J. She brings home the fantasy series Third Ward

Whether it’s chatting about characters or twists and turns, family or friends, neighborhoods or homes, Jess Elle finds her way home. She’s circling the concept a few times, a formidable task as the Houston native clings closely to an expansive definition of home. It resurfaces in the conversation in various forms: home ownership; the itinerant life of a military family; the way neighborhood stores and people leave an impression and sometimes fade away. After the last page of her second book, “Ashes of Gold”, She thanks “Houston, on the southeast side, off Scott between Sunnyside and Third Ward. Thank you for the magic you inspire, the greatness you produce.

Last year, the writer – who publishes under the name J. Elle – contributed his own magic to Third Ward, which was written in his first novel “Wings of Ebony” under the name East Row. Her summoner was Rue, a teenage girl taken from East Row, after her mother was killed, and taken to Ghizon, an island full of magic, where she learned she possessed great power as a mid-god, half human. Despite being Elle’s first book, “Wings of Ebony” immediately became a bestseller. This week, she completes Rue’s story with “Ashes of Gold”.

She indicates that the narrative twists of the book are “a chance to develop my plot writing skills a bit”, she continues to question the notion of hearth, especially with regard to its protagonist.

“It’s probably me bleeding into the page, but really, at the end of the day, home is a connection to people,” Elle says. “A big part of who we are is how we connect with people. I’m used to moving around a lot, and you come to new places with some caution. You know your roots can’t be too deep if you leave in two or three years. It doesn’t mean you don’t have friends. But you don’t feel too comfortable.

“And I think that’s a concept that many members of my community can relate to. I have done personal research on my ancestors as a black African American woman. You see exciting and traumatic things.

For a moment, Elle and Rue merge into one person.

“I can’t help but wonder if I’m good enough at telling a nuanced story on this story?” I don’t want to be wrong. I want to be worthy enough to say something. And in the story, that’s what Rue learns: value is not black or white. This is what we guess internally.

‘Be true to yourself’

By J. Elle

Denene Millner Books / Simon & Schuster

409 pages, $ 19.99

The author speaks

J. Elle in conversation with Ayana Gray

When: 6.30 p.m. January 11

Or: Family Stories, 2304 Stuart

Details: free; kindredstorieshtx.com

Virtual event

J. Elle in conversation with Brigid Kemmerer

When: 7 p.m. on January 12

Details: free; registration required at bluewillowbookshop.com


She called “Wings of Ebony” her “love letter to the black children of Houston”.

The book was a hit beyond the city, but Houston readers were particularly drawn to it.

“The community was drawn to J. Elle because of her commitment to this community,” says Terri Hamm, owner of Kindred Stories, a Third Ward bookstore. “The flow of inspiration is wonderful for so many here – that she was so inspired to write through her upbringing in Third Ward. There is something beautiful and pure about the love she has for this neighborhood, and it shows in her writing.

She was keen to launch the new book with an event at Kindred Spirits this week. In “Wings”, Rue has to go out of his neighborhood to buy books.

Hamm read “Wings of Ebony” during the freeze last year. “It left me with a sense of pride and belonging,” she says. Knowing that there is so much beauty in what others may think of as not beautiful. She showed a vibrant community.

She – and Rue – spend less time in East Row in Book 2. But that’s largely because the scope is so much wider as it widens its narrative. The book is full of allusions and nods to writers of the past, from Shakespeare to Shakur. As Rue reflects on her growing role in a resistance against a malicious chancellor in Ghizon, she thinks, “All eyes on me.” Later in the book, Julius, a connection to his life in Houston, texts him, “Be true to yourself. “

She fills “Ashes of Gold” with various allegorical references. There are overturned totems and statues and allusions to how the 1921 Tulsa Massacre was left out of historical codification. The Chancellor, Elle writes, made sure his “betrayal was written out of the island’s textbooks.”

But our narrator informs, “The bones whisper from their graves if you listen loud enough. “

“Our daily life is made up of organized information,” says Elle. “In this story, it’s an organized story that is not an exact portrayal. And I wanted a fictional story with a real-world parallel of what disinformation spawns. In Ghizon, this created a certain environment where some people did not fit into the story.

“I think the goal of the first book was to fight racism,” she says. “I struggled to give the other threads of the plot the same urgency, focus and attention. I wanted to back the story up with this feeling that when racism is present, there is an urgent need to. There is no room for complacency I planted these seeds, I watered them and I tried to make them bloom in the second volume.

By dividing time between Houston and Ghizon, Rue at the end of the first book still seeks to define herself between the house where she grew up and a magical ancestral land.

She specifically wanted to confront her character with “imperfect choices”.

“The bad guy in the second book is the system,” she says. “I wanted to explore how the system creates these imperfect choices for people stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Rue’s connections to Houston and Ghizon are both strengthened and tested. It deals with the complications of betrayals and love.

“It was important for me to give Rue a love story,” Elle says. “Heroines cannot simply exist in the pages of stories to challenge racism. It is doing humanity a disservice to write it in the book just to fight the racists. The whole extent of his humanity must be represented. She should like. She should have a crush. She should be kissed. This is why one of the great themes of this book is black love. I don’t think you can fundamentally sympathize with the community and with black trauma if you don’t understand the concept of black love. You need to understand what is being taken. It was important to let people walk in Rue’s shoes that way.

Back to basics

She pauses her discussions about the book to receive a call from her grandfather, who is in a different part of town and is trying to find an address. She manages to put him on the right track where he wants to be.

She talks about the importance of home ownership, which is “such a thing in my family and my community,” she says.

“When we got back here, we knew we needed a place to put everyone inside – and a generator in the event of a power failure during an ice storm. How can I get as many of my people as possible to be as close as possible? I’m sure some of that found its way into the novel.

He did this, both with the meditations on the house, but also the Afrofuturist value placed on the ancestors, a key part of the story.

Until 2019, Elle and her family moved across the country, a byproduct of her husband being in the military. But two years ago, they relocated to the Houston area where she grew up and attended Cullen Middle School and the High School for Law and Justice before leaving Houston for the University of Texas.

She thought she could be a lawyer rather than a writer. But a vision of Rue standing over his murdered mother set this story in motion. She considered the challenges she might throw in front of the character: some drawn from her own observations and experiences, others created after she conceived Ghizon.

“I thought of kids in my neighborhood trying to survive and get by,” she says. “To get a degree and maybe go to college. Start a career path. These things can be a huge challenge for many inner city children. It was for me, and I still had a lot of privileges that my friends and neighbors didn’t have. And once you land somewhere – Yale or USC or UT – you are now that fish out of the water. It influences what you are capable of. You can be that beacon, but it’s also intimidating. Even for an incredible girl full of magic.

She seems hesitant as she talks about the story’s conclusion: “I’ve never ended a story before,” she says. “But I know there is no such thing as a perfect happy ending. I maintain that it’s a story of hope.

She brings the story home with Rue tired but wiser about herself, with a shoe planted in each of two different places, each of ancestral wealth.

“When I think of home, of the community, I think of the third quarter,” she says. “I think about where I can walk around and view art installations. It’s always home. And I want my kids to have this. They grew up all over the country. But I want them to feel rooted in Third Ward as well. I want them to understand their roots as intimately as I do. Feel at home here.

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