Wednesday, September 6, 2017

American Street by Ibi Zoboi


With DACA repealed and Congress considering new policy, we need books that increase empathy for undocumented immigrants. Back in March I listened to American Street while on sabbatical, and Ibi Zoboi's young adult novel still haunts me like a dream. The first chapter opens with an emotional bang: American-born Fabiola immigrates from Port-au-Prince to reunite with family only to have her Haitian mother detained by ICE agents. Naive and sweet Fabiola struggles to fit in with her street savvy cousins at public school in Detroit. Living abroad in Japan and the UK, I could relate to her challenges of assimilation.

This coming of age story with quirky characters felt Dickensian with diverse updates. For example, one of the cousins binds her breasts and is a tough fighter, but her gender dysphoria is part of her character and not a point of narrative tension or an "issue" that needs fixing. Her family, friends, and even her enemies accept and respect her. Other characters reveal secrets that reframe the plot. No one is who they seem to be at first. The line between good and evil often blurs. Although the characters were complex and original, the setting fell into the drugs and violence ghetto stereotype.

After several slow chapters about the pains of assimilation and homesickness, the pace accelerates into a suspense thriller. A detective offers to help free Fabiola's mom in exchange for information about her cousin's boyfriend. A troubled Fabiola turns to her vodou faith for guidance. The story becomes surreal when late at night, a homeless man starts singing cryptic messages to her. It's rare for a book to surprise me, but American Street was delightfully full of unexpected twists. The moral ambiguity forces readers to draw their own conclusions.

Author Ibi Zoboi, via her twitter profile
The audio book narration, once I got used to the Haitian accent, was excellent. As the story became a page-turner, I kept walking and walking. I got very fit, but it would have been easier to follow the plot twists on paper. I had to listen to the last chapter twice, and still it felt unresolved. I'm hoping for a sequel to this impressive debut (published February 2017). I'd recommend American Street to both mature teens and adults. It would be a good audiobook to listen to while driving your high school students to school. Teachers and librarians should add this novel to their immigrant literature section.

Reviewer disclosure: This ebook is from an audible.com subscription. I prefer books in print, but digital books were the only way to read American new releases while on sabbatical. Sunrise photo is from my family vacation in Massachusetts. I'm missing those warm summer days of reading in the hammock.

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@Barrie Summy

5 comments:

Jenn Jilks said...

You are speaking truth. I cannot believe that they will remove DACA. I think it is a ploy from Trump to get Congress to build his wall. Congress members will get such grief from constituents.

I've taught so many immigrants, when you listen to their stories (mine fled the Gulf War, Vietnam) flees bombs, running into the hills, normal people cannot but have have compassion.

Barrie said...

I'd like to read this book. Part of me wants to listen to it because of the accent. This plot sounds complicated enough that I might follow it better if I read a print version. Thanks for reviewing. I hadn't heard of American Street, and now you've brought it to my attention. Hmmm.....I can still read outside in a hammock. :)

troutbirder said...

Most interesting review and recommendations.....though driving and listening to a good book doesn't work for me.
I'm the classic non-multitasker. Listening to a good book and driving at the same time would put many people at risk...:(

Stacy Nyikos said...

I'm a huge audio fan. I may try listening to this one simply to train my brain. It sounds like an excellent read, and brain challenge.

Powell River Books said...

I heard an interesting report on CBC news this morning. It stated that Canada may be the beneficiary of the changes in DACA. Canadian immigration policies could welcome DACA individuals as immigrants needing a new home. As a US citizen living in Canada actions like eliminating DACA are so worrisome for me. - Margy