Ashes of Gold Author J. Elle on Strength in Vulnerability
There’s a prevalent misconception that to be strong is to not be vulnerable. This isn’t only incredibly erroneous but it can be incredibly damaging. It grieves me how often that perception is thrust on adolescents’ shoulders, forcing them to create a wedge of dissonance between how they actually feel and how they are allowed to feel. The very essence of what makes us human is our capacity to feel in robust, intricate, deep, and analytical ways. To imply being strong, bearing up under life’s challenges, requires we not be susceptible to emotional harm, sets up young people for a lot of trauma to sift through in adulthood. Not success.
I see this most often with boys and young Black girls, in particular, though it isn’t unique to any one gender, race, or ethnicity. Sometimes it’s explicitly taught, bred out of toxic masculinity. Other times it’s passively internalized because of experiences that seem to reinforce the idea that strength means “being tough,” strength means “not feeling.”
As a Black woman, mother of three Black daughters, and big sister to two impressionable Black teens, I wanted to craft a story to confront this issue directly. I chose the latter angle and the young adult age category because I find that teens are at a fascinating and unique phase in their lives around 16 or 17 years old. There are big life questions they’re grappling with about who they are, how they fit in the world, who they want to be, and who they can be, and I wanted to craft a story that spoke to some of their biggest insecurities. One that hopefully made them feel seen in a way they hadn’t before.
In the Wings of Ebony duology, which is Wings of Ebony (book one) and Ashes of Gold (book two), I created Rue, a Black fierce teen protagonist with an unapologetic attitude. Her story is told in first person, so the reader is thrust into the story in the driver’s seat. Her understanding of strength wasn’t explicitly taught to her, but absorbed by the experiences she’s dealt with growing up: her mother being murdered, not knowing her absent father as a child, and growing up in a community that’s pre-judged. These experiences “made her strong” in that they hardened her shell and made her quite untrusting. Understandably.
I make a point to start readers in her world with an immediate problem and avoid giving her any perfect (or obvious) choices. To explore what happens when a person is truly stuck between a rock and a hard place. We see what Rue is really made of, her unquestionable love for her family, her community, and yet, how that contrasts with her no-nonsense demeanor—some would describe as “angry”—in the face of anyone she doesn’t know (trust). Narratively, her strength also manifests as stubbornness, and even coldness toward her father or outsiders.
Rue is fictional and she is not. She was inspired by some of my own experiences growing up. But also every Black girl who has had who they are determined for them before being given the chance to determine that for themselves. It’s my hope that Rue’s voice, her humanity, rings with an authenticity that is confronting. I also chose fantasy as the genre for this story. Rue is magical (which she inherited from her ancestors), which only amplifies her limitless power as she battles teeth-gritting villains. She is seemingly unstoppable.
And yet, Rue fails. She is stopped (at one big important moment in the novel). There is a moment in the story (NO SPOILERS!) when the walls she hides behind come down, and at that moment, she is (metaphorically) accosted, beat back into the submission of her anger. That moment is crafted in such a way that the reader can sit in that fury with her. To wade in the sludge of what it feels like to be fighting against something so far out of your control that anger is the only option because that’s what gets a response—because, too often, Black girls’ tears do not.
Rue is stuck in this “strong” place when readers meet her (and for a large chunk of book one), like so many adolescents are stuck in these confines they’ve passively bought into (or been taught): that strength means you’re unbreakable.
When being strong actually means:
Being brave enough to exist in the brokenness.
And grow from it.
Rue is stuck there until … she makes a choice. To sit in the vulnerability that she typically hides from. Sit with the wounds that she’s pretended for so long not to have. That courage, I believe, is what makes her a heroine more than anything else. And that’s the true heart of Wings of Ebony: an examination and embracing of self.
Sludge really is such a visceral, accurate descriptor because it’s sticky and tracks everywhere, and that’s the risk to those who are taught strength is emotional hollowness—those taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion, that others are weaknesses (not Rue’s situation, of course), when it actually takes a mountain of courage to shed an actual tear, to choose to feel. Where strength-masked-as-anger is reactionary and requires no effort.
Rue is strong.
But she is also vulnerable.
It’s the beautiful meshing of those two things that ultimately makes her a heroine, that gives her her power. That’s the lesson she learns in the end of book one, among many others. (Which you’ll have to read to find out!) I hope readers are inspired by her courage and it paves the way for them to unearth their own.
Ashes of Gold releases today.
(image: Books Forward, Millner Books, and J. Elle)
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