American Street by Ibi Zoboi

“We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood. The result is more jagged than smooth.”

-Ibi Zoboi, Author’s Note

American Street by Ibi Zoboi–a Haitian immigrant author–begins with opportunity and heartbreak as Fabiola Toussaint finally makes it from Haiti to America while her mother is set to be deported back.

Fabiola soon discovers that her aunt and cousins who sent for them have absconded their Haitian heritage to become fully “Americanized.” As the sole representative of her culture, Fabiola becomes “Fabulous,” a brave teen who approaches the challenges of inner city Detroit with the magical realism of her Haitian Vodou culture. Her desire to bring her mother back sees her navigate love, loyalties, and problems in her community.

Zoboi’s first novel is brilliantly written, vividly transcribed in the magic of Fabiola’s culture. That being said, it also very quickly degenerates into some disappointingly obtuse stereotypes of black American girls–including superficiality, perpetual female in-fighting, using drug dealing as the only legitimate source of income, and cyclic (almost valorized) domestic abuse. As honest as this may be to many personal experiences, including perhaps Zoboi’s, I found the text too often offensive and problematic for young people looking for a window into the black and immigrant narrative. It was offensive not at the inclusion of these themes, but in its treatment.

As the son of a Jamaican immigrant woman, I was looking for a mirror to validate some of my own family’s experiences between Canada and America. This book did not provide that; Fabiola valued family loyalty and selfish personal relationships over justice in explicit and problematic ways. Young people looking for a window into immigrant culture will entirely miss the narrative of hard-working Caribbean men and women that was the story of my family and my first generation peers’ families. There must also be more done in a novel like this to explicitly take issue with the horrific domestic abuse in teen relationships seen in the story.

I wish this text could intentionally and consistently problematize these stereotypes more, as Gene Lang did in American Born Chinese. Alas, the text was a bit too ambitious with other themes–like romance, culture shock, family loyalty, and (somewhat) police brutality–to significantly question these facets.

I recommend this book for young people looking for accounts of diverse experiences and magical realism narratives, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it for an accurate or healthy portrayal of immigrant (or black American) subcultures.

By Kashmeel McKoena

Zoboi, Ibi. American Street. New York, NY: Balzer Bray, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

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