Mark Oshiro has been writing on the internet for more than a decade, most notably via his delightful review website Mark Does Stuff. This summer, he broke out of the internet and onto the pages of a book with his debut novel Anger is a Gift, a young adult fiction about a group of teenagers who stage a walkout at their high school when one of their friends is injured by a metal detector.
“[Anger is a Gift] is part autobiographical,” Oshiro told us at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con. “I wanted to write a high school that looked a lot like my own. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized having a resource officer and having disciplinary procedures manned by police officers was not normal in this country.”
A resource officer is a police officer who is stationed on a school campus, handling disciplinary actions. Oshiro said that for some young adult and adult populations who read Anger is a Gift, the concept of a resource officer is something they have only encountered in fiction, whereas, for some demographics, it is the first time seeing this part of their own high schoool experience in the pages of a book.
“[Kids] will tell me, ‘I’ve never seen one in a book before,'” said Oshiro of his school visits. “There’s this huge conversation about representation in young adult literature and one of the things that’s been very interesting is getting to meet kids who tell me, ‘I see myself in this school environment. I’ve never seen my high school represented in a book.’ So it’s been interesting. I don’t know, it’s weird putting yourself into a book in your experience and then people react to it and then feel like they know you super well, which they do because I was very honest in this book.”
Anger is a Gift is an example of #OwnVoices, which, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to marginalized authors writing about characters who share aspects of their own, traditionally underrepresented identities. It is the difference, for example, between white writers writing about characters of color versus writers of color writing about characters of color.
“I think one of the other things that’s been really striking about the reactions from teenagers versus adults is that so many of the teens are saying, ‘We’re not used to stories like this,'” said Oshiro. “Most of my school visits have been in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, and Oakland. So I’m mostly speaking to brown and black kids about an issue that is very near and dear to them.”
Oshiro recounts a school visit in the Bronx during which he entered the school through a metal detector. When he told the kids that his book was about a group of school kids who live that same reality, they were immediately engaged and surprised that someone could write a mainstream book about issues so relevant to their lives. Two major issues explored in Anger is a Gift are police brutality and systemic racism.
“I had another kid raise their hand in that classroom and say, ‘Do the cops win in the end?'” said Oshiro. “And I was like, ‘Well, spoilers. I’m not going to tell you that.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I need to know.’ And I was like, that’s a reaction that I would not and have not gotten from an adult. These kids are living that reality all the time and they don’t want to read a book where they lose in the end.”
Oshiro pulled the kid aside afterwards to answer his question.
While Anger is a Gift is grounded in the realities of our contemporary world, the novel actually began life as a speculative fiction story. Like so many of us, Oshiro grew up obsessing over genre storytelling in particular, so when he set out to write his first novel, there was no question it would fall into the fantasy and/or science fiction genres he so loves.
“The whole book, by the way, is a reaction to Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually,” said Oshiro. “That is what initially inspired the kernel of an idea that became the book. It just sort of naturally fell into this science fiction story. It was initially a book about how technology can be used to control people.”
Oshiro finished his science fiction dystopian thriller and sent it out to literary agents in the hope of finding representation. He got a lot of rejections over the course of two years until one agent asked for a “rewrite and submit,” in which an agent asks the author to address certain aspects of the manuscript and resubmit it for a second pass.
“He told me, ‘I love this character. I love his voice,'” recounts Oshiro. “‘We don’t have very many young adult books that are dealing with things like police brutality and violence in high schools. His narration is so searing and so important. You also wrote a science fiction book and sort of stuck it down on top of it and it’s kind of smashing everything together. Write one of those books, and send me only that one.’ Which is, by the way, very difficult feedback to get at first. I basically just laid on the couch for a week and didn’t breathe and was just like, ‘That’s a lot. I don’t want to do that. That’s so much work.'”
Oshiro wrote the outlines for two versions of his book: one, a contemporary story; the other, a science fiction.
“Whichever outline felt closest to my heart, the one that I felt the most passion for, was going to be the version I wrote,” said Oshiro. “I wrote the contemporary one first because I was like, ‘I don’t write contemporary. This will be easy and I know it’ll be terrible.’ And never bothered with the science fiction one because it felt so right and I was like, ‘Oh my god, he was right. He was right. This feedback is great.’ So it ended up turning into a contemporary book.”
While it may be contemporary fiction, Anger is a Gift maintains the deep interest in technology that was a part of that original science fiction thriller manuscript.
“I’ve had science fiction fans come up to me and tell me that, even though they know it’s contemporary and all the technology in it is real, they really liked it as a science fiction fan because it almost felt like sci-fi light because science and technology still play a part in it,” said Oshiro. “It’s just the metal detector and the issues of how police forces in the United States use technology in their day-to-day lives. That stuff is still very real but it has that almost science fiction flavor, if that makes sense.”
Another element of Anger is a Gift readers have latched onto is the broad, dynamic diversity of the story. The novel follows queer black teen Moss Jeffries. Moss’ world is filled with the kind of diversity that exists in the real world, but rarely makes it into the pages of fiction.
Identities represented in Anger is a Gift through the various, well-realized characters that inhabit its pages include: black, Latinx, disabled, Muslim, undocumented, asexual, bisexual/biromantic, nonbinary, trans, gay, lesbian, adopted, transracial. Their stories are not ones defined by tragedy, but by community, support, and coming together to work towards a more inclusive, just world.
Unlike many young adult books, Anger is a Gift has a plethora of supportive adult characters who support the teens in that pursuit. This includes Moss’ mother, a source of comfort and support for our protagonist.
“YA fiction’s about teens finding power and teens finding their own ways to do things and solving problems without adults,” said Oshiro. “I very much wanted to write a book where the main character, Moss, is trying to find these solutions, but what if he had a parent that he was not antagonistic with?”
Anger is a Gift may not be a science fiction thriller, but it can still feel dystopian in its unflinching depiction and exploration of some of the most infuriating realities of our contemporary times. The diversity included in the book offers readers so many entry points into what can be a hard world to spend time in, whether you have real-life experience dealing with unjust realities like police brutality and systemic racism or not.
“It’s interesting that a lot of adults come at it, and the people they’re gravitating to are the adult characters versus the teenage ones,” reflects Oshiro. “Then, if you go with demographics, my main character’s gay so I tend to have the people who are most, I guess appreciative of the book are young queer teenagers who are like, ‘Thank you for writing a book with an openly queer teenager who doesn’t deal with homophobia and doesn’t deal with parents who don’t accept them.’ Everyone comes to a book with their own history and so it has been really fascinating to see what people take away from it.”