Published by Balzer + Bray on February 14, 2017
Genres: Magical Realism, YA, YA Contemporary
The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun.
On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.
But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.
Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?
Diversity Rating: 5 – Diverse as Fuck
Racial-Ethnic: 5 (the entire cast is black save Kasim, who’s Middle Eastern)
QUILTBAG: 4 (Princess is a lesbian)
Disability: 3 (Matant Jo recently had a stroke that’s caused some paralysis)
Intersectionality: 5 (also includes police violence, the difficulties of black girlhood and immigrant girlhood mixed, and so many more intersectional issues)
Back in the fall of 2015, I took a course called Literature by Women of Color, which was specifically focused on Caribbean authors thanks to the professor’s specialization in that field. It was one of the toughest courses I took in college because she demanded the best from my papers, but it was also one of the most rewarding for the same reason. I still own two of the four books we read in the course and I’d like personal copies of the other two.
What does American Street have to do with all that? It’s such an intelligent, gorgeously written book in touch with the modern immigrant’s experience that it would fit right into the course. If I weren’t such a coward, I’d email that professor and let her know about it if she didn’t already know. Maybe she could teach it in a future section or suggest it to students who are enthusiastic about the subject. Taking that class enriched this book for me and I think American Street would enrich the course too.
When Fabiola arrives in Detroit without her mother, she’s left adrift even among her brash cousins and her aunt Jo, who insists Fab speak English in the home, not Haitian Creole. Her circumstances are something of a tragedy: back when she was born, her mother overstayed her visa to make sure Fab would be born with US citizenship. Doing so is exactly why Fab was able to make it through immigration and her mom got detained.
Among brainy mother figure Chantal, gorgeous Primadonna, and fight-happy Princess, known as the Three Bees (brains, beauty, brawn), quiet Fab isn’t sure where she fits in. Her character growth as she becomes the Fourth Bee–brave–and settles in with her family is beautifully written. The writing is so gorgeous that I was sorely tempted not to return the book to the library at all, but then I’d have to pay late fees, possibly not be able to step foot in the library anymore, and I’d be keeping the book from a reader who might need it more.
I returned it, don’t worry. I felt sad doing it, though. Gonna have to buy my own copy in the future.
Fabiola has one big conflict to work through as well: if she wants to speak to her mother or get updates on her case, she has to be a police informant on Donna’s drug-dealing boyfriend. It’s the only way her mom has a chance, she’s told. The detective taking advantage of her in this manner is disgusting but not even surprising. Ah, systemic racism in law enforcement.. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for anyone involved.
In the author’s note, Zoboi says Fabiola leans on her religion, Hatian Vodou, to get through her trying times and draws strength from it. You’ll see references to her deities throughout the book, like the old man who sings outside their window. The locals call him Bad Leg, but when she hears him sing and thinks about what he says, she comes to know him as Papa Legba, the lwa at the crossroads. It’s never certain if she’s projecting her beliefs onto the people around her or if they’re truly the lwa she believes they are, lending an air of magical realism.
The only thing I didn’t care for was Fab’s romance with a boy named Kasim. His introduction is intentionally cocky and overbearing, leaving her irritated with him. What I missed was the jump between that and her deciding to date him. It just kinda happened? Maybe that’s my asexuality getting in the way, but the transition simply didn’t work for me.
The ending is a sucker punch where it hurts most. Police violence takes the life of one of the characters and a movement quickly grows around his death in a manner akin to Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Michael Brown. As much as the event hurts, it’s all too real a danger to modern teens of color. And so the book ends on a bittersweet note, but the sweetness of Fab’s family coming together rises above it all.
Even with all this said, I will never fully appreciate American Street because I’m a white girl. The struggles of Fab and her family will always be too far outside my experience for me to truly understand them and that’s okay. American Street is American Street is for the black girls and the immigrant girls, the girls whose stories are so rarely told but are at the center of this book. Read it, rec it, and get it into the hands of the girls who need this gorgeously written tale.