When The Hate U Give (THUG) was published last April nobody could have predicted the astonishing success that would follow: a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, a slew of awards and a movie on the way. Many are calling it the defining book of a generation. "Everything surprises me. It’s an absolute honour," Thomas says with a laugh when we meet at her London hotel. She excitedly shares photos of her time on the movie set. "They treated me like a rock star," she recalls, amazed. Seeing her characters take shape on film she "broke down crying. It was the most incredible thing".
Her début began life as a short story when she was studying creative writing at university, written in response to the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man, Oscar Grant, by a police officer. "Some of my classmates thought maybe he deserved it, he was an ex-con, why are people so upset? I was angry, I was hurt, I was frustrated. I felt like I could either burn down my college campus to make a statement or I could write to make a statement." The story evolved into THUG. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives uneasily between the poor neighbourhood of her birth and her smart suburban high school. When she is the sole witness to the fatal shooting of her friend by a police officer, life is turned upside down; what she saw could destroy her community, her family and her life. Thomas was far from convinced that she would find a publisher. "If you say Black Lives Matter to three different people you’re going to get 30 different reactions." But more than that, "they were telling us that books with black kids on the cover don’t sell. As a black person that’s so dehumanising". Happily, THUG proved them wrong but "it’s also sad to me because this is 2018 and it took this long for people to realise that".
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Thomas was a storyteller from the off. "If I didn’t like the way bedtime stories ended I would tell my own version." But as she got older "it felt like books didn’t represent me, it felt like no one cared what was happening with kids like me". The idea of writing as a career seemed alien. "Whilst Mississippi does have a rich literary history most of the authors are white or dead and I was neither. It was hard for me to connect." But what books could no longer provide, hip-hop did. "We don’t give hip-hop enough credit for being a narrative voice, we don’t give it enough credit for giving kids stories in which they see themselves in." In her second novel, On the Come Up, "words have power" and it is very much Thomas’ love letter to hip-hop. "We’ve had a voice for a long time but no one’s been listening or they didn’t like what we were saying. It’s probably going to make some people uncomfortable but I think I enjoy that!"
On the Come Up is set once again in the community of Garden Heights. Her protagonist is 16-year-old Bri, an aspiring rapper, living in the shadow of her underground rapper dad who died before hitting the big time. When Bri’s mom unexpectedly loses her job, food banks and the prospect of homelessness become part of her life, just as much as the beats and rhymes that sustain her. Making it as a rapper becomes a necessity. How did she find the time and space to work amidst the THUG maelstrom? It was, she tells me, "a struggle at times and part of the reason we’re pushing the book back is because I need time. I’ve tried to teach myself to find a way to write even in the busiest places". The book was originally scheduled for June 2018 but will now be published in February 2019. She admits that initially "it felt like a thousand eyes were watching over my shoulder with every word I wrote" but she is pushing that pressure aside and writing it for herself. "These characters have been with me a long time, I’ve had this story in my head and my heart a long time."
Modern day reality
At first glance On the Come Up may not seem as overtly political as THUG but here Thomas shines a light on the human face of what it means to be poor in America. "I wanted to show that poverty looks different to what we always assume. Sometimes it’s those kids who only get good meals once or twice a week, families for whom the loss of one pay cheque can change everything." The book is loosely based on the experience of her own mom losing her job. Her mother didn’t have a drug addiction and she didn’t lose her father to gang violence "but those were experiences some of my friends had. Kids like us don’t often get discussed. When we do, we’re numbers, statistics, stereotypes. Our stories deserve to be told as well." It’s a book about overcoming obstacles, shaping your destiny and the power of creating art. "I want to give hope to kids in situations like Bri’s. To show them that their talents, their creativity, their art and passion is something that they can hold on to."
One of the most striking things about Thomas’ writing is how developed and nuanced her secondary characters are. In both stories she felt it important to have the girls’ families play an active part in their lives. "I wanted to show how different family structures can be and how they are still a family. Bri’s family is dysfunctional at times, but they still love and care for one another. Not every family is perfect." Her passion for telling the stories of girls like Starr and Bri is tangible and I suspect she has more stories to tell from this neighbourhood. She’s toying, she confesses, with the idea of a prequel which "would allow me to show a little more how a community like Garden Heights got to the point where it is now in the present day".
Making a connection
The success of THUG has occurred against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s first year in office. Does Thomas feel her writing has become part of a wider cultural movement? She believes the election has opened peoples’ eyes to deep-seated problems. "I hope this has sobered people up and made them realise that racism is alive and well in America. I would like to hope that the success of books like mine is part of the resistance. I’m hearing kids involved in the Parkland protests read my book and were inspired by it." Thomas is passionate about making this connection with young people. "I’ve had so many black kids tell me ‘I did not read a book from beginning to end before I found your book. I hate reading but I read this in a day, this is dope!’ So if can get those kids hooked on reading that’s amazing to me."
Later that evening, Thomas won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and urged publishing "to spark the brains" of all young people in her rousing speech. "Be the light in the darkness. Don’t do it for the awards, do it because that child you hand a book to, that child your write a book for, that child you publish a book for, may one day be a politician with a Twitter account."
Hype plays a drum roll again. "Our next MC is . . ." he says, and a couple of people shout out their own names, as if that’ll make him call them instead.
"Bri!" Aunt Pooh raises my arm high and leads me to the Ring.
She chants, "The champ is here!" like I’m Muhammad Ali.
I’m definitely not Ali. I’m scared as hell. I climb into the Ring anyway. The spotlight beams in my face, but I can still see the crowd staring at me. Hype hands me a mic. My palm’s so sweaty, it’s a miracle I don’t drop it. "Introduce yourself," Hype says.
"I’m Bri," I say, and my voice sounds as shaky as I feel. Some people snicker. I’m supposed to say way more than that, like hype myself up or challenge Milez, but I’m as blank as a brand-new notebook.
Hype chuckles. "That’s all? You’re just Bri?"
"Hold up," Milez says. "We supposed to believe this girl gon’ battle me? C’mon, dog. Girls can’t spit."
He gets some laughs and some boos. Wow, really? This idiot must not’ve heard of MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Li’l Kim, Da Brat, Missy, Eve, Nicki, Remy, Rapsody, Cardi, Young MA... The list goes on and on. Hell, did he not just hear Ms Tique?
But, you know, girls can’t spit.
This extract is from an early draft of on the Come Up. With a recent change in publication date, the text may be subject to change.
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- Paul Murray | 'I would like everybody to be able to read the books. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake'
- Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh | 'We, as modern people, don’t like being dictated to'
- 'You don’t need to be a superhero to change the world'
- Jennie Rooney | "I would like to write a contemporary novel, but I don’t think it is there yet"