Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

My cousins are hurting. My aunt is hurting. My mother is hurting. And there is no one here to help. How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points a the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.

Seventeen year-old Fabiola and her mother came to America to live with her cousins and aunt, to start over with the “good life” in America. Yet, as Fabiola crosses into customs, her mother is left on the other side, detained and not able to enter. Fabiola is forced to go on without her, to begin to live the “good life” without her mother. Yet this “good life” isn’t anything like Fabiola imagined. Fabiola must learn to navigate life in Detroit as she seeks help from her spirit guides to make her family whole again.

Audience and Privilege
While I’m rating American Street as a four-star book, this is another book, much like The Hate U Give that ultimately wasn’t for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I absolutely did and plan to recommend it within my friend-group widely. That’s also not the say the author doesn’t want white readers, but simply to say that at the end of the day, if I hadn’t enjoyed this book, it’s not my place to review it poorly. The experiences of Fabiola and her cousins in American Street are representative of real lives—people who live lives I cannot imagine and who make choices I have never had to make, largely because of the color of my skin and the place of privilege I occupy. If I didn’t like the book because I didn’t relate to it or understand it, then that is reflective of me and not the book.

(FTR–I do appreciate the irony in my reviewing books written by authors of color while simultaneously questioning white authors who write about the experiences of people of color as with Trell and Killers of the Flower Moon. There are enough white authors trying to speak for people of color that I never want to take someone else’s place to speak their story. Even in reviewing books, there are inherent biases at play—even as I try to be aware of my privilege and how it can drive my reactions to books, no one is completely aware of or able to separate themselves from their privilege.)

I did not, however, want to skip reviewing this book. While I don’t have a large audience, I do want my blog to serve as a place to find books you might otherwise not read. I try to read widely and have pretty diverse taste (so long as its well-written!) so it is my hope that there is a little something from everyone here.

With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and review American Street so that perhaps, Reader, you might pick it up when you would have otherwise missed it. I wouldn’t have picked it up myself if Jennifer Latham, author of Dreamland Burning, hadn’t recommended it during her author chat for the MMD book club at the beginning of the summer.

One of the things that made American Street so powerful for me was the author’s use of a limited point of view to tell a far wider-reaching story than the reader realizes at the beginning. The entire story is told from the point of view of Fabiola, a recent immigrant from Haiti whose mom is detained when they try to return to the United States where Fabiola was born seventeen years before. Because there are some ways in which it is obvious—clothing, makeup, culture—that Fabiola is Naïve—with a capital “N”—it is easy to see only those little things and miss the forest for the trees. Because the reader’s view is limited by Fabiola’s ability to experience and grasp what is going on around her, the events of the end of the book are all the more shocking. Fabiola didn’t see them coming and so, to a large extent, I didn’t either. I’m fairly good at picking up surprising twists or at least knowing one is coming, and I did not see where this book was going to go until I was almost on top of it. And then I desperately wanted to be wrong. Zoboi’s use of point of view here was masterful and not something that is this well done very often.

Characters and Magical Realism
To make sense of the word around her, Fabiola connects the people around her to her lwas, or Haitian spirit guides. For some characters, this makes them more sympathetic and adds a layer of richness to the character development—her cousin Donna is Ezili-Danto—the lover and the beauty who is also the warrior. Two sides, one person. For others, like Bad Leg, the homeless man across the street, seeing him as the lwa Papa Legba imbues the book with a layer of magical realism that then opens the door to events that are not entirely realistic, yet still fit within the larger scheme and story of the book.

Immigrant Experience
Much of the charm of American Street comes down to Fabiola’s experiences as being out of her culture.   While the slips are frustrating to Fabiola, they are charming to the reader and serve to remind readers how young she is–both literally and in experience.  Fabiola, while naïve, has been well-loved by her mother and well-cared-for. Her cousin’s home—literally on the corner of American and Joy streets—was the Promised Land where everything would better. So when Fabiola is dropped into this intersection, without her mother, into a foreignness she did not expect, she has to remind herself to be happy, to smile because this is the “good life.”

My heart aches for her in these moments. I know what it is to have small disappointments result from my expectations not meeting reality, but the magnitude for Fabiola is staggering. For Fabiola, it is another earthquake—the foundations cracked, the earth roiling under her feet. Yet even in Haiti during the earthquake, she had friends and neighbors, her mother. Here she has no one. Fabiola has to navigate not only what it means to become an American but also how to life a life different and more disappointing than the one she imagined for herself when she and her mother planned to come to America, all without seeming ungrateful to her cousins and aunt who barely have enough to provide for another mouth.

Like The Hate U Give or, to a slightly lesser extent, When Dimple Met Rishi, this is a YA book that skews towards older/heavier themes. Some of the common elements of YA are here—Fabiola is besotted with Kasim, a teenage boy equally smitten with her. He “invades” her every thought and takes her on some dates that teenage boys would do well to take notes on. The limited sex scenes are just that—very limited—and tastefully vague. I don’t think there’s much to worry about there.

My labeling the book as being more of an older YA book, however, stems from the larger themes. Here as in Sing, Unburied, Sing, there are characters selling drugs, yet as with Ward’s characters, these characters are nuanced, with good reasons to be making these choices (even if they are, ultimately, the wrong choices). There is also violence throughout the book, as the neighborhood is rough and Fabiola’s cousin Donna is in a volatile, abusive relationship. These themes and violence would make me hesitate to recommend the book to anyone under sixteen, and even then, if a teenager were reading this, this would be a book to read and unpack together.

This is a book I highly recommend, particularly for people who are trying to read more diversely. Fabiola is lovely and it is difficult for the reader not to feel deeply empathetic for her and want the best for her. The events of the book are rough, but frankly, so is life for many teenagers living in Detroit in 2017. The book is well-written, though the dialogue is accurate for how teenagers would speak (so the vocabulary would be NSFW).

Reviews by people of color
If this review intrigued you, you should also check out the reviews from Rich in Color and Epic Reads.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Ibi Zoboi (@ibizoboi)
Date read: September 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

The beautiful metal print in the background of the picture in this post is by artist A’Driane Nieves.  Her work can be found here.

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