Angie Thomas: on Diversity, Empathy, and YA literature


Unauthorized Profiles / Saturday, March 31st, 2018

I guess it’s nice to celebrate talented people even when one’s eternal soul burns with the flame of envy at their success or whatever. So this week I’d like to profile author Angie Thomas, whose debut novel The Hate U Give was a New York Times Bestseller.

She started the novel as a short story assignment in college and they’re already talking about turning it into a movie, so it’s safe to say Thomas went straight from relatively unknown to Super Successful. Which makes sense, because The Hate U Give was honestly one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read.  Also, she’s really funny and I recommend reading her interviews in full. And also read, duh, The Hate U Give. And also my review. Okay I’m done.

Here’s some cool things Angie Thomas has said about writing, with links to the original interview:

ON TRUE DIVERSITY IN LIT

“I was afraid to send the book out to literary agents. If you said the words “black lives matter” to 30 people, you’d get 30 different reactions. I knew there were calls for diversity in children’s lit, but you always wonder as a person of color, how diverse is too diverse? I knew that I made this book as unapologetically black as possible, so I was afraid to query it.” (The Cut Interview)

Side note: She’s so brave and cool. I don’t write about anything diverse or potentially controversial or even important, and I’m still too wimpy to query my novel.

ON WRITING GOALS

“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.” (NPR interview)

This writing philosophy really came through in The Hate U Give. Thomas manages to be funny and tragic and compassionate and tough in her writing. I’ve always appreciated the solid meld of comedy and drama a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It takes a special writer to pull it off.

ON BLUE LANGUAGE

“There are curse words in the book. But I did the count with my Kindle and there are 93 instances of the F word in the book. But there were 936 police killings this year alone. Which number is bigger?

I’m okay with people saying “oh the language makes me uncomfortable,” but if the language is what makes you uncomfortable, consider yourself privileged. I’m more uncomfortable about the killing of unarmed black people in this country.” (To the Best of Our Knowledge Interview)

Fuck yeah, Angie.

ON WRITER’S ADVICE

  1. Don’t overwhelm yourself with “writer’s advice.” There are lots of tips out there, lots of so-called “guidelines” but at the end of the day, do what works for you.
  2. Write for yourself. Don’t write for trends, awards, accolades, film adaptations, any of that. Write the book that you’d like to see on a bookstore shelf that you haven’t seen yet. (Nathan Brandsford Blog Interview)

I think I have to read tip #2 every morning for the rest of my life.

ON EARLY WRITING EXPERIENCES

I’ve always loved telling stories. When I was younger and my mom would read bedtime stories to me, afterwards I would tell her my own versions or how I thought the story should’ve ended. It wasn’t until I was around 8 that I started writing. If I finished an assignment before everyone else in class, I would write stories in my notebook. My third-grade teacher at Johnson, Mrs. Cleland, noticed and would sometimes let me read my stories to the class. I was hooked. (Clarion Ledger Interview)

ON NOT READING REVIEWS

“I will be honest: I don’t read the reviews, as it feels like I’m invading the readers’ privacy. I really do think it’s important that readers have a safe space to say what they feel like saying about a book without worrying how the author will take it. Also, I don’t want it to mess with me mentally as I’m writing this second book.” (Goodreads Interview)

FINE, DON’T READ MY REVIEW I DON’T CARE

ON WHITE GIRLS IN DISTRESS IN TEEN BOOKS

“When I was a teen, the two big books — I hate to say it because they’re always go-to Y.A. books — you know what they are. Say them with me: ‘Twilight,’ and what else, ‘The Hunger Games.’ But I connected with neither. I remember as a teenager I’d go in the bookstore, in the library,  and I’m looking at the books and it’s always another white girl in distress. I’m like, ‘How many problems do you have?” (wbur.org interview)

This is the point where I softly and abashedly admit my books are usually about white girls in distress…

ON WRITING FOR YA

“Yeah. Honestly, I can’t see myself writing for adults. And that’s not anything against adult literature, I just can’t see myself doing it. I always knew Starr would be 16 and I wanted it to be a YA novel because in so many of these cases we’re looking at young adults losing their lives. I also knew that with a story and subject like this, I might have a better chance of reaching an adult’s heart by using a 16-year-old because Starr still had her innocence.” (MTV news Interview)

ON HER MESSAGE IN WRITING

“…empathy is more powerful than sympathy.” (The Bookseller.com Interview)

This message, about the power of empathy, was actually conveyed in most of the interviews I looked through to make this compilation; it’s a key component of her writing, and it really comes through in her work.

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