Lit With Liz | American Street

Charles VerheyELA

March 22, 2019
Liz Zupan

American Street just sounds like the perfect symbolic name for a book whose main character is an immigrant. Right? American dream on American Street? Sounds pretty perfect. Well, that’s partially right. Even though I am a Detroiter—yes, an actual live-within-city-limits-with-a-Detroit-zip-code-and-everything Detroiter—I forgot that there was an American Street here on the west side (I am a west-sider, like characters in American Street). In an article I read on Ibi Zoboi, she remarked that everything in her books is symbolic and that she chose this street in Detroit specifically to be the setting and title of her first novel.

I pull back the curtains and this little slice of Detroit opens up to me—an empty paved road and small houses with only a narrow space separating one from the other. On the opposite corner, at the edge of the lot, is a wide and short building whose graffiti-covered wall faces our house. Above it is a sign that reads LIQUOR BEER WINE PIZZA CHECK CHASING. At the other corner is a smaller building with a sign that reads HOUSE OF GOD. I stare at the liquor place, then the God place, and back. I sign the signpost at the corner, right in front of our house: American Street and Joy Road.

Fabiola, the main character and narrator of American Street, is a Haitian immigrant who, along with her mother, has come to live in Detroit with her aunt and cousins. That was the plan at least. When she and her mother land in New York’s JFK airport, Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration, and Fabiola has to complete the trip to Detroit by herself. Once in Detroit, Fabiola is introduced to her new American life with her cousins—Chantal, Donna, and Princess. As she struggles to find her place in Detroit, she is presented with a dangerous path to being reunited with her mother.

When I first heard about American Street, I was very excited to begin reading it. I have been reading YA lit for years, and, having taught in Detroit, I was excited that my city and the students of Detroit were represented in such an acclaimed novel. And it really is a great novel—rich in symbolism (of course) and magical realism. In many respects, Fabiola is a typical teenager who is caught between what is right and what is easy. She is forced to make tough choices that will affect her family and a boy she has started to love. What complicates her decision-making more is that she is in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar culture. Readers can easily see the mistakes she is making and are left to read on to their tragic end.

“Fabiola, we can get her out. And we can expedite the process for her to obtain a green card. She won’t have to hide once she’s here. She can live and work legally. Isn’t that what she wants? What you both want?” I sit up in my seat, and it’s as if my insides are like flowers that have blossomed after a tiny bit of rain. Something comes alive within me. But I wasn’t born last night, as my mother would say. I remember how Manman would outwit those vagabon in suits who would offer expedited visas in exchanges for things that are not meant to be given away for visas. “What will this cost?” I ask.

However, as a Detroiter my feelings toward this book are complicated. Everything about the setting was spot on. Zoboi’s descriptions of abandoned houses and empty lots around the corner of American Street and Joy Road were true to life. The imagery of the Detroit Opera House and surrounding restaurants—even the location of the coffee shop that Kasim works at was correct. And I was happy to read when my neighborhood breakfast spot, Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles, got a shout-out. Honestly, the only complaint I have about the Detroit-iness of the book is that not one time was the phrase “what up doe?” uttered by a character.

All of that correct Detroit representation aside, I was sad that this book painted Detroit and Detroiters in a not-so-positive light. Let me explain: Back in the 1970s, a woman named Emily Gail opened a little gift shop in downtown Detroit. She and her shop survived white flight, a recession or two, and the impact the Renaissance Center had on foot traffic. Anyway, she coined the phrase “Say nice things about Detroit,” and it has been an unofficial city slogan—particularly now that the city is being revitalized in many areas. There are lots of people working hard to get people to say nice things about Detroit. Like most people, we Detroiters are proud of our city and don’t like to hear it continually put in a bad light.

Anyway, my point is that it was sometimes difficult for me to read American Street because it portrayed Detroit in the same way that most outsiders view my city. Again, not to say that Zoboi was wrong in how she described the city, but her Detroit characters, in general, were not nice or morally good people. I know plenty of suburban Detroiters who refuse to come to the city or will only come to watch Tigers’ games because they view Detroit as dangerous and filled with “thugs.” I wanted this book to represent the good things about my city, not just the bad. I taught hundreds of Detroit students, and most of them were not represented in any of these characters. When I closed the book, I was left wondering about them: what about their typical Detroit experience of parents working multiple jobs to put food on the table? What about the hour-or-two-long bus rides many students take to cross the city to get to the charter school their parents chose for them? What about their complicated feelings about seeing downtown revitalized while their neighborhood remains unchanged? I get that these experiences don’t make for flashy, suspenseful page-turners, but that is the Detroit I was hoping to see reflected in these pages.

Despite my personal, Detroit-defensive critique, I would add this book to my classroom library in a heartbeat. Zoboi’s storytelling alone makes it worth reading. Her poetic descriptions and her frequently vulgar dialogue create a juxtaposition that is both unique and beautiful. Her characters are full and complicated, and there are plenty of students out there who will see their stories represented in these pages.

The following topics and themes are present in American Street that some students, parents, or school administrators may not deem appropriate:

Underage drinking
Teenage sex
Domestic violence
Undocumented immigration

There is frequent cursing in American Street. The f-word is common. It is not on every page, but on many of them.  

Reading Conference Questions

While Reading

  1. Compare and contrast Fabiola and her cousins. How has growing up in two different countries impacted them?
  2. What is your impression of Matant Jo (Fabiola’s aunt)?
  3. What is Donna and Drey’s relationship like?
  4. Who is Papa Legba to Fabiola? Who is he to everyone else?
  5. Why Is Fabiola’s relationship with Imani complicated?
  6. What does Fabiola think about Kasim? What do we know about his relationship with Drey?

When Finished

  1. What happened to Kasim? What happened to Drey? How did you feel about what happened to them?
  2. Was Kasim’s death preventable? Explain.
  3. How has your impression or feelings about Chantal, Donna, and Pri changed over the course of the novel?
  4. Is Fabiola a victim in this story? Is she someone who deserves blame? Something else? Explain your thinking.
  5. Why do you think that the author concludes the book with Fabiola, her cousins, and aunt moving out of Detroit—even the state of Michigan?

Posted by Elizabeth Marshall Zupan | Teacher’s Discovery

I have a BA in secondary English education from Miami University of Ohio and an MA in curriculum and instruction from Eastern Michigan University. Prior to becoming a Product Developer for Teacher’s Discovery, I taught high school English in Detroit. In my last teaching years, I became passionate about student-choice novels and fostering a love for reading in students. Thankfully, I had a supportive administration and ELA department that allowed me to turn my 9th- and 10th-grade classes into reading workshops. I believe that all students are readers—there are just some that have not yet found the right book.

Get your copy of American Street here.