“So trying to come to America from the wrong country is a crime?”
American Street is a book that sat on my Amazon wishlist for months-since its publication. There was something about the description that drew me to it (plus the gorgeous cover), and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I finally bit the bullet and purchased it in early January and got to it during the #24in48 Readathon last weekend.
It was not what I expected.
Do you ever build up a book in your mind and have these expectations, only to have the book be about something completely different? That was American Street for me. And I say all that while also saying that this was a good piece of YA fiction. It just wasn't what I expected. And there were a few things that irked me.
The description talks about the main character, Fabiola Toussaint, immigrating to the United States from Haiti with her mother. Her mother is detained and Fabiola goes on alone to live with her aunt and three female cousins in the city of Detroit.
This is where I detached from the book and had to be brought back because the book detoured into something else entirely. Based on the synopsis and description, I thought I was going to read more about Fabiola's struggle with immigration and assimilating into the culture of Detroit. I thought I was going to see more focus on the struggle to reunite with her mother and get her to Detroit. And while there were references to both those things, the book was more closely tied to how Fabiola's view of America changed and her desire to become a part of it more wholly.
I was fine with where the story ended up going-it just wasn't what I had anticipated. The story follows Fabiola as she enters an American high school (a private Catholic school in Detroit) and she learns just who her cousins and aunt are. There's a lot of references to gang violence, drug dealing, and the shady bits of Detroit (side note: there are good places in Detroit-the city is often painted negatively in the media, but there are nice places and the city is bouncing back from what it was). Fabiola's cousins, Chantal, Primadonna, and Princess are a hoot and while I didn't like some of the choices the author made in connection to their relationships, I did enjoy their characters and how they tried to bring Fabiola into their culture.
That being said...the hardest thing for me to reconcile with in the novel was the amount of abuse and shaming that went on between the female characters. They often slut-shamed each other and other female characters to the point that it made me angry on more than one occasion. I work in a high school, so I get it and I see it happen daily, but I hate it anyway. I also hated the normalization of a very abusive relationship.
Fabiola's cousin Primadonna (Donna) is in a long-term relationship with Dray, who not only physically abuses her, but also abuses her mentally. He's a control freak about what she wears, etc. The other characters make fun of Donna for it, but then make statements like "that's just how they are together", or "that's how they love."
*sigh* I hate the normalization of abuse because teenage girls equate that to a real relationship. And it made me sad because I think there was so much opportunity in that relationship to say something. But then again, it's Zoboi's story to tell.
Negatives aside, I enjoyed the slight elements of...mysticism? Magical realism? Not sure what word to use, but there was a great deal of some kind of element that allowed things to happen. It wasn't over the top, but there enough so it was noticeable by the reader. I also enjoyed that while Fabiola was the main narrator, the author allowed the main secondary characters a chance to have their own voices heard just enough so that felt more real, more developed. It was an interesting stylistic choice, but one that I appreciated.
And, obviously, I liked the references to Detroit (I live 30 minutes north of the city in a suburb, but I've always loved the city). The references to specific Detroit locales made the book that much better for me as I could situate myself a little more clearly in Fabiola's story.
Overall, a good piece of contemporary YA fiction-just not what I thought it would be.
“Don't give me no 'but you're beautiful on the inside' bullshit."
"No, you are beautiful on the outside," I say.
"Don't give me that bullshit either. I'm beautiful when I say I'm beautiful. Let me own that shit," she says. Her eyes have not left the computer screen this whole time, but I know she's paying attention to everything I say.
"Okay, then you are ugly."
"Thanks for being honest."
"Seriously. That's what we say in Haiti. 'Nou led, men nou la.' We are ugly, but we are here."
"We are ugly, but we are here," she says, almost whispering. "I hear that.”