Book review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi


In the beginning of the novel, a glass separates the protagonist, Fabiola, and her Maman who has been detained by American immigration services. She wishes to break the glass, the boundary, representing the precarious nature of being an immigrant.

Ibi Zoboi’s well crafted writing eases us into the novel, tugging on our emotions, and immediately creates a clear picture throughout the story. From the various first person accounts of Fabiola and her cousins, we are given an insight into the lives of other characters and thus, see how Fabiola’s relationship with each character develops.

Fabiola Touissant’s life is uprooted at 16, from living in Haiti to now suddenly moving to Detroit and staying with her extended family. Whilst Fabiola is an American citizen by birth, she did not grow up there and is in for a huge culture shock upon arriving to the United States.

American Street tackles the issues of living in a society that is so fixated on immigration, identity and the politics of citizenship. Despite some fictional aspects of the novel, it represents elements of the author’s background as a Haitian immigrant in the US. Being born an American and with the complexities that come with citizenship, it isn’t exactly a smooth journey for Fabiola.

From the differences between Fabiola and her American counterparts, the novel provides readers with an insight on how the media’s misrepresentation of Haiti, the US and immigrants can misconstrue people’s ideas. For instance, Fabiola grew up somewhat more conservative in Haiti but now she’s in Detroit, hangs out with boys and wears outfits that her Maman would object to.

Her belief in Haitian spirituality is misunderstood by her American cousins, she is banned from speaking Haitian Creole to her Aunt Jo and instead speaks English as a form of assimilation. She never expected that the US would be similar to Haiti in relation to gang culture and violence, because of how the American Dream was marketed to her through the media.

From attempting to pronounce curse words in her thick Haitian accent and telling her cousins about life back in Haiti, the topics of identity and diaspora shone through here, reminding us that the immigrant life isn’t the easiest. She enters a world of sex, drugs and gang violence yet remains firms in her Haitian spirituality that guides her through life in Detroit.

American Street reminds us of the politics of citizenship and how it can damage families, communities, and one’s self. Yet in reality, it is absurd for the West to determine the boundaries of citizenship. Countries such as Britain, France, Belgium and other former colonisers wreaked havoc across the world, from forcefully amalgamating various ethnic groups into one country such as Nigeria and many other African countries we see in modern society. Now, following their colonialism, these same countries established the boundaries of citizenship and decide who is classed as a citizen.

The British Empire’s strict stance on citizenship and identity caused the Windrush scandal and the French were notorious, other colonisers too, for giving out citizenship to former colonies that they deemed to be worthy. For instance, in light of COVID-19, France has been rewarding frontline workers of migrant backgrounds with French citizenship. Immigrants should be treated with the same respect just like any other human being, regardless of residency status. By ignoring the precarious positions that many migrants face, it can easily manifest in xenophobic violence like the cases we see in South Africa with Nigerians and Somalis being disproportionately murdered and tortured by some South Africans.

Credit: Windrush scandal protests in the UK via Flickr

In particular, I enjoyed how the novel represents many experiences faced by Black immigrants in the West. Black immigrants are not treated the same like any other immigrant, racism and xenophobia have a part to play in this. In the US, there are 4.2 million Black immigrants. When it’s broken down, it is an extremely small number, given the size of the US, with 9% of Black people in the States coming from Black immigrant families. Often, when immigrants come from Africa, they are almost immediately made fun of due to their accents or preconceived notions of Africans, as if there isn’t over 3,000 ethnic groups on the continent with thousands of languages. The anti African sentiment is too large to be ignored and is rooted in white supremacy and imperialism that viewed Africans as ‘savages’.

In the media and in politics, it’s as if people fail to remember immigrants come from all backgrounds, not just what we see on TV. Through reading American Street, it uncovered more about the complexities that Black immigrants in the US face, such as the assumption that Black immigrants understand some aspects of African American culture whilst encountering racism and xenophobia in unfamiliar spaces. The dynamics differ in the UK due to the first and second generational ties that many Black Africans and Caribbeans have with their native countries but nonetheless, there is still discrimination on an institutional level in relation to Black immigrants.

Weirdly, it appears that it’s often assumed that many Black immigrants from former Anglophone colonies have no understanding of the English language. Many Black immigrants are able to speak the languages of their former colonies, whether it is Nigerians speaking English, the Surinamese speaking Dutch or the Guineans speaking French. For instance, some teachers thought that Fabiola was unable to speak English at her high school, when in fact she learned the language back home in Haiti.

In 2019, Zoboi attended Vanderbilt University and discussed the American Dream and the Immigrant Imagination, reflecting on her experiences as a Haitian immigrant. Despite not relating to her experiences, listening to her talk reminded me that literature creates necessary avenues for discussion on important topics.

Ultimately, many social themes are covered in the book such as domestic abuse, relationships, death, religion etc, as well as incorporating magical realism from the Haitian culture. American Street encouraged me to globalise my perspective, regarding social issues such as immigration. Furthermore, it reaffirmed my passion for reading because it transports you into another world where you can learn a variety of things and it’s a much-needed escape in turbulent times like this.

If I could give this book unlimited stars, I would. It’s just that good!

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