Angie Thomas has shot to literary stardom in recent months, as her debut novel The Hate U Give, skyrockets to the top of the NYT bestseller charts. Set to be published in 18 territories and counting - and already out here through Walker Books - the YA novel follows 16-year-old Starr, who lives between the poor Mississippi neighbourhood where she was born and a posh high school in the suburbs. When she becomes the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, she comes face to face with police brutality and systemic racism
After the intensity of the book, Thomas herself is a slight surprise: a generous smile, regular laughter, and a soft Mississippi accent. Her passion and conviction shine through, however, and she has much to say on publishing, on the importance of books, and on America itself.
The struggle to write
Though Thomas has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, it took her a long time to believe that being an author was something she could do. "For one, I never saw or met any authors who looked like me. Mississippi has a rich literary history, but most of them are either white or dead and I was neither! So it felt like it was something that I, as a black girl in a poor neighbourhood in Mississippi, just couldn't do."
At eight years old, Thomas read stories in front of the class at a teacher's request, and the positive reactions from her classmates stayed with her for years. But it wasn't until she decided to study Creative Writing at Belhaven University, 10 minutes from her home, that she acknowledged her ambition.
It was during her senior year at Belhaven that she wrote the short story that would later become The Hate U Give. The catalyst was the shooting of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was killed by a police officer in Oakland, California. "Like my main character, Starr, I lived in two different worlds: my black, poor neighbourhood and then my mostly white, private, upper-class school. Being in conservative Mississippi, I heard two different conversations about Oscar. At home, he was one of our own. I knew Oscars, I saw them every single day. They had maybe records, but they were trying to get their lives right. At school, it was, 'Maybe he deserved it', 'Maybe they were justified', or, 'Why are people so upset, he was an ex-con.'"
Hearing this dehumanising narrative made Thomas angry, hurt and frustrated. "I'd already experienced so many small things at college personally - from classmates saying that my neighbourhood was where all the criminals lived, to being the only black girl at the Christmas party and getting the gag gift of the drug book and the water gun, and a white classmate making a joke about it - that when the conversations about Oscar came about, it hit the breaking point. Instead of forming my own riot on campus, I decided to write. So I wrote a short story with a mission to not only show the humanity in a young man like Oscar, but to show the good and the love in a community like mine."
Deciding to 'go there'
Despite encouragement from her professors to turn the short story into a novel, Thomas put the work aside after graduation. It was just "too hard" to write. "When I'm writing, I feel like I have to become that character for a while. I can't be Angie," she explains. "It’s hard sometimes, especially with Starr and the emotional journey she goes on over the course of the book. When she mourned Khalil, I mourned Khalil. I cried while I was writing it. That's partly why it took me so long to get back to that book, because it took a lot of emotional investment on my part to get it absolutely right."
More than that, she knew how big the subject matter was, and how tricky that would be to write. "Honestly, you say the words 'Black Lives Matter' to 30 people, you're going to get 30 different reactions! And with publishing honestly being so white, I did not think that a story like this had a place.
"But then Trayvon Martin happened," she recalls. "Michael Brown happened. Tamir Rice happened. Sandra Bland happened. And I was once again feeling that same anger, frustration and hurt, when I'm hearing politicians now making comments that sound just like the comments my classmates made years ago."
So, finally, four years after she first wrote the short story, she decided to turn it into The Hate U Give. Even so, it was a challenge, not least because of the restraints she put on herself. "When I first started looking at it as a book, I didn't want to go to certain spaces with it because I was afraid it wouldn't be accepted in publishing. But after a while, I decided, 'Forget it, I'm going to write this the way I want to write it, if they want it - great! If they don't, it's fine, at least I got these words out.'"
It was also emotionally taxing. "Every time you hear about another black person losing their life at the hands of a police officer it's hard. A lot of us African-Americans, we take it personal because it feels personal. I look at Trayvon Martin and I see someone who could have been my cousin. I don't just see another young man that's a face in the crowd. It's personal to me. You see comments online accusing Trayvon or being a thug, or saying maybe he deserved it - this is a 12-year-old child we're speaking of! Knowing that I was in a country where often when people speak up for me they're made the antagonist in the narrative - and knowing that as a black person if I speak up for myself automatically I'm going to be the antagonist in the narrative too, simply because I'm challenging the system - it was hard to write this book because of that.
"But it was also hard because I knew that words have power, and you do start to wonder, 'Ok, yeah, you're writing this for yourself, but at some point this may go beyond you, so do you really want to show what it's like to be black in America? Do you really want to give this unapologetically black book to people? Do you really want to give them this glimpse of the reality?' Because sometimes you have this fear that someone will take advantage of that, or take that idea and run with it, or make some sort of criticism that would dig deep. It was hard on multiple levels, but I'm glad that I pushed all that aside and just wrote it."
Thomas is keen to point out, however, that while The Hate U Give has been deemed as a Black Lives Matter book, and she’s proud of that, it is by no means anti-police. "It’s anti-police brutality," she says firmly. "There's a difference. I have law-enforcement in my family, so I caught a glimpse of the struggle of what it means to be a black cop in America. Some of them feel like inside the uniform they're seen as a sell out, and outside the uniform, they're seen as suspect. That's not a struggle we discuss nearly enough.
"It's not anti-cop," she repeats. "It's anti-police brutality. And yes, all lives should matter - and they do - but we have a systemic problem in America where black lives don't matter enough. Black lives matter, too. And yes, blue should lives matter - and they do - but when an officer takes off that blue uniform, he's no longer a blue life. I can't take off my black skin."
Diversity in publishing
Thomas is hyper-aware of the issues of diverse voices being underrepresented in publishing. "The good thing is publishing realises that it has a problem, and it's starting to fix it," she says, though she notes that the numbers show that the problem is far from solved yet.
While the number of diverse protagonists in fiction has risen, the number of diverse authors has not increased as much as it should have. "This is not to say that someone cannot write outside of their own experiences," Thomas says. "I'm not saying that white authors cannot write a book about a black character, but it's going to be different when you get it from a black author, and I feel like if nothing else, representation matters.
"I've had kids tell me they did not know that they could be an author until they met me, because I look like them. They had never met a black author. That's exactly what happened with me when I was growing up, too. Publishing does have a diversity problem, and it goes beyond just the books themselves into the industry. We need diverse voices in the board meetings, in acquisitions meetings. We need diverse editors and marketing people - we need it everywhere! And once we get it in the office, we'll get it on the shelves."
Thomas relishes the success of The Hate U Give, but she says it’s humbling too. "I'm not saying anything against publishing, but it's like a big middle finger to all those people who ever said that black books don't sell! That's been a myth in publishing for a long time. The insinuation in that myth, 'Black books don't sell', is, 'Black kids don't read.' That is a lie. I'm hoping more than anything that my book's success will open the door and allow more books by authors of colour to get that big push that they deserve, and give more readers access to them."
Books are important, says Thomas, not just so young people can see themselves, but also so that they can build empathy for others. "Let’s just be honest, books show the world in a whole new way. Books provide mirrors and windows, and kids need both," she says, quoting I W Gregorio. "It is so important for that little black girl in the hood to be able to see herself in a book, because it will give her hope and confidence. The first book that I read that I really connected with was Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, because it was about a black girl in Mississippi and I was a black girl in Mississippi. Just reading that book, I felt more visible. When we show kids themselves, we're not just doing it so they can get a better view of themselves, we're saying, 'Hey, I see you! You matter. Your story matters, your life matters, your voice matters.' Books save lives in that way and I don't think we give them nearly enough credit for that.
"But it's also important for that white kid in the suburbs to pick up a book about a black girl in an entirely different world to his or her own, because that's how empathy gets started," she adds. "I always say that empathy is more powerful than sympathy, and I'm seeing that even now with my book. I'm getting white kids from rural America telling me, 'I don't think my parents wanted me to read this book, but I'm glad I did because you've opened my eyes to something and black lives do matter.' That's amazing!
"When the older white lady from the South writes to me and says, 'I was raised by a white supremacist for a father and he passed those beliefs down to me, but I've been trying to change, and I read your book and I realised the error of my ways' - that's incredible! Books are powerful like that, and the more ways we give kids to see themselves and others like that, the better off we'll be. And maybe, just maybe, when those kids are voting in about four years or so, we won't have to worry about another incident like we had on 8 November in America. The resistance is real and strong, and I have hope."
Pictured: Angie Thomas (credit: James O'Jenkins)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is published by Walker Books, price £7.99 in paperback original.