Book Review: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hate_u_givePossibly the most important benefit, and greatest joy, of reading is that it opens a window into new and different perspectives; we enter character’s lives and spend time in their shoes, allowing us to imagine and understand lives that may be far removed from our own. In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas takes us into the life of Starr Carter, a contemporary African-American sixteen-year-old girl living in a poor and rough ghetto neighbourhood.

She has just witnessed her unarmed friend be shot in the back by a white police officer.

Being the sole witness places her in an uneasy position, not only in her wider community but also with the friends she grew up with and the new ones she’s made at the posh mainly white high school she goes to. If she speaks out, she places herself in danger, if she doesn’t, she contributes to a continuing societal problem that affects everyone she loves. Fully supported by her family, she navigates her way through grieving for her friend, and anger and frustration at the racial injustice faced by her community. Following her journey, we are shown different perspectives and insights into the choices people make, some with very little options open to them.

Starr and her siblings are being raised to be strong, respectful and aware of their history. Her parents are doing the best they can to teach them, give them opportunities and keep them safe; supporting their children through this harsh experience with humour, discipline and love. Starr works hard to walk between the two worlds she lives in, having to reconcile the contrast it creates in herself: ‘My voice is changing already. It always happens around ‘other’ people, whether I’m at Williamson or not. I don’t talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto.’

As she moves between one world and the other, we too experience how each community perceives the other; the subtle prejudices and misunderstandings as well as the interest and desire to understand and find commonalities.

This topical story is intense and gripping, it is real and believable and it is alive with fully-formed characters who you can hear and visualise. It is relevant and thoughtful and well balanced. I kept trying to slow down and put it away; not to avoid it but to try to prolong a story I didn’t want to end. This is one of those books that you declare should be on the high school reading list; The Hate U Give has well and truly answered the recent call for more diversity in literature and film.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Walker Books, 2017
ISBN: 9781406372151

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist, with Tina Makereti

pp_nnedi_okoraforTina Makereti introduced Nnedi Okorafor beautifully, as somebody who brings “a kete overflowing with stories.” Nnedi has written works for adults, youth and children – a tweeter reviewed her work as “like swallowing the sun.”

Nnedi wasn’t always going to be a writer, unlike several of the writers I have seen this writer’s week. The likes of Simon Winchester, Patrick Gale – they always went towards that as a journey , from an assumed privileged background – even Mallory Ortberg. For Nnedi, her first love was athletics. She and her sister toured the USA playing Tennis as kids and teens, and their parents were both Olympic-level athletes. She became a writer after an operation she had for scoliosis led to her being paralysed aged 19 – there was a 1% chance this would happen.

As she learned to walk again, she stopped herself from going insane by writing stories. She went back to university, dropped Sciences and took a Creative Writing course – it was that which started her journey. She feels that her early life as an athlete was accidentally good training for her particular style of magical realism. As an athlete, you come close to having supernatural senses about physical things – as a writer she could use this to create realistic superpowers.

Her Nigerian upbringing was very much a part of her life experience – her parents would take her back frequently throughout her childhood. She said, “When I sat down and wrote these stories, I see the world through my unique perspective, as a NigeAmerican” The barriers between life and afterlife are a lot more fluid for the Igbo people.

“One of the things that pushed me to start writing (I read books like I eat candy) was my life as reader. Once I could read, I would at any time I wasn’t on the tennis court or on the track.” She couldn’t see herself in a story – she thinks every reader deserves to have stories where they are the main character, and also where they aren’t. Writing, for her, was a way to fill in the blanks she had found in literature. These blanks were mainly in the area of writing about strong, complex, feminine characters. She says, “I wanted to see them making mistakes – doing wonderful, and also terrible things.” Like so many writers, she was telling stories she wanted to read.

I read one of her books to prepare for this – Lagoon – which has the fantastic character of Adaora, a marine biologist that becomes one of the first humans to meet the aliens that have landed in the Atlanti, going underwater from Bar Beach in Lagos. She and her luck-met companions all have superpowers of a type, that they must use as a group to change the world to allow these aliens to live peacefully.

She was surprised but grateful for the response: “Finally, I am reading this type of character.” Nnedi says that she is grateful to connect with so many people, through this character.

Nnedi read a hugely powerful piece from Who Fears Death – it took her six years to write, because she had to overcome the death of her father, which had initially prompted the prologue. The book she wrote first was too long, and it was quite a long journey to get it published.

As I mentioned earlier, Nnedi refers to herself as NigeAmerican – she likes to put this together and make a new word, because it is a metaphor for how she sees herself. She has always been on a lot of borders, through being bookish and athletic. She is an insider and an outsider, and an ‘other’. She has a different history from African-Americans (those descended from the stolen people), and was always not quite accepted by them as equal in experience. Meanwhile, in Nigeria she was called oyibo, which means ‘white’. She thinks this may have led to her to write science fiction: trying to go outside the roles, and outside the demarcations.

She was incredibly frustrated that Nigerians were portrayed as outlaws in District 9 – the first science-fiction blockbuster to be set in Africa. Lagoon was written in response to this portrayal, to write the wrongs. When writing Lagoon, about aliens coming to Lagos – she wanted to see everybody’s reactions. She wrote from fragments of perspective, rather than deep inside one voice, which is usual for her. “I see all of Earth’s creatures are people.” The tale was from the voice of spiders, spirits, very enlightened bats, and so much more. She had noticed that first contact narratives always begin with aliens interacting with human beings – Lagoon begins with contact with a (soon to be giant) swordfish.

Sitting in this session was fascinating. It made me think more deeply about race, identity and gender. Nnedi is a powerful speaker, and a fantastic presence. She will appear again tomorrow at at 9.30am in Bats, at ‘Three Soul Writers’, with Janie Chang and Tina Makereti. Go along and hear from three magical writers.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist
2pm, Bats as part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week
Writer’s Week goes all weekend – get your tickets here!

Lagooncv_lagoon.jpg
by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by Hodder
ISBN 9781444762761