"For Us, By Us" – A conversation with New York Times Bestselling author Angie Thomas
Words: Arjun Chadha
Images: Imani Khayyam & Valerie Schmidt
Published: November 2019, Get Familiar Magazine 01---
Despite a growing consensus that print is dead and that millennials only care for digital content, Jackson-born, bestselling young adult author, Angie Thomas, is proof of the opposite. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give (2018), a title inspired by Tupac Shakur’s THUG LIFE acronym, tells the story of a black teenage girl, Starr, who’s triggered into activism after witnessing the police murder of her friend. The commercial success of the novel resulted into a film-adaptation of the story, sharing the same title and acclaim. Her most recent novel, On The Come Up (2019), follows the account of Bri, another black teenage girl, with ambitions to become the greatest rapper. Both novels are set in the same deprived and largely black neighborhood, Garden Heights. Calling for equality in modern-America and diversity in literature, Angie Thomas sends her readers on a journey to experience the reality that she faced as a child, and many like her continue to face as non-white children from deprived communities. Communities that not only birthed hip-hop but also champion the music genre, with which they share an identity of being overlooked with. By infusing hip-hop culture with her state’s troubled civil -war and -rights involvement, Angie Thomas gives a relatable and compelling voice to undervalued communities, through the vehicle of an undervalued music genre.
Congratulations! You’ve got two bestsellers under your belt. What makes a book a New York Times bestseller?
You know, I have no idea. I just wanted to write stories that I wasn’t used to seeing on bookshelves. Specifically, stories about young black people. Stories that they [young black people] can identify with, and see themselves in. That’s not to say other books haven’t done that – there are so many great authors out there, who never got the same accreditation – so, it’s hard for me to say why I’m in the position that I’m in, but I feel very blessed that I am.
Interesting that you say ‘stories about young black people, that they can identify with and see themselves in.’ You’ve often said that you write for your younger self, and others like you – is that why hip-hop has such a prominent role in your books?
Absolutely, hip-hop is a huge part of my life. I wasn’t used to seeing hip-hop in books. In young adult literature, for example, hip-hop wouldn’t get mentioned unless the characters were at a party. Even then, it was never by name, while similar books mentioned pop and indie-rock artists by name. What about the rappers who play such a big role in young people’s lives? For me it is important to pay homage to the genre as a fan, but also to validate and recognize the kids who identify with the genre. Hip-hop is the biggest music genre in the world, and young people are the biggest consumers of it, so why not write something that speaks to them?
In your most recent book, On The Come Up, there’s a scene in which the main character, Bri, is in conversation with her to-be manager, Supreme, who says “Folks love to blame hip-hop. I guess that’s easier than looking at the real problems”. He says this in response to media-outlets scapegoating her lyrics as an explanation for violence at Bri’s high school. As a fan of hip-hop, is that how you feel?
For as long as I can remember, hip-hop has been painted as the villain of the narrative. Back in the 90s, when rappers were speaking up for people like me, from neighborhoods like mine, they were being painted as thugs and criminals. When the truth of the matter is that they were painting accurate pictures of what was going on in those communities. Tupac once said he was telling everyone what it was like for people like him – he didn’t create THUG LIFE, he diagnosed it. I wish people would pay more attention to the issues, instead of trying to blame a music genre for them. Let’s be clear – a young person doesn’t carry a gun because a rapper told them to. A young person carries a gun, because they feel unsafe. The question is, why do they feel unsafe? What can we do so that they have a safer community?
I feel that when it comes to the role of hip-hop, in your most recent book, On The Come Up, you appear to be fighting for the genre’s legitimacy. In the book, Bri, the main character, is told by her English teacher, that since hip-hop is a form of poetry, she can’t be failing the subject. Is that something you can identify with?
I understood that, because the book is heavily inspired by hip-hop, that the response would be ‘why would you do that? Hip-hop music is garbage’. These are, for the most, people who have no part in the culture and try to form their opinion looking in, from the outside, without taking the chance to understand it. Hip-hop has always struggled with people recognizing it as a legitimate artform. When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer , those same people responded shocked, asking why a rapper won it. Why not though? He’s a poet. In the book, I wanted to show how Bri uses hip-hop as her voice and weapon. It informs how she operates and how she communicates with the world. It’s her poetry, it’s her art. Maybe people who read the book will start to look at hip-hop as poetry, and also start to look at young people who gravitate towards hip-hop, with more respect. Kids reach out to me, who’ve read the book, telling me that they want to be a rapper, but that no-one takes them seriously. These kids are creative and talented. Why can’t we give them the same respect that we would give them if they had said that they wanted to be poets or write novels?
Something else you speak on, in On The Come Up, is the sexism that’s prevalent within the genre. There’s a scene in the book where Bri and her friend, Sonny, are arguing about having to choose between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Bri shares the view that she shouldn’t have to choose when there are so few female artists in the genre. Is this an opinion that you’re actively trying to communicate?
Hip-hop has in many ways been built on the backs of women. You could argue that hip-hop wouldn’t have existed if DJ Kool Herc didn’t set up his turntables at his sister’s party. Look at Sugar Hill Gang, who were put together by a woman [Sylvia Robinson] who also helped them produce Rapper’s Delight. But we don’t hear about that. Despite the role that women have played and continue to play in hip-hop, they’re always given the short end of the stick. It’s something that I wanted to call-out and address. But at the same time, I wanted to show how, despite all of those things, Bri still wants to define herself by the end of the book. She still wants to do her art, the way that she wants to do it. Hip-hop still has a long way to go when it comes to giving women the respect that they’re due.
The title of your first book, The Hate U Give, is the first half of Tupac’s THUG LIFE acronym. Tupac resurfaces again in your latest book, On The Come Up. What role has he played for you as a person and writer?
I call Tupac my biggest literary influence – I couldn’t connect with Twilight, growing up, but I could connect with Tupac. When I didn’t see myself in books, I saw myself in his music. I want to be able to write in the same way that he rapped – where one song could make you think, while the other could make you laugh, cry or be angry. I want my books to do all of those same things. He was a walking contradiction but didn’t shy away from it – he owned it. That’s why, I think, people love him. Even the name of the neighborhood, in which both books are set, Garden Heights, is inspired by his ‘a rose that grew from concrete’ poem – such that the characters in my books can be seen as roses that grew out of a concrete garden.
Returning to your most recent book, in which rapping, and lyrics play a big role, how was it to write lyrics for On The Come Up?
It was hard writing them [lyrics] for On The Come Up. I had to do a lot of research. I listened to a lot of hip-hop, so that I could better understand the structures and rhyme patterns. I wanted to pay respect to the craft. I didn’t want to just throw anything together, because anyone can write a rhyme – ‘hat, cat, bat, you know, whatever’ – but to put something together that pays respect to the skill of it, was really important to me. It was probably the hardest part of writing the book.
How did you go about writing the lyrics then?
For the title song, I went on YouTube and searched for ‘southern beats’. Once I found something similar to what I wanted the beat of the title song to sound like, I wrote to that. The cadence and flow were based off that one beat. On the other hand, when considering the battle-raps in the book, I wanted to tell a mini-story with each rap. It’s especially difficult when you consider the character’s purpose with each rhyme. That made a huge difference – not just writing something, but also figuring out what the purpose was behind every rap. Once I figured out what the purpose was, only then would I start working on the rap.
I listened a podcast recently, on which Will Smith was interviewed, and asked how he felt about being one of the first people to bring hip-hop culture to television. Can you relate to that? How does it feel to be one of the first people to put hip-hop so central in literature?
Honestly, if Will Smith is the map to follow, I’d love to follow that. I think about DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince winning a Grammy a lot, actually. Their award wasn’t even part of the televised ceremony. Tired of hip-hop not getting the respect it was due, they even boycotted the award-show. Think about that in the context of 2019 – could you imagine Will Smith not getting an award on a televised program? It’s crazy how it’s changed. I would love for that to be the case for hip-hop culture and colored characters in children’s literature – that we’re no-longer made to feel like ‘the other’. It would be an honor to be at the forefront of that.
Why do you think that it’s taken so long for this to be reflected in literature?
I think that the assumption for decades, in publishing, has been that black kids and kids of color don’t read. That’s really what it comes down to. Publishers always said, ‘we don’t think that books like these will sell’, but what they really meant was ‘we don’t think that these [colored] kids will read’. On the flip-side, it also means that they didn’t think that white kids would read about colored kids. I’m happy to say that my books, and others like it, have proven them wrong. Not only will black kids read, but white kids will read about them as well.
BEFORE THE MONEY
Mississippi’s, Angie’s home-state, troubled involvement in the American civil war, as one of the Confederate States’ founding members, and controversial abolishment of slavery in 2013, lie at the heart of the African American author’s voice. A voice that’s amplified through her mother’s proximity to civil-rights activist Medgar Evers’ assassination (1963). Written with a ‘for us, by us’ attitude, the compelling narrative of both novels are written with the intent to increase the reader’s empathy, for non-white children and lower-income households. Her recent successes, however, are the fruits of borne out of a 200 rejections-filled labor. Building on the momentum of the We Need Diverse Books movement, Angie absorbed the literary agent’s rejections, of her unpublished J.K. Rowling-inspired black fantasy-novel, in order to shift her focus and write stories that reflect reality – a decision that’s paid dividends.
You’re from Mississippi. You’re even from the same town where Medgar Evans was shot, right?
Yeah, he lived 5 minutes away from my house. My mom was a little girl when he was killed. She also heard the gunshots that killed him.
Is that something you carry with you? It’s clearly close to home.
William Faulkner once said that in order to understand America, you have to understand Mississippi. It often feels like Mississippi leaders are only there to represent some of the people, and not all. I’ve always known that, growing up here [Mississippi] as a black person, in some people’s eyes, I had little or no worth. And that’s honestly how it is to be a young black person in America.
That’s got to be a tough reality. When you were an unpublished writer looking for a publisher, did such stereotypes stifle your progress?
I wrote a book, before The Hate U Give, which has never been published – it is a fantasy novel about young people of color. It was rejected a fair amount. Agents would tell me that they couldn’t connect with it, which to me, sounded like ‘this isn’t about someone like me, so I don’t see why this would have value’. I was lucky that when I started sending copies of The Hate U Give to publishers, it was the same time that the We Need Diverse Books movement began and focused on children’s books. Because of the work that they put in, publishers and agents started to recognize that they lacked diversity. It made them look more closely at stories featuring diverse characters. So, I benefitted from timing. Now, we’re starting to see a slight increase in the number of diverse stories, while not seeing an increase in diverse authors. The publishing houses themselves also need more diversity. We still have a long way to go but I hope to use my platform to be loud about it and bring some change.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the book that you wrote before The Hate U Give. Could you paint me a picture of what your life looked like then?
At the time, I was a secretary at a church and spent 2-3 years working on a book whenever I could, which I regularly submitted to literary agents once it was completed. It must’ve received at least 200 rejections. I subsequently decided to put that story aside and focus on a new story that became The Hate U Give. I thought, since agents can’t connect with my rejected fantasy novel, I’m going to work on something they really can’t connect with. The funny thing is, when I finished The Hate U Give, and sent it to several agents, I suddenly received an offer on the fantasy book. It gave me the ammunition I needed to speed up the process and tell agents who received The Hate U Give, to respond quick. I basically went from having zero offers to several, within a week. It showed me that writing a story that I wanted to write, even if it scared me, is probably the most important thing I, as a writer, could do.
Earlier in our conversation you said that you couldn’t connect with Twilight growing up. On the other hand, in past interviews, you’ve also mentioned that Harry Potter did manage to capture you. This even surfaces in The Hate U Give, where the characters compare Harry Potter to gang culture. What specifically about Harry Potter made it so relatable?
It was just a great escape. Before the movies came out, I actually thought that Hermione was black. But Harry’s story is so universal – an unassuming kid who would’ve never considered himself a hero, actually ends up becoming a hero. The idea of a kid like Harry becoming a hero, made me think I could also be one. I loved that there was an entire world that a kid like me could escape into, so much so, that I could ignore the gunshots in my neighborhood. It definitely played a big role in making me the writer that I am now.
Was Harry Potter also the inspiration behind your unpublished fantasy novel?
For sure. I wanted to create a world that could function as an escape. My books now reflect the real world, but I would love to create a story that could be a great escape for colored kids – introduce them to a world in which we’re [the colored kids] not ‘the others’. It’s exactly what Black Panther was able to do with Wakanda.
You’ve said, in the past, that you think that books can start revolutions. Is that a belief that you started out with, when writing books?
It’s hard for me to say that it’s been something that I’ve always set out to do. For me, it’s always been about telling authentic stories. But I’m starting to recognize that the kids reading my books today, can be the politicians of tomorrow. I take that seriously. I want them to be able to understand themselves but also gain empathy – because empathy goes a long way in shaping their future-selves. I was recently messaged by a group of children from a school in the Bronx. They were tired of their administrators not addressing racism in their school, so they staged an overnight lock-in, until they got what they demanded – which took them 2 or 3 days. They messaged me to tell me that they were inspired by my books. It’s very powerful and humbling to understand that my words helped them do that.
Considering that your books now are popular with a greater audience than you initially intended, does that change who you write your stories for?
When I write, I think about the kids from my old neighborhood, in Jacksonville, who say that they hate reading. I think about them every time I write a book. Simply because it’s my goal to write books that they enjoy. When they tell me that they hate to read but love my books, it reminds me that they hate reading certain types of books, but have finally found something they can connect with and see themselves in. I write for them. Everyone else is a great bonus.
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