Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

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