On February 24, the Art Gallery of Ontario held a talk with #1 New York Times bestselling author Angie Thomas in conversation with literary journalist Donna Bailey Nurse, discussing Thomas’s massively successful novel The Hate U Give, and her new book, On the Come Up.

The Hate U Give, which has remained on the NYT bestsellers list for two years, is a novel about racial injustice and police violence in the United States. When asked about the appeal of the story and Starr, the novel’s protagonist, Thomas replied, “I’ve had so many people who say that it’s opened their eyes, or they’ve connected [with the characters].” Thomas mentioned how the book spoke not just to young black girls, but also people from across many different demographics.

“What we’re seeing—not just with The Hate U Give—but what we’re seeing in general with art is that, you know, we’re seeing a huge Black Renaissance.” Thomas mentioned movies such as Black Panther and shows like Insecure, which have seen major popularity and success recently. “Even when stories are specific, they can appeal to a multitude of people,” noted Thomas.

When asked about the nature of the Black experience in different places, Thomas said, “What I’ve come to learn, too, is that anti-Blackness is global, unfortunately.” The author mentioned hearing stories, while on tour for her book, from black people in the U.K. and Canada, and their experiences with police brutality. “Anti-Blackness is global, and it saddens me. But I also see that blackness is beautiful. There are so many different layers to blackness, so many ways that blackness looks differently in different areas and different countries. So, I can see how beautiful blackness is even more so [and] I’m thankful for that.”

Regarding today’s young generation growing up in the social media age, Nurse asked, “What about this rumour that young people have short attention spans? What is this saying to us about the nature of YA [young adult] readers and YA literature?” Angie Thomas expressed her sadness at this assumption about young readers, mentioning that thousands of readers show up to book festivals, such as the North Texas Teen Book Festival, every year to celebrate their love for books. “It’s not that their attention spans are short, it’s that we’re not giving them things that hold their attention. There’s a big difference.”

In defense of kids growing up in the digital age, Thomas noted, “Even if teenagers are paying attention to their phones, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because so many young people are aware nowadays of lives beyond their own, thanks to what they’re finding on these phones. Kids are starting movements because of what they’re finding on their phones. They’re starting hashtags that become social justice initiatives. They’re becoming activists in their own right. They’re proving society wrong every single day.”

The author also talked about growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and connecting with the rich literature and history of the state. Thomas mentioned that her favourite writer from Mississippi is Jesmyn Ward, author of the Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. Thomas talked about meeting Ward recently, and how both of them “freaked out” over each other. Thomas also noted that her favourite book growing up was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. It was the first book Thomas read about a black girl living in Mississippi. “The Logan family in that book influenced the Carter family in The Hate U Give. I wanted them to be a contemporary version of the Logans,” Thomas noted.

Thomas revealed that she delved into some of her own experience for Starr’s story, as well as for Bri, the protagonist of On the Come Up. Bri is an outspoken teenager who attends art school and pursues her dream of becoming a rapper. “There are stories of so many young black girls that are untold,” said Thomas. She noted the prevalence of boys’ narratives over girls’. “Black girls are often made to feel like they’re either too much or not enough. I want my books to make them feel as if they’re perfect just the way they are. I always want to empower them with my books.”

Talking about the character of Bri, Thomas mentioned how society tries to define her with their own labels: “‘She’s too loud. She’s too aggressive. She’s too angry. She’s not smart enough. She’s not delicate enough. She’s not wise enough. She’s not intelligent enough,’ when the fact is, she’s enough. Period. And she has to come to realize that herself.” Bri’s voice shines through in her raps—her mode of expression.

Thomas disclosed the multiple meanings of the book’s title, “On the Come Up.” She noted, “When we say somebody is on the come up, that means they’re on the verge of making something of themselves, they’re on the verge of success, they’re on the verge of making it.” The second meaning, from Thomas’s experience in the South, is in terms of “growing up.” Thomas talked about Bri’s tale being a coming-of-age tale as well. The third meaning refers to Bri’s song in the book titled “On the Come Up,” which Thomas cited as Bri’s “rally cry.”

“You can’t stop me on the come up. You can’t stop me from making something of myself.”

The author expressed her love of hip-hop, her stint as a rapper when she was younger, and how rappers, “the good ones, are great storytellers.” Thomas stated, “You know why kids, teenagers, love hip-hop so much? It’s because it keeps it real with them. It is authentic with them, it doesn’t hold back, and that’s exactly what I want to do as a writer.” The creativity and passion translate across different artistic disciplines, including writing.

When asked about her writing practice, Thomas revealed it to be “an emotional journey.” For her novels, Thomas talked about starting with characters first. While working on Starr’s story in The Hate U Give, Thomas mentioned how she conceived the character of Bri at the same time, and how Bri’s personality differed from Starr’s. “I’m like, okay, this is another character that I need to write. This is how these characters sometimes just blossom to me,” stated Thomas. After conceiving her characters, the next step for Thomas is figuring out the plot. For Bri’s story, a fundamental question Thomas asked herself was: “What does it mean to be a young black person in America when freedom of speech isn’t necessarily free?”

Through her characters, Angie Thomas’s message for young black girls is, “At the end of the day, you have to define yourself. You have to know yourself, and you have to love yourself.”

Currently, Angie Thomas’s books The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, occupy the #1 and #2 spots on the NYT bestseller’s lists, respectively.