For immigrants like Ibi Zoboi, the unnerving process of uprooting and arriving in the United States “feels as though you’ve been transported to a different planet.” With her powerful debut novel for teens, Zoboi’s mission was to write not only about changing cultures, but also about the experience of moving “from one broken place to another.”
American Street starts with a heartbreaking scene: While on her way from Haiti to live with relatives in Detroit, narrator Fabiola Toussaint is separated from her mother while going through Customs at Kennedy Airport in New York. Fabiola, an American citizen by birth, is forced to fly alone to Detroit, while her mother is detained in New Jersey by U.S. Immigration.
As a child, Zoboi lived through a similar experience. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she and her mother moved to the Bushwick area of Brooklyn when Zoboi was 4. She recalls the move as a “tragic shift” marked by the shock of leaving a place full of family for an apartment defined by loneliness. “It was winter,” Zoboi says, speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn, “and my mother [was] gone for long hours to this place called a job. I had TV as my sitter. It defined me as a writer and as a person, that shift.”
Four years later, when she and her mother returned to Haiti for a visit, Zoboi was not allowed to return to America.
“I didn’t know anything about Haitian culture, and I wasn’t allowed to go back home,” Zoboi says. “I was separated for three months and stayed with relatives. My mother worked tirelessly to get me back.”
As the novel unfolds, Fabiola is thrust into the Detroit household of her aunt and three teenage cousins, while the fate of her mother remains unknown. Fabiola experiences her first snowfall and begins classes in a Catholic school that resembles a haunted castle, and it isn’t long before she realizes that she felt safer in Haiti than she does in America.
Since the dangerous, desolate Bushwick neighborhood she knew as a child has been revitalized, Zoboi wanted to place her characters in a modern-day neighborhood that resembles the one she grew up in. She settled on Detroit, and was delighted to discover a road called American Street. Then, in a case of literary serendipity, she located the ideal spot for Fabiola’s relatives to live.
“I’m kind of—not literally—driving down American Street on Google maps and I come across a Joy Road. . . . Where Joy Road and American Street intersect, I see that there are these little shotgun houses very close together, and it hit me right then and there. It’s real: There is an American Street intersection. It was just perfect.”
Zoboi hopes to travel to Detroit to see the intersection in person. “I’m going to take a picture of me standing at the crossroads,” she says.
Such a photo would be spot-on for a novelist who digs deep into what happens when cultures, nationalities, races and religions collide. Fabiola, who believes in Haitian Vodou and spirit guides, soon has a boyfriend named Kasim, who has grown up Muslim. Zoboi hopes her portrayal of Fabiola’s religion might help dispel the negative stereotypes many Americans have of the Haitian faith.
“I’m really passionate about faith in young adult literature, whatever the faith is,” Zoboi says. “That’s who I was as a teenager, looking for some sort of faith, or some otherness. I think a lot of teenagers grapple with that, and I don’t see enough in YA.”
Fabiola is drawn to Kasim’s sweet, gentle ways, but worries about his close ties to her cousin’s boyfriend, a reported drug dealer with a violent temper. Eventually, she’s forced to make an impossible and life-changing choice between her loyalty to Kasim and to her family.
“A reader who doesn’t understand the differences between cultures will see these girls as just black girls. But there is a huge cultural difference.”
Fabiola and Kasim’s relationship was loosely inspired by real-life headlines: When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in 2012, he had been on the phone with a Haitian girl.
Whether speaking of Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend or Fabiola and her American cousins, Zoboi notes, “A reader who doesn’t understand the differences between cultures will see these girls as just black girls. But there is a huge cultural difference.”
Zoboi grew up living this cultural divide. Her fifth-grade teachers looked at her bright Haitian clothes and wrongly assumed she couldn’t speak English. They placed her in an English as a Second Language course, where she felt “invisible.” After studying investigative journalism in college and working at a weekly paper, Zoboi finally felt “seen” when she took to the stage at poetry slams in New York City, becoming part of the spoken word movement. She quit her newspaper job to work in a bookstore, and began taking creative writing courses, eventually earning an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Zoboi’s transformation from fearful immigrant girl to adult writer with a vivid, resonating voice extends even to her name. As a girl, she was called Pascale Philantrope, but as an adult, she changed her name. She chose “Ibi,” Yoruba for “rebirth,” which she felt was a close translation of Pascale, a name tied to Easter. Her new last name comes from husband Joseph Zoboi, a visual artist and educator with whom she has three children, ages 9, 12 and 14.
Filled with precise, hard-edged descriptions, American Street weaves together elements of faith, family, loyalty, race, violence, trauma, American dreams and failures—all bound together in a riveting, tragic tale.