They say don’t meet your heroes.
It’s definitely a bit weird being in the same room as the author of your current favorite read but this was on a new level. I didn’t just like The Hate U Give (THUG) because it was a pleasant book but I admired what the author was trying to tell us and so I wanted with all my heart for Angie Thomas to be everything that I was obsessing over in the novel. Spoiler alert. She was.
Armed with a thick American accent and her mother who had stationed two seats next to me on the front row, she was in conversation with an ironically named Khalil West (Khalil is also the victim of the police shooting that is central to the plot of THUG).
She started with a reading from the first chapter of the book and even if (of course) I’d already read it, the experience was just as emotive (if not more) now that I had the author doing it the way she must have intended it to be done.
Khalil West’s first question was for Angie Thomas to tell us a bit about herself and though it started off clad with lighthearted jokes about Mississippi being ‘the parent you love but want to get away from’, in retrospect, it was something a little more political. She kept that tone the whole way through, somber but funny; charismatic and interesting but with an underlying message in everything. I just wish those in the limelight would learn to speak in that way because if they did, more of us at home would listen and so more of us would eventually understand.
Understand what? It became very clear early on that just like I suspected, someone who was so inspired by Black Lives Matter to condense it into a 300 page novel was also going to feel very strongly about the issues surrounding it. As a person who is currently studying the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, it was interesting to hear her talk about the ‘modern civil rights movement’.
Now I don’t live in America so Angie Thomas was right in guessing that a lot of the people she was talking to didn’t really understand. We have a problem with the police over the pond, but it isn’t to such an extent that a Black man is nine times more likely to be killed than a white man like it is in the US. Of course, the police don’t have guns in the UK- which Thomas had difficulty believing (hilariously too), but that is a different debate.
As she later explained, this book hasn’t been written for us. In a way, THUG, from the way she spoke, felt like a reflection of her.
“It’s important to those kids who I was writing it for because they know that if you are in the precense of a police officer you don’t make a move because else and you’ll be the next hashtag. It’s important for me to bring that back home.”
Angie Thomas went to a predominantly white university but lived in a rough part of town. You can see where the inspiration for the split, binary personality of Starr has come from. But the shooting of Khalil also reflects the fact that while she was in university, a man called Oscar Grant was killed by the police. In her home she was told he had been ‘murdered’ but at university, they dehumanized him into ‘just a drug dealer’ or claimed that ‘he deserved it’, despite the fact that he was an unarmed man. Triggered to finish the project by the murder of Tamir Rice in 2014, THUG is a response to all of this ongoing violence.
And because The Hate U Give it is based on such a relevant and important issue, I could, therefore, get why she spelled it out that she didn’t write this for us. I understand why she, later on, told us how she found it more worthwhile to hear a Black girl tell her she saw herself in Angie Thomas’ debut rather than to keep her place at number one week on week on the NYT Children’s bestsellers list. I admire it all.
Addressing a later question, Angie Thomas also tells us about code-switching.
Code switching is when someone alternates between two different voices according to who they are talking to or where they were. Thomas used the example of her being very restrained and proper in talking at this event but saying whatever the hell she wanted to at home.
According to her, in America there is a stigma with using African-American phrases and a belief that to be successful as a Black person you needed to speak ‘normal’. Angie Thomas tries to tackle this in her novel and i’ts subtle enough that I have to admit I didn’t quite notice it was present until she pointed it out.
Carlos is Starr’s uncle and Maverick is her dad; they are both essentially the two father figures in her life. Carlos speaks ‘normal’. Maverick uses an African American vernacular. Carlos says ‘yes’. Maverick says ‘Ay’. But to Starr regardless of the way they speak they are both intelligent and thoughtful human beings. Just because her dad doesn’t speak like the woman on national news doesn’t make him any less viable as a person, it doesn’t make him any less intelligent than her uncle. And just because her uncle doesn’t use the vernacular doesn’t make him any less black.
As Khalil West goes on to point out, these contrasts are even more interesting when it comes to a response to Black activism. There is a range of answers to the subject in the book and though Angie Thomas may have come to her own clear conclusion by the end of it, she doesn’t outright dismiss any of them. It is nice that she doesn’t present the Black opinion on the subject as a monolith, that there is a range of views and that it is completely fine for Carlos and Maverick to believe in different things.
But one of my favorite things that Angie Thomas said that night was when she was talking about the different responses she imagined she’d get for THUG, one of those being ‘All Lives Matter’.
“If house is burning we don’t focus on the one that’s fine – we look at the problem not the peaceful.”
However, Thomas has no reason to fret. THUG has featured on the NYT Bestselling List thanks to a very huge hype (half marketing campaign, half spreading good things on the internet), the film rights for THUG have already been bought and a second novel is much anticipated.
Watch this space. One day Angie Thomas will be famous and I was once in the same room as her.
Thanks to Waterstones Deansgate for hosting the event