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Anissa Hidouk

Q&A: Angie Thomas On The Hate U Give, Black Lives Matter, And Writing An ‘Unapologetic Black Girl Book’

‘I want young people of color and LGBT teens to know that they are not alone. We are fighting for you and alongside you.’

Angie Thomas’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling debut, The Hate U Give, is a groundbreaking young-adult novel about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is living in two different worlds: her mostly black, poor neighborhood, and the mostly white upper-class private school that she attends. The balance between these two worlds is shattered after Starr witnesses the death of Khalil, her childhood best friend, at the hands of a cop. Khalil was unarmed — and Starr is the sole witness. In the aftermath, Starr must decide if and how she is going to speak up about Khalil’s death, knowing that doing so will change her life forever.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give is the kind of book that serves as an important reminder: We cannot become desensitized to the police brutality cases that take the lives of young black men and women, nor can we normalize them. No answers are offered in The Hate U Give — rather, the novel shines a light on the communities that are affected by police brutality with the empathy and dignity that this complex and difficult subject matter deserves.

Angie Thomas chatted with MTV News about The Hate U Give, her love for Tupac, the representation of black culture in literature, and how teenagers can begin to find their activism in today’s social climate.

MTV News: Why did you feel that you needed to tell this story? Did your background — like growing up in Mississippi — and your journey as a writer impact this experience at all?

Angie Thomas: It definitely did. When I first wrote [ The Hate U Give], I started it as a short story while I was a senior in college. At the time I was like Starr: I lived in a mostly black, poor neighborhood, but I was attending a mostly white private college here in Mississippi. Every day I would make this ten-minute drive from home to school, and in those ten minutes I went between two completely different worlds. It was during my junior year that Oscar Grant lost his life in Oakland, California, and I remember hearing two different conversations about Oscar. At home he was one of us. At school, I was hearing conversations that he deserved it. So, in my own anger and frustration, I worked on the short story that later became The Hate U Give.

You’ve referred to The Hate U Give as your “unapologetic black girl book.” Can you elaborate on what that means to you? What was it like to write this book as opposed to any other?

Thomas: When I wrote this, I didn't want to hold back. I wanted it to be Starr's full experience. I wanted to show this girl's anger, frustration, and her pain, because there's so many young people — especially young black people — who will identify with that. I wanted to make it as unapologetically black as possible because so often we see blackness in the media perceived in a negative light. I didn't want to do that, I wanted to fight against that. So I definitely wrote for all the black girls out there who want to see themselves in books unapologetically.

In The Hate U Give, Starr is balancing two worlds — Williamson Prep and Garden Heights. There are so many diverse intersections between people and communities, and the tension between both worlds is palpable throughout the entirety of the novel. Was it difficult to write this balance?

Thomas: It was difficult because I knew that as a writer I may be biased on some things and I didn't want my bias to show too much. With the balance between the two worlds, I knew I had to show them equally. I couldn't put more into one world than the other world — otherwise I'd be doing her entire world an injustice.

You’re a big Tupac fan — so much so that the title The Hate U Give comes from his THUG LIFE tattoo. How did his music influence your novel and your writing in a more general sense?

Thomas: Tupac has influenced me in a lot of ways. I can honestly say that I first got woke listening to Tupac. His music and his wisdom ... it's amazing to me that he was only 25 when he died, because the wisdom that man displayed was incredible. So many people know him for his THUG LIFE tattoo, but most people don't know that it was an acronym for " The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody." In a video explaining that, he said that what society feeds into you affects everyone. When I heard him say that in this interview, it stuck with me because I knew that was exactly what I was trying to do with the book and trying to show with the book.

So, yeah. His influence is throughout the book in so many different ways. His message is still relevant, unfortunately, in some ways. Twenty years later, we can still listen to a Tupac song and it's relevant to what's happening right now. That influences me and inspires me as an author, because I know I can listen to his music and in one album I can go from laughing to crying to thinking. That's exactly what I want to do as a writer. I want to make you cry, I want to make you laugh, I want to make you think. So he is definitely my biggest influence as a writer and as a storyteller.

While The Hate U Give is a work of fiction, it is inspired by the very real struggles that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you tell me a little bit about how Black Lives Matter influenced you and how it influences the book?

Thomas: The Black Lives Matter movement definitely influenced me, though I'm not associated with the organization. I don't think people realize that the organization and the movement are two different things. But I can honestly say that seeing the energy of the movement honestly just gave me the confidence to even write this book. Because this is something we've been seeing, unfortunately, in black America for a long time. It's only becoming a headline now because of cameras and social media, but these are things that were happening before. I was hearing about stuff like this since I was a kid, but nobody ever had proof of it happening. We didn't know how to fight it, we didn't know how to make our voices heard. We didn't know how to convince people that we were telling the truth. So now, seeing that the movement and the organization are both doing the work, for me as a writer, and for me as a black woman period, it does all the good in the world to me.

One of my favorite characters in the book, Uncle Carlos, is both a cop and close to the protagonist. Especially considering that BLM is often mischaracterized as anti-cop, how did you think about writing this character into the story?

Thomas: It was important for me to have Carlos in the book because I have law enforcement in my family. Great cops. As black cops, though, I've been told that there's a struggle for them. Inside the uniform, they're seen to some people as sellouts. Outside the uniform, they're suspects. So for Carlos, it was important for me to have that character because I wanted to show a black cop and his struggles in a personal sense with this. I wanted to have a cop who actually holds someone accountable for something. I hope that if this book ends up in some officers' hands somehow, I hope that it even encourages them to speak out — because that's what we need. We need more accountability, and we need officers to hold each other accountable. I think that would build a whole lot more trust.

I think that we’re seeing a shift in YA literature away from dystopian politics and toward tackling current issues. “Activist” heroines in these stories are often “normal” girls as opposed to, say, Katniss Everdeen. Why do you think this is?

Thomas: I think it's happening now in books because it's happening now in reality. We're seeing so many people, especially young girls, take up activism. We're seeing them speak out, using social media. We're seeing them organize book drives, protests, and rallies. We're seeing them find their voices and find their activism and find their strength. I think as writers we would be doing them an injustice if we didn't give them that mirror to see themselves.

So was writing YA a conscious decision for you?

Thomas: Yeah. Honestly, I can't see myself writing for adults. And that's not anything against adult literature, I just can't see myself doing it. I always knew Starr would be 16 and I wanted it to be a YA novel because in so many of these cases we're looking at young adults losing their lives. I also knew that with a story and subject like this, I might have a better chance of reaching an adult’s heart by using a 16-year-old because Starr still had her innocence.

In the book, Starr participates in the Black Lives Matter social media culture, but she’s also more than just a hashtag activist. She practices activism in her daily life. Even before she speaks up for Khalil, she stands up to casual racism and microaggressions. What would you say to teenagers who are beginning to find their activism? Do you have any tips on where to start?

Thomas: Know that your voice does matter. Sometimes it can feel like it doesn't, but know that it matters. I would also say that remember there are different ways to be an activist and there are different forms of activism. Art is activism. Writing is activism. You just have to find your activism and don't let anyone tell you what that should look like. If you're doing the work and you're getting someone to think, you're on the right path. Also, I would definitely let teenagers know — particularly young people of color and LGBT teens — I want them to know that they are not alone. In the YA community, we are fighting for you and alongside you. When you make your voice heard, we're gonna be even louder on your behalf. That’s definitely what I would like for teenagers to know. We've got you. We got you. I promise we do.

What would you say to teens who are frustrated, angry, and afraid of our current tense political climate — especially young people who feel targeted by Trump’s blatant racism and hostility toward the black, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities?

Thomas: I would definitely echo that they are not alone, and like I said, we're fighting alongside them. We're resisting alongside them. And also know that we understand. I understand that for so many young people right now in America it's a scary time, and rightfully so. But I would also like them to remember that empathy is more powerful than sympathy. We're seeing so many different marginalized people who are being threatened by our current political climate. I think that the more of us who take the time to understand how someone else is feeling, the more likely we are to resist alongside them.

In terms of response, there’s been a lot of hype leading up to The Hate U Give, from the pub date getting pushed forward due to mass preorders, to John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) tweeting praise. As of now, The Hate U Give has eight starred trade reviews. How do you hope people react beyond praising the book itself?

Thomas: I really do hope that it helps people understand that empathy is stronger than sympathy, and I hope it gets some empathy out of people. I hope it helps people understand why we say "black lives matter." And I hope that all of these young black girls who are excited just because they saw themselves on the cover see themselves in the pages. I hope that it even helps with the push for diversity in young-adult books. I hope it helps push toward having more black girls in their own stories and not just as sassy sidekicks. So yeah, I've got a lot of hopes and dreams.

And the film rights have already been sold to Fox 2000! Can you tell me anything about where the film is at?

Thomas: The script is in development. Audrey Wells is penning it and we have the direction of the incredible Mr. George Tillman Jr. I get emails from George about stuff from the script and it is incredible. I'm definitely involved in the process, even with just some of the smaller things. It’s definitely going well, and hopefully we’ll have some more news soon!

So, is tackling current issues something that we should continue to expect from you in future works?

Thomas: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Book two is set in the same neighborhood as The Hate U Give and also in our current political climate. It’s also more of a hip-hop book — I call it my Ode to Hip-Hop. Chuck D of Public Enemy once said, “Hip-hop is urban America’s CNN.” I’m definitely putting that quote to use in the second book.