it could be where I find mine. It has to be.
It’s too much to explain to Peter, to anyone, so I don’t.
“Toni!” As usual, I hear Peter before I see him.
I run a hand over my face and duck back out of the tent to meet him. When I look at him, he’s patting his stomach where his cropped Fleetwood Mac T-shirt leaves his skinny tanned torso exposed. He’s gotten really into bringing back crop tops for guys lately. According to him, The Fresh Prince did it! Fragile masculinity shouldn’t keep us from embracing the best of nineties fashion.
I can hear his stomach growl even from a few feet away. He wiggles his eyebrows at me. “Taco stand?”
I nod. I grab my phone, even though the signal is awful out here, and start in the direction of the Core — the center of the festival where everything from food to merch to the stages reside. We make it about five minutes before a flurry of movement out of the corner of my eye stops me. My first reaction is the quick uptick of fear at the sight of anything moving this fast and unpredictably, until I realize what I’m looking at.
There’s a girl tangled up in the lime green nylon of her tent. She’s wearing a hot pink dress that would probably be better suited for some artsy date night at the Indianapolis Museum of Art than a music festival, jumbo box braids up in a bun that’s so big I’m surprised it doesn’t throw off her entire center of gravity, and a huge pair of heart-shaped sunglasses that are clearly more form than function.
I’ve seen a lot of stuff at Farmland in my day, but rarely someone so woefully ill-equipped to set up camp.
“Actually,” I start, my voice rough from disuse, “Go on without me. I’m gonna…”
I jerk my head in the direction of the girl tangled up in the tent.
Peter smiles. “That’s the Farmland spirit! Say no more, friendo. I’ll grab you the best gluten-free option at the taco cart.”
“Wait! Can you sign me up for the Golden Apple while you’re there?” I tell him to put my first and middle name down instead of my first and last, just in case. I don’t want any chance of nepotism getting in the way of things.
We should have gotten in last night so that I could sign up earlier — they only have room for about fifty acts per day — but Peter was too tired to drive after his flight to Indianapolis to meet me, and we planned on taking off early this morning anyway. It didn’t help that we ended up getting a flat around Nashville and Peter practically broke a finger just jumping out of the car to try and help me change it.
He salutes as he practically skips away. While he leaves, I take a few steps toward the girl, who’s now so wrapped up in her tent that she looks a little bit like a mummy.
“Hey,” I call out. When she doesn’t respond, I realize it’s because my volume is too low. Sometimes I forget how to calibrate it when talking to anyone that’s not Peter or my mom — like my voice gets caught in my throat. “Hey!”
The girl’s eyes lock with mine for half a second, like she can’t figure out whether or not I’m talking to her. And she immediately face plants into the grass.