In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy, a Black teen from Houston has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry and must save both the human and god worlds. “Make a way out of no way” is just the way of life for Rue. But when her mother is shot dead on her doorstep, life for her and her younger sister changes forever. Rue’s taken from her neighborhood by the father she never knew, forced to leave her little sister behind, and whisked away to Ghizon—a hidden island of magic wielders.Rue is the only half-god, half-human there, where leaders protect their magical powers at all costs and thrive on human suffering. Miserable and desperate to see her sister on the anniversary of their mother’s death, Rue breaks Ghizon’s sacred Do Not Leave Law and returns to Houston. Evidence mounts about the evil plaguing East Row. Rue must embrace her true identity & wield the full magnitude of her ancestors’ power to save her neighborhood before the gogods burn it to the ground.
J. Elle was born in Houston, Texas, and is a first-generation college student with a bachelor’s in journalism and MA in educational administration and human development. An advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community, J. Elle’s passion for empowering youth dates back to her first career in education. She’s worked as a preschool director, middle school teacher, and high school creative writing mentor. In her spare time, she volunteers at an alternative school, provides feedback for aspiring writers, loves on her three littles, and cooks up dishes true to her Texas and Louisiana roots. Wings of Ebony is her first novel. Drop In with J. Elle to hear how she created her bestselling first novel with authenticity, sensitivity, family drama, culture wars, Black female power, a young superpower heroine, good & evil, power struggles, and her own strong voice. Violence and corruption don’t stand a chance with protagonist Rue around. You don’t want to miss it!Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers, conversations that sparked new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table, diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically, stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours, and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same. And now here’s your host, Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In, everyone. It’s the last weekend of Black History Month in the US, Canada, Ireland, and the UK. We’re here with J. Elle to talk about empowerment of a young girl, of family, of community, of the hood, and the voice that she brings to bear in her new book, Wings of Ebony, published by Simon and Schuster. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at 7 and the top 10 is the Sweet Spot for Young Adult Hardcover, and it’s richly deserved. In this riveting, keenly, emotional debut fantasy, a black teen from Houston has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry and must save both the human and God worlds. Welcome, J. Elle.
Elle: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Diane: It’s awesome work. Congratulations. It was so real that I got swept up in and I didn’t feel like a fantasy at all. I am just thrilled for your success and thrilled that you’ve written a life-changing book both to us, the reader and I’m sure, to you.
Elle: Thank you so much.
Diane: It’s true. I do feel the joy for you. We’re going to have an introduction to you. You’re a former educated. You have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MA in Educational Administration, and Human Development. I think that’s not coincidental. You’ve been an advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and your community.
You have worked as a preschool director, middle school teacher in high school, creative writing mentor. In your spare time, you volunteer. You provide feedback for aspiring writers. You love your three littles and you cook up delicious dishes true to your Texas in Louisiana Roots. Wings of Ebony is your first novel. All of this is to be loved. I wondered at this point now that you’re the best-selling author, how you would define yourself? How do you describe yourself?
Elle: That’s interesting. I don’t that my definition of myself has evolved very much. I am just trying to tell stories. I feel very privileged to have the ability to do that. I read something once that like 74% of Americans have the desire to write a book but a very small sliver of those people pursue that passion and an even smaller number are able to see their book in hardcover and see their book on a bestseller list.
So, to me, I’m still a mom of my regret, neighbor in my community, advocate, and activist in my community as well, and just a writer, trying to tell stories that can change lives. I’m certainly grateful for the New York Times accolade and Wings was able to stick on the list of the second week which I’ve heard is hard to do. All around, I’m honored at it. I’m still the change-maker, the optimistic change-maker that I was before, and just a very, extremely regular person who likes to read and write.
Diane: Great. Well, your tweet pitch for Wings of Ebony went viral. As said, you wrote the manuscript in 35 days. I feel there was a story in there for a long, long time. I wondered how long it had stayed in you before it came out.
Elle: That’s a great question. Truly, it wasn’t a conscious process. What I mean is this story, Rue, her pain, and all of these things, I was so compelled to write and it wasn’t something that I was consciously grappling with. It was only when I was sitting down trying to figure out what stories do I want to tell. I allowed myself that moment of just staring at a blank salad if you will, that rude voice came to me.
When she came to me, there were a lot of questions about well-plot, character, what genre, and all of these different things. The clear thing was that she had a lot of repressed pain. She was just very upset and very sad at the grievances that hurt, that she and her community had faced and she felt powerless to stop it. I just remember when she came to mind, I could feel her grief. I could feel that powerless feeling. I think that’s what in hindsight, reflects, or is indicative of the fact that I had not done anything yet with my grievance over the ways that my community has been treated and marginalized in any brutalized event.
There was a mix of allowing Rue to speak and tell her story which was freeing me to explore these things that I hadn’t given conscious space too. Once I sat down to write this story, it reminds me of a picture of my head is like a river and like a dam just breaks in the water, just goes gushing past. That’s what it felt. It’s like when I finally allowed myself to sit with that discontent and dig into what I call my activist heart and just let it bleed all over the page. It was a cathartic experience. I hope that it is as meaningful and as life-changing for readers as it was for me to write it.
Diane: Definitely. It’s about power and magic. We can feel that this did flow through you. Some of the power is based on pretty flimsy circumstances. As we know in a country of white privilege, that is very much the case that it might not well be based on a lie. It might well be based on fall. It’s close to the Black Lives Matter movement that jelled the summer.
It is a release of pent-up emotion, anger, passion, and knowing that things are not right. I wondered about this idea of calling back to your roots. The Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates started something called finding your roots, where African Americans could trace their DNA. Rue’s journey also recalls this idea of reclaiming your past, your distant or not-so-distant past, and maybe the emotions about your current situation. All of that is what coalesces inside of you to make an identity.
From your wonderful book, there’s the poem at the end that you wrote. Here’s one from Rainer Maria Rilke, “They who passed away long ago still exist in us as predisposition, as a burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as a gesture that rises up from the depths of time.” I felt like that is what happened with Rue. You mobilized to other young women of color to get to experience that kind of power. How do they access it? How do you help them access it? And is this book part of the key?
Elle: That is such a great quote and a perceptive question. When I think about Wings of Ebony and all of the themes that I was weaving into the story, that was a big one. As a former educator and as a black mother of three black children, this idea that we can inspire our kids in the next generation up to the plate to look to the things that our predecessors have gone through, have accomplished, and see that legacy as a part of our potential. I think a lot of times, particularly with inner-city kids. This is why Rue is from East Row which is a very inner city, a poor community that the world depicts in a certain way, very much modeled after my home where I grew up, Third Ward of Houston.
What I wanted to dispel is this idea that the accomplishments of Kamala Harris, the accomplishments of Barack Obama, John Lewis, all of these great people, Martin Luther King, and all of these civil rights leaders that we look to and just leaders in our community, is it’s not them but it’s us. I wanted to bridge this connectedness that these inner-city kids feel with where they come from and attach and take pride in those accomplishments. By extension of that, see themselves capable of such greatness. On the whole, this idea of looking to our past and looking where we come from, what black people have endured in America through the civil rights movement from 400 years ago to the present is nothing short of inspiring.
I wanted not the only route to experience that on the page through the narrative but I also wanted kids to be able to study that in classrooms, internalize some of that, and see it as a source of inspiration, pride, and motivation to be proud of where they come from. I wanted to especially do this for inner-city kids. There is a piece that I was going through personally. As I wrote this book, it does have a sequel which is almost done. It should be out next year. The sequel is it continues this theme very heavily.
We’re discussing this idea of where you come from and being inspired by the places that you’ve come from and getting to know who your roots are and the implications of that. If I’m being transparent, a lot of that was influenced by my own experience trying to trace my roots. The bittersweet process was as a black woman in America. I traced my roots back as far as I could. At a certain point, the information is either not there or you’re not entirely sure if it’s accurate. Frankly, even if the information that I was able to pinpoint is bittersweet because I found a picture of some of my ancestors from Louisiana, it was an interesting moment.
I remember smiling and being rather teary-eyed seeing it because my grandparents don’t even have these pictures. It took a lot of digging and research to find them. That joy turned into this bitter sadness because I realized what my ancestors went through. It was a challenge to figure out how to balance that in the narrative. At least for me as a writer, the key is was blending that with fantasy, magic, and making grew, lean into who she is. It is not just become aware of it but embrace that and step into that identity and then behold what she’s capable of. I hope it’s something that young people connect to.
Diane: Young and old. I can speak to this. It is kind of an avatar, right? She discovers her magic. When you mentioned these leaders, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, they are beyond. Their mojo is beyond. I do think that the concept of tapping into the magic and you so well capsulized it in the book with the phrase, “Becoming strong in the wound” because that’s magic. That’s different than your straight-out coincidental magic. It’s a font, right? It’s something that is going to end up being stronger.
When you put this out there, this kind of magic that Rue has, it is an avatar. I wonder about the concept of place, the double-edged sword of it is. The place is the identifier that people acquaint you with. And if you’re from a certain kind of place as a South End, you are not going to amount to anything. So, how does this square? It’s almost like you’ve used the place’s fuel but you can’t be labeled with it. What is that balance when you’re writing the character as well?
Elle: I love this question. A lot of the balance lies in the depiction of the community. Inner-city communities are seen a certain way. The first realization, hopefully for readers of Wings of Ebony is that the presumptions about these communities are inaccurate. I would say at best they’re partially relevant. More often than not, they’re just flat-out wrong and rooted in a lot of bias, prejudice, and in some cases, racism. What is so powerful about the community that Rue is desperately trying to get back to.
That’s a very intentional part of the narrative. She’s not trying to leave the hood. She’s trying to get back to the hood. What I want the reader to understand and challenge within themselves, if they come to this book as a window instead of a mirror, what do I believe about these inner-city communities. Deep in the roots of my psyche in my perception of kids from this community, in the schools there, the things that these kids can do and the families, what do I assume about these, and what negative connotations have I attached to those. Part of the work, I’m hoping this book does is shake up people’s awareness of their own biases even those subconscious ones.
That’s the first layer of looking at a story like this and making sure that the depiction of this community reflects its actual magic enjoy. When you walk through Rue’s shoes and the pages of the story, I can’t imagine a reader going. I can’t imagine them thinking anything but I want to go to East Row. I want to sit at Miss Lila’s table. I want to have this community, family atmosphere. When the community is framed in that way, it’s not a stretch for the takeaway to be, “No. This is a place of power and magic.” Have you seen all of the things that come out of this place? Have you seen the greatness that comes out of this place? Beyonce is from the Third Ward of Houston. A lot of times you see the larger world.
Try to separate an artist from where they’re from. I think that you can’t do that. I’m determined for people to not do that to me or Rue. If someone can appreciate my art, they can appreciate the home that reared me which is an inner-city community in the Third Ward of Houston. The more that people can tear apart those preconceived notions challenge the way that they’re defining these communities, viewing these communities, and advocating for these communities, the more we can see actual productive conversations from that change.
Stories like Wings of Ebony are a great way to start that process because there’s something to be said about walking through the shoes of someone’s story that is unlike your own. I specifically wrote Wings of Ebony without a white gaze. I wrote the book for my community. There’s plenty there for people who come to the book as a window as I said earlier. I wrote this book for us. That adds to its authenticity in such a real way. So, I’m very excited to see what people think of that balance and the impact that balance has.
Diane: Well, I was struck by it. You carried your impact across. To me, also the nourishment of this community, the interconnectivity of the community. You say some people have a family tree. My family tree is the whole black. Wishful thinking that we would have communities like that. It did bust a lot of myths about the way we think of bipod, black, indigenous people of color communities.
It is not sufficient any longer for our notions of these communities to be segregated from reality or ourselves. You’ve done a big service there. This book is a gift. We need to take a commercial break. When we come back, we are going to look at racism privileged cultural appropriation through the lens of a girl that needs to resolve herself, her past, her anger, and bring it out her inner warrior. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back with J. Elle on Dropping In.
Become our friend on Facebook. Post your thoughts about our shows and network on our timeline. Visit facebook.comforward/voiceamerica.
She Writes Press is an independent publishing company founded for women writers everywhere, together with Sister Company Spark Press serving men and women. It is both mission-driven and community-oriented. The aim is to serve writers who wish to maintain greater ownership and control of their projects while getting the highest quality editorial help possible, traditional distribution, and an in-house marketing and publicity team. In 2019, She Writes Press was named Indie publisher of the year. You can find out more on shewritespress.com.
Stimulating talk gets those synapses in the brain. All the time, the number one internet talk station where your opinion counts, voiceamerica.com.
You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with J. Elle, author of the book called Wings of Ebony. Thank goodness there’s a sequel coming out. I’m holding it in my hand and there’s a fierce, beautiful cover. The contents are equally riveting. It’s well deserved that it’s gotten a second week on The New York Times bestseller list. I do defy that category of why a young audience because I was enraptured. J. Elle, here we are. We’re in this conversation about the community.
Ms. Li Allah is the bomb. She’s the woman who serves all the plates of food. It’s where all the homies hang out. She’s like glue. She becomes for Rue. Once Rue and Tasha have lost their mother, she takes them in. She hugs them. She gives them the warmth. She gives everyone warmth. This kind of membrane in a community, there’s something so powerful in it and you’re revealing it. There’s something that occurred to me. It’s called the “unthought known”. This is an obscure concept from the 1980s Christopher Bolus.
It’s about how an individual has an experience but is unable to think. It’s like a beta experience that hasn’t been processed verbally yet. It’s knowing that this community is magic. It is power. You can’t go away from that source of nourishment. I wondered if there was something in the articulation of the power that comes from a community that is part of creating it as a superpower expressing it, articulating it, identifying it. I think it’s largely on identified. This is a conscious thought, right? This is a known thought in your mind when you’re describing this community. Is that true?
Elle: Absolutely. It’s not accidental that Rue struggles to fully grasp this as well. The moment when she does grasp it involves articulation as a perceptive question. I grew up in this community. I have two teenage sisters still growing up in this community. I find myself sort of dispelling these oppressive ideas that they are forming about the world around them because kids are paying attention.
They may seem like they’re absorbed in Tiktok and their PS Five but they are subliminally forming understandings about the world around them. That has a very lasting impact. It can even translate from one generation to the next. It’s just imperative that we are articulating different things and that we’re doing that with consistency. It’s not just us articulating these things.
These conversations are happening across all races, gender lines, across all socio-economic lines, political lines, and all of us that need to be talking about these things. What the psyche of a kid growing up in these communities does is incredibly powerful. The inverse of that is also true, the lack of those conversations and the lack of discussing the magic in these inner-city communities and what these kids are capable of. The silence is just as loud as the speaking.
Diane: For sure. By contrast, Rue finds out that her father is from another culture. This is where the fantasy picks up. It’s such an interesting one and symbolic. He’s in a culture in G Zone. I may or may not be pronouncing it correctly. This is an island that’s off the coast of Africa. This island is where the original magic was born by the ancestors, by the people of color. It’s appropriated and it’s stolen by the colonization of white people who go to the island and steal the magic for themselves.
All of this just resonates completely with all of the narratives that have gone on in our cultures. Now, they are building their power on this foundational idea that is mistaken that they have magic when in fact they’ve stolen it. Rue gets to the bottom of this and she finds out a friend there, Bree. It is because she gets time-traveled over to the island of Zone. Bree is kind of freckled. Rue is the only person of color besides her father at G Zone. Other people including Bree are appalled when they find out because Rue has to tell them.
It’s hard, sad news that their power is based on totally flimsy circumstances and theft. Bree kind of freaked out. She’s like, “What about my grades? What about my achievements? What about all the things that I identify myself with?” And I thought to myself, this is exactly the response of white people to the rising of black culture and people of color. It’s like, “What about my clubs? What about my colleges, my white colleges?” but they never owned it in the first place. You never deserved that in the first place. I wonder if you had that in mind when you wrote Bree. And I wondered about this larger question of the water finding its level eventually whether you think that’s happening now.
Elle: Yes. That’s one of my favorite moments in the book. I wrote that very intentionally. When I realized what Rue was going to be fighting against ultimately was going to be rooted in racism, I decided that we can’t talk about racism without talking about allyship. We can’t talk about allyship without talking about privilege. I think it’s important. I worked very intentionally to make Bree a very likable character.
I wanted readers to come to my book who may not identify with Rue because maybe they’re not black or maybe they didn’t grow up in the inner-city community or whatever it is. I wanted to make sure that other readers who don’t identify with Rue maybe identify with Bree. When they meet her on the page early in the book, it’s like, “Okay. I have my character in the story that I see myself in and let’s go on this journey together.” It’s not accidental that Bree is incredibly lovable and works hard to be a good friend to Rue. You can’t help but just love her when you meet her because she’s just so loyal.
The important part, in the beginning, is that it’s very clear that she genuinely loves Rue. Their friendship is not hollow. She truly cares about her. That is a well-meaning intention. It’s something that a lot of readers who come to this book as a window might identify with. It is certainly very intentional that as Bree’s narrative goes on, Rue’s reality and the way that contrasts Bree’s reality, they have to come to a head because their friendship and relationship is going to be rooted in genuine authenticity and true love for one another.
They have to see each other. Rue has seen Bree from when they first met but Bree doesn’t see Rue. Bree doesn’t realize that she doesn’t see Rue. It was important for me to give them that moment because it feels accurate and relevant. Hopefully, it’s helpful, instructive, and encouraging to people who do have friends in the black community or people who find themselves outside of this discourse and looking in and wondering, “I don’t understand. I do have friends in this community but I don’t personally get the impact.”
I’m hoping that it’s a little eye-opening for them. It’s a positive depiction in terms of how Bree handles it. I wanted it to read authentic. I understand this idea that every single thing you understood to be true. If there’s something that happens to challenges that, it’s not very realistic for a person to just be like, “Okay, I accept this new reality.” There is a process to getting there. I think a lot of people stall out in that process. I think some people don’t want to get there. But you do have people who are willing and interested in doing the work.
I wanted to show that because the work is similar to the stages of grief. The work involves a process. You do see the stages of grief that she goes through as she’s grieving for the privilege. It was a very intentional choice that Bree is not a wealthy character in this magical world. She’s very much the bottom of society if you will. Her family lives in government-sanctioned housing. They get a stipend for their necessities. She is in no way privileged in a very traditional, obvious way. That was also an intentional choice. I think it’s easier to separate privilege when it’s like, “Well, they’re wealthy.” That’s just a whole different level of privilege.
They’re settled privileges, settled to Bree. Perhaps, a very blatant through Rue. There are other privileges and I wanted to make sure that we were hyper-focused on those. Those are foundational differences and understanding that I’m seeing a lot of conversations around right now. It’s worth saying, I wrote this book in 2018. I talk a lot about how pervasive these issues were far in our community like this is pre-2020. These issues were there. They just now started being talked about on a national platform.
Diane: They were latent and the conversation had to begin. I love that Bree went into complete denial. I also love that Rue doesn’t force the issue. She’s like, “Okay, you got to work out your shed and you got to work it out on your own. I’m not going to clobber you over the head with it.” Here’s what’s happening. We have the source. You’re up in your head. You’ve got all this scientific knowledge and that’s cool. The technology that Bree has. She has some possibility of ascension because of that or some sense of potency about it. But as you say, she’s from the mining community.
I thought it was really interesting that this dialogue took place in the warmth of a friendship which is something that everyone can relate to. I did not have a problem relating to Bow even though I’m not a person of color. Maybe we’re disenfranchised for other reasons. Maybe we just feel always the outlier. Rue is entirely cool. She goes about her business and she lets Bree stew in her juice for a long time. She wants to know if is this like a ride or die friendship. That the ride or die, that level of commitment that you find in the community in East Row is not quite there in other communities, this built artifice.
The cool part at the very end is when Bree finally says, “Rue, I just admired you so much for being who you are and just who you are.” I felt I had to do all these other things and jump through hoops and gain approval and all of this stuff. I think there’s this realization that Rue says to her, “This is your power to be yourself, who you are.” And I thought there’s another takeaway that’s accessible to girls of any age and of any color. Did that message also was something that created an outpouring from young black and brown girls that has fueled you even more?
Elle: Yes. It’s been awesome to see there’s the reception of the characters and my dedication in the front of the book. There’s something in the book for everyone. I wrote it for our community. I wanted it to be unapologetically black and it certainly is. I wanted to ensure that for those kids, or readers, adult readers as well to see themselves in Bree or even going through the narrative like understanding they can learn something, being willing to be vulnerable as they read in teachable.
I wanted to give them that encouragement, too. I do think that there is embedded in this idea of where does an ally plant their flag. There is that does require a level of courage and even vulnerability. That is what Bree is taught. When she grows up, it’s attached to your self-worth is so grounded in what you do. The way that this society treats you is their mind workers. The way that they contribute to society is through their mind work. She’s gifted in other ways and even from her own parents.
You see the disdain for other gifts and her other talents. It’s, you are this. I’m just hoping that for readers who identify with Bree and see bits of her in themselves that is an encouragement to them as well to understand that you are not just what the world says you’re going to be and it’s okay to step into that courageously. They are all kinds of layers and relevant points that we could tie into that but it’s the encouragement of stepping into who you are is confidence in that. Also, if the burning on your insides or the way that you feel like you’re being pulled is to ally, there’s a piece of confidence that’s required for that, too.
I’m hoping that is just widely relevant in all of these different ways. The beauty of the narrative is that it’ll speak to the readers’ conscience and where they are. So, if an ally has this on their heart, they’re going to pull it walk away with a lot of that. If learning to be unapologetically themselves is on their hearts, those bits of the book will speak to that. At least I hope that the narrative is just able to be a soothing balm for people and encouragement to people from all walks of life in all different areas of their lives.
Diane: I agree. I felt called upon for sure. I love that you say it with what’s on our hearts. We have to take another commercial break. I love what we’ve touched upon which is sensitivity, the vulnerability that you have heroines in this story, friends in this story who are not beyond crying. At least, Rue is multi-dimensional. She’s sensitive. She’s emotional. Bree, she has to get there. She does realize that she’s expected to never become educated. She comes close to even having what Jamal has on the origin side, on the third side.
She is a complex character. This dynamic of handshake that occurs between them and how we can ally with one another is worthy. It’s worthy of taking in and it’s something that will stay with us after reading this beautiful book, Wings of Ebony by J. Elle. We’re going to pause for a commercial break and we’re going to come back and talk about father-daughter relationships. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back with a magnificent and magic J. Elle.
Voice America is on your favorite smart speaker. If you have Alexa or Google Home, go ahead and give us a try. Hey, Alexa, play finding your frequency podcasts on tune in.
Books Forward exemplify excellence in book marketing and promotion, representing New York Times bestsellers, national award-winning books, and books that catch fire on social media and in the digital realm. Books Forward create ambitious campaigns with unlimited possibilities for sparking buts while creatively cutting through the noise. Your book deserves to launch with experts who have set the bar in the industry. To learn more, visit booksforward.com or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, a JKS Communications Company.
Streaming live, the leader in internet talk radio, voiceamerica.com.
You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email at email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with J. Elle and her amazing book of Wings of Ebony. I can tell you that even though they’re all the subtleties and macro views that we’re talking about, it’s also action-packed. I enjoyed sitting on the edge of my seat and looked forward to the next time when I could delve into it. It’s a book that is compelling and lowers you forward. One of the narratives that I especially related to and enjoyed is the abandoning father.
There is Rue, the central character, and her father who has distanced alienated from her. Her father, as J. Elle talked to us about the prevalence in African American culture, also in other of our lives, where the father is the abandoner and becomes labeled in a certain way and compartmentalized in a certain way. It becomes evil in a certain way and maybe she doesn’t have all the facts. Talk to us about how you develop this thread.
Elle: It was really important for me to depicting my community. I wanted to take a lot of the common stereotypes and prejudices toward our community, my community. I also was raised in a single-parent home by my mother and I did not have a strong relationship with my father. I still don’t. I wanted to take that story. I want to do two things with it. One, I wanted to flip it on its head. I wanted to depict a strong, black man in literature. That’s not something we see nearly often enough and in itself is a problem.
I wanted to make sure that there was a strong, black man, a black father in my book. The other part that I wanted to do to that is I did want to show this idea of how this child needed and wanted, even though she wasn’t consciously aware of that once her parents love and how that shaped her. I used to be an educator. And so, my teacher had flipped on all the time, accidentally. I also wanted to insert a bit in there for educators who might have kids walking into their classrooms that are quote, unquote on teachable or they just seem angry and unapproachable and they just have this shell around them.
They do have a show sometimes. There’s a reason for that show. A lot of times that anger is a cover for a wound. The best educators can see that child and their show and understand that it’s how they’re coping with a lot of things. Frankly, they didn’t have much choice. It’s just what life has dealt them. This is how they’re processing it or not processing it. I’m hoping that is empathy building for readers.
I also wanted to validate that kid who does the bill. Rue, I wouldn’t say she’s extremely angry. I mean, since you’re in her head, you see the mix of her outward frustration and inward pain and the pressure that she feels to protect her family and to get back to her community. I wanted to make sure that those kids carrying those things on their shoulders. Also, felt sin and felt like, “Okay. My reality is normalized in this book.” I think so often black kids pick up books where their lives are depicted as characters or these stereotypical prejudiced depictions of who black people are.
In elementary school, the first book I remember reading with a black character was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was like, “How on earth?” This is a predominantly white school. I was just, “Why is this story that white counterparts are being introduced to blackness?” That is so problematic for so many reasons. It doesn’t help dispel stereotypes. It reinforces them. I just thought it was imperative to show a book where that is different, where this book is very much full of black joy, hope, and encouragement.
What I hope to be a very riveting read. The one that you’re excited to read because it’s like a fun adventure like you were saying earlier. It’s very much a page-turner in that way and very thrilling. But then also, I want it to be sort of hug the book when you finish because it’s like, “Man. When have I seen my community painted in this light with power, magic, as the heroes of our own stories, and not side characters like in Huckleberry Finn.?”
Diane: I think that there’s a convenience of thought and it’s an ugly one, where we haven’t had the vibrancy of black characters who have passion, the strength of character, the way Rue’s father does, the way her two friends, Julius and Jamal, on the other worlds. Julius is in East Row. Jamal is in G Zone. I think that this revelation is an important one because it disentangles the whole way of compartmentalizing and finding out that her father was not only her champion but also gives her protection. Protection was a word that came up for me over and over again.
She had protection from her ancestor. She didn’t know she had as does every African American kid. The thing is that it became manifest in this guy who does come down and joins her and makes the sacrifice for her. We’re not going to give spoiler alerts. But here was the father she thought she never had. The father who she stereotyped a certain way and nothing could have been further from the truth in that. That upending that narrative.
It is really important because people who have disappeared from our lives for one reason or another, we don’t know the truth. Through her magic and access thing, she kind of does find out a different reality which opens up a different space in her. In general, it allows her again to feel her power unapologetically and to feel that which came from her ancestors. It’s a book that lingers with you even after you’re finished the joy ride of the thrill of it. I love the idea that you said to yourself, “Why is this the storyline?” That had to be part of your motivation in writing these characters, right?
Elle: Absolutely. It is because it’s not my narrative. It’s just the one that’s portrayed. I had the opportunity, to tell the truth, and to show what it is. Someone asked me once in an interview, “Why was painting the inner city is magical so important to you?” I said it is because it’s true. I look at the beautiful talent that comes out of inner-city communities, just the magic, and the giftedness.
Our Vice President is an HBCU graduate, Beyonce came from Third Ward, Jay Z came from an inner-city community. There’s so much incredible and those are just a few examples. There are many others in different industries outside of like entertainment even outside of politics. There is beautifully brilliant, black magic in these communities. That’s just not the narrative, typically. It’s just I didn’t sit right with me.
Diane: Right. Honing, the way it’s honed people, the strength in the wound is also but it isn’t necessary to have all of that. You talk about the grind. I wondered if you’d speak to us a little bit about the grind. Rue’s mother instilled that in her. You grind. You find a way where there isn’t a way. How much grinding is acceptable? How much of it needs to fall away, systemically? Talk to us about the grind.
Elle: All of it needs to fall away systemically, right? All of it needs to fall away if only that were in our control, but it’s not. That is the long game. That is the eventual goal. That is what we’re working toward collectively as a people. We and allies are working together. In the meantime, we have to do something to protect our families, to create opportunities for our children, to better the next generation, to build generational wealth and our families. So, we are working toward the long-term goal.
In the short term, we’re also having to rise to the occasion or make a way out of no way as Rue says, to persevere and to push. I always say racism isn’t our problem. This is a problem white people created, not us. The more allies come alongside our community and as we join in this together, as we band together to fix this to work toward change, it lessens the burden on our shoulders to do all of the work as it should. The labor falls on our shoulders but it wasn’t a problem that we created. There are all layers that we could talk about that for another hour. I guess the point to take away there is like we are in a situation where connect tenacity is not an option. It is a requirement and perseverance.
I wanted Rue to just ooze all of that. I certainly got that from my grandmother and my grandfather even that’s just the way that they raised me. They let me know what’s required. You have to work twice as hard to get half. We want that to get half piece to change and that’s what we’re working on. You have to work twice as hard piece needs to change as well. In the meantime, we’re publishing a book. It was an uphill battle as a black creator. I’m still working hard to build a career in this area for that very reason.
Diane: I’m hopeful that it’s open to the gate, J. Elle. I can’t thank you enough for being with us to open that gate, to show us the way through your book, Wings of Ebony. You can find J. Elle in Author J. Elle in Twitter and also Instagram, Author J. Elle. You’ve shared so much of yourself generously and through this fabulous book. It can be purchased anywhere books are sold. Thank you to our engineers, Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, our executive producer, Robert Chellino, and most of all, to you, our listeners. Remember to stay safe, be well, and access your power. Until next week. Thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 am Pacific time and 11 am Eastern time on The Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.