‘THERE’S this idea that books written by black people don’t sell,’ says Angie Thomas. ‘I don’t mean to brag but I’ve just proved that wrong.’
She sure has. The Hate U Give, the 29-year-old former rapper’s debut about a black teenager (Starr) seeing the police shoot dead her black best friend (Khalil) spent several weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller charts. It hit No.1 on Amazon the week it was released in the UK.
‘A lot of readers from the UK had said they couldn’t wait to read it in the hope it would reflect their experiences,’ says Thomas, who lives in Mississippi. ‘I’m not well-versed in race relations in your country but we do have an issue in this world in which black people are often perceived in a negative light.’
Utterly gripping, The Hate U Give takes its name from the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of Thug Life, which, as Khalil tells Starr in the novel, is an acronym for ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody’.
Starr is 16 and lives in the ghetto but attends a mainly white private school. She finds the boundaries she has built between her two lives crumbling when she chooses to testify against the police. They argue Khalil was a drug dealer. The suggestion that he therefore somehow deserved to die becomes one of the novel’s themes.
‘I started it after the death of Oscar Grant [shot in 2009 by police in California],’ says Thomas, who admits Starr is a composite of herself (‘especially her love for sneakers’) and other black girls she knows.
‘There was so much focus on the fact Grant was an ex-con. I went to a posh white school and I was hearing so many conversations about it that made me angry. Instead of burning every trash can on campus I decided to write instead.’
The Hate U Give is a literary product of the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the US. While Thomas was writing it, Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Florida. But it’s also a rare example of a bestseller to feature mainly black characters.
‘I never read many books as a kid because I never saw myself in them,’ says Thomas. ‘I could connect far more with a Tupac song than I ever could with Twilight.’
It was partly because of these feelings of literary disenfranchisement that Thomas aimed her novel at the YA market. ‘In many of these shootings, we see young people lose their lives,’ she says. ‘I wanted to write for these teenagers who are now finding their voices, their activism.
‘YA novels create empathy. They help shape the future politicians. If I can help shape one of them, then hopefully in 30 years’ time we won’t be having these conversations.’
The Hate U Give (Walker Books) is out now