Haitian-born Ibi Zoboi came to Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood in the 1980s, at the age of four, with her mother. Today Bushwick is one of the hippest neighborhoods in New York City; in the ’80s, though, some described it as a war zone. While Zoboi felt safe and sheltered in her home, she witnessed violence, poverty, and the crack epidemic playing out around her. As a teenager, she dated “bad boys—nice guys who did not make the right choices in life”—and watched friends engage in physical fights. Her first YA novel, American Street (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb.), reflects the harshness and danger that surrounded her. American Street does not, however, take place in Bushwick. It is set in contemporary Detroit.
“I wanted to write a contemporary story set in a disenfranchised environment, to examine an immigrant coming from one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere to one of the poorest cities in America,” Zoboi explains. “I wanted to look at what happens when economic disparity and a rich culture, like that of Haiti and Detroit, clash, and what happens to a teenager in the center of that clash.”
American Street tells the story of 16-year-old Fabiola who leaves Haiti with her mother for a better life with relatives in Detroit. Though Fabiola is American-born, her mother is not, and is detained by ICE when they arrive at JFK. Shocked by the harsh street life and by her rough female cousins and aunt, who have abandoned their Haitian culture, Fabiola turns to Haitian vodou and a mysterious street seer for strength and faith. Zoboi’s love of magical realism, mythology, and folklore (she was once a professional storyteller) imbue the novel with magic.
Zoboi began her writing career as an investigative reporter, then published science fiction and fantasy stories, studying with the late Octavia Butler. When she became a mother, Zoboi slowed down on her writing until her youngest entered preschool. She was then accepted into the Voices of Our Nation Writing Workshop, founded by Junot Diaz, and, in 2012, began working toward an M.F.A. in writing for children at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
During her third semester she was a finalist for Lee & Low imprint Tu Books’ inaugural New Visions Award, which inspired Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Agency to reach out to her. “I had already submitted to almost 40 agents,” Zoboi says, “but Ammi-Joan was closed to submissions so I never contacted her.”
Paquette quickly sold American Street to Alessandra Balzer on the basis of the first 100 pages. “I had to write the book in a matter of months,” Zoboi recalls, “because Alessandra felt it was very timely and wanted to bring it out as quickly as possible.”
American Street met with acclaim, including five starred reviews, but Zoboi’s response to its success is tempered. “I feel I am learning how to be a citizen in the world of publishing, how to position my voice,” she says. “What do I speak up for?”
“I have to think about what I can contribute to the canon, not just promote one book,” she adds. “My concern is writing about violence without sensationalizing it and without perpetuating stereotypes. I want to humanize how children of color are represented in books. In American Street, I had to humanize the characters who perform violent acts—they are ‘us,’ not ‘those kids.’ ”
Her contributions to the canon will soon include another YA novel from Balzer + Bray, a love story inspired by Pride and Prejudice. Set in Bushwick, it is tentatively titled Pride and is scheduled for September 2018. Zoboi has also been working on several middle grade books, two of which are tentatively scheduled for 2019 by Dutton. An illustrated novel entitled My Life as an Ice-Cream Sandwich is set in 1984 Harlem; a verse biography of Butler focuses on the childhood of Zoboi’s one-time instructor.