Jennifer Baker interviews Haitian-American author Ibi Zoboi (for School Library Journal). Here are excerpts from the article, which focuses on literacy and her work with Haitian-American teens through the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project (DAWP). According to the interviewer, Zoboi will be speaking on a panel about immigration and refugees in YA books during SLJ’s sixth annual SLJTeenLive! virtual conference on August 9, 2017. [Also see our previous post on her recent book American Street.]
Debut author Ibi Zoboi’s American Street (HarperCollins, Feb. 2017), an unflinching look at immigration and race, has already garnered lots of starred reviews and buzz. A longtime educator and writer, Zoboi, who recently keynoted SLJ/LJ’s Public Library Think Tank, has founded multiple projects focusing on the Haitian American and Haitian community. Her focus is on teen girls, both in Brooklyn and Haiti, and helping them get in touch with their critical reading and writing skills. [. . .]
Can you tell me about the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project (DAWP) and your work with it?
Ibi Zoboi: Anacaona was a Taíno queen. Edwidge Danticat wrote an essay called “We are ugly, but we are here.” That’s a Haitian saying. [Danticat asks] “What is the legacy of the daughters of Anacaona, meaning the daughters of this heroine who fought for her people for so long?” We have a legacy of warrior women. So I named [the writing project] after that. And it was primarily aimed at Haitian and Haitian American teen girls, but I opened it up to Caribbean girls.
[The project] first [took place] in the summer [of] 2009, and then I did it again in 2010 in Haiti. And it was a summer-long program where there was an exchange program between a Haitian girl and a Caribbean girl here in Brooklyn. I did it from 2009–2014. By 2013 it evolved into to something else—the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club. I wanted to move it towards something literary and I wanted to fold the DAWP into the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club. I worked with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Community Word Project, [and] Sadie Nash Leadership Project, [doing] the same type of work but within schools. But that work was around writing and not necessarily around reading. [That] is why I shifted the focus of the DAWP to make it more literacy centered. I realized that there wasn’t a lot of critical reading in the classroom, which affected how they were able to write critically. My daughters are involved and [give a lot of] input. I wanted to make it girl-centered.
[. . .]
You mentioned wanting Haitian American youth to see themselves in their books.
IZ: I did a whole workshop with these teen girls in 2013, three years after the earthquake. That was an eye-opener. I wrote down what they were saying about themselves, and [it] was shocking. The[se] Haitian girls had the worst to say about themselves and about Haitian people. Even if they’re not getting it at home, they hear about their culture in the media. Their reality is erased. There’s a certain narrative that is being perpetuated over and over again, and even at 14 and 15, they’re still taking that in. If they don’t have the critical skills to challenge those narratives, they continue to consume it.
You don’t have the time to restart this project at this very moment with everything on your plate, but what would you share with the girls you’ll be meeting?
IZ: [Do] not be afraid to be critical, especially in this day and age. I want them to build the confidence to speak up. I want them to be fearless.