‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’
It’s hard to believe Angie Thomas’ keynote, the first YA keynote Melbourne Writers’ Festival has ever had, was not a sell-out. Angie’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, has been sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 consecutive weeks. It has been published in over 20 countries and is currently in its 16th reprint. Angie was mesmerising, as she delivered a passionate speech that was equal parts moving, hilarious and inspiring. She often broke from her speech to joke about what her mother would think; she pondered what would her mother say if she saw her daughter addressing a crowd wearing a Gryffindor jumper (I’m pretty sure everyone in the room not only approved, but wanted to ask where one could be purchased), or how her mother would react if she heard her swear (Angie sought permission from the audience before doing so). ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was chaired by Beverley Wang, a journalist, radio producer and host of the popular ABC podcast It’s Not a Race. Wang introduced Thomas by praising The Hate U Give as ‘a Young Adult book that all adults need to read as well’.
‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’. Angie commanded attention with her opening statement, and held that attention throughout her address. She clearly conveyed her passion for writing Young Adult fiction, as she expressed her belief that young adults have an awareness, passion, and belief that they can change the world. Angie believes adults do not share that same belief as teens, as ‘once we become adults we realise how big the world is’. Acknowledging many of the adults in the audience were Young Adult fiction writers, Angie noted that ‘as writers, you have the power to do just that’ (change the world).
While Angie said ‘books showed me that there was more to the world’, as a teen she struggled to see herself in published Young Adult fiction. Twilight was considered THE Young Adult book, but she didn’t recognise herself on the page, and joked about how her mother would never let her talk to a man that old. Angie joked about how if her name had been called out during The Hunger Games, her mother would have marched right up to the organisers and stopped it from happening. Angie lamented that ‘usually kids like me were the sassy sidekicks … or the wisdom giver’. Angie loves the Harry Potter series, as she identified strongly with Hermione Granger, and viewed Voldemort as a drug dealer and Hogwarts was her community. Angie was thrilled when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Because of the absence of representation in YA, she said ‘I didn’t think my life mattered, or lives like mine mattered’. Angie saw herself in hip-hop, a movement, she noted, that was founded by teens. It was a way for teens to have a voice – about their lives, about what mattered. Angie’s heroes were rappers, as it felt like ‘somebody saw me, and they said it mattered’. ‘Hip-hop scared people because it was so raw’. There is a truth to hip-hop that can be confronting. Angie later went on to say ‘true change comes with discomfort’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear … it’s what you do with it’.
While The Hate U Give has been interpreted by some as a distinctive Black Lives Matter political novel, Angie wrote The Hate U Give as a short story, well before she was aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote the story in response to a shooting in her town. Writing was the only way Angie knew how to get her frustration out, and eventually turned the story into a novel because, she said, ‘I need people outside of my neighbourhood to see’. She noted that when young victims are placed on the news, they are always made to seem older than they are. Angie wanted her book to be personal, not political, to humanise and show truth behind the headline. ‘Starr is a child. They were children’, she said, and later added ‘why is it that we make them antagonists in their own deaths?’ When Beverley asked Angie about her reaction to having Trump as President, Angie responded by saying ‘I have more hope now than I did before the election … people are speaking up now.’ She reminded the audience that racism is not new, it is just becoming more visible due to social media. The sense of hope and love Angie conveyed was incredibly moving, as she said ‘I know where the power lies, and it’s with the people’.
Angie implored the audience to ‘examine why you do it. Why do you write for young adults?’ This question was framed around an acknowledgment that ‘Young Adult books catch a lot of flak’, and while she jokingly referenced the Handbook for Mortals saga by saying ‘apparently some people see it (YA) as a way to get movies made’, her frustration that ‘people downplay (YA)’ was clear. Angie argued that teens today are ‘more aware, more conscious of things’, particularly due to social media. So, while she acknowledged that many YA writers write for younger versions of themselves, Angie believes we should ‘take ourselves out of it, and focus on who we’re writing for.’
There’s so much more that was talked about during the keynote, as well as the question time afterwards. I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface. I was focused on Angie for the duration of the event, so I wasn’t aware whether the session was filmed or not. I hope it was. The only lowlight of the event came from an audience member, who asked, in what I interpreted to be a rather aggressive tone, what is worse, to write from your own experience or to write outside your own experience? The frustration in the audience member’s voice made me cringe. Angie was gracious in her reply, as she politely challenged the crowd to ask themselves why they want to write it, and why they would be the best possible person to tell that story. She urged writers to put in the work (do research, consult with relevant groups), to be prepared for criticism, and to LISTEN to and learn from any criticism.
‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was inspiring, moving, hilarious and full of heart. I’ve been to many MWF sessions over the years. This event will stay with me for the longest time.
I finished reading (and loved) The Hate U Give. My review is still to come. I only have the opportunity to attend one other MWF event this year, which will be #loveozya.