Event highlight: Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’

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‘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 

Review: ‘Begin, End Begin’ by Danielle Binks (ed.)

The #loveOzYA hashtag was created to promote and celebrate Australian young adult literature. Danielle Binks wrote about the origins of the movement in Kill Your Darlings . Danielle further discusses the origins and intent of the movement in a foreword to Begin, End, Begin, adding ‘It was not born out of patriotism or a rejection of international voices – far from it. LoveOzYA has been about the inclusion of voices. And it has been a movement, as the name suggests, about love.’

Begin, End, Begin contains contemporary, urban fantasy, and speculative fiction short stories, to name a few. A range of themes are covered, including teen pregnancy, sexuality, bullying, and sibling relationships. I’ve reviewed a few of my favourite stories.

 I’m screaming inside my own private little world, stuck inside my suit.

‘One Small Step … ’ had me holding my breath during intense thrilling scenes, laughing  at deadpan humour, and teary-eyed during poignant moments. Amie Kaufman’s sci-fi explores the weight of parental and societal expectation at conflict with the personal growth and choice through the narration of 17-year old Zaida. The world-building feels effortless, and the action and suspense is beautifully complimented by moments of humour and tenderness. I couldn’t help but speed-read through this piece, before going back and re-reading. A brilliantly crafted short story, which left me with a sense of a world that endured before the first page and would continue on long after the last.

9 p.m.
This it how it goes.
       I am standing in a corner, ‘cause I always seem to find myself standing in corners. Not in the centre of the sweaty, heaving dancers, and not in the back sunroom with the stoners and smokers. Definitely not too close to the front door – that would imply that I’m eager to escape, or eager to be seen.

Gabrielle is a playing the role of a supporting character in her own life, as she lives vicariously through her best friends. But, when she sees Cam kissing a girl who is not his girlfriend, Gabe is forced to examine why their relationship is so important to her, and to find a way to forge ahead with her own life. Book reviews are subjective, right? I know that. I’m hyper aware of the prejudices I bring to my own reading. But, from the very first paragraph of ‘Sundays’ I was hooked in; it felt like Melissa Keil had crept into my brain and was rehashing my teenage years. So, on the one hand, you could say I am automatically biased because I relate to the protagonist’s detachment from her own life, but this wouldn’t be possible if not for the almost tangible sensory atmosphere of the party, the way in which the pace is maintained by structuring the narrative in time segments and the banter and bickering between friends.

‘Lucy’s thoughts are so loud she worries the whole bus can hear them.’

The only story in the anthology written in third-person, ‘The Feeling from Over Here’ follows Lucy as she finds herself sharing an eight-hour bus trip from Wagga to Albury with Cameron Webber. With no phone reception to provide a welcome distraction, Lucy is forced to evaluate her conflicting feelings about Cameron. Tozer has created an emotionally evocative story filled with multifaceted characters. There’s no room for cardboard cut-out characters, as even the bus driver delivers nuance in his limited appearance.

It’s hard enough being an outsider, without having to watch something end that you’ve always wanted to be a part of’.

14 year-old Bowie isn’t prepared to watch her brother King disappear out of her life, so she follows him to the pub where he meets up with his friends. When Bowie is spotted by his friends, King reluctantly lets his younger sister tag along for his last night out. Danielle Binks beautifully captures the love and tension between the two siblings, and the shifting family dynamic, as King is determined to break away from the prejudices and pity he has endured living in a small town community, and Bowie struggles to adhere to the invisible sibling boundaries while grappling with impending change. ‘Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory’ had me in tears by the end.

starstarstarstar

 

Danielle Binks will be hosting a #LoveOzYa session at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on Saturday, 03 September. The session will feature Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung. I’ll put up a recap of the panel, as well as the YA Keynote featuring Angie Thomas.