I finished reading the YA first novel, American Street by Ibi Zoboi on June 27th and was feeling very tired after work. I was thinking about reviewing the book, but considered that the time it would take to review it was prohibitive. It would mean that the non-fiction that I started reading after American Street couldn't possibly be finished by the end of June. I didn't want the non-fiction book to step on a July deadline that I have for a science fiction review. I slept on the decision and realized that it wasn't an either/or issue. I obtained American Street from the library. I have no deadline for reviewing it. I could write and post this review more gradually and still get that last book of June read.
In my last review, I mentioned Detroit as a city to which I have no personal connection. This is still true, but one of the reasons why I like to read about places I've never been is that it gives me a glimpse into the lives of the people who live there and increases my understanding of the world. Are the lives of African Americans in Detroit so different from those of African Americans in Oakland, a city where I have lived in an African American neighborhood? There are numerous concerns that the two communities share in common. I recognized shared assumptions which are based in similarities of experience.
The priorities of Fabiola Toussaint, the Haitian raised teen protagonist of American Street, are radically different from those of her American raised cousins. I appreciated the values of the eldest cousin, Chantal, who was focused on her studies, but all the cousins were getting pulled into the violent criminal world that dominated their school and neighborhood. Fabiola's first priority was on freeing her mother from detention by immigration authorities. Fabiola hadn't been detained because she was born in the United States even though her Haitian mother had taken her back to Haiti. Now Fabiola and her mother had come back to America , but her mother was imprisoned by ICE for having overstayed her visa when she gave birth to Fabiola. I sympathized with Fabiola's situation, but I was sure that there was tragedy in her future. It turned out that I wasn't wrong, but it wasn't the sort of tragedy that I expected.
Fabiola's mother had been a Mambo in Haiti. A Mambo is a Voodoo priestess. Fabiola had learned a great deal about the Loa, who are the spirits of Voodoo. This is an aspect of American Street that interested me very much. From my own limited study of Voodoo, I learned that there are Rada spirits who deal with healing and compassion. There are also Petro spirits who deal with fiery emotions. Since fire is difficult to control, the Petro spirits are often considered evil. Inaccurate portrayals of Petro spirits dominate the more sensational books about Voodoo. In Haitian Creole, which is Fabiola's first language, Petro is Petwo. Petwo is the name Fabiola uses for the spirits in her life. It disappointed me that there was no mention of Rada in American Street. The characters in this novel could definitely have benefited from the Rada side of Voodoo. Yet I loved the Voodoo content. Fabiola's visions and encounters with Loa were inspirational.
The immigration issue and the troubled relationship with the police in an African American community makes American Street a very topical novel while the Voodoo lends it spirituality. I found this book an intense reading experience that I recommend.