Transmuting Pain into Poetry: Angie Thomas’ ‘On the Come Up’

Transmuting Pain into Poetry: Angie Thomas’ ‘On the Come Up’

One of the highlights of my time as a bookseller was experiencing the exponential euphoria of bibliophiles the world over when Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give first hit the shelves, and then getting to hand-sell the hell out of it. Hand-selling, for the uninitiated, is bookshop lingo for successfully convincing a customer to buy a title they weren’t intending to buy when they walked into the store, be it at the till at the moment of purchase or while slyly sidling past them as they browse. It’s both one of the most joyful and most stressful aspects of the job; joyful because you get to rave lovingly about your all-time favourites and ride out the kick when they trust your recommendation, stressful because managers put such relentless pressure on hitting quotas for certain titles, especially books of the month, selected by the invisible hands of the powers that be.

However, there was exactly nothing stressful about hand-selling THUG on account of the fact it is so soul-stirringly good, evidenced by its ongoing domination of the NYT young adult bestsellers list a staggering 92 weeks after its publication, and the stunning film adaptation that swept theatres across the globe in October, starring Amandla Stenberg, Common (which will become even more poignant when you read OTCU), Issa Rae, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Lamar Johnson, Algee Smith, Regina Hall, Sabrina Carpenter, and KJ Apa.

Naturally my favourite hand-sell at Waterstones Piccadilly occurred when a young boy shyly came up to me and asked if I could recommend something that explored race in the US for a school project he had to do. I immediately marched him up to THUG’s pride of place on the ground floor and proceeded to rave for several minutes. His father also went home with a copy.

Needless to say, my anticipation for Angie’s second book was demonstrably immense.

And holy double-vented comfort, Batman, did it not only live up to this hype but surpass it completely.

Now, all of my limited hip hop knowledge has come in reverse through a messianic obsession with Hamilton, like learning about Shakespeare by watching the myriad adaptations that have been wrought over the centuries, from West Side Story to The Lion King. So I know about Biggie’s commandments because Lin-Manuel Miranda wove a tribute to them into the rules of the duels, and about Big Pun because in an interview he was asked to list his 5 greatest rappers of all time off the top of his head. On the Come Up thrums like an electric arc furnace with Angie’s love and respect for hip hop as much as Hamilton does with Lin’s, which was a really fun part of reading it for me. It’s an integral double helix of the book’s DNA, reaching its epic crescendo in the absolute fire of Bri’s flow:

“This is no longer a battle, it’s your funeral, boo. I’m murdering you.

On my corner they call me coroner, I’m warning ya.

Tell the truth, this dude is borin’ ya.

You confused like a foreigner. I’ll explain with ease:

You’re just a casualty in the reality of the madness of Bri.

No fallacies, I spit maladies, ‘causin’ fatalities,

And do it casually, damaging rappers without bandaging.

Imagining managing my own label, my own salary.

And actually, factually, there’s no MC that’s as bad as me.”

The cadence of her lyrics is mesmerising and following Bri’s thought process as she crafts them on the spot, weaving ideas together from the world around her, is so addictive. The first time we meet her she’s about to take part in her first rap battle, waiting for the fateful summons by the MC of the ring:

“Usually I’m cool with an entire hour of not knowing what the President tweeted. Or getting texts from Sonny and Malik (sometimes about shit the President tweeted). But today, I wanna go up to that desk, snatch my phone from the pile, and run out of here.”

And that’s not the only allusion to the Misogynist-in-Chief.

“‘Hold up,’ I say. ‘You mean to tell me that I won the battle, am clearly the better rapper, and yet he’s getting all the buzz?’

‘So basically,’ Scrap says, ‘you won the popular vote and still lost the election.’

I shake my head. ‘Too soon.’”

Savage. Over the course of the next few weeks, desperate to pursue her stratospheric dreams and follow in the footsteps of her idols, she has to navigate fraught relationships with friends and family, contend with rivals in and out of the ring, and deal with violence and vicissitudes at school, all while struggling to keep the lights on at home.

“Sometimes I dream that I’m drowning. It’s always in a big, blue ocean that’s too deep for me to see the bottom. There’s nobody for me to call on, and I know that I’m going to die. But I tell myself that I won’t; that no matter how much water gets in my lungs or how deep I sink, I am not going to die simply because I say so.

Suddenly, I can breathe under water. I can swim. The ocean isn’t so scary anymore. It’s actually kinda cool. I even learn how to control it.

But I’m awake, I’m drowning, and I don’t know how to control any of this.”

Also shout-out to the fact she’s a Fellow Nerd, constantly referencing Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, and comics galore.

“Jay’s a people person. I’m more of a ‘yes, people exist but that doesn’t mean I need to talk to them,’ person.”

Her mum Jay is a force of nature in her life, someone who was once quicksand but who became bedrock. And, for me, she is the true hero and heart of the story. When she tells Bri about life’s “under the bridge” moments was the second of three separate instances this book made me full-on weep. The first was that conversation with Trey. You know the one, beside the fridge. That hit me right in the ventricles for various reasons. And the third was on the last page. Because that was one of the most uplifting endings to a story I have ever read. I was left beaming at my Kindle, dewy-eyed, inspired, empowered.

Honestly, there’s a special alchemical reaction that ignites in your soul, your gut, when you consume a piece of art that resonates with you on a perfect string harmonic, cutting through the air, clear and pure. Reading OTCU really was one of those moments, like having dilithium crystals flung wantonly into the warp core of the imagination. The way Bri grapples with her identity and existential relativity is so powerful, especially how every time the emotions and frustrations and fears build up inside her until she’s about to burst, it all coalesces and entwines into words words words, exploding out of her in impassioned lyrical orations, drawing blood with her pen and hitting arteries (to paraphrase Lin’s verse on ‘Wrote My Way Out’). Like her, I “fiend for that feeling”. She transmutes her pain into poetry with the precision of a master wordsmith. As someone who reaches for a blank page in the darkest moments of life, this was both inspirational and intensely soul-soothing.

The very best works of art make me want to write so urgently I can barely keep the thought trains on their rails while I scramble for pen and paper. The second I finished On the Come Up, words were streaming from my fingers. And that alchemy, right there, just makes everything worthwhile, makes life worth living.

Me with the Walker team at the London THUG premiere
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