Friends, we’re in for a treat today. Secretly, one of my absolute weaknesses when it comes to stories are stories about ordinary girls who possess a hidden power. So, when I first learned about Wings of Ebony, a book about a Black girl from Houston who discovers that she is also part-god, I knew that this book would be phenomenal. Furthermore, I love a story that empowers young people, and I know that Wings of Ebony is going to inspire and empower young Black readers – and I am so excited for them to discover this book.
As it is one of my most anticipated books this year, I knew that I wanted to invite the author, J.Elle, to the Pond for an interview. Wings of Ebony released late last month, and I cannot wait to dive into this when I get my hands on a copy! Therefore, I am so honoured and thrilled to have J.Elle visiting us at the Pond today (as a phoenix with naturally curly hair!) for Black History Month, and I hope you all enjoy the author interview as much as I did.
But, before we dive into the interview, allow me to properly introduce you to Wings of Ebony!
Wings of Ebony by J.Elle
“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, only to discover that Black kids are being forced into crime and violence. And her sister, Tasha, is in danger of falling sway to the very forces that claimed their mother’s life.
Worse still, evidence mounts that the evil plaguing East Row is the same one that lurks in Ghizon—an evil that will stop at nothing until it has stolen everything from her and everyone she loves. Rue must embrace her true identity and wield the full magnitude of her ancestors’ power to save her neighborhood before the gods burn it to the ground.
Author Interview with J.Elle
CW: Hi J.Elle! A huge and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond – it’s so awesome to have you here visiting us today, especially since Wings of Ebony is one of my most anticipated books releasing in 2021. I’m excited! But, just in case any of our friends out there are meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
J.Elle: I’m a former educator, turned writer and the author of Wings of Ebony, a young adult fantasy novel about a Black teen from an inner-city neighborhood who must lean into her ancestor’s magic to protect her community of violence and crime.
CW: Wings of Ebony released just last week – congratulations on publishing your debut! When I first read the summary for Wings of Ebony, I have to admit: it took my breath away because it just sounds absolutely stunning. I know this is a question that authors get asked a lot, but I really do have to know: What inspired Wings of Ebony, and how has your story evolved since its first draft?
J.Elle: I wanted to craft stories that inspired readers with pride and passion. So I looked to some of the things that did that well. I loved Diana in Wonder Woman. The scenes with her just ooze a fierceness rooted in passion that I haven’t seen on many inner city characters portrayed in contemporary fantasy. Black Panther was another I looked to. That movie made me puff my chest out. I’ve never felt so incredibly gotten by a major Blockbuster movie before. And I knew when I wanted my world to be recognizable, somewhere that you could show up and have at least a surface level understanding of how things work so I chose contemporary fantasy. I also wanted the reader to interface with the themes in a direct way.
CW: Wings of Ebony sounds like it has a blend of contemporary and fantasy elements – and I’m particularly looking forward to reading about Ghizon, the hidden island of magic wielders. Is Houston, as a setting, meaningful to you? And what experiences, inspirations, or heritage did you draw from to craft Ghizon?
J.Elle: I set WINGS in Houston because I’m from Houston. And I wanted it to put my home on the page, the love and community and joy there. I tried to infuse bits of things that I loved about my favorite movies and bring that to the page. In Rue’s home neighborhood of East Row, I wrote from my own experiences. So much of the scenes in that book are inspired by my or my family members’ lived experience. In Ghizon I was very inspired by Black Panther. I loved the idea that this could be a veiled island somewhere that actually exists. The best fantasy I think stokes our inner child that wants to really believe in make believe. So I grounded even Ghizon in a fairly contemporary setting. Book one in this duology deals very heavily with Rue’s home, but in the sequel readers will find themselves immersed in Ghizon.
CW: I’m really looking forward to meeting Rue, the main character of Wings of Ebony! In particular, I’m really intrigued by the personal journey that she will go on, being half-god and half-human. What was the place you were writing from when you explored Rue’s dual identity in the story?
J.Elle: In terms of where she came from, Rue just spoke to me. She is me. She is so many of my cousins, play sisters, Aunty’s, friends. I can’t make it make more sense than that, which sounds wild I know. But she just spoke to me because I’ve known Rue my whole life. I’ve been her. Am her. Exploring her was exploring myself in many ways, the times I’ve been away from my home. everything that is familiar and feels safe. That burning desire to do what I need to do wherever I am be it college or some job, only to hurry and get back home. I left home at seventeen to go to college. I was the first in my family to do so. I earned a graduate degree as well. And seventeen years later, Ive finally returned home. And I’m so glad life has allowed that. Especially in a pandemic, being drivable distance to my cousins, sisters, extended family means the world to me. So you’ll see Rue dealing with a lot of that similar longing. In a lot of ways, exploring Rue was exploring myself. In terms of her dual identity, it can be interpreted both metaphorically and literally. I identify with it very metaphorically. I attended a private school outside of my neighborhood for several years. And I ended up going to a predominantly white college on scholarship for undergrad. So, I felt like I lived in two different worlds longing to return to my roots for several parts of my life. Learning how to fully embrace all of who I am was life changing, honestly. It took courage and lots of grappling with fears. Rue has lots to learn on that journey, too.
CW: I’m particularly intrigued by this particular line in your book’s blurb: “Rue is the only half-god, half-human [in Ghizon], where leaders protect their magical powers at all costs and thrive on human suffering.” I’m really intrigued by how different stories have different magic systems! What was the most fun part in crafting the magic in Wings of Ebony?
J.Elle: The best part, most fun part, of crafting Wings of Ebony was putting the love and joy of my community on the page. It was really sweet to be able to explore those communal bonds that our gird our community. There’s so much joy where I’m from, togetherness, resilience, hope. Those parts of East Row really come alive on the page.
CW: While Wings of Ebony is a fantasy, it also sounds like the book delves into very real issues related to being Black American – and that Wings of Ebony will lean into this but also be genuine and empowering. In Wings of Ebony, what do you hope will speak to your readers? And what do you hope they will take away from this story, especially Black teens and readers?
J.Elle: Oh my hopes are big! There’s a lot of meat in Wings of Ebony to dig into. And not in the ways one might think. I’ve portrayed characters to provide a mirror and others a lens. There’s a lot here for readers from all walks of life to dig into and I’m excited to know that once they read, they’ll be able to engage in conversation about the intersection of colonization, privilege, racism, and allyship through these nuanced characters, while subliminally having a conversation about themselves and the real world. I get giddy just thinking about it. Literature is magical like that–particularly fantasy. One step removed from reality, it can be a great forum for readers to explore topics hard to tackle head-on.
And, truly, never before have I seen the topic of privilege have such a national platform. It’s especially grieving that it took the events of 2020 to spur those conversations to national attention and bring such deeply seated racism and prejudice to light. I wish my book wasn’t so relevant, to be honest. It hurts, still. 2020 is an open wound. I’m not sure if it’ll ever scab. For myself and others, kids included, trying to make sense of things around them can it ever really heal? Without at the very least a nasty scar? I’m hoping Wings of Ebony gives kids bandangaging and rebandanging the same wounds space to process and ask questions that they couldn’t before, questions they might not have even known they had.
Ultimately, I hope my book inspires an entire movement, where Black kids are boldly affirmed of their intellect, power, beauty, ability, their value, and rich worth in this world.
CW: Here’s a fun question! Can you describe to us your favourite scene in Wings of Ebony in the vaguest way possible? (Tease us!)
J.Elle: My favorite scene? Wow that’s hard. One of the one I always smile when I read is where Rue finds herself on a burial ground and sees some stuff that’s equal parts awe-inspiring and creepy. LOL. I love that moment. It’s also a great glimpse of the sequel.
CW: As for our last question, it’s another fun one and it’s a question I like to ask all my guests. What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?
J.Elle: Definitely Probably dirty rice. Nothing like my grandma’s dirty rice. I’m smiling just thinking about it.
About the Author
J.Elle is an author and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community. Born in Houston, Texas, Jess is a first-generation college student with a Bachelor of Journalism and Master of Arts in Educational Administration and Human Development. Her passion for empowering youth dates back before writing 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 you’ll find her volunteering at an alternative school, providing feedback for aspiring writers, loving on her three littles, or cooking up some dish true to her Texas and Louisiana roots. Wings of Ebony is her first novel.