Haitian teen seeks the dream on ‘American Street’

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A review by Mike Fischer for the Milwakee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

In a 2013 study, American Street in the 48204 zip code on Detroit’s west side was designated the most violent neighborhood in America. It’s also the title of Haitian-born Ibi Zoboi’s YA novel “American Street,” much of which unfolds at the actual Detroit intersection of American Street and Joy Road.

That’s where 16-year-old Fabiola Toussaint finds herself, alongside her aunt and three similarly aged female cousins, after her mother is detained when arriving with Fabiola in New York.  Having been born in Detroit before moving to Haiti as an infant, Fabiola is a U.S. citizen able to continue on to Michigan, even as her Haitian-born mother is locked up in New Jersey.

Fabiola imagines this Detroit intersection as “the crossroads of hopes and dreams,” where one might aspire “to be American and to have some Joy.”  What she finds instead is a world more dangerous than Haiti, leached of that island’s color and filled with despair:

“There isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all those empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere,” Fabiola tells us.  “Every bit of laughter, every joyous moment, is swallowed up by a deep, deep sadness.”

Things are made worse by a family that initially seems to exhibit more loyalty than love; they have Fabiola’s back, but they also exclude her from significant portions of their lives and keep what we’ll learn are significant secrets.  Living without her mother for the first time in her life, Fabiola initially feels isolated and alone.

That will change; “American Street” chronicles Fabiola’s growing affinity for her aunt and her cousins: the studious, slightly older Chantal, and similarly aged twins Donna (the family beauty) and Pri (the family’s feisty fighter and defender).

All of them (including her aunt) are mixed up with things they shouldn’t be, in ways that gradually become clear as Fabiola gets sucked into their vortex.  This may be a YA novel, but it’s not a reprise of “The Waltons” and it doesn’t pull punches about sex, drugs or violence, including a boyfriend’s physical abuse.  Nor does it portray Fabiola’s kin as saints.

It’s the equivalent of saints — Haitian loa — who help Fabiola make sense of her world and continue to feel connected to her mother, a Vodou priestess in Haiti.  The street on which this novel is set may be named American, but Zoboi has also imbued it with touches of magical realism.

Everything in Fabiola’s world — including the people she encounters — are readily imagined as such spiritual intermediaries; chief among these loa is an old, apparently homeless man whom Fabiola envisions as Papa Legba, a gatekeeper straddling the crossroads between this world and the next.

“Child, this is Detroit.  Ain’t no Papa Legba hanging out on corners,” Fabiola’s aunt tells her.  “Only dealers and junkies . . . You’ll figure it out.”

Fabiola knows better.  Papa Legba not only opens doors and creates opportunities for her, but also opens her heart, allowing her to see things others miss, including what’s good (or bad) inside those she encounters.  That empathy enables italicized interludes through which the people around her give us their backstories; Fabiola is their transmitting channel.

We need these modest first-person supplements to Fabiola’s own narrative, because all of the other characters tend to be indistinct, singly dimensioned or both.  Many of them are no more than the particular trait or identity (bad boyfriend; good boyfriend; studious cousin; beautiful cousin) they’re assigned, resulting in a predictable plot that eventually hijacks the novel.

What nevertheless sustains one’s interest is Fabiola herself, who is too original to be bound by any one plot line.  “I call my spirit guides to bend . . . time and space,” she tells us.  And so they do, for a young woman nostalgically yearning for a receding past while slowly imagining her way toward a different future.

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