Sunday, 16 April 2017

Event Recap: Angie Thomas at Waterstones Deansgate

I made sure to arrive early for the event, but despite that, the events room of Waterstones Deansgate was packed on the evening of Monday 11th April. It was shock - I don't think I've ever seen the room so full before, but that was to be expected given the nature of the book up for discussion. Angie Thomas' debut novel The Hate U Give (on the cover the formatting spells out THUG) is a fictional depiction of the black shootings at the hands of police in America. It is a topic that is so widely reported, and continuously shocking that it's hardly surprising how well the book has done since it was published in the United States less than two months ago. Now, The Hate U Give is being published in the UK, and Angie Thomas had flown over to promote the book. 

Aside from the current and recent shootings in the US that have made headlines, Thomas' story was heavily inspired by her background in Mississippi. In America, Mississipi has a bad reputation. "Mississippi is the parent you love, but can't get away from." Her background was known for all the wrong reasons. Thomas feels a disconnect between from what is seen as 'common black trauma' and her own experiences. She was partially inspired by a conversation she had with a family member who was a policemen about how behave around policemen as a POC. The fact that someone who was a policeman had to discuss the potential threat of their colleagues behaviour with her was jarring. For Angie Thomas, the conversation that's probably had with black children in the UK in comparison to that of the US is very different. In the US you're taught that a small misstep could end your life; if you move your hand out of your pocket, you're assumed to have a gun. To her - and to everyone - that is a horrifying reality. 

The Hate U Give began as a short story written in Thomas' senior year of university, as triggered by the murder of Oscar Grant back in 2009. The divide between her black neighbourhood in Mississippi and her private "very white" college in reactions to the shooting weren't missed by the author, who noticed that some said Grant deserved it, despite the fact that he was an unarmed young man. She felt that the stories she wanted to write wouldn't be listened to, but instead was encouraged by a professor to share the story, which at the time was told from several different perspectives and won awards as her senior project. It was Thomas' aim to give a voice to those who had been silenced, and in the praise that has been accredited to The Hate U Give, she has done exactly that.

Following the murder of Tamir Rice in 2014, she felt pushed to make what had been the university-praised short story into a full-length novel. The aim was to condense systematic racism into a 300-page book, which took a while, but was successfully achieved. Condensing such an issue is hard, but Thomas' aim here was to be quick with the information whilst still explaining the matter in enough depth. For Thomas, young adult fiction was always the category she wanted to place the novel in, as she can never see herself writing for adults. Another reason for making the book YA was down to the fact that the victims of these shootings have and are often young people, and young people are effected the most by them - they see themselves in the victims. With the rise of social media, young people are activists and are politically aware, including in areas such as the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. We wouldn't know about half the stuff we know about if it weren't for social media. Encouraged by people using social media to get their voices heard because otherwise they're silenced. This cannot be the only way though, hence writing a book about otherwise silenced voices. As Thomas rightly put it, YA books can open people's eyes in ways that others really can't. 

Given how many and varied the responses are to movements such as Black Lives Matter, Angie Thomas was worried about how the book would be receive. Some people respond to the idea of Black Lives Matter by saying that 'white lives matter,' but that isn't where the problem lies. As Thomas remarks, "if house is burning we don't focus on the one that's fine - we look at the problem not the peaceful." Despite her concerns, a negative response is the polar opposite of what The Hate U Give has received. It's amazing reception, both on the internet and within other spheres meant that the novel debuted at No.1 on the New York Times' Bestseller List back in February. On top of this, the film rights have been acquired with some big-name actors potentially attached to the upcoming adaptation, which filming should commence on this summer. 

Thomas is proud of what The Hate U Give has achieved thus far, and how far its message has spread, but she is quick to point out that she doesn't want to be famous, "I want to get my groceries done without being recognised," but at the same time, she wanted to share her voice. Things are soaring for Thomas, but despite the NYT, film rights, and working on second novel, there's something better than all of that: being in position where black teenagers come up to her and thank her for the book - for her, that is better than anything. 

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