A fellow bookworm and I were talking about books a few weeks ago. He said that one of his favourite things about reading is how it allows us to experience worlds we don’t inhabit and so contributes to our understanding of other people and their lives, something that I’ve also always loved about reading.
Then last week I read an article in the Guardian by Jessa Crispin which really resonated with me, about reading beyond our bubbles, in which she observes, ‘For a very long time, the literary gatekeepers pretended their taste was objective, not subjective. And because the traits of those gatekeepers, who were not just white men but Ivy League-educated, upper-middle-class white men located in cultural centres like New York and London, were predictably consistent, they often reached consensus. These are the books that are important. No really, just these ones. Those other writers are “minor”.’
I’m sick of books about straight white men finding themselves (SWMFT), i.e. the literary ‘canon’. Whether they find themselves in New York or London, or in college, or through drug experiences, or in a bad marriage, or through their work, is now beside the point. I can’t muster a fuck to give anymore. And so I have sought out books that are emblematic of my friend’s statement, about different lives, varied lives, protagonists from different countries and cultures and religions and races.
I heard about The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas a few months ago when it became a publishing sensation and topped the bestseller lists. As soon as I saw it in Hodges Figgis I flicked through it then bought it; reading random pages is always a great gauge for me.
The title comes from Thug Life by Tupac Shakur: ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.’ The book is about sixteen-year-old Starr who witnesses the murder of her friend Khalil by a police officer. Starr and Khalil are unarmed and black. The cop is trigger happy and white. The story takes place in urban America and so The Hate U Give mirrors real life, and Khalil becomes synonymous with Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.
Starr is already conflicted, going to a private school and having a rich white boyfriend while she and her family live in the ghetto. When she was only twelve years old her parents told her how to behave if she was ever stopped by police; a conversation her white friends have almost certainly never had. And she has to think just as strategically when she is in school: ‘…I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”‘ Starr is ‘other’ no matter where she is.
After Kahlil’s murder Starr is called before a grand jury and her two lives collide. She wants to bear witness to her friend, to do right by her community, to speak the truth but nothing is straightforward in her world. Starr comes up against the gangs and violence in her neighbourhood and racism at school, all of which coalesce in a riot, bringing to mind Watts and Ferguson.
The book has been classified as Young Adult fiction but that’s a facile label. There aren’t many writers with the guts to take on such an emotionally charged topical subject, and Thomas writes with sensitivity, insight and grace. And amongst all the misery, there are genuinely funny moments, like Starr’s dad claiming that the Hogwarts Houses are really gangs: ‘They have their own colours, their own hideouts…Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos…’
The Hate U Give is an important book and Starr is a voice I won’t forget.