The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations with authors we love. If you're a teen who'd like to interview an author, please click here to find out how we can connect you with your favorite YA authors. Today's guests include StoryTimeTeen creator James Tilton and the wonderful J. Elle. J. Elle's highly-anticipated first book, Wings Of Ebony, comes out tomorrow.
James: Hey J! I’ve been looking forward to Wings Of Ebony for over a year now, and I’m so excited that it’s finally hitting shelves. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what they can expect from your book?
J. Elle: Wings of Ebony is a thrilling page-turner full of community, found family, and magic. Readers can expect a voice that sucks them in, stakes that keep them on the edge of their seat, some humor, some hard lessons, emotional gut punches and shocking surprises. It’s my hope Rue is a character that readers will love hanging out with and long to get back to when the story is over.
James: I love that you named your main character Rue! Rue’s obviously an important character in the first Hunger Games book and the protagonist of HBO’s Euphoria. Did either of those characters inspire your Rue in any way?
J. Elle: No, actually. And after I realized they shared a name I almost changed it. Ha! But I ultimately decided that I should honor the person who came to me when this story began. She was nothing more than an image in my head, a feeling with a voice. But when I started typing, letting her speak, I quickly realized there was so much power and rage and love wrapped up in her. So much she intended to make her enemies rue…
James: Whether we’re talking about those ancient West African legends of flying Africans or the #BlackGirlMagic hashtag, your book continues a long tradition of imbuing Black bodies with magic. What about the idea of magical Blackness appealed to you?
J. Elle: Its truth. Magic is a fun and exciting term that we use playfully to titillate the imagination. But magic, real magic, is awe-inspiring and life changing to behold and James, we have it. We, Black people. My community. Magic, to me, is a metaphor for an impossible phenomenon. As I boil that down to nuts and bolts--magic is seeing someone do something that feels too big or scaling an obstacle that’s too tall. When I consider that within the context of my people’s lives in this country in particular, I see a mystical beauty that we possess: a richness of intellect and wit, of work ethic and ingenuity, of grace and swagger, of overcoming, ascension, power, resilience, tenacity. “Magic” is who we just are. So of course other’s would want to consume it, steal it, copy. Readers will see lots of those parallels in Wings of Ebony. It’s my hope that as teens read Rue’s story, they begin to realize that the fire within themselves that’s hungry to burn, is their magic. I hope they’re inspired to lean into fully. Dream big.
James: I was really intrigued by Rue's best friend, Bri. She's struggling to figure out what to believe and that leads to some pretty miserable attempts at allyship. What does good allyship look like to you?
J. Elle: Allyship is a verb. It is an action of personal sacrifice. I think often times the motivations behind allyship can be earnest, but the way its gone about can fall short...and even do more harm, by, for example, bringing more heat onto the community that they’re trying to “ally” with. Which is why I think any white person specifically feeling pulled to grapple with this concept of allyship needs to look inward first. It’s often a natural instinct to decide to start speaking up against injustice, posting on social media when you see something done wrong. And feeling like you’ve arrived—an ally, overnight. But what perspective shapes those words? What change has occurred? What internal work has been done? Understanding how to ally isn’t like flipping a light switch. I know it’s probably more comfortable to try to ally that way, but allyship isn’t comfortable and if someone isn’t ready for that then they’re not ready to truly ally.
Authentic allyship, in my very non expert opinion, starts with looking inward to examine any unconscious bias, prejudice, dare I say racism, that’s taken root. Otherwise a person risks performative allyship, which is just “acting” like an ally without truly reshaping one's paradigm. Saying the “right” things or calling out someone else’s racism can only go so far if you haven’t sat with your own privilege, mistakes, worldview and realized how you may have perpetuated, be it knowingly or unknowingly, schools of thought that keep communities marginalized.
Allyship is a process. Allyship is uncomfortable. Allyship is necessary. All three of these are non negotiable. And I’ve found when allyship is performative it’s because people aren’t ready to accept one or more of them.
James: One of the most impressive things about your work is the way you manage to make the magical world feel so much like our own. There’s this one time where Rue’s in Ghizon and she says, “Just like back home, people think different means less. Less capable. Less competent.” What would you tell a reader whose experience is similar to Rue’s in that way?
J. Elle: I’d say, “look at how Rue embodies proof that these assumptions are lies.” We can’t stop people from lying, but we can stop their lies from defining the way we view ourselves. Even subconsciously. Internalized oppression is a real thing that’s not discussed enough. One of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy stories that centers inner city teens is because of what seeing that on the page does to the psyche of a kid, subliminally. Teaching children they're magical is a powerful thing. And I intend to keep doing it as long as publishing allows me.
James: I also appreciated the way that you dug into the way that history can erase reality, both in Ghizon and in the real world. What’s something that you wish every student learned in their history class?
J. Elle: I wish every student in an American classroom had an accurate portrayal of American history, not just from the perspective of the colonizer. Why isn’t the Tulsa massacre taught? Why aren’t the horrid atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus part of what students learn about him? (Since we’re forced to learn about him…) Why are students immersed in a watered down versions of truth, with half-stories about how this country was actually founded? How do we raise students to be compassionate members of a society if we don’t rear them with a full picture of the founding of this country? How can we tell them to fight for and help shape America if we don’t first give them an accurate picture of what America is. Not what is commonly purported. But what it really is.
There’s a line in the sequel to Wings of Ebony that I’m going to share with you because it speaks to this very question.
“How can a land be great when it's nailed together with lies and nourished with poison? When it was built on bones, then dressed in half-truths?”