Some interviews feel like talking to a friend, and some feel like more than that. Some actually teach you something. J. Elle, best-selling author of Wings of Ebony and its sequel, Ashes of Gold, out today, is somehow both. There was an instant connection, because both her books, and her main character, Rue, spoke to us. But there was also a sense of wonder as she spoke of things that are bigger than both of us, and that we should never stop thinking or educating ourselves about.
Ashes of Gold is the highly anticipated finale to the story set up during Wings of Ebony, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a story that puts Black joy front and enter, showcasing that Black heroines deserve more. Yes, they can fight for social justice, but they’re also worthy of love, happiness, friendship and respect.
Integral to that is the idea, which is at the center of this book, that characters like the protagonist of J. Elle’s story, Rue, must be strong, and just that. The problem, of course, is that, for a lot of media “that’s where the exploration of the character ends,” because, as Elle shared with us, “there is this misconception about strength. There is this misunderstanding of what real strength is,” which then leads to shallow characters, mostly because of that “limited definition.”
For her, the only way to combat that is to make sure “that creators are also diverse. It’s not just enough to have stories on shelves with Black characters. We need Black creators in the marketing meetings, we need Black creators in the writing room for film. We need a variety in all marginalized communities”
And the reason we need that is to make sure pieces of who the characters are – can be – aren’t missed. Rue is a perfect example of this, because for Elle she is “someone who is incredibly strong, but also incredibly vulnerable.” Because we can be both. Because no one is strong all the time, and no one should be.
For the author, it was also important to add that layer of magic to a story that’s rooted in the reality of marginalized communities. “I knew that I wanted magic to be the veneer because I wanted to write a story that grappled with challenging issues. And I think fantasy creates a layer of separation between the reader and the experience and the topic in the novel.”
It’s easy to process if it feels fictional. Easier to think about what these characters are feeling in the context of what they mean to us. Easier to remember we can’t, don’t have to just be one thing. The characters aren’t.
“Rue is not going to just be a heroin that exists to fight racism. That is not her entire point in life. And I think to write books where that’s all she does would be a disservice to Black girls everywhere who identify with her. Because Rue is powerful and magical, and she can do all these amazing things.” Especially because “she’s also a teenage kid and she has crushes and she should be kissed, and she should be able to live and have all of these other experiences.”
At its core, this balance is what both Wings of Ebony and Ashes of Gold are trying to showcase. “It was important for me to put that in the page, to make that a part of her story. Because I do think that we do a disservice if we only show Black heroines in one way. I think that to really show the breadth of their humanity, we must see Black heroines in particular, just living.”
Elle even went so far as to add that this, in particular, is the reason why it’s so important to see books on shelves that aren’t about “fighting racism” or about “Black characters fighting for social justice.”
“I just think it’s really important that we have a balance on shelves. We need a whole breath of our humanity represented. We can’t just be typecast as these powerful heroines who battle racism. That’s not realistic.”
Even if we are powerful. Even if, like Rue, our very full existence is, sometimes, a fight against stereotypes. Because we can be anything we decide, and we can be all those things at once.
I knew that going into the interview. I felt it reading the book. And talking to J. Elle, taking in her words and learning from them only reinforced this fact. She is one of the most eloquent, knowledgeable authors I’ve ever had a chance to talk to. Our conversation certainly provided an extra layer of appreciation for her work.
Read her books. Support her stories. Not just because of the messages she’s trying to send, but because they’re entertaining, interesting books. The combination is rare.
She absolutely pulls it off.
Ashes of Gold, the sequel to J. Elle’s bestselling Wings of Ebony, is available today wherever books are sold. You can read the synopsis for the book below.
In the heart-pounding conclusion to the Wings of Ebony duology, which #1 New York Times bestselling author Nicole Yoon calls “bold, inventive, big-hearted and deeply perceptive,” Rue makes her final stand to reclaim her people’s stolen magic.
Rue has no memory of how she ended up locked in a basement prison without her magic or her allies. But she’s a girl from the East Row. And girls from the East Row don’t give up. Girls from the East Row pick themselves back up when they fall. Girls from the East Row break themselves out.
But reuniting with her friends is only half the battle. When she finds them again, Rue makes a vow: she will find a way to return the magic that the Chancellor has stolen from her father’s people. Yet even on Yiyo Peak, Rue is a misfit—with half a foot back in Houston and half a heart that is human as well as god, she’s not sure she’s the right person to lead the fight to reclaim a glorious past.
When a betrayal sends her into a tailspin, Rue must decide who to trust and how to be the leader that her people deserve…because if she doesn’t, it isn’t just Yiyo that will be destroyed—it will be Rue herself.