Alaya Dawn Johnson was born in Washington, DC in 1982, the first of three children. Both sides of her family have extensive ties to the DC metropolitan area. Her maternal grandfather bought the family home in southeast DC in the 1930s and raised ten children there as one of the first generation of African American government employees. Her paternal grandparents raised their family between Lawrenceville, Virginia and Richmond.
Johnson attended high school at the National Cathedral School for girls and college at Columbia University, where she majored in East Asian Languages and Cultures. While studying abroad Japan, she hitchhiked throughout the southern islands and ended up in Naha, Okinawa. It was there that she was inspired to write her first published fantasy short story, Shard of Glass, a meditation on history, legacy and race, placing US history in a more global context, that would prefigure the themes of her work in the coming decade.
In 2007 she published her first novel, Racing the Dark, with the Chicago-based small press Agate Books. She then sold a pair of urban fantasy novels set in roaring twenties New York City to a major house and dedicated herself full-time to writing.
A turning point in her career came with the publication of her debut YA novel, The Summer Prince, which was long listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her follow-up YA, Love Is the Drug, brought her deep speculative imagination and social commentary to the world of modern Washington, DC. The first was nominated for and the second won the prestigious Nebula (Andre Norton) Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, awarded by SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). In the past decade, her award-winning short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, The Book of Witches, and, most notably, in collaboration with Janelle Monáe in the title story of The Memory Librarian. You can read her nebula-award winning short story, “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” originally published by the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, here. You can also read a complete bibliography of her new and upcoming works.
Trouble the Saints, published by Tor in 2020, was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel. Her latest novel is The Library of Broken Worlds, an epic far-future, galaxy-spanning return to YA after nine years away, to be published by Scholastic in June 2023.
Johnson has made her home in Mexico since 2014. She has received a master’s degree master’s degree with honors in Mesoamerican Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México for her thesis on fermented food and its ritual symbolism in pre-conquest Mexico. With her band Cananea, she has written and performed songs that are a mix of the personal and the unabashedly speculative, just like her fiction. She lives in rural Oaxaca with her partner, the documentary filmmaker Ismael Vásquez Bernabé, their six dogs and a horse.