In Angie Thomas’ novel, Starr Carter lives in a gang-ravaged area and goes to a school where she’s one of only a few black students. She talks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about her book The Hate U Give.
ANGIE THOMAS: (Reading) When I was 12, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and the bees. The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
That’s Angie Thomas reading in the voice of her narrator, Starr Carter, early on in her debut novel.
THOMAS: (Reading) Mama fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot. Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do, he said. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Starr Carter is 16 when she confronts the exact situation her father warned her about. She’s in the car with her friend Khalil when he is shot and killed by a cop. The case becomes national news, putting a dichotomy in Starr’s life into even greater relief. She lives in Garden Heights, the gang-ravaged neighborhood where her father keeps his store, but she goes to school at Williamson Prep, where she’s only one of a handful of black kids. The book is called “The Hate U Give.” It’s a hotly anticipated book. It’s gotten rave reviews, and it’s Angie Thomas’ debut novel. She joins us now from Jackson, Miss.
Welcome to the program.
THOMAS: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s a pleasure. Can you describe the two Starrs we meet in the book?
THOMAS: Well, the two Starrs, I think a lot of young African-Americans can relate to because there’s this whole thing of – that we call code switching. At Starr’s neighborhood, Starr is known as Big Mav’s daughter. Her father was a former gang member, and he’s turned his life around. But there’s also his past that sometimes is brought up.
But there’s Williamson Starr who does not speak about where she’s from. And it comes from a small place of shame, but it’s also a place of trying to fit in because she’s in a school where it’s mostly white and it’s mostly upper class. She has classmates who are driving Benzes (ph), whereas she’s dropped off every morning. So she has to try to figure out who she is where she is. And once this unfortunate event happens in her life, the struggle becomes even harder.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You talk about how code switching is something that African-Americans have to do a lot. Is it something you have experience with?
THOMAS: I absolutely have experience with it. I went to a mostly white upper-class private college here in Jackson, but I was from a neighborhood that is known for all of the wrong reasons and, for lack of better words, we will call it the hood. So I knew I had to fight against the stereotype of being a ghetto girl, and I had to fight even harder to show that I was intelligent and that I was capable of being there, just like my counterparts.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just mentioned that you went to a mostly white college, similar to Starr, your main character. Is that the model? Is – did you use your experiences in informing how she is presented in the book?
THOMAS: Absolutely. At the time when I was in college, Oscar Grant had just lost his life in Oakland, Calif. He was an unarmed young black male who had a record. And at the time when his death was making headlines, more people were talking about what he had done in his past than the fact that he unjustly lost his life.
And at my school, I heard a different conversation than I may have heard in my neighborhood about Oscar. At school, he may have deserved it. At school, he was in the wrong. But at home, he was one of our own, and we knew Oscar and we saw Oscar every single day. And the only thing I knew how to do at the time was write, so I actually wrote the short story that would later become “The Hate U Give” while I was a senior in college.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the central catalyst of the novel is the death of Starr’s old, dear friend Khalil. Is that modeled on Oscar?
THOMAS: A little bit, yes. And honestly, there was inspiration from a lot of these cases that we see with unarmed black people losing their lives. Michael Brown – when he lost his life, there was more focus on what he had done sometimes than what was done to him.
And I looked at Khalil because I know Khalils. I see Khalils every single day. I grew up with Khalils who have made decisions that may not be the best. But at the time when Khalil is in his last moments of his life, his past should not have an effect on what happens to him in that moment. So Khalil is a combination of a lot of what we see with young black men, particularly, when they lose their lives.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She gets a lot of support throughout the book, your character Starr. There’s a lot of people helping her on her journey. At the end, she kind of leans towards activism. Do you want that to be something that your young readers take away from this?
THOMAS: Well, I do, and I also want them to realize and understand that activism has different forms. We’re seeing young people find their own voices and find their activism. We are seeing, like, Marley Dias, for example, who is doing the 1,000 Black Girls Books (ph) drive. We’re seeing that. That’s a form of activism.
And I think when – with Starr, she does find her voice through a certain form of activism, but that’s because of the situation she was in. But I hope that it helps other readers – helps readers understand – excuse me – that they can find their voices as well and that their voices matter. I think that’s the big takeaway from the book, is that Starr realizes her voice matters.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The title of the novel is taken from Tupac Shakur. Was he an influence on you and your writing? And tell us about the title of the book.
THOMAS: Absolutely. I often say that I want to write like Tupac rapped. I could listen to his album and within a few minutes, I could go from thinking deeply to laughing to crying to partying. And that’s what I want to do as a writer – I want to make you think at times; I want to make you laugh at times; I want to make you cry at times – so he was an influence in that way.
But also, the title itself comes from the tattoo that he had across his abdomen that so many people know him for, that thug life tattoo. And what people don’t realize is that it actually stood for, the hate U give little infants effs everybody (ph). And he explained that as meaning that what society feeds into youth has a way of coming back and affecting us all. And in the novel, we see that in the form of riots. And we see that in the form of anger and frustration. Even we see it in Starr and how she feels after seeing this unfortunate tragedy take place. I couldn’t get the whole thug life in there.
THOMAS: It would have been a long title. But that really got to the core of what I was trying to say and do in the book.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Angie Thomas’ new novel is called “The Hate U Give.”
Thanks. It was great to talk to you – really.
THOMAS: Thank you. Thank you so much.