Since its February 28 release, Angie Thomas’s debut, The Hate U Give, has risen to the top of the young adult New York Times Best Sellers list and is already being adapted into a movie starring The Hunger Games‘ Amandla Stenberg. The YA novel tells the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter, who is the only witness to a police shooting that kills her unarmed friend. In the aftermath, Starr gets caught up between the media and the protestors, and ultimately, her voice could decide the future of the community. The Mississippi author will read from the book at Charis on Sunday, March 19. She spoke to us about the Black Lives Matter movement, why representation matters, and her next book.
What made you decide to tackle Black Lives Matter as a YA topic?
In so many of these cases when unarmed black men lose lives, they’re young: Trayvon Martin was 17. Tamir Rice was 12. I wanted to give these kids a mirror of their experience, and for the teens who didn’t relate to this, I wanted to give them a window into that experience. It’s from the perspective of a girl because girls are just as affected by shootings as men. We see organizations that target young black men to give them direction in life, but so often black girls are missed. I wanted to represent them.
Was it ever hard to write about such a difficult topic?
I first wrote it as a short story as part of my senior project in college after the shooting death of Oscar Grant. I kept hearing two different conversations about Oscar. At home, he was one of us; we knew Oscar. At school, I kept overhearing conversations that he deserved it. I was angry. I was hurt. I was frustrated. The only thing I knew how to do was write. I got an A on the project but put the short story aside because it was so hard to write when I did. Then Trayvon, Tamir, and Sandra Bland happened, and I had to get back to it. When I was working on the last of of my edits, I was trying to figure how to end it. Then Alton Sterling and Philando Castille happened. I didn’t know how my words could affect change. In those moments, it felt hopeless, but I needed to find some hope. I tried to write an end to give myself, and anyone who picked the book up, hope.
Did you want Starr’s activism to be inspirational?
I wish when I was 15 that I realized my voice was important and that even my thoughts and my opinions had value. Had I known, I probably would’ve spoken up more. I probably would’ve found my activism sooner and become a writer sooner. So many young people are finding their voices and [becoming activists], but so often do we down play things teenagers say or do. If we can build empathy in them now by giving them these windows and mirrors into experiences, we have a better chance of having change take place in this country when they’re finally in power.
Starr has a really strong narrative perspective, and the dialogue really pops off the page. How did you develop that voice?
I listen a lot. Hip-hop did help me a lot. Rappers rap in the way young people speak these days. And I’m from Mississippi, where there’s this stereotype that everybody sounds backwoods. But even in Mississippi, there are different ways of speaking. I wanted to have a book that showed there’s no one way to sound black. I wanted to tell teens that the way you speak is okay; you’re good the way you are.
Starr commutes between her all-black neighborhood and her white high school. Was this based on personal experience?
When I was in college, I lived in a mostly black, poor neighborhood. That’s where I grew up, but I attended a mostly white upper-class school in conservative Mississippi. I was often very aware of how I presented myself. I never wanted to be boxed in as being black girl from the ’hood. I would leave home blasting 2Pac loudly, but by the time I picked up my college friends, I was playing the Jonas Brothers. It was a conscious decision I made because I never wanted them to stereotype me. I didn’t want anyone to say I got in to the school because of affirmative action. At the time, I was the only black student in my creative writing program, and that often felt like a burden on my shoulders.
Do you plan to keep writing in Mississippi?
For now, yes. At my book launch here, a local middle school teacher brought 20 or 30 students, all black and from a school not in the best part of town. They were all writers, and this was their first time meeting an author. A lot of them told me, “I didn’t realize writing was something I could do, but you look like us and are a writer.” If I can inspire kids who look like me to write, that’s going to keep me here.
What has the success of the book been like?
The moment we found out it hit number one [on the YA New York Times Best Seller list], I hit the floor crying. I am still in awe anyone wants to make a movie about my book. I know I’m living a dream, and I’m very grateful. I don’t take this lightly at all. Teenagers email me or come up to me at readings thanking me for writing it, and it’s not just black teenagers who thank me for it. White teens say it opened their eyes and is building empathy in them. Empathy is stronger than sympathy because it’s changing their views, their minds, and their hearts. Black girls are ecstatic just to see a book cover with a black girl on it. They say to me, “I I see so much of myself in Starr. You got my life on the page.” The messages like that keep me going.
What are you working on next?
It’s not a sequel, but it’s a spin-off set in the same neighborhood. It’s an ode to hip-hop. I don’t think we give hip-hop enough credit for giving black kids representation that sometimes even books fail to give.
What’s your writing playlist?
I had a playlist of about 300 songs on Spotify when I was writing. A lot of hip-hop and R&B, of course: 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, TLC, NWA, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill.