Deftly incorporating themes of racism and injustice into an absorbing and beautifully crafted narrative, Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give (HaperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb. 28, 2017), is a potent and thought-provoking new work. When a white policeman kills Starr’s friend Khalil, later claiming that he believed that his life was in danger from the black teen, Starr is devastated. Torn between two worlds—her low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and the white prep school she attends—Starr is anguished by the loss of her friend and her realization of the destructive impact of racism but also eventually galvanized to act. Thomas caught up with SLJ, discussing ways in which her personal life influenced the book, intersectionality, and the power of YA literature to effect social change.
This is a very timely and relevant title. What led you to write it?
I first wrote The Hate U Give as a short story back in 2010 or 2011, after the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA. I was a senior in college, and like Starr, I was living in two different worlds— my neighborhood, which most people called “the hood,” and my upper-class, mostly white college. [Inhabiting] these two different worlds, I heard two very different takes on the case. At my school, he was seen as a thug who deserved what he got, but in my community he was one of our own. My anger, fear, and frustration led me to write the story. I put it aside after graduation, but as more of these cases continued to happen, I found myself angry, afraid, and frustrated again. So I did the only thing I knew how to do—I wrote.
One of the most effective parts of the book is the way you communicate the power of microaggressions, or seemingly small but harmful comments that convey a sense of hostility.
Microaggressions have always been interesting to me—some people are more afraid of being called a racist than of being racist. When microaggressions are called out, they force us to face our internalized prejudice and biases. It’s a hard lesson, and it’s even harder when we realize that small comments can be hurtful. But when we do check ourselves and stop downplaying the pain of others, we become more empathetic. That’s something Starr learns over the course of the book.
Starr’s voice is so authentic. Did you draw on your own experiences at all when writing the book?
I definitely drew on some of my own experiences while writing Starr. I grew up in a neighborhood just like hers—it’s known for all of the wrong reasons, but for me it’s still home. I never witnessed the shooting death of a friend, but I’ve witnessed shootings, and I had childhood friends who lost their lives to gun violence. I also found myself straddling two worlds in college—every day, I traveled from my neighborhood to a mostly white, upper-class college, and every day I had to figure out who I was, where I was. That struggle was my reality, and sometimes it still is. On a lighter note, Starr and I both love sneakers and The Fresh Prince.
Your book’s title is a reference to Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life.” How did you come to name the book?
Tupac has always been a huge influence in my life. I often say that I first became “woke” by listening to Tupac. I’ve always loved how he could take something and give it a deeper meaning. “Thug Life” is a prime example of that. While people know it as the tattoo he had across his abdomen, some people don’t know that he defined it as “The hate u give little infants fucks everybody.” He explained that by saying that the negativity society feeds into youth has a tendency of coming back and affecting us all. That’s exactly what happens in the book—the death of Starr’s friend affects her entire community.
Starr exists in two worlds: her mostly white prep school and her low-income neighborhood, which is predominantly black. How did you come to develop these two settings?
Starr’s neighborhood is somewhat based on my own—in fact, some of the characters were inspired by people I know. When I first wrote the book, I made a conscious decision to show the good in a community like that: the good that I saw in my own neighborhood growing up. Yes, there was crime and poverty, but there was also hope and love. I was homeschooled in high school, so I can’t say that Starr’s school is based on mine, but I used some of my college experiences as well as experiences of friends to create that world.
Your protagonist is understandably very conflicted: about testifying before a grand jury, about speaking of Khalil to her white friends, and about doing anything that could put her family in danger. Did that make writing from her perspective difficult?
It wasn’t difficult so much as it was eye-opening. In each of those situations, I had to think about how 16-year-old Angie would’ve felt. It’s easy to say that I wouldn’t have been conflicted, but the truth is I would’ve been. Even now as an adult I would be. But it all tied into one of my purposes for writing the book—so often, cases like this are presented as political, not personal, and I wanted this book to be as personal as possible. Starr’s conflict made it even more personal.
The world of children’s and YA literature can be a powerful one when it comes to social change. What effect would you like to see your novel have? And where else would you like to see the world of YA lit go in terms of social change?
Even with the incredible work that We Need Diverse Books is doing, there is still a lack of books featuring protagonists of color and books that are written by authors of color. I hope that my book can help change that. I also hope it helps more authors of color write the books that they’re afraid to write—the ones that sometimes make people uncomfortable but present truths regardless. YA does a great job already by giving us stories that challenge us, and I’d like to see more of them from marginalized perspectives.
What makes your novel so powerful is that you show how sweeping themes such as institutional racism can be so deeply personal. Starr is afraid to tell her father about her relationship with a boy who is white, and her father wants to move his family away to a safer area but also wishes to remain loyal to his neighborhood. Was it challenging to weave in these themes without losing sight of the narrative?
It was challenging, for sure, but the more I saw them as just things these characters were dealing with, the less challenging it became. It was part of their lives, part of their struggles, and part of their growth. I didn’t want it to be an issue book, so I tried my best not to approach those kinds of things as “issues” but as aspects of [the characters’] lives.
Starr’s friend Hailey, who is white, exhibits racism yet is deeply concerned about women’s rights—much like many white feminists. Can you talk a little about this character?
Hailey is definitely a reflection of what I’ve seen with some white feminists. There’s often a lack of intersectionality when it comes to feminism. Personally, I’ve had a hard time calling myself a feminist because of that lack of intersectionality. Hailey feels that because she is so outspoken about women’s rights, that should be enough—it should make up for any microaggressions she may use toward Starr or their friend Maya. But Hailey is also a reflection of a lot of us. We sometimes get so caught up in fighting for things that pertain to us that we ignore the suffering and pain of others, even when we cause it.
Do you have any other novels planned for the future?
Yes! I’m currently working on my second book. Although it is not a sequel to The Hate U Give, it is set in the same neighborhood and takes place right after it. The main character briefly appears in The Hate U Give. There’s also a minor character from The Hate U Give who has a more prominent role in this book.
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