When Angie Thomas, author of the top-selling YA novel in the country, The Hate U Give, held court at the Books of Wonder bookstore in Manhattan last week, she was greeted by the standing-room-only crowd with the kind of applause and cheering that you'd expect for a pop star.
That's because her novel has struck a chord with readers across the country. Inspired by Tupac interviews and the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give follows 16-year-old Starr Carter, who witnesses her best friend, Khalil, get shot and killed by a police officer.
I spoke to Thomas before the reading to discuss the making of the novel and the role Black Lives Matter played in inspiring her both on and off the page.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There's a scene after Khalil dies which was so gut-wrenching I had to stop reading it on the train. Which passage in the book was hardest for you to write?
The shooting itself. I cried a couple times when I wrote it. Khalil felt real for so long. And I knew early on I was cutting his life short. And it hit me that that's exactly what's happening when we see young men and young women lose their lives. I don't read it still.
Why was it so important to tell this story from a teenager's point of view?
So often the victims are teenagers. Trayvon Martin was 17. Michael Brown was, I think, 19. Tamir Rice was 12. Young people are affected by that. And it's not just those cases where people lose their lives. For instance, Texas, where the young girl's mother was being arrested by the cop and then the cop threw the girl on the ground. She was a teenager. The young girl who was in her classroom and then the police officer threw her onto the ground because she didn't get up from the desk, that was in a high school happening to a teenager. They see themselves in that. I want to give them some other way to see themselves.
But [I also knew] that this would probably end up in some adult's hands, and they may not understand why we say Black Lives Matter. I felt like if I wrote it from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl, who still had her innocence, they would be more likely to listen to her than they would, say, a 30-year old. Because it's easier to listen to a child sometimes. It's easier to listen to a teenager and get their perspective and get their pain and their hurt and their frustration. That's how we sometimes get empathy.
Do you feel conflicted about that at all?
I definitely do. It sometimes feels like, why should I make this easier for anybody? Why should I use this 16-year-old girl and her innocence? What if she didn't have any innocence at all?
You first started writing this story after the Oscar Grant shooting. You've mentioned that the conversations you heard at your mostly-white school were completely different from the conversations in your neighborhood, which was black.
I remember hearing one guy joke, "well, [Grant] was a drug dealer, it was bound to happen eventually." Or hearing someone say, "well maybe he did something wrong." At some point, you wonder when is someone just going to believe us and accept that this was wrong.
How did you respond to those comments?
When I was in college, I kept my thoughts to myself. Now, I may debate you. But back then I wasn't sure if I should speak up. Or if it was worth speaking up.
I was in mostly white spaces and I sometimes doubted that what I had to say had any value. I was very conscious of it. I never wanted for anyone to look at me as the angry black woman, so I would keep to myself. But now, if anyone tries to justify something like that to me, I always argue against it now. I realized that my voice matters.
What brought that realization?
It was actually towards the end of my college experience [in a creative writing program at Belhaven University in Mississippi]. I had a professor who pulled me aside. We were talking about writing and he was asking me—because I had writer's block—“Why don't you write stories about things you see in your community?” And I said, "I don't think anybody cares." And he told me, "I care." He said that there are stories and voices in your community that have been silenced, and you can give them a voice.
And then it was, honestly, seeing the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement. People finding their voices—that gave me my voice.
Did it matter that there were so many black women leading that movement?
Oh, absolutely. Knowing the Black Lives Matter organization was formed by black women, and seeing organizations like Assata's Daughters in Chicago. Even seeing Beyoncé find her voice through her music. Seeing other black women get that courage. And not just the courage but supporting each other while they're doing it.
Did some of your reluctance writing stories about your community come from reservations about your creative writing program—considering those spaces tend to be very white spaces?
I think I was the first black student to graduate from my creative writing program. Being in the workshops with the other students and being fearful that if I present this story about the hood all of a sudden, that's all they will see me as. Or if I gave them all these black characters, they wouldn't "connect" with it. That word gets thrown around a lot in workshops. [I was] fearful that someone would say "well I just didn't connect with the voice," or "I didn't connect with this story."
It was in my senior year, I decided, you know what, I don't care what anybody in this workshop says.
What were you writing before then?
I wrote a lot of fantasy novels. I wrote white characters. Because I thought that's what was acceptable in publishing. I thought that was my way in. But eventually, I decided I just had to write for myself. I wanted to write for those kids I saw every single day because if I knew that I wasn't seeing myself in books, they weren't seeing themselves in books.
Doubt is part of the creative process. What doubts did you confront while you writing this book?
I was definitely afraid that it was too black. I'm going to be perfectly honest. I was seeing agents and publishers call for diversity. But you always wonder, OK, how diverse do they want it? Do they want an unapologetically black book?
Five years ago, six years ago, I don't know that my book would have debuted at number one on the NYT Bestseller list, because it is so black. I know now that there are changes and that there is an avenue for voices like mine. I definitely struggled with that doubt but I'm glad that I didn't let it stop me.