Marston Photography

EXCLUSIVE: Author Ayana Gray On Why There’s Power In Being The Hero Of Your Own Story

"This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better."

Exclusive Interviews

For Black girls and boys alike, the quest to find stories that reflect their everyday experiences starts as early as the flames of self-awareness begin to flicker. Ayana Gray — The New York Times best-selling author of the YA fantasy novel, Beasts of Prey — embarked on a similar journey when Black characters that reflected her as a young girl were few and far between. She’s made it her mission to tell the stories that position Black youth at the center of fantastical adventures ever since.

“I didn't see stories with Black kids that were having magical adventures,” Gray tells xoNecole. “If I wanted to read a story with a little girl like me on the cover, there was going to be racism, some sort of trauma or something sad was going to happen to that little girl or boy.” As disheartening as it was to come to grips with this reality, Gray began exploring her past in order to reimagine a story for the future.

Courtesy of Ayana Gray

While in college, Ayana’s education in African and African American studies led her on a trip to Ghana that would profoundly expand her worldview. While there, the landscape, culture, and her own curiosities for ancestral connection inspired the novel she was destined to write. “I'm a Black American woman. My heritage is messy. I don't know what region, what area of Africa my ancestors came from. So I wanted to write a fantasy novel, one that drew inspiration from the continent and honored the land itself,” Gray shares with xoNecole.

What she birthed is Beasts of Prey, an epic adventure colored with the rich and complex depths of our collective heritage, history, and culture. It tells the story of two Black teens on a magical quest to hunt down a monster. In Beasts of Prey, Gray provides more proof that Black youth, and even our inner child, can be the heroes of our own stories.

xoNecole: One thing I really appreciate about the work you do is that you’re committed to represent Black stories without them being centered in race-related trauma, tell us more about your intentions behind this. 

Ayana Gray: You think about other groups of people and they're able to read fantastical stories and not have to read about trauma based on their race or identity. They're able to just transport themselves, and Black kids haven't had that. So we gave Black people a break. [Beasts of Prey] is magical and adventurous. There are monsters, and some are good and some are evil, but race – it’s not the centerfold. Everybody in the story is Black, but they're nuanced. You have different skin tones and hair textures.

There are Black people who are good, Black people who are evil, Black people who are funny. There's comedic relief, there's romance; Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish-fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid.

"Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid."

xoNecole: Rejection can be a reality that many writers face. How did you manage those moments of rejection early in your career and bounce back to get to where you are today? 

AG: I want to be very transparent: Beasts of Prey certainly faced rejection. And the moment that I always think about most sharply, was when a literary agent told me that she felt that Ekon, as a character, wasn’t strong enough. I remember being hurt, but what I think about when I face rejection is one of two things: I can take that rejection and critique and use it to make myself better if it's constructive. There are also some cases where there's projection because that story is not for that person. In that situation, when she said, “Your Black boy is not strong enough,” I said, you know what, she didn't understand what I was trying to do here.

Because I don't want to create this, “strong” Black boy, I want Ekon to be a Black boy who doesn't have to fit this expected mold of “strength” and what we think of strength being for Black people and Black boys. Sometimes, it's just accepting that, not every story is for every person and using that as fuel to write stories for the people who it is for.

Courtesy of Ayana Gray

xoNecole: Why was it important to center teens as the heroes of their own stories and see themselves within the pages as well as the cover? 

AG: It's incredibly hard to be what you don't see, and I'm so proud and happy that I'm not the only Black writer who is committed to this. Black kids shouldn't have one option. When they go to the bookstore and the library, they should have a whole bookshelf, they should have shelves of options to see themselves as the hero of their story. Heroes and heroines of their stories. It's important because I felt it as a kid, I read books where I was never the hero, and it kind of informed the way I felt about my value for a very long time.

For the cover, I so adore the original cover of Beasts of Prey, but after speaking with my editor, who is also a Black woman, we realized there was so much power in having Koffi and Ekon, this Black boy and Black girl on the cover as people are wandering shelves of libraries and bookstores. I joked around on TikTok and I said I want people to know this is a 'Blackity Black Black' YA fantasy story. No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better.

"No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better."

Courtesy of Ayana Gray

xoNecole: 'Beasts of Prey' has been adapted into a film with Netflix. What was your initial reaction to this news and how does this align with the dreams that you’ve set for yourself? 

AG: The success that I've been so blessed to have in the last year has really forced me to expand my dreams and dare to dream bigger - which is a weird thing. It's a weird thing to have a dream that you hold on to for so long and suddenly you have it and now you have to think about the next thing. I'm still processing it and still thinking about what’s next.

When I reflect and hope for the legacy that I leave behind, I want to write stories where Black kids get to see themselves in all sorts of spaces and see themselves as heroes. But more importantly, I really want for Black people, if and when they come across my books to say, “She did it, why can't I?”

It's hard to be what we can't see, but if you see authors out there — Black people out there chasing their dreams and accomplishing their goals, it leads you to say, “Well, I can do that too.”

Grab your copy of Beasts of Prey at Barnes & Noble. And connect with Ayana Gray on TikTok.

Featured image by Marston Photography

The emergence of a week-long tension headache told me that I needed to figure out a way to minimize and relieve my stress. In addition to daily magnesium supplements and meditation, I also found myself wanting to orgasm (the health benefits are hard to ignore) and do so at least every other day.

I was determined to set the mood and engage in some erotic self-focus by way of masturbation, and I wanted to do so with a little more variety than my wand vibrator provides. My commitment to almost daily masturbation was affirmed even further with the arrival of what would become my new favorite sex toy, the viral Lovers’ Thump & Thrust Dual Vibrator.

Keep reading...Show less
The daily empowerment fix you need.
Make things inbox official.

If there is one artist who has had a very successful and eventful year so far it’s Mary J. Blige. The “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” shut down the 2022 Super Bowl Half-time show along with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Eminem, she also performed at NBA All-Star weekend and now she is being honored as one of Time's most influential people of 2022.

Keep reading...Show less

These days it seems that we’re all trying to heal from childhood wounds, and though I’m a big advocate for cutting people off – family included – I’ve come to learn how challenging that actually is. But also, it’s not always necessary if you have a parent who is open and committed to doing the healing work along with you, a mother, for example, who is receptive to her truth. But this also means you are receptive to the reality that parents are humans who often take cake crumbs from their parents and so on. It’s not to say that you have to accept piss-poor treatment because they’re human, but if any of us are going to embark upon a healing journey, we must acknowledge even the difficult truths.

Keep reading...Show less

Queen Latifah is saying no to unhealthy and dangerous lifestyles especially when it comes to her career. Since the beginning, the rapper/actress has always been a body-positive role model thanks to the range of characters she has played over the years that shows that size doesn’t matter. In an interview with PEOPLE, The Equalizer star opened up about taking on roles that don't compromise her health.

Keep reading...Show less

When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.

Featured image by Getty Images

Exclusive Interviews
Latest Posts