“We need diverse books,” is the cry of the book community. Well, Haitian-American Ibi Zoboi is meeting that need with her Young Adult novel American Street, released this spring. In the tome, Zoboi writes about Fabiola Toussaint, a teen who leaves Haiti with her mother, but who ultimately has to fend for herself in the United States when her mother is detained by immigration authorities.
Kreyolicious: When did you decide, “Okay, I’m going to write a Young Adult novel!”
Ibi Zoboi: There wasn’t any one moment that I decided that I would write a Young Adult novel. I think I’ve always written YA because my characters were mostly teens. The first novel I wrote featured seventeen year-olds, and I never thought it was Young Adult fiction. I’ve written other novels featuring twelve year-olds as well. Also, Young Adult novels can cover a broad range of topics and issues, and it’s for any reader. The only thing that makes it YA is that the story is told from a teen’s perspective. Teenhood is such an important time where you’re just discovering the world and your place in it, and you make stupid mistakes. That’s why the genre is so popular right now. Young adulthood was when we asked questions and everything was brand new.
Kreyolicious: You call your novel American Street, and the last name of the heroine Fabiola is Toussaint. These aren’t simple coincidences?
Ibi Zoboi: Of course, not. Everything is symbolic in my stories. American Street is an actual street in Detroit. The story takes place on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, an actual intersection on the west side of Detroit. This is, in fact, an American story. And I’ve always known that Toussaint means “all saints” and it’s the first name of our Haitian revolutionary hero, Toussaint L’ouverture. The novel features some saints or lwas [voodoo gods], and my character has to write a paper on Toussaint. These are just symbolic seeds that I plant here and there so that culture and history continue to live on through story.
Kreyolicious: Is there a part of Ibi that’s in Fabiola, or is there some Fabiola in Ibi?
Ibi Zoboi: Yes, Ibi can be just as naive as Fabiola. Sometimes I see the world wide-eyed and with lots of wonder and awe. And I will also fight for a loved one as Fabiola does. At times, I don’t always know the rules of the game. Or maybe, I choose to ignore them. But like Fabiola, I care deeply about family and culture, and I’ve very observant and thoughtful.
Kreyolicious: Even the most confident writer has their moments. Were there challenging times for you as to put your plot together and were working towards the finished product?
Ibi Zoboi: I was very worried about how I presented my characters. I’m writing about Haitians and Haitian-Americans in ways I haven’t seen before. I was careful about perpetuating stereotypes. But 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 step into 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.
This concludes Part I of the interview with Ibi Zoboi. Be on the look out for PART II of the interview.