One of my favorite things about writing books is the chance to meet readers and discuss the plot and characters from my novels with them. Considering I don’t have an agent, publicist, and basically do nothing to promote my novels (shame on me, but I’m terrible at it!), I’ve been fortunate to receive invitations from quite a few book clubs. I’ve spoken to groups at several different churches, neighborhoods and one community group. It’s especially rewarding to be invited back to discuss a new book, when you’ve been a guest of the group previously with an earlier novel.
A couple of years ago, I spoke at a group that was open to the public. A local reporter called me to get a phone interview about my book prior to the event. When I arrived, I noticed an elderly man sitting alone. Everyone else was chatting with each other as they arrived, but this gentleman did not interact with anyone else in the group.
Shortly after I began my talk, it became clear why he’d come. He hadn’t read Go Forward with Courage, but he came to “set the record straight” about what happened to the Japanese American citizens who were interned in camps during the war. In his opinion, they got better than they deserved because our government fed and sheltered them and kept them safe. If the tables had been turned, he insisted, the Japanese government would have killed any Americans living on their soil.
It was interesting to see the transformation that occurred in him during the meeting. After allowing him to express his opinion, I politely explained that my book was based on extensive research and first hand accounts. I provided him with the sources to find the information, and others in the room that had read the book informed him that my book paints a very balanced view of what happened, by framing it in the historical context of the times. If you are interested in learning more about Japanese Internment during WW2, Densho.org and The National World War II Museum are both great resources. Just search the archives for interviews from people who lived through the events.
The man began to ask questions, nod when certain points were brought up, and by the end of the meeting he thanked me for allowing him to speak. Nothing prepares a person for this type of encounter. I think that’s why it can be intimidating to accept an invitation to speak at a group where there will be back and forth dialogue, and Q & A. But I love hearing from my readers, and even the occasional “non-reader” who has an opinion about the subject matter.
If you’re a member of a book club, have you ever hosted an author visit? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
This novel gave me more insight into race relations in America than anything I’ve read up to this point. One of the best descriptors I can apply to The Hate U Give is “real”. It is raw, it is gritty, it is sad, and it is even funny in places. But I didn’t find it to be sensationalistic or gratuitous. For parents of younger readers, there is a fairly large amount of language, including multiple F bombs—but staying true to form, it is “real” language for the characters in the novel.
The book condemns police brutality, but not police at large. I appreciate the way Ms. Thomas creates a compelling and likable character who also happens to be a police officer. Having a character like Uncle Carlos creates balance in the narrative, making it clear that not all police officers are racist. I found Starr’s family to be compelling and well developed as characters. Every one of them reminded of someone in my own family. Some of Starr’s high school friends might be a bit stereotypical, yet truthful enough that you’ll likely also see similarities to your own high school friends—we all had at least one that wasn’t great for us, but we found him/her hard to “drop” from our life.
I am not a fan of rap music and know very little about the late Tupac Shakur. However, the meaning of the acronym THUG LIFE really made me think. As a pediatric nurse and certified teacher, I’ve spent my life working with young children. I see kids that seem broken, cynical and filled with rage because of the environment they live in. Some of this has already occurred by the time they enter our public school system in pre-K. As adults in our society, we need to work together and listen to each other in order to find real solutions to the causes of suffering. This was a book that was hard to read in many ways, but it was also a book that I needed to read—and I’m glad I did.
***Spoiler alert*** If you haven’t read The Hate U Give, you might not want to continue reading.
Starr’s life is abruptly changed during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Not only does she see her childhood friend gunned down, she isn’t sure for a long while that she won’t be shot herself. It is just her, her dying friend and the armed police officer who just shot her friend—alone on a dark street, until other first responders arrive on the scene. During these moments, the police officer aims his gun at Starr. The terror she feels during these tense moments comes through to the reader. Her internal monologue as she remembers the rules her parents taught her about interacting with police accompany her increasing anxiety as she watches her friend Khalil breaking those rules one by one. I found myself as the reader silently pleading right along with Starr for him to keep his hands in sight, don’t move, don’t argue, etc.
After the shooting, the police officer testifies that he mistook a black hairbrush in the door of the car for a gun. Khalil opened the door while the officer had walked back to his car to check on Starr. The officer saw this as an attempt to go for the gun and shot him in the back 3 times. The horror of the situation is palpable. Yet, Ms. Thomas creates a scenario that is very plausible.
At first she and her parents want to keep her identity a secret. Her parents want to protect her, as she has already suffered enough. Eventually, they help her understand that sometimes speaking out against injustice is worth the heat you’ll have to take for it if you ever want things to change. One of the best things about this novel is the transformation of Starr, as she becomes stronger and more certain in her beliefs. She also reflects on her own biases, and owns up to feeling ashamed of her friends from her old neighborhood once she starts making friends with affluent kids in her private school. My heart ached for her in the scene where she denies to her two best friends that she even knew Khalil when they ask her if the guy that was shot was her old friend. Any one of us who can remember the angst of our teen years will relate to Starr’s feelings in many ways—especially the way we tended to blame ourselves for things that were never actually within our control in the first place.
Starr’s parents particularly resonated with me. They are torn between wanting to stay in the neighborhood where they were raised and protecting their children from many of the pitfalls that are so common there. Garden Heights isn’t a particularly safe place to live. There are gangs, guns, drug dealers and looting going down. Hearing gunshots sounding at night is a common occurrence there. After Starr’s best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting, her parents decide to move all three of their children to a private school in the suburbs. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn’t safe to remain in the neighborhood, and the family makes the painful decision to leave. We feel the pain and shame Starr’s father battles over his feelings that he’s selling out and abandoning his home to the gangs. It’s heartbreaking.
The most gut wrenching part of reading The Hate U Give is the realization that this story is the reality for thousands of young black men in America. Garden Heights was a fictitious neighborhood in an unnamed city and state in our country, but it could have been anywhere. For the young boys growing up in this neighborhood, there existed a lack of hope—a lack of the promise of a bright future awaiting them. This lack of hope is mirrored in real communities across this country. Starr’s father was able to leave behind the life of gangs and crime, but he makes it clear to Starr that it’s nearly impossible to do. He was only allowed to leave (without being killed) because he took the rap for a gang leader who was facing his third conviction and would have been sentenced to life in prison. Through his character, as well as Devonte and Khalil, it isn’t hard to see why young men in their situation might make bad choices, even knowing the potential consequences. Starr’s half brother Seven was probably my favorite character. The scene at his birthday/graduation party where he confronts his mother was so beautifully written, yet so painful to read. I found myself rooting for him the whole story, and would have been completely devastated if Ms. Thomas had allowed him to die (which I feared in at least two scenes!).
I hope this book creates honest discussion within communities. It is a discussion we need to have in our country, no matter how difficult it is to openly talk about. Of course, I’d love to hear what you thought of this book.
A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.
Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.
When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans. He makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.
It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.
I read an amazing poem last week. I am not generally a fan of poetry, but this one really grabbed my attention. It was written in the 1970’s by Mitsuye Yamada. Her family was taken to a camp along with many other Japanese-Americans during World War 2 after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the interments. The title of the poem is To the Lady, and the very beginning of the poem states, “The one in San Francisco who asked: Why did the Japanese Americans let the government put them in those camps without protest?”
Okay, so already my dander is up! Really? Someone is going to blame the Japanese-Americans for “letting” themselves be put in “those camps”! The poem goes on, filled with irony, listing all of the things Japanese-Americans “should have” done to prevent this from happening to them and then goes on to list all of the things “the lady” would have done to stand up for her fellow Americans. The ending of this poem is probably what really has me pondering it a week later. It ends with the simple phrases:
You let’m I let’m All are punished.
All are punished. That really spoke to me. I’ve been spending so much of my recent past mired down in research of my own family’s history involving slavery. Isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself? Any time a group of people is oppressed for any reason, it is because “we” as a society let it happen. And if it happened once, we’d be crazy to think it couldn’t happen again. All it takes is fear fanned by propaganda, which turns into hysteria. Anything seems justifiable it seems under those conditions.
In writing Burning Prospects, I had to wrangle with my own feelings regarding the fact that my ancestors were slave owners. There were scenes that I wrote with tears streaming down my face. In fact, the novel is dedicated the the slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation. Obviously there is nothing I can do to help them now. However, the legacy of slavery exists today–we see it in the news every day. When we let fear or prejudice influence our actions, we are all punished. Not just the group that is being oppressed…but all of us. It hurts our nation collectively when any citizen is denied the civil liberties promised to us in the Constitution. Why? Because it chips away at our integrity and weakens our nation by dividing us into fragments.
I do find myself grieving the blights on our nation’s history: The Indian Removal Act, slavery, the interment of Japanese-Americans and the Jim Crow laws. Let’s not become “the lady” who would ask why people would “let” themselves be unfairly treated. Instead we should be determined to learn from history and collectively refuse to let history repeat itself.
Yamada, Mitsuye. “To the Lady.” Camp Notes and Other Writings / Mitsuye Yamada.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998. N. pag. Print.