We spoke to Angie Thomas, the bestselling writer whose new film stars Amandla Stenberg
25 Jun 2018
As I waited in the lobby of the lavish Lampery Hotel, I wondered how I would contain the fangirl in me, long enough to find out more about this incredibly talented author. As soon as Angie Thomas walked in to the room she immediately emanates warmth and joy. When you sit with her, it’s as if you are catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Her cheery demeanor surprised me — she is currently one of the busiest women in publishing, having only landed in London from an eight hour flight from Mississippi a day before. How can someone be this friendly with so much going on? Obviously only someone who is as passionate as Angie is about their craft.
Her debut novel The Hate U Give (or THUG as she lovingly shortens it) written in response to the Oscar Grant shooting, explores the aftermath and trauma of police brutality. It became a New York Times bestseller and won the 2018 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, amongst other prestigious awards. As if commercial publishing success wasn’t enough, the book has also been made into a film starring Hunger Games actor Amandla Stenberg and Hip-Hop royalty Common. It’s safe to say, Angie is having an incredible year.
This success is no small feat however, given that many prominent voices within the publishing community oppose better representation for people of colour. Most recently author Lionel Shriver wrote a controversial article for the Spectator, where she berated Penguin Random House for proactively seeking a more well rounded and inclusive roster of writers and staff.
Angie Thomas exists as proof against this archaic view of inclusivity in publishing (and the quite obvious public display of white fragility) – she is an African American woman who proves that black stories not only matter, but they sell too. The main character of THUG, 16-year-old Starr, personifies what is like to be a young black woman in America today. The prose is lyrical but accessible, with a modern poetic wit that can sometimes be found in really well written viral twitter threads.
We sat down to discuss several topics, including what it was like growing up in Mississippi, the healing power of Hip-Hop, the bewilderment at the concept of Jay-Z cheating on Beyonce and the guilty pleasure that got her into writing.
gal-dem: So, let’s get to it, now that I’ve gotten all the fangirling out of my system! You’re from Mississippi, what was it like growing up there?
Thomas: The Mississippi I grew up in was more like Compton. You had the gangs and drug dealers and stuff like that. But i’ve never had to sit on the back of a bus, or been called the n-word. We have indoor plumbing, so you know, we’re not all backwards hicks! I’m from Jackson, which is the capital city so it was an urban environment. I grew up hearing about the stories of the past…you know, the fact that our flag is the confederate flag…that’s just something you can’t get away from.
“We’re known in Mississippi for two things: Racism and writers. And here I am, a writer writing about racism”
I grew up hearing about black people who were killed, like Emmett Till and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers actually lived in the same neighbourhood I grew up in and when he was killed, his house was so close to ours that my mum, who was a little girl, heard the gunshot. So yeah, I heard those stories but they felt foreign to me. I was more worried about the cops and gang wars.
We’re known in Mississippi for two things: Racism and writers. And here I am, a writer writing about racism!
That brings us nicely to my next question, which is about your early reading. Which books or writers shaped you?
If nothing else we have a rich literary history. Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright. All these authors who I grew up knowing, but I didn’t think it was something I could do, because most of them were white, old or dead. So I wasn’t really inspired by that, which you know, surprises a lot of people. It was a lot easier to find books when I was a kid that I could relate to. But once I got older, books stop showing me to myself so much. Young adult books failed me. So for me what really shaped me as a writer was hip-hop. I saw myself in hip-hop and couldn’t see myself in books. I saw myself in Tupac songs. When Jay-Z talked about a ‘hard knock life’, I connected to that. Now he talks about cheating on Beyonce, and no one connects to that!
How? How did this happen?
Come on, it’s Beyonce! It doesn’t make sense…
Totally does not compute!
Right! So anyway…it was TLC and seeing myself in their music. I learnt a lot of what I call my “un-apologeticness” from rappers. I wanna write like rappers rap.
You did a course in creative writing and THUG was based on a short story you wrote. How did you turn it into a novel?
I loved telling stories, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to be a rapper at some point, but I couldn’t say as much as I wanted to in a song.
I remember when I wrote the short story it was in response to the shooting of Oscar Grant. When that happened, even though it was thousands of miles away in Oakland California, it led to a lot of conversations at my school. A lot of the people didn’t understand why I was so upset at this person’s death. He was an ex-con and he was trying to turn his life around but for some of them, the fact that he was an ex-con took value away from his life.
I remember being so angry and hurt and frustrated. I decided that I could either, A, burn down the entire school campus or B, do something productive. I decided to write. I wrote this short story about a boy called Khalil who was a little bit like Oscar, and a girl named Starr, who was a little bit in both worlds, like I was. The problem was that it was supposed to be a short story, and according to my professor I wasn’t making it short enough. ‘Maybe one day you could turn it into a novel.’
So it was your tutor who pushed you into turning it into a novel?
Yeah. So now he feels like I owe him a cheque! I gave him a thank you and a novel…that’s all he’s gonna get.
But you know, writing this into a novel was cathartic. So for me, it was easy to take it from a short story to a novel, because I had so many ideas I needed to get out anyway.
It’s been made into a film, congratulations! How has the process been for you?
I was consulted through the whole process. The screenwriter and director and everyone were so good at checking in on how my head was doing, and if I was happy with everything. I got to spend three weeks on set, which was so amazing. I got to see the trailer about a week ago for the first time and I sobbed. It’s that good. They showed it at Bookcon and it got a standing ovation, it’s that good. The trailer comes out at the end of this month, hopefully!
That’s so exciting, I cannot wait!
I’m excited to see the finished product. I haven’t seen the movie yet, me and Amandla Stenberg (who plays Starr) were in New York and we had a moment when we just held hands and cried, because I put a lot into this story and Amandla put their heart and soul into playing Starr. Seeing the hard work come to life, it hit us both.
So, your upcoming novel is called “On The Come Up”. What was the inspiration for it?
It’s about sixteen year old Bree who wants to be a rapper, but her life is turned upside down when one, her mum unacceptably loses her job. And two, a song she makes goes viral for all the wrong reasons. This is my take on what it means to be young black in America, when freedom of speech isn’t always free.
“The best thing is when a kid comes up to me and goes, ‘Yo I hate reading but I read this book, yo this is dope!’ That’s it for me”
We see that with hip-hop. Hip-hop has been the voice for me and so many young people for decades, but the majority criticised it. This happens so often with young black people, we criticise the way they say things instead of listening to what they’re saying. That’s what I want to do with this book. Show that sometimes young people say things in a way that we may not like but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen. I see Bree and Starr as two sides of the same coin. Starr witnesses thug life, but Bree feels thug life.
You love to rap and love rap music. Who are your favourite women rappers, and what are your favourite rap lyrics?
I get to pay homage to the ladies of hip-hop a lot more in this second book. Bree has a whole shrine of them, over her bed because she says she wants Queen’s watching her as she sleeps. Going back to you know, Queen Latifa, Mc Lite, Lil’ Kim and even now with Cardi. I love what Cardi is doing. Seeing these women who had come into these male dominated spaces…we know the big ones. Some don’t get recognition, like Rapsody and Jean Grae who are doing it. My go-to growing up was TLC, and my favourite rapper is gonna be Left-Eye, for sure. For personal reasons too because she helped save my life.
Whoah…can you tell me a little bit more about that?
I was 14, 15. I was really struggling in school with bullying and my mom took me out of public school and homeschooled me. Bullying can have such a bad psychological effect on you, so I got depressed and suicidal.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
It was tough. I had this one incident where I almost self harmed. I locked myself in the bathroom and I had my CD player with me, and I had TLC’s song ‘Waterfalls’ playing. Left-Eye’s rap came on and the part where she says : ‘Dreams are hopeless aspirations/In hopes of comin’ true/Believe in yourself/The rest is up to me and you’ and it hit me when she said that. Because I realised that there were so many dreams I had, and if I did something to myself I wouldn’t see them. So I didn’t do anything. I told my mom and she somehow got the number for Left Eye’s studio on Ask Jeeves, and she got on the phone. Lisa Left-Eye Lopez got on the phone.
Your mum is the GOAT!
Right! She [Left-Eye] listened and was amazing. She told me ‘You have to keep going’. That conversation stayed with me. It was only a few months after that that she passed, so i’m glad I got the opportunity to speak to her.
If you got to make a soundtrack for “On The Come Up”, what would be on the playlist?
I got one!
What? No way. That’s amazing. Do you write to it?
Yes ma’am. So the songs I would pick out are: ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash. ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ by Queen Latifah. ‘Juicy’ by Biggie — I call On The Come Up my biggie book. ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’ by Common, who is also in the movie playing uncle Carlos. And ‘Doo Wop’ by Lauryn Hill. I need her to do another album.
I saw on twitter that you bought your mum a new car. Can you tell me more about personal goals you have achieved thanks to the success of your book?
Getting out of the hood is one. Getting into a better situation for me and my mum. Being able to travel. Before the book came out I had never been outside of Mississippi. But for me the absolutely best thing is when a kid comes up to me and goes, “Yo I hate reading but I read this book, yo this is dope!” That’s it for me.
What is a really cool fact about you, that you wish people knew about?
What got me into writing was soap opera fanfiction.
Did not see that coming!
There was this show in the states called Passions, so I started writing fan fiction online under a pen name and I had quite a big following. So I have no problem with fanfiction, I think we should it encourage it more because if nothing else, people learn how to make other people’s characters work — eventually you can make your own.
Seeing yourself as a black person in all forms of creative media is tough, but you are contributing to that change with your books. What advice would you give upcoming black writers?
Be unapologetic. I know it’s scary, but I look at what Beyonce is doing, and she has not just embraced her blackness, she’s showing everyone her blackness and she’s unapologetic about it. Also know that yeah, this industry, for so long has made us feel as if we have to fit into a certain box or standard. Or if they have one of us they cant have two of us, you know? Be encouraged because I think things are changing. Be hopeful, be ready because the doors are opening and you need to be ready to walk through them.
The Hate You Give is available to buy online and in most bookshops. On the Come Up is scheduled for release in 2019. The UK release date for the movie is yet to be confirmed, but will be out in the U.S. in October. Watch the teaser here.
You can follow Angie Thomas on social media, all details can be found on her website.