Mark Oshiro’s contemporary YA fiction is an incredibly moving story about community, about love, and about taking a stand against prejudice and violence, even when it seems completely hopeless, and it is especially difficult to read. Especially for someone like me, caught up in my own privilege and ignorant of the struggles faced by people targeted by systematic oppression. I don’t look like any of the characters in this book. I have not experienced what they have experienced, and because of that Anger is a Gift feels like a work of dystopian fiction to me, but it’s not. It’s the terrifyingly real experience of people of color, not only in Oakland but in cities across the United States. Police brutality takes countless victims everyday, and everyday the friends and families of those victims are trying to fight back, trying to speak out, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But it does, and it continues to. And to some of us, it is only a problem, but to others, namely the characters in Anger is a Gift, it is life or death.
Outside of the book’s unflinching examination of institutionalized racism and oppression in this country, it is also a beautiful take on friendship and acceptance, with an amazing cast of queer, trans, Latinx, asexual, and non-binary characters. The friendships between the group of teenagers at the book’s center are so adorable and supportive, I wanted them all to be my friends too. Moss, a somewhat geeky sixteen year old with an anxiety disorder is the book’s passionate narrator, whose father was unlawfully shot and killed by police six years prior. He attends a dilapidated high school with crumbling steps, peeling paint, and fewer textbooks than students. Things escalate quickly after a school police officer assaults a student and metal detectors are put in, as if it were the student’s fault. Moss and his friends talk about their frustration, anger and sadness regarding the incident candidly and fiercely, and they plan rallies and protests and social media campaigns with purpose. “We just want to go to school,” one of Moss’ friends, Kaisha says during a protest rally. “I’m sixteen. I shouldn’t have to beg for that. But we just want to get to class without fearing for our lives.” The kids in Oshiro’s story are angry and they feel powerless against the disenfranchisement they face on a daily basis, from the sorry state of their school to the abusive officers patrolling it, to the condescending “help” of liberal white saviors in the surrounding suburbs, it seems that they just can’t get a break. Moss’ mother, Wanda, is the role model every child deserves, and she tells her son and his friends in the wake of these tragedies that the way they feel and what they have to say is important; a powerful message to teenagers of color everywhere. “Anger is a gift,” she says, “you gotta grasp on to it, hold it tight and use it as ammunition.”
Moss is dealing with violence and racism on a daily basis and a school that has money for cops and metal detectors but not for books, and on top of that he has to move through this incredibly complicated and messed-up world with an anxiety disorder. At the sight of police cars, Moss often has to fight off panic attacks with every fiber of his being. He struggles with body image and social anxiety, wondering if his friends actually like him, while at the same time wondering if they’re safe. Oshiro, with his flawless character development and emotional writing, gives us a complex and relatable character in Moss, and I am still thinking about him now, days after reading his final dialog.
Anger is a Gift is a love letter to those who stand up for what is right, for those who see injustice and do everything they can to stop it, even when no one is listening. For the rest of us, it is a call to action, and it provides context on how to do this. Be a good ally, don’t make yourself the center of other people’s struggle. Listen, provide support, and shut up. But don’t shut about about this book—read it now, read it to your friends, read it again. It is a gift.
This review was generously provided by Busboys and Poets Supervisor Laura Lannan.