#ReadForChange: American Dreams and Nightmares in Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, a guest post by Marie Marquardt
Teen Librarian Toolbox is excited to be partnering with Marie Marquardt for her #ReadForChange project. Hop on over to this post to learn more about the initiative. Today, she writes about Ibi Zoboi’s powerful novel, American Street.
“I want to look happily forward. I want to be optimistic. I want to have a dream. I want to live in jubilee. I want my daughters to feel that they have the power to at least try to change things, even in a world that resists change with more strength than they have. I want to tell them they can overcome everything, if they are courageous, resilient and brave. Paradoxically, I also want to tell them their crowns have already been bought and paid for and that all they have to do is put them on their heads. But the world keeps tripping me up. My certainty keeps flailing.”
- Edwidge Danticat, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race
“If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.”
This is the first line of American Street, the gorgeous, spirit-filled story of Fabiola Toussaint, a U.S. born teen who has spent almost her entire life in her family’s homeland of Port-au-Prince Haiti. After being separated from her Manman [mother] when they arrive at Kennedy airport, Fabiola travels alone to live with her cousins on the west side of Detroit, where she must learn to navigate an entirely new world that’s not at all what she expected.
Fabiola’s story unfolds in and around her aunt’s house “on the corner of American and Joy.” Her experience of trying to fit into the neighborhood and school offers an open, honest examination of segmented assimilation, institutional racism, poverty, violence, and the effects of white supremacy. Her story also reminds readers of the trauma experienced when children and teens are separated from their parents by detention, and the helplessness so many feel in the face of the immigration detention system.
But the story offers so very much more: Fabiola, striving to fit in while also struggling to reunite with her detained mother, is my favorite sort of teen protagonist: the one that readers root hard for, even when she makes decisions that we know won’t take her where she hopes to go. Zoboi also brings readers inside the perspective of those who surround Fabiola. Her cousins, her aunt, her boyfriend, her neighbors, and even the street where she lives each have space, in this novel, to share their own story, from their own perspective. By telling the story from multiple points of view, Ibi Zoboi stridently resists the urge to stereotype the residents of Fabiola’s new neighborhood.
Zoboi writes beautiful prose that interweaves Haitian religion’s vibrant spirit world. Fabiola is a Vodou practitioner, and this runs through the novel, with the Iwa [Vodou gods or spirits] playing central roles as enigmatic characters. Engaging the rich traditions of Vodou, Ibi Zoboi actively resists distortions of the religious traditions of Haiti, which also have become an important part of the American religious landscape.
Reflecting on the experience of reading Fabiola’s story, and on the opening line of American Street, I realize that Fabiola has broken the glass with her thoughts. She brings readers deep inside her spiritual and emotional life, and on a troubled journey to feel part of one particular American community. The result is a gorgeous story that will stay with you for a very long time.
“I know for a fact…”: Insights & Inspirations from Ibi Zoboi
Ibi and I weren’t able to connect for an interview in time for this post, but I did manage to draw some inspiring and challenging words from her. You can follow the links to hear more from Ibi about why she wrote American Street, and about how she’s working to create change.
On what inspired her to write this story:
“Fabiola’s story is a little bit of my story and the stories of so many other Haitians I know. I was born in Haiti and I came to the U.S. with my mother when I was four. Although Fabiola is a teenager, I shared many of her world views as a child. My own mother was never detained, but on a trip back to Haiti when I was eight, I was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. My mother did everything she could to get me back. I also still have siblings and family living in Haiti. So many of them have tried and failed to obtain a visa over the years. With so much change going on in Haiti right now, I’m sure that many families are struggling with the same issues. I wanted to highlight one teen girl’s experience. But the story is much, much more than immigrant narrative.” (Woy Magazine, Link to the source here.)
On her responsibility as a writer, in the context of violence and trauma:
“I know for a fact that we all have experienced immigration and assimilation in different ways. I tried to remedy that by literally giving each of my characters a voice. I had to step in their shoes for a moment in order to humanize them. I have a responsibility as a writer to provide context for the violence and trauma so that my characters are not one-dimensional.” (Kreyolicious, Link to source here.)
On what words she’d share with Haitian-American teenage women:
“[Do] not be afraid to be critical, especially in this day and age. I want them to build the confidence to speak up. I want them to be fearless.” (School Library Journal, link to source here.)
“Provide a context”: Great reads & resources to give context for American Street
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Yes, yes. I already recommended this anthology of essays in January, but – as you can see by these Edwidge Danticat quotes – it’s that good.)
Haiti, History, and the Gods by Joan Dayan – I wouldn’t dare to claim that this is an easy read, but it absolutely is worth the effort, bringing a complex understanding of both Haitian history and the practice of Vodou.
The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, By Jonathan M. Katz – Have you ever wondered what happens after all the ‘Go Fund Me’ campaigns and huge international disaster relief efforts? This account by a journalist who was in Haiti for a long time after the earthquake is both eye-opening and a great read.
If you’re looking to learn more about immigration detention and get up-to-date information on changes in policy, take a look at the very informative websites of these two advocacy organizations: Detention Watch Network and End Isolation: CIVIC.
And I can’t resist recommending this beautiful picture book that tells a Haitian girl’s story of being separated from her mother by detention: Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation.
“Build the Confidence to Speak Up…”: Where to go to get involved
Ready to take action? Here are a few recommendations for organizations and movements that are building a more just world by opening space and opportunity for young adults. The first of these groups focuses especially on those whose lives are impacted by detention and deportation. The others, recommended by Ibi Zoboi, work with young people whose voices are underrepresented in leadership. They create space, opportunity, and platforms for young activist leaders to craft and share their own stories, as a way to make social change.
United We Dream: The largest immigrant youth-led community in the United States, working to “transform fear into finding your voice”
http://communitywordproject.org/ “ Community-Word Project is a New York City based 501(c)(3) arts-in-education organization that inspires children in underserved communities to read, interpret and respond to their world and to become active citizens through collaborative arts residencies and teacher training programs.”
http://www.sadienash.org/ “Sadie Nash Leadership Project was founded in 2001 to promote leadership and activism among young women. The program is designed to strengthen, empower, and equip young women as agents for change in their lives and in the world.”
And a final note… “May that day come…”
Edwidge Danticat ends the essay excerpted above with these powerful words to her daughters: “’You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,’ James Baldwin wrote. Or you see. Or you weep. Or you pray. Or you speak. Or you write. Or you fight so that one day everyone will be able to walk the earth as though they, to use Baldwin’s words, ‘have a right to be here.’ May that day come, Mira and Leila, when you can finally claim those crowns of yours and put them on your heads. When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.” (From “Message to my Daughters” in The Fire this Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race)
“…but then you read” and you #ReadForChange!
Here’s a link to the giveaway of Ibi Zoboi’s American Street. We’ll be announcing the winner on Twitter @MarieFMarquardt and Instagram marie_marquardt on April 1.
Meet Marie Marquardt
Marie Marquardt is the author of three YA novels: The Radius of Us, Dream Things True, and Flight Season (available 2/20/18). A Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Marie also has published several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives with her spouse, four kids, a dog and a bearded dragon in the book-lover’s mecca of Decatur, Georgia.
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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