Angie Thomas: a modern day revolutionary?

Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, has fundamentally changed the YA literary genre. Following in the footsteps of many LGBT works, Thomas has proved that this type of fiction can also be an excellent way to provoke conversations concerning gun violence and race, even if parts of her novel are fundamentally flawed and undermine her main message.

Thomas tells the story of Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who is caught between two realities: that of her privileged  white school, and of her home life in a predominantly black, poorer neighbourhood. Thomas herself had a similar upbringing, in many respects, but shockingly could even relate to the aspect of the novel where Starr’s friend, Khalil, gets needlessly killed by a policeman after being pulled over. This is the crux of the novel: the aftermath of the tragic shooting on Starr’s life, amidst the underlying tension between her two lives, and of Starr’s progression from fear to finding a way to use her platform and try to take action on behalf of Khalil and everything that his death represented.

The obvious merit of this novel is that it presented racial inequality in America in a way which is easily digested. News stories are often very blandly, despite their shocking content, because of the lack of a strong narrative element and due to the monotonous language used to describe momentous events. Thomas, however, of course allows for some characterisation, and offers a lens beyond the stereotypes that the media, failing to expand on headlines, has frequently perpetuated. Reading fiction about these kind of events allows the story to be understood in a way which is more relatable: the rich nature of the text, concerning Starr’s and Khalil’s personal lives, help to indicate that actually there is much more to them than simply victims of crime, something which contemporary protests against police shoots aim to achieve, but often not quite as effectively as Thomas seemingly has. Therefore from that perspective, Thomas’ work is revolutionary, seeing as many people still have -unconsciously or not- a racist mindset, and thus to read a book which forces them to empathise from another point of view is invaluable.

So the main message is strong. However, there were aspects of the book that I did not agree with, which can be difficult to admit because many people automatically equate that to disliking the sentiment of the book in general, which of course is not true. But the book is too long. The legal process is too drawn out in the book and paradoxically, despite the needless pages, there are underdeveloped character relationships. There is a lso a fractured friendship group, with a friend called Hayley becoming a racist throughout the novel, and yet this is hardly expanded upon, and Hayley is used more as a motify for  Starr’s personal ability to rise above societal hate than to be seen as an actual person. As for Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend, well there does seems to be racism concerning him:

“I kneel beside my dead friend in the middle of the street with my hands raised. A cop as white as Chris points a gun at me.

As white as Chris.”

This is a troubling quote, because what Thomas is doing here is creating a world which is basically black people versus white people. The focus of the policeman should not be his skin colour, and nor should his skin colour be equated to an emotion nor have negative connotations, as is implied in the excerpt above. Understandably there is institutional racism, but surely the focus of Thomas’ novel should be more on the failure of the justice system to condemn the police-officer, and not because the police-officer was white himself. More white people than black get killed by police officers every year,  TIME notes, and therefore this commentary on racial bias is not as pertinent as it may initially seem. If the focus had been tilted slightly to the law, then the message behind this book would have been much more appropriate.

Furthermore:

“You’re black, okay?” I yell. “You’re black!”
Silence.
“I’m black?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the f*ck’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything! You’re black, I’m white. You’re rich, I’m not.”

It sounds racist, doesn’t it. Very. This excerpt is from the book, but I actually just changed the words “black” and “white” around, because the whole point about racism is that it should not be tolerated towards anyone, regardless of history, because that is, after all, what equality means. But sometimes racism towards white people can be overlooked too. The real version, from the book, is here:

“You’re white, okay?” I yell. “You’re white!”
Silence.
“I’m white?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the f*ck’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything! You’re white, I’m black. You’re rich, I’m not.”

The point that Thomas is trying to spread is one which promotes equality, and yet by having a protagonist with such views, she fundamentally undermines that message by having Starr refuse to talk to Chris on the basis of his race alone. This attitude is not crucial to the plot itself, so why she chooses to include this is baffling. What is more:

“I swear, I don’t understand white people.
Breadcrumbs on macaroni, kissing dogs on the mouth—”
“Treating their dogs like they’re their kids,” I add.
“Yeah!” says DeVante. “Purposely doing shit that could kill them, like bungee jumping.”
“Calling Target ‘Tar-jay,’ like that makes it fancier,” says Seven.
“F*ck,” Chris mutters. “That’s what my mom calls it.”
Seven and I bust out laughing.
“Saying dumb shit to their parents,” DeVante continues. “Splitting up in situations when they clearly need to stick together.”

Is this spreading the right message? No. What is worse, is that Chris seems to take these generalisations and run with them, and it seems ironic that Starr, a character who is supposed to develop into an icon of equality, is the one who perpetuates this rhetoric at the end of her developmental arc. It just seems inconsistent with what Thomas is trying to achieve, because racial equality applies to everyone.

In general, though, The Hate U Give is a worthy read, as it does have an important intent behind it. However, if you are interested in racism, then just read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book instead: it is factual, well-written, and absolutely fascinating.

Why You Should Fall Asleep Reading American History

It happens to the best of us. Dear Americans, do not take this as a personal assault on your nation’s history- this is far from it. Instead, this is… well, just read the article.

Only yesterday I was reading “American History” by Paul S. Boyer when, at only page 6, I succumbed to irresistible slumber. And I am glad I did, because I truly could not bear it any longer. When you are reading a text that is drier than an apple ring in a toddler’s lunch, (sorry Boyer) it is easily done. Take the phrase: “Underlying the creativity and ferment of antebellum America lay the inescapable reality of slavery”. The present (the content, here) is engaging, but the wrapping (pompous language) is so uninteresting that it is almost too depressing to tear it off.

So, deprived of dreams and bored, the book slipped from my hands as I slipped into sleep. And then, a solid 40 minutes later, I woke up, and I still had 124 pages to go! But now, I felt refreshed like I had imbibed an elixir of concentration. I proceeded with my task and I managed to absorb some fascinating things about American History, like:

  • The theory New England Puritans had in the 18th Century that “God had chosen the Puritans to create in America a New Zion”, which clearly did not fade away after they had founded Massachusetts. This sense of narcissism, that America had such a unique role in history which was beyond that of simply capitalism and greed, is truly engrossing. Also, it does tonally remind one of:

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  • The 17th Century concept of indentured servants: these are like slaves (but with a couple more laws on their side) who have to work only for a certain period of time under their masters before they are free. They worked in exchange for a paid passage to the Colonies. As I study American History (you should be so proud of me for doing this external reading), I found it surprising that my course completely overlooks indentured servants, when  “one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants”. Does nobody else think that is astounding? They typically spent four to seven years working before they could be free. Now there you were thinking that flights for the Christmas break were expensive. It is generally accepted though that Africans  initially “blended into a larger population of unfree labourers” before they alone eventually became enslaved. That is the truly horrific note, because it illustrates how at this point slavery was not societal (although obviously that was awful as well); it was consciously introduced. Many may imagine slavery was imported from the mother country into America, but evidently in the beginning this was not the case and instead was consciously integrated into a culture which had existed primarily without it.

 

  • Fake news existed in 1776. Who knew? Or, to be more accurate, people had their own special version of Twitter and Facebook back then, only showing them what they wanted to see. A specific example was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which published in January, sold nearly 120,000 by April. It is almost the contemporary equivalent of a vegan cookbook! Oh how times have changed. We really have become unintellectual. But many have cited Common Sense as the trigger to the Revolution, and how it determined the tone of the Second Continental Congress in May (where the Declaration of Independence was written).  To think that in the 18th Century a mere pamphlet could have such a monumental impact on the course of world history is astounding, is it not? One might think that Paine was a real pain, because he had just moved to America when he released Common Sense and called King George III a “royal brute” and therefore was incredibly disloyal. But actually, some of what he said did make a lot of sense, and are harmonious with the ideals of this blog:

61700-Thomas-Paine-Quote-He-who-dares-not-offend-cannot-be-honest

 

Anyway, I decided that even if I was reading A Very Short Introduction, it turned out not to be that short, so after my delicious nap I decided only to read the parts of the book relevant to my course. You can tell I consolidated and learnt some great facts along the way, but most of all, this moral:

DO NOT READ AMERICAN HISTORY IF YOU ARE TIRED. THE WORDS WILL SLIP THROUGH YOUR EYEBALLS AND THEN EVAPORATE AS LITTLE CURLS OF THOUGHT STEAM ABOVE YOUR HEAD SO THAT YOU’VE WASTED YOUR TIME AND WON’T BE ABLE TO REMEMBER ANYTHING LATER.

Instead, sleep, and then return to your work, refreshed, with a more receptive mind to even the driest of texts.

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*Yes, sorry, this only works if you are on holiday and can just snooze around whenever. Apologies if that is disappointing news.

1984 by George Orwell

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Are classic works beyond criticism? Perhaps. Since literary professors have devoted their careers to hallowed sentences, should one dare to question their opinion, with the threat of passive aggressive comments later (or is that just from fandoms)?

Yes. One should continually review and question the work of the professors, not just to discover the merits (or the conceived merits) of classic pieces, but to learn of your own stance on such controversial topics discussed.

The most notable thing that spruced from this book was the lack of tangibility concerning the characters. The protagonist, Winston Smith, had no defining traits or features, except for his rebellious streak which might not even set him out to be individual, but as one of many aspiring revolutionaries. My hope was to discover a Bonsai: a character that had been nurtured, not necessarily sheltered from action though, and cultivated into their own skin of ink and imagination. Sadly not. Driven by a desire for sex and Victory gin and not much else, Winston is a pathetic man to spend your afternoons with. When he is tortured, it’s not painful to read- unpleasant certainly- but the fires of anguish and sympathy are not ruthfully burning. You would think that Orwell would have devoted a bit more time to fleshing out, but if Winston was to be discovered on paper, it seems like paper he would remain.

Ingsoc
English Socialism-a political philosophy

It is common knowledge that 46% of American adults cannot understand the label on their prescription medicine, so perhaps the language used in the mid-20th century would be a problem for the masses. Alas, alas, if only it were so. The writing is bland. Bland like builder’s tea (I’m much more a green tea person myself). Or cardboard. Perhaps this is the message that Orwell was trying to spread to us: we should inherently not use paper for anything like writing stories as it’ll only bore you: all theses papery references must count for something. I did count down the pages until the end which is never good a sign either.

The pace is unforgivable. My tortoise could waddle 100m faster: yes, there’s a climatic moment (Orwell was not an idiot after all) and perhaps intrigue, but generally it plopped along with an agenda that would horrify all overly zealous 3rd Grade teachers. (The  high intonations and tattooed on smiles never seem to go out of fashion in the education industry.) In fact, only a tree would grow slower than the pace. Coincidence? I think my point is proven. The arc of the plot is predictable to say the least, so it seems that there is little of interest in literary terms with 1984, except…

On the other hand (always a risky sentence starter) the ideas that are conveyed do hold significant weight. The themes of the proletariat rising to power, a theory cultivated by Marx, and their potential to do so was intriguing. At the time it must have caused the upper society to melt into enraged philosophical discussion, however today our society has evolved into something more unusual. The nature of the working classes, when nations are compared, is that they are astoundingly contrasting, so for a society like the one in 1984 to be created where the lower classes rise to power, it would have to be localised to a country or region, with people rebelling against a certain government/ specific policy. Not a worldwide movement as many people stand for many things.

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There is a flaw in the argument as at the moment not only are people under different governmental regimes, which means when the proletariat united rise to power their idea  of how power should be would, realistically, differ depending on culture (so not all inherently communist), but that at the moment many people are happy with the status quo.

Jo Brand said 1984 was ‘more relevant today than almost any other book’, however I feel that whilst identity and freedom are discussed, the underlying motives of the plot are entirely mischaracterised by Brand. Of course with more digital products entering our lives, it is easier to collect personal data. So the concept or value of privacy has undoubtedly evolved, but it is not eliminated like it is the book. In 1984 people are ruthlessly violent and racism is rife towards the prisoners of war with insults breeding everywhere:​ in the age of `Generation Snowflake’, there hardly seems a time where people are more emotionally protected or more sheltered from raw comments. But perhaps because now more than ever, they have to be.

Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

An eloquent, impressive and poignant novel about the integration of black students into the previously segregated Jefferson High, Virginia, 1959.

lies we tell

Sarah is one of the ten black students starting at Jefferson High this year; after years of persistent battling in court, she’s finally going to get the best education possible. But the abuse she and her friends receive when they start is overwhelming, and they all feel a wave of despair when it doesn’t even start to cease. And then Lindsay Hairston catches Sarah’s eye. The daughter of the state’s most influential pro-segregation journalist, and Sarah can’t stop thinking about her. And now Sarah isn’t only afraid of what society will think of this aching desire, as tendrils of disgust and fear are already writhing around her own heart. Because not only is she afraid of everyone’s opinion, but startlingly, she’s frightened of what she is feeling, too.

Firstly, this is a novel which admirably recreates and explores the racial tension that society strongly felt at the time. It is an arduous topic to write about, especially to such high standard, so that Talley deserves credit for that. But occasionally I felt that the plot became slightly flat because Talley got so caught up in the issues she was writing about, that there was less of a drive in certain parts of the novel. It is told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Lindsay, which enhanced the novel because it was useful to see the contrast between the two characters’ lives.

Sarah, the protagonist, is a resilient, intelligent and kind character, which is fortunate for her, because everyday at school she faces physical and mental abuse. In fact, soon after you pick up the novel, you will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she starts to forge her own destiny out the prejudices she faces.

The title is smart; it relates to the rest of the novel because every chapter title is a lie; the lies the various characters tell themselves. I thought that this was a clever touch because often the title of a novel is seemingly irrelevant, detached to the actual content of the novel that follows. On the other hand, there was one major fault; eventually, the chapter names became increasingly similar, to the point of sharing the same meaning with previous titles i.e ‘Lie no. 11 If I keep pretending everything will be alright’ and ‘Lie no. 15 Pretending will make this go away’ or “lie no. 17 I give up” compared with “Lie no.19 There’s no use fighting”. I understand that at one point there will only be a limited amount of options, but I doubt that it is not so limited that there is a lack of variation in this when performing this smart idea.

The themes in this novel are obviously racial tension and violence, (as there are several aggressive episodes in towns and public places throughout the novel where the black and white students are locked in confrontation), and then, there is LGBT+, as Sarah finds herself falling in love with Linda. Truth be told, I was disappointed with this aspect of the novel; admitted, there were instances when thoughts were uncovered showing that they both had feelings for each other, but there were only a few romantic moments, and most of the romance was lost in the  violence towards the end, or two characters lamenting about how sinful and evil they both apparently felt they were. I wasn’t convinced in the end that they were going to become an interracial lesbian couple because there were only a few instances where they honestly faced their feelings.

This novel is great if you have an interest in civil rights, or historical YA fiction. This topical novel is definitely one to watch, and overall is a great debut! Also, please note that this appeared first on the Guardian’s site. So have you read this novel? What did you think of it?