'The Hate U Give' Author Angie Thomas On YA Fiction, Being Black In America And More

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Author Angie Thomas talks with WBUR's Robin Young at the First Parish Church in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Author Angie Thomas talks with WBUR's Robin Young at the First Parish Church in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Author Angie Thomas (@angiecthomas) has received critical acclaim for her debut novel, "The Hate U Give." The story follows 16-year-old Starr Carter as she navigates two worlds: the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and her upscale suburban prep school. The plot is inspired by the real-life police shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, in California.

"I was inspired because I was in college when that happened, and I was being those two different people in those two different worlds, like Starr," Thomas says of her own experience. "I was angry. I was frustrated. I was hurt. So it was actually the frustration and the anger and the pain that led me to write the short story that later became 'The Hate U Give.' "

A feature film based on the book is in production.

Interview Highlights

On Starr's code switching, and navigating different worlds

"I think, to an extent, for a lot of us African-Americans, code switching is often — it feels like a survival tactic. If I came up here and I was speaking a certain way, you may assume that I'm ignorant just because of that. I'm code switching right now. But Starr's story and living in those two different worlds is definitely something that I connected with because I went to a mostly white, upper-class private Christian college in conservative Mississippi while living in the 'hood. What I say about my classmates — you may be this person, and if it is, I'm not shading you. I'm just saying this is who they were. They are those Christians who say, 'I love Jesus,' but I don't want anyone to have any rights.

"So I had to be two different people in two very different worlds. I often tell people I would leave my house playing Tupac, and by the time I got to my school I was playing the Jonas Brothers. Do not judge me. I had to figure out who I was, where I was. At least I thought I did. Eventually I got to the point where I said, 'You know what? If people can't accept me as I am, I don't need them in my life.' "

On her experience as a teenager and at school

"I remember, as a teenager, feeling like I was trapped a lot. Wondering, 'OK, when is something going to happen to change my life? Or when will I get out of this circumstance? Or when will people stop seeing me just as the person who came from a neighborhood like this?' And I think we have to start looking at young people and stop putting them in boxes. Yes, that young man may be walking down the street with his pants sagging, but that does not mean he wants your purse he just needs a belt. So that's it.

"There were things that I went through while I was in college that I would not share with my classmates because I was afraid that they would see me as, 'Oh, that's the poor black girl from the 'hood.' While I was in college, my mom lost her job, which was devastating for my family. That was my big tragedy. And — plug — that's actually a basis for my second book, but we won't get into that right now. Anyway, I think in Starr's case, she's afraid, too, 'If I expose this part of myself, all of a sudden they're going to look at me in a different light. And all of this work that I've put in to show them this Starr will be for nothing.' And I think young people have to get to the point where you realize, if there's a friend in your life and you have to question whether you can trust them with the hardest things a part of you, maybe that's not your friend."

On giving Starr a white boyfriend

"Oh, that's a good question. And, you know, I get asked that question a lot, and it usually comes from older black women. With the character of Chris, I wanted to show what a real ally looks like, and Chris learns to do something that is so important for an ally to do — that's listen."

On her reaction to the shooting and killing of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART Station

"I'm hearing two very different conversations about it. In my neighborhood: 'He was one of us. Oscar was an ex-con, but he was turning his life around. I knew guys just like him.' But in my school: 'Well, maybe he deserved it. He was a "Mexi-con." Why are people so upset? He should have just done what they say.'

"I was angry. I was frustrated. I was hurt. So it was actually the frustration and anger and the pain that led me to write the short story that later became 'The Hate U Give.' I really wanted people to look at young black men in a different light. And that one word, 'thug,' because so many people look at the book title — it spells out the word 'thug.' That word is so often used to describe young black men. And I want people to look at that word in a different way. That came from Tupac Shakur and his 'thug life' tattoo. It stood for, 'The hate you give little infants f---- everybody.' He explained that as meaning that what society feeds into you has a way of affecting us all. So that's a message I wanted to get across. And I wanted to tell young people that your voice matters."

On reading and Y.A. literature

"As a teenager I hated reading, and if I were to tell teenage Angie that, 'Surprise, you became an author not a rapper.' She'd be like, 'No, that's impossible.' What I love about being able to write books is that I get to say more than I ever could in 16 bars in a song. When I was a teen, the two big books — I hate to say it because they're always go-to Y.A. books — you know what they are. Say them with me: 'Twilight,' and what else, 'The Hunger Games.' But I connected with neither. I remember as a teenager I'd go in the bookstore, in the library,  and I'm looking at the books and it's always another white girl in distress. I'm like, 'How many problems do you have?' I have stuff that I'm going through. Where are the books for me, you know? So yes, I'm very surprised that I was able to write a book about a black girl who loved sneakers, a book that's based on something that Tupac Shakur said, and it's now becoming this big Y.A. book and there are no vampires involved."

This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.

This segment aired on February 26, 2018.



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