Writer Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in a neighborhood plagued by drug dealing and gun violence. While earning her BFA in creative writing at Belhaven University, a predominantly white institution in Jackson, she initially stuck to writing fantasy because she believed her white classmates wouldn’t care about stories about her community. After a white professor suggested she give her community’s stories visibility through her work, Thomas began writing short stories that reflected her life and her concerns.
Then in 2009, during Thomas’s senior year, Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in California. Thomas was angered by the killing as well as by the way her classmates essentially put Grant on trial for his own death—talking about his past, speculating about what he might’ve done wrong. It all reminded Thomas of young men she’d grown up with and how they were viewed as criminals by the mainstream. Inspired by the Grant case, she wrote a short story called, “The Hate U Give.”
In the years after graduation, the story weighed on Thomas emotionally, so she set it aside. But then Trayvon Martin was killed. And then Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. In the wake of these high-profile killings and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas revisited “The Hate U Give” and expanded it into a novel of the same name.
In 2016, Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, was acquired by Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins after a thirteen-publishing house auction. Film rights were optioned by Fox 2000 with Amandla Stenberg (Hunger Games) attached to star. Last month, The Hate U Give topped the New York Times’s YA bestseller list a week after its release.
In The Hate U Give, sixteen-year-old Starr struggles to navigate the differences between the poor neighborhood where she lives and the suburban prep school she attends. When Starr witnesses a cop shoot her unarmed childhood best friend, Khalil, this balancing act becomes even more difficult. Thomas was moved to place a black girl at the center of her novel after Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel faced harsh criticism about how she presented herself on the witness stand during George Zimmerman’s murder trial.
Thomas talked with us about landing an agent on Twitter, why she trusts teenagers more than the publishing industry, and why a diverse representation of authors, as well as characters, matters.
The Rumpus: So a lot has happened since the last time we spoke. Like The Hate U Give topping the New York Times bestseller list. Tell me how you found out.
Angie Thomas: We knew the list was coming out that day. And we knew there was a strong possibility that [The Hate U Give] would be on there. But you just never know. My agent and I were calling each other, texting each other, “Hey, have you seen anything?” And then he texted me around four, and he tortured me, texting one word at a time! The—Hate—U—Give—is—number—one! And I just hit the floor. I cried. Because for me being the black girl from the ‘hood in Mississippi, hitting number one on the New York Times bestseller list is—one of those things that seemed beyond my reach.
And knowing that I did it—it was one of the best moments of my entire life. And I thought about all those kids in my neighborhood who’ve been told that they can’t do certain things because of their circumstances, knowing that I was just like them at one point. And now I’m on the New York Times bestseller list. It just goes to show that really anything is possible.
Rumpus: So The Hate U Give started as a short story you when you were in college. After that, you wrote a different novel and queried agents, then went back and wrote The Hate U Give as a novel. Had you published prior to that?
Thomas: In college, my short stories were published in the literary journal of the school. So The Hate U Give is really the first thing I’ve had that’s been for sale.
Rumpus: Wow. You’re giving new writers all kinds of hope! That’s wonderful.
Thomas: Thank you. You know, a lot of writers, more established writers, can get into the mindset of, “What’s going to be my breakout story?” Or, “What’s going to win the awards?” Or, “What’s hot right now?”
But with my earlier book, I got rejected so much—sixty times—that I had to say, “Let me put it aside and work on something else.” And I knew that with The Hate U Give, I couldn’t hold back and that was scary because in young adult literature at the time, the reading diversity movement was just starting up. As a black woman, when I’m hearing them say, “We need diverse books,” and people are saying, “We want diverse books,” in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Well, how much diversity can you handle? Can I be unapologetically black? Is that going to be too much? Do you want the whitewashed version of diversity? Or do you want the real deal unapologetically black diversity?”
So, it was coming to the conclusion that I’m going to write it the way I want to write it. I’m not here to make anybody comfortable. I’m here to write the book I want to write and a book I felt like I needed to write. That was the best thing I could have done for myself as a writer, for sure.”
Rumpus: But after you finished The Hate U Give, you were afraid to send it out to agents. Why?
Thomas: Because I knew when you say “Black Lives Matter” to three different people, you’re going to get three different reactions. And as I mentioned, We Need Diverse Books had recently started, and they were doing amazing work ushering diversity into young adult and children’s literature. But again, as a person of color, you always wonder, “How diverse is too diverse? ”
So when my now-agent was participating in a Twitter Q&A for aspiring authors, I was hesitant to say anything. But then I just took a chance and asked him if the topic of Black Lives Matter was appropriate for a young adult book. And my agent, a thirty-something-year-old white Jewish guy from the suburbs of Massachusetts [laughs] responded and said that not only was it appropriate, but that no topic should be off limits for YA books. And he also asked to see part of the manuscript. After he read that, he asked to read the whole manuscript. Then about a month or so later, he offered to sign me as a client. He loved it. He told me that he’d been wanting something that touched on Black Lives Matter, but he didn’t want an Afterschool Special or anything that was preachy. He wanted something authentic, and he saw that in my book.
Rumpus: In 2015, you were an inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Myers Grant, awarded by We Need Diverse Books. This interview column was inspired in part by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the overwhelming whiteness of publishing. Since that campaign began, I’ve seen more YA books centering young people of color, but they’re not always written by people of color. I looked up the stats. Of the approximately 3,400 books documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2016, only two percent contained “significant African or African American content” and were written “by Black authors and/or illustrators.”
Thomas: And We Need Diverse Books released a study that found that seven and a half percent of all children’s books published in 2015 featured black characters as the main character. And that number is even lower for Asians, lower for Latinos, and lower for Native Americans. But twenty-five percent of books published that year featured animals or trucks as the main character. You mean to tell me there are more book about trucks than there are about black kids? And as you said, the number of the books with black main characters by black authors is even lower. So I was going into a space that for the most part has said stories by people like me about people like me don’t sell. That was terrifying. That was intimidating.
Our black kid books get pushed into the “adult urban” section for some reason.
Rumpus: Because our kids are not viewed as children.
Thomas: Exactly. They always view our children as older than they are, and they don’t market to them enough.
But I’ve been pleasantly surprised because teenagers have more empathy than adults. And they’re more open-minded than adults. I hear from black girls who thank me because they see themselves on my book cover. I hear from white girls in rural Texas saying, “Thank you so much for this book. It’s opened my eyes. And I love [the character] DeVante!” [Laughs] I’ve had so many girls tell me they love this boy!
And it goes to show me that instead of putting so much faith in publishing and how the publishing industry was going to react to the book, I should’ve put a little more faith in teenagers. Because they’re the consumers. They’re the ones buying this book and sharing it with their friends and falling in love with the characters. They’re the ones posting about the book on Tumblr and sending me fan art. I’m in awe. Although my publishing journey has been great so far, and I’ve had a great team behind me, I’m going to continue to put my faith in those kids.
I had an event in New York the other day, and there were over 150 people there, all ages, all races, and they all loved my book. It gives me hope, especially in this current political climate. And yesterday, I was in a small town, Maplewood, New Jersey. I was in conversation with a professor from Harvard. It was an older crowd, middle age and up, and the majority of them were white, and they loved my book! And what I’m learning—and I’m thankful to be in this position—is that words have power and that empathy still exists.
I’m also encouraged by #ownvoices in the YA community, started by author Corinne Duyvis to promote books by marginalized authors featuring marginalized characters. The authors share the same marginalization as their characters. And there’s a big push now for #ownvoices. Matter of fact, there are rumors that some editors will not accept diverse books unless the characters are from the same marginalized group as the author. Because we see too many problematic representations, unfortunately, when people write outside of their marginalization.
And this is not to say that a white author could not write about a black girl, but I feel like I’m going to get a more authentic portrayal from a black woman [author]. So I think it’s important, and not just because of authenticity. I’ll give you a personal story. The other day at my book launch, a middle school teacher brought forty of her students, all black kids. And this was their first time seeing an author. And all of them want to write, and they told me, “I did not know that I could be a writer until I met you. Because you look just like me.” That’s why it’s important.
Like I said, I’m in no way saying that people shouldn’t write outside of their experience, but I feel like when we do get authors who look like the characters, or who share the marginalization of their characters, we get a more authentic experience, and we give kids a better mirror. And we give kids a better window [to the world].
It is definitely something that we’re seeing a push towards now in publishing. So much so that there are white authors who do not like it. Oh yeah, we’ve had some drama. We’ve had some issues. But [we have to] remember who we’re writing for and why we’re writing for them, and realize that it goes beyond just the books. Sometimes it’s just them seeing themselves in the person who wrote the book. The more we focus on that, the more we will read books by people of color featuring characters of color. I have hope. I really do. We really are pushing for it.
Rumpus: Have you always had a YA focus in your writing?
Thomas: I did middle grade, and I’m probably going to go back to middle grade at some point, but The Hate U Give was always YA for me. I don’t see myself ever writing for adults, but that could change. That’s not to throw shade on that category or anything like that. But I feel like with teenagers, I get a little more wriggle room. They’re more open. I have a better chance of getting a white kid to read my book than I may have with a white adult who’s already set in their ways. That age range especially—it’s important to give them books where they see themselves and books where they see other people’s lives because it helps promote empathy. Empathy is stronger than sympathy.
But also, I know that there are so many adults who read YA. I read YA myself. Especially with a subject like The Hate U Give, I felt like if it came from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl who still has her innocence, I may have more people who are willing to listen than they would to maybe a thirty-year-old woman.
Also, because so many of these cases [involve] young people losing their lives, young people are being affected by it when they see it on the news. So, I’m going to give them something. I wanted to make this for them and nobody else. And I’m glad that older people are picking it up, and it’s getting reactions, and getting people thinking, but I really wrote it for those kids.
I’m from a neighborhood known for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. And so often I was afraid that people would define me because of where I’m from. And I hope that young black women in ‘hoods around this country realize that where you’re from, your circumstances, or what’s in your bank account, doesn’t define you. Even beyond writing, it doesn’t define you. Be your unapologetic self. Don’t hold back, because you don’t have to. If you’re told, “Your book’s not marketable,” then that’s not the opportunity for you. There’s somebody out there who needs those words, who needs your book. But write it for yourself, first and foremost.
The best way that we can communicate is through stories. People don’t want to be lectured. And we’re all kind of entrenched in our positions, but a good story really can impact change. [People are saying to me,] “Okay, I understand a little bit more why people say ‘Black Lives Matter.’” I didn’t set out to do that, though.
Rumpus: Who are your writing heroes?
Thomas: Toni Morrison, for sure. Jacqueline Woodson is my hero. I met her a few months ago at the Mississippi Book Festival, and I forgot how to speak. [Laughs] My favorite book of all time is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. And when I found out that not only was it about a black girl, but the author herself is a black woman, Mildred D. Taylor, I was in love!
Christopher Paul Curtis. Walter Dean Myers. Jason Reynolds. Dr. Maya Angelou. And I was a big Harry Potter fan growing up. J.K. Rowling gave me a window that I wanted to keep open for life, and I’m sad I never got a letter back. I also love Octavia Butler, Richard Wright, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Rumpus: How did you start writing? What was it that made you say, ‘This is what I want to do.”
Thomas: I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember. I was telling stories when I was six years old. My mom would read me a book, and afterwards I would tell my own version of it, like fan fiction. And when I was in third grade, I had a teacher who noticed that between classwork, if I finished my stuff early, I would sit there and doodle, or write stuff in my little notebook. And one day she glanced at it and realized I was writing a story. She told me, “If you want to do this, I’ll let you read to the class every Friday.” So every week, I’d work on a story from Monday through Thursday, looking forward to be able to tell it to everybody. I thought I was the S-H-I-T! [Laughs]
I knew there were black authors out there, but the unfortunate thing was that I’d never met an author. And here I was, a black girl in the ‘hood, in Mississippi. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be an author. If I had been like those kids at my book launch the other day, and I met somebody who looked like me, who was doing what I wanted to do, I probably would have realized [that I wanted to be a writer] sooner than I did. Because it took me until college to realize that it was something I could actually do. I’d been telling stories, even writing fan fiction, for years. But until you actually see that somebody’s doing it, and they show you how it’s achievable, sometimes you don’t think it is. Especially being in Mississippi with all those counter-messages, telling you to the contrary. So many of the authors who are upheld highly in Mississippi are white. You have William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. I don’t look like either one of them. It took a while, but I’m glad that I eventually got there. And I’m hoping that I will inspire those little black kids who tell stories and who don’t know what to do with them. I hope I inspire them to actually become writers.
I’m in Texas right now at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, and one teacher, an older white lady, came up to me, and said, “I teach mostly black students, and this week I put up, in the hallway, pictures of all the authors who are here at the festival this weekend, so they could see. And a bunch of my students saw your picture and they came to me and they were like, ‘You know there’s a black woman up here on the wall?’” She said, “Yeah, that’s an author.” And they were like, “No way!”
So, the more visible we can be, the better.
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Author Photograph © Anissa Hidouk.