Ayana Gray

Group of designers are meeting, looking at map.

Honors alumna Ayana Gray, B.A.’15, is a rising star in the literary world. Her debut novel Beasts of Prey, the first in a pan-African inspired fantasy trilogy, follows two Black teenagers who strike a deal to enter a magical jungle and take down the monster that’s been menacing their city for close to a century. The book was acquired by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin, and will be published on September 28 this year. 

Gray, who was heavily involved in the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and graduated with honors degrees in both political science and African and African American studies, said that the experiences she had as a student at the University of Arkansas “absolutely bled into Beasts of Prey.” 

She cited one class in particular, professor Jeff Ryan’s course on political violence, during which she learned about concepts like moral relativism. “I found it really fascinating,” Gray remembered. “By the end of the class, we were pretty uncomfortable. We realized that the world is not nearly as black and white as maybe we’re taught to believe as children.”  

The idea stayed with her. A life-long book lover, she found herself wanting to encapsulate it in fiction, though she wasn’t quite ready to begin her book just yet. Months later, she had the opportunity to visit Ghana, where she studied pan-Africanism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and decolonization. Gray, still reeling from the political violence course, was struck by how a country so young could have such a rich history. “When I graduated just a few months later, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have a very clear plan ahead,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing with myself. … But what I did know was that I love to write, and that I love books.” 

She began writing stories about the things she’d learned. The project that would eventually become Beasts of Prey began as something she did for fun, but it evolved into a more intentional book as she delved further into her research. “I had that base knowledge about things like pan-Africanism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but I didn’t know a lot about mythos across the African continent,” Gray explained. “And it’s a hard thing, because so much of it is oral.” She pointed to a bookshelf full of books on the subject and added that she also consulted online academic sources in the six years she spent researching the topic. “And I’m still finding new things,” she added.  

Gray wishes she’d spent less time doubting herself in the early stages of her career. “There’s a lot of conditioning where, as women of color, we're taught to make ourselves small, that pseudo competence is arrogant,” she said. “And you have to be careful what you ask for. And don't ask for too much and make sure that you're appeasing to people.”  

She advises aspiring writers not to be afraid to ask hard questions and to recognize the importance of being your own champion. “No one is going to advocate or stand up for you or speak up for you as much as you can speak up for yourself,” she explained.  

She also recommends finding a community — especially if you happen to be a writer of color. “Find your community to validate your experiences, to remind you of why your stories have value when the industry tells you they don’t or makes you feel like they don’t,” she said. “That's what got me through.”