Book Review

The lessons you teach

  • Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a bold and daring novel about race that forces readers to view characters hidden in news stories as real, pulsating people
- Richa Bhattarai, Kathmandu

Jan 26, 2019-

Keep your hands visible.

No sudden moves.

Only speak when spoken to.

Sixteen-year-old Starr knows these rules by heart. When she was 12, her parents taught her how to deal with cops, because she isn’t “too young to get arrested or shot.” Starr lives in a predominantly black neighbourhood notorious for its crimes, and the shadow of her ex-convict father looms large. Her parents do all they can to shield her from her bleak, threatening surroundings. But all their caution doesn’t help when a white police officer shoots Starr’s best friend Khalil right in front of her. Ripples of this devastating incident travel far and wide—engulfing Starr in dilemmas of personal safety and public good, blatant and hidden biases, injustice and prejudices. 

Most importantly, this encounter brings to the fore the deeply entrenched racism in American society (and beyond), a monster so sinister and lethal that very few would even dare to look at in its entirety. Author Angie Thomas not only acknowledges this plague of the modern world, she is brave enough to hack it down to its bare roots and lay it out in its gruesome avatars. 

In The Hate U Give, her semi-autobiographical novel, Thomas examines concepts of racial pride and historical othering, white supremacy and systemic discrimination, familial ties and communal strife. 

The issues she sets out to discuss are humongous and discomforting, prickly and often glossed over. The author is aware of the towering challenges, but still makes an effort to deliver important messages in a light, colloquial, relevant tone. She has created relatable characters and enticed readers to jump right into the situation. As Starr makes her journey from a confused highschooler to crime witness to activist, she unfurls an entire canvas of scattered pictures, helping readers examine their own presumptions. It is an especially persuasive tool for young adults, who are sandwiched between felt and foisted identities. Its identifiable teenaged characters, with their quirks of shoe-addiction and food-love, will also help a lot of adolescents feel less lonely and misunderstood.

The novel navigates a narrow path between righteousness and radicalism, and is always careful to choose the least damaging and most uplifting option available, in words and in the life of its characters. At one point, attempting to stay true to its cause while being impartial, rational and politically correct, the novel lurches dangerously and almost skitters off its original intentions into too many directions. This melting of a clear strategy into a hotchpotch is painful to read and takes away from the work’s smoothness and the authenticity of its use of Black Vernacular English. 

The author is, of course, aware of the sensitivity and delicacy of the subject she’s chosen—this awareness creeps into the novel in the form of self-censorship and an attempt to play fair. The work tries very hard to be cool and not preachy, employing contemporary tropes and references ranging from Harry Potter to Beyonce. But it does not completely succeed. Conversations between Starr and her father start off as educational pleasantries and historical discussions, then suddenly escalate into lengthy discussions on race that are forced and textbook-ish. The logic often turns into the childish, the ideas simplistic. 

Despite these niggles on its aesthetic layout, the novel is bold, daring and necessary. It forces readers to view incidents and characters hidden in news stories as real, pulsating people suffering in front of them. Shootings and scuffles that we see on television screens are laid out in words to make us discomfortingly aware of the frightening truth. Kudos also to the author for trying to discern the grey areas in people and personalities, their relationships and beliefs. 

The novel is born out of pure anger and a desperation that is easy to fathom and internalise. That sick feeling when a police officer checks Starr’s father for no reason, the humiliation the children undergo, the constant fear and persecution a whole community has to suffer—Thomas makes us aware of each of these emotions. 

The smoke and mistrust engulfing Starr’s hometown, Garden Heights, is reminiscent of the dystopian scenarios we are so fond of imagining and savouring—without us realising it, the apocalypse has arrived right outside our doors.

The Hate U Give is a warning against our myopia, our inability to acknowledge this glaring malfunctioning of society. It is a raging fire, with flashes of intensely uncomfortable truths, though it can at times lack depth. For readers in Nepal and South Asia, there is a chilling parallel hidden in the racism—our own attitude towards caste, religion or ethnicity. The zeal with which we protect our own heritage while flicking off others’ needs and deriding other customs; the suspicion with which the rich and powerful view those less fortunate than them; the immediate manner in which their skills are negated; the reasoning behind why the privileged grow constantly prosperous and the poorer slump into ever worse poverty. This is a lot for any novel to tackle, so the author can be forgiven if the book appears exhausted and stretched out at places.

At the end of the novel, readers will have a knot in the stomach and bile in their mouths, just like Starr. It is exactly what the writer intends to achieve. Some lessons are so important they must be taught and shared and drilled into our minds until they become indelible. The core substance of this novel is one such lesson. 

Book: The Hate U Give (THUG)

Author: Angie Thomas

Publisher: Walker Books

Pages: 438

Price: Rs 640

 

 

Published: 26-01-2019 10:14

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