Episode 33

This week, I talked to Shari Okeke about “The Hate U Give,” fantastic book by Angie Thomas. Shari spoke honestly about being a mixed-race woman, raising-mixed race kids, and navigating a world that tries to silence Black women’s voices. Through her work with the CBC, she gives a voice and a platform to young people on her podcasts. I so enjoyed getting to know her and the frank and thoughtful conversation we shared.

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Host: Julie Strauss

Guest: Shari Okeke
Mic Drop Podcast/Doc Project
In our chat, Shari and I talked specifically about a Doc Project episode with Nate Sanders. You can find that episode here:
From Self Hate to ‘Black is Beautiful’: How This Teen is Rising Above the Pain of Racism

Books discussed in this episode:

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen
Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman
Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo

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Hello, bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m so pleased to talk to Shari Okeke. Shari has been a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for 23 years. She’s based at CBC Montreal and is currently producing documentaries for the network program called The Doc Project. She’s also the creator of the CBC podcast Mic Drop, which is part of TRAX from PRX, a collection of free podcasts that offers 9 to 13 year olds authentic, imaginative and original stories. I was so excited for the opportunity to talk to Shari and I can’t wait for you to hear her tell me why “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas is the Best Book Ever.

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Julie Strauss: Hi, Shari, welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.

SO: Hi, thank you for inviting me. 

JS: I was wondering if we could start by you telling me about the work that you do, because I think your work is so fascinating.

SO: Sure. Well, I work in radio, so I work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC Radio in Montreal. And so that’s Public Radio. And I do a lot of features for normally on the local show. I do a lot of features going into different communities and telling all kinds of stories, trying to bring fresh voices all the time. And most recently I’ve been working mostly on my podcast. I produce I produce a podcast called Mic Drop from CBC, and that’s all focused on teens and preteens and their individual stories. Each episode is one teen or preteen sharing a personal story, an adventure, a challenge they face and were able to overcome. And it’s only from their perspective. So you only hear their voice. If there’s someone else in the episode, is because the teen or the preteen wanted to include that person. No adult perspective. You might hear an adult from time to time, but only invited by the teen because it’s someone important to them, someone important to their life into their story. But otherwise, it’s purely their perspective on a whole bunch of different things. And I’m also working on a documentary program with the network called The Doc Project, and I’ll be with them for the next few months. And I’m absolutely loving that because they invited me to come work with them for a while and they said, we want you to play to your strengths. So if you want to do stories about teens, go for it. And so that’s what I’m doing. I have a documentary coming, focusing on the experiences of a 16-year-old boy, and how he has really overcome the pain of racism. I would say he was really suffering and really depressed when he was in the final years of elementary school based on an accumulation of different, very difficult experiences. But he’s gone from a place of literally wishing he was white, as he told me, to now being very proud and very comfortable in his own skin, very proud to be Black and very, very enthusiastic about seeking out information. He’s really educating himself and looking for books. He’s really into books about Black history. He’s learning a lot about Black history in the US and in Canada. And he’s even teaching a former teacher of his. 

JS: What I want to ask you, as a mom and as a service to all parents of teenagers, how do you get teens to talk to you like that? That’s an incredible skill and a gift. And what would you say is the trick of getting that kid to open up to you like that and to be so raw and honest?

SO: It’s going to sound simpler than it is, it sounds so simple, but really I think it’s just about listening. From as open a perspective as possible. So, I’ll just go back to the to the podcast Mic Drop from CBC. It’s on TRAX from PRX with that podcast right from the beginning. Right from the outset we said, this is about you, this is about your stories. We’re not setting the agenda. We’re not saying we’re going to talk about drugs this week. Who wants to talk about drugs? We’re going to talk about bullying this week. Who wants to talk about bullying? We put it wide open. We said we want to hear from you. We want to hear from teens. And what do you want to talk about? This is going to be from your perspective, so that from the outset that generated a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement. We were flooded with responses from different teens who had something to say. What we did was we chose our topics based on what they came forward with. We did make sure we had a mix and we didn’t have everyone talking about the same thing, but it was really led by them. And I have to say, as a mother, I don’t actually talk about being a mother when I’m interviewing any of these teens. I don’t want them to be relating me, or connecting me to the authority figures in their life. I’m just there to listen. It’s all about them. And I just really listen and I don’t judge them or challenge them on what they’re experiencing because I just want to hear what is their perspective. Very different from dealing with my own teens at home, whereas my perspective really weighs in! I think it’s just about trying to meet them where they are. Just trying to listen. That’s very challenging for parents, I can say for myself, I’m the same person doing this. It’s very different when I’m with my girls, I try my best, but I do have a different role. I just try to speak to them with respect. I just don’t try to talk to them. I don’t try to be cool. This is another big thing. I don’t even go there. I don’t try to use any of their slang. I’m not trying to score any points. I’m just very kind of matter of fact and doing my job. And and I think that that helps a lot, too, because they they can tell if you’re trying too hard. And that doesn’t go well. With with my kids, I mean, I am far from the perfect parent or have all the answers. And I’m just like every other parent of teens, just trying to get through the day and hoping I’m not doing too much damage. Just doing my best. But I’ll say to my kids, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer, and I’ll tell them I’m doing my best here. I have a responsibility. You don’t like that I need to do this, but I need to do this.

JS: I’d like to ask you about the role of books in your life, both as a woman and as a mom. The reason I ask that is because this book you chose is the type of book that I think gets passed between parents and children frequently. Books have always been a real source of communication between me and my kids. They will come in and they go, Mom, I really want you to read this book. And I think, fine, I don’t have time for another dragon book, but fine, I’ll read it. And then I read it and I think, oh, there was something in there that this is the actual thing they wanted to talk to me about. I think “The Hate U Give” is that type of book, where a parent would pass it on and say. This is something I want you to know, but I don’t know how to bring it up. Or a child would pass to a parent and say this is something about being a teenager that I want you to know. 

SO: I can’t remember how I came about reading it initially. Over the years, I’ve been in been part of different book clubs. I’m in a book club right now. I think actually I had recommended it to our book club based on just hearing that it was a good book. And after I read it, I casually offered it to one of my daughters to read. I have two daughters. Both of them wound up reading it. And it was probably, I would say, in their sort of pre-teen to teenage life. I think it was the first book that the three of us read and that we had big conversations about. They’ve each been interested in different series of books when they were younger and we had books that we would read together. But I wasn’t always up to date on the series that they were reading. And so this was the first book, I think, that each of us read and we had conversations about my girls and I have had lots of conversations about race prior to reading this book because we’re part of a mixed family and I grew up part of a mixed family. My mom is white. My dad, who passed away a few years ago, was Black. And so we really stood out in the neighborhood that where I grew up. And faced quite a number of challenges and then, as it turns out, wasn’t on purpose or anything, but my husband, I wound up marrying a white Quebecer. We live here in Quebec. His mother tongue is French and he’s perfectly bilingual. And so my kids are also mixed. And so we also stand out, but less so at this point in time than when I was growing up. But still, both my girls face some questions and some comments about where they come from a very young age. And I chose to address those things right away. We’ve talked about it. And we had to talk from a young age about how we don’t look like a lot of other families. Everybody has the same skin tone in other families; we have different skin tones from each other. So we’ve been we talked quite a bit about race, but this brought in more layers. In terms of the neighborhoods that are the main character in the book: Starr lives in one neighborhood; she goes to school in another neighborhood. She lives in a predominately Black neighborhood. She goes to predominantly white school. And so it did bring up very interesting conversations about high school, about trying to impress people in high school, about being preoccupied with your image in high school. Of course, there is the racial injustice that we read about in the book. My girls were very, very interested in this aspect of becoming a hashtag and the performative, what we would today call Performative Allyship, where people are posting a lot of things on social media, but not necessarily helping the situation. Maybe thinking that they’re helping the situation, but not. That’s something that even though my girls read the book a few years ago, they’re still talking about that now because, of course, there’s always, it seems, something going on in the world, in our country or your country, that takes on a life of its own online.

JS: When you told them to read this book, did you tell them I want you to read this as a learning experience, or did you give it to them just because you thought it was a great literature experience? 

SO: I gave it to them because I thought it was a good read. It was a quick read in a sense, although very intense, very some very tense moments. But I just gave it to them without – because if I guide them or if I had said this is going to be a great educational experience, they wouldn’t have read it. They good students, they do well in school, but they don’t want me trying to teach them lessons left and right. So I just gave it to them as an interesting book. But it did lead to great conversations. And so I love that role that books can play, but I can’t force it. Sometimes their interests are can be very different. So when it happens, it’s a special moment. And that’s part of why I love this book for young adults is because it did have that impact. I had a great conversation with our book club when we read it. And then my girls both enjoyed it and we had conversations, the three of us. That’s why this book is so special to me. And I find it a very relevant book today. I mean, it’s only a few years old. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on it in terms of how you how you perceived it the first time you read it compared to how you perceived it more recently. 

JS: Well, it’s interesting you ask that, because the first time I read it as a very singular story of one girl’s experience in one neighborhood. And this time I saw a much bigger. First of all, it was even sadder to me to read this time, because, my God, it’s just not getting better and there are so many more hashtags, we can’t even keep track of them. But this time I saw a much bigger – I was really moved by the conversation the main character’s father had with her when he said that that acronym, Thug Life, does not just refer to singular incidents, but this entire system of explaining why Khalil was selling drugs in the first place. He’s not a bad kid, it is this system that is forcing this kid into this path. And I was profoundly moved by it and I was profoundly moved by the relationship of Starr to her white friend Haley, and then kind of deciding at the end, this cannot go on this friendship because there’s been no progress. 

SO: I think that’s a very common experience, too, because when you’re a young Black girl or even an adult, it’s it’s not always safe or successful when you try to explain to someone who you believe to be a friend who has been a friend to you related to on different levels, when you try to explain that something has been hurtful and potentially racist in its nature, it’s not an easy thing to speak up about because, you know that this could this could go off the rails. And if the person reacts the way Haley did, which is a very common reaction, there’s an entire book about that White Fragility, right? But if if the person reacts like Haley does, then it’s doubly painful. It’s just very hard. I even struggle to wrap my head around how people can react sometimes to being called out on something that was hurtful in a way that suggests that if you dare mention that they hurt you, that that is somehow more offensive than whatever they did to initially hurt you. Just mentioning that this was painful this is painful and here’s why is somehow a greater misstep than the original situation. So your original your feelings that started this conversation don’t really matter. What matters now? My feelings, if you’re suggesting I’m wrong or that I did something wrong. Yeah. So that’s a it’s a very common experience and it’s why those topics are so often avoided. 

JS: That’s what I jotted down in my notes, is that Haley’s concern over being called racist was bigger than her concern about racism as a system and the pain that she caused in the comments that she had made. 
SO: But it’s a very common and very common reaction. And she’s a teenager. A lot of adults make a lot of adults have a similar reaction. And so it is heartbreaking because toward the end, she does say that she’s sorry, but it’s too late. And I think when you’re reading from Starr’s perspective, you understand why it’s too late. And also, Haley apologized, but she didn’t really. She still didn’t own what she had done. Right? She basically said, I’m sorry that you’re upset. As if it’s on you that you’re so fragile that you’re upset. And that’s a real struggle. And again, what I love about this book is, yes, there’s a lot of detail about racial injustice and racism in there, but ultimately the way I see this book is it’s a 16-year-old finding her voice. It is so challenging to do that. And she goes through so much trauma that most of us can’t imagine. I mean, I have not seen the things that this fictional character has seen. She goes through all this trauma, but by the end, she finds her voice and it’s hard and it’s scary. But she’s able to speak publicly to these big issues and she’s also able to speak privately with that friend, or former friend, Bailey. I thought that was really empowering in that, for I would hope that teens who would read it would see that she has gone through all of this and she’s become stronger. It didn’t break her in the end. I find that those stories are really important because I keep coming back to this teenager that I that I’ve so recently been interviewing, but he said to me the reason he was willing to share his story is because he wished that when he was at his lowest point, that somebody had said to him, I’ve been there and you’re going to be OK.

JS: Wow. 

SO: You know, and maybe but who knows? Maybe somebody did say that to him and he just didn’t happen to hear it at the time. I don’t know. We’re going with his perspective. What I suspect is if someone said that to him, it was probably an adult who it. It’s way more powerful for a teen to hear something from another teen, which is which is what I was excited about the Mic Drop podcast to have teens talking to other teens through the podcast. And that’s why I think is powerful to see what Starr goes through. She’s 16, and if a lot of teenagers would experience a lot of what she’s been through, but not everyone will witness the violence that she witnessed. 

JS: Another thing that I really thought a lot about this time was the way she talks about switching her persona the second she steps into her school. There was a meme that went around a lot last summer that said, I wish America loved Black people as much as they loved Black culture. And there’s a line almost identical to that in here, when she’s talking about being Starr at Williamson, her fancy prep school, and Starr at her house. Williamson Star doesn’t use slang. “If a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it. Even if her white friends do, slang makes them cool. Slang makes her hood.” 

SO: I mean, for me, it was it was different because I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up in in a predominantly white suburb at the time. My immediate neighborhood was not different from my school. I lived in the same neighborhood as everyone I went to school with. That being said, my dad, he became a Canadian citizen, but initially he had come to Canada from West Africa. He had come from Nigeria in 1960. He was a young adult at that time. He was an immigrant. It was a mixed family. My mother is white Canadian, but we ate Nigerian food regularly. I mean, we had we ate a mixture of things. So we eat Nigerian food, but we ate lasagna and spaghetti and all the other things that my friends were eating. But we had a few nights a week when we would always have Nigerian food. And I’ve always related to other children of immigrants about like I would have never taken Nigerian food to school for lunch, ever, ever. You would just make sure to be as Canadian as possible when you were at school. And I am Canadian. I mean, I’m born here and I’m absolutely Canadian. But there is a sort of – how could I put it? Particularly in elementary school and high school, there’s just that desperation to fit in and to feel like you belong and to not be standing out. So I would have never worn any sort of traditional Nigerian dress, even though I would have one at home for other things, like those things would be hidden. Or I wouldn’t want friends to come over if we were cooking Nigerian food because it would smell different. That sort of thing. The rules at our house seemed different from the rules at my friend’s houses. They were stricter. It was always stricter rules and in our house. So there is that difference. Definitely, although I think being a mixed child, I I was able to I was able to make the switch almost unconsciously, depending on who I was with, because I grew up with my mom and my dad, who remained married for more than 40 years. I grew up with them together in the same house. When we were with Nigerian side of the family, we kind of knew the cultural norms within that setting. You don’t pass something to my dad or my uncle with your left hand. You just don’t do that. You pass with your right hand there. We just automatically do that. Whereas your guard would be down when you’re with the Canadian side of the family. So it turns out that switching it’s a bit different in my case. But that certainly does go on there. There are probably is probably the same as any any cultural group. There would be things that are that people are more comfortable to say than they might otherwise be, just the way that Star was concerned about how she would appear. How she would come across, she comes across as an angry Black girl. I remember that line and that’s something that many Black women face. The challenge of feeling the need to speak up and deciding, Am I going to seem like an angry Black woman in this situation, is someone going to treat me that way?
JS: That sounds exhausting.

SO: Yes, it is exhausting.

JS: Do you read a lot of Y.A.? I believe this is categorized as Y.A.

SO: Yeah, it’s categorized as Y.A. I think I was reading more Y.A. a few years ago when I first read this book, not as much recently. 

JS: What kind of books are normally on your bookshelf? What’s your preferred genre? 

SO: Well, right now I have a very tall pile of non-fiction books to get to. But I’m very grateful that I’m part of a book club which introduces me to books that I might not have otherwise picked up. We just finished reading Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen. Have you heard of that book?

JS: I’ve heard of him. I don’t know that book. What’s it about? 

SO: I don’t know if you’d call it satire, but it takes place in Palm Beach and there’s a president and a first lady who are throwing balls and there are supporters of theirs. And there’s a I guess a mystery, you could say, that comes about. But it’s very cheeky. It’s fiction, but it sounds very familiar to the times that we’re in, there’s this president is facing reelection and – Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.

JS: Did your book club like it?

SO: My book club mostly liked it.

JS: How are you doing book clubs in in pandemic season?

SO: We meet on Zoom. So, the meetings are shorter than they otherwise would be because no one can really handle it for more than an hour. But it’s still fun. It’s nice to connect and toss around some titles and I’m really excited for the next. We’re alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Our next our next book is about the man behind. WeWork.

JS: I didn’t know there was already a book about that guy.

SO: Yeah, there’s a book about him. The other one that I’m super excited about is “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo. She tied with Margaret Atwood for the Booker Prize in 2019. I’ve heard great things about this book and I can’t wait to dive into that. So that’s next on my list. 

JS: I do want to ask: what did your book club think of “The Hate U Give.”

SO: It was quite a while back, but if I recall correctly they did appreciate it. I mean, of course, there’s always some readers who would prefer not to read Y.A., but overall, it was a perspective that was new to them. I’m the only Black person in the book club. We all contribute to the suggestions, so I tend to suggest authors who are Black or women of color. That’s what I try to do when I contribute to the book list. I recall that, that they did appreciate it as a different point of view. 

JS: That’s interesting that the objection was to the age and not to the racial themes. I guess that’s somewhat promising. 

SO: Definitely no big arguments on it. 

JS: Shari, I can’t tell you how interesting this has been talking to you. Will you tell our listeners where they can find you and your work online?

SO: Sure. You can find Mic drop at TRAX from PRX where Mike Drop is featured. We’re really proud to be one of many podcasts for 9 to 13 year olds. I hope that your listeners check that out. There’s lots of fiction, there’s nonfiction, there’s a whole universe of podcasts there for young people. My most recent work, the documentaries that I’m working on, are with the Doc Project at CBC.

JS: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with me today.

SO: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been fun.

Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website BestBookEverPodcast.com, or follow the podcast on Instagram @BestBookEverPodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere @JulieWroteABook. Remember when you’re doing your book shopping, please help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop.com/Bestbookever. 

Thank you for joining me today and I will see you at the library.

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