YA & Activism: Angie Thomas at MWF17

By Rebecca Gough

Angie Thomas delivered the first YA keynote talk ever at Melbourne Writers Festival and she made our hearts sing.

“Today I’m here to beg you to change the world.” Angie Thomas

Her passionate statement was that as writers, changing the world is possible – we have the power to do it. Her debut young adult novel The Hate U Give certainly has had transformative power. It’s a brilliant, surprisingly funny, heart-rending, endearing book. You can read my review of it here.

“Kids like me were the sassy sidekicks, or wisdom-givers.” Angie Thomas

Angie didn’t see herself as a protagonist in fiction growing up, which is completely stereotypical and ridiculously unfair. So instead of books like Twilight or The Hunger Games, Angie turned to hip-hop music for inspiration and guidance. Hip-hop was started by teens, it was a way for them to have a voice, a way for them to convey what matters to them.

“Hip-hop taught me that art can be a form of activism. Rappers told stories that I saw me in … they said that I mattered.” Angie Thomas

Angie, through her writing, has changed the way many black teens see themselves, in the same way that hip-hop changed her. Through The Hate U Give, kids have approached her, saying that they didn’t know they could be a writer like her, because they’d never had a person of colour as a role model before. Every example they’d seen before Angie had been white. She proved, showed, that their voices mattered.

Throughout her keynote Angie says that she wanted to be real with her readers. The real-world issues, the real-world villains – as authors we have to show that they’re there. Angie pointed out that we’re writing for a generation of teens that will vote to shape our countries in the future. If we encourage empathy now, portray diversity accurately and extensively, writing can enable connection and empathy. Discomfort makes us examine ourselves, and discomfort is where real change occurs. Only by looking inward can we change what’s around us. 

“I wanted this not to be political, but to be personal. Through Starr’s eyes, I did that.” Angie Thomas

Starr, the protagonist in The Hate U Give, is written with innocence and authenticity. Angie always wanted to make Starr authentic, so black girls could see themselves represented. Starr’s parents are also present because loving black families with two parents exist, and she wanted to convey that. 

“If you show why a character does what they do, that can break stereotypes. Show the whys, show the human, show the heart … if somebody says you wrote it wrong, don’t push back. Listen.” Angie Thomas

She ended her keynote in such an uplifting, inspiring, and heart-rending way. It was incredible to be in the audience and I was holding back tears when we all applauded! Because of THUG, because of the political state of America at the moment, Angie says she has hope now, because people are speaking up and taking action, actively resisting … and I have hope too.

“Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. You can’t please everybody.” Angie Thomas

You can listen to the full audio of this event here:

Rebecca Gough is a 24-year-old Melbourne-based blogger who began blogging on Instagram back in 2016. With her self-proclaimed ‘perpetual online bookish presence’, Rebecca also posts reviews on her blog Bec’s Books and engages with the community via Twitter. Her favourite genre is fantasy.

Photography credit: Sorell Wilson