A Little Talk with Ibi Zoboi

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For many in Haiti, magic is reality, and reality is magic. The lines are blurred. I am writing from that perspective.

Ibi Zoboi is a Haitian author residing in New York. Her short stories have been published in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, Haiti Noir and The Caribbean Writer. Her upcoming Young Adult debut, American Street will be published in the winter of 2017. She shared with Woy Magazine her thoughts on Haiti in literature, and writing from a spiritual perspective. 


First of all, congratulations on your upcoming novel to be published by HarperCollins/ Balzer + Bray! What inspired the story of Fabiola, a young Haitian working to have her mother released from a U.S. detention center?

Fabiola’s story is a little bit of my story and the stories of so many other Haitians I know. I was born in Haiti and I came to the U.S. with my mother when I was four. Although Fabiola is a teenager, I shared many of her world views as a child. My own mother was never detained, but on a trip back to Haiti when I was eight, I was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. My mother did everything she could to get me back. I also still have siblings and family living in Haiti. So many of them have tried and failed to obtain a visa over the years. With so much change going on in Haiti right now, I’m sure that many families are struggling with the same issues. I wanted to highlight one teen girl’s experience. But the story is much, much more than immigrant narrative.


How did you get into the genre of magical realism?

I’ve always written from an otherworldly and magical place. I’m a speculative fiction writer first. Meaning, I like to add a bit of the supernatural and extraordinary into every story. I also don’t think magical realism is a genre. It’s a worldview. If I include spirituality into my story, it’s how my characters experience the world. Magic is woven into the setting.


Do you find that being from Haiti, a place where magic and reality are so often intertwined, gives you a special perspective in this genre?

Yes, of course! Again, I think the term ‘magical realism’ is something imposed on writers telling stories from a certain perspective. For many in Haiti, magic is reality, and reality is magic. The lines are blurred. I am writing from that perspective. And this magic is also what I consider to be spirituality. I always have my characters pray. And sometimes, their prayers are answered. This is both magical and real. And as a writer, I don’t explain this to the reader.


I am, essentially, writing for my own inner child. 

Are your children your main inspiration for writing children’s and YA books at this point in your writing career, or is this something you felt was lacking while growing up?

I only recently decided to write for children. This is where I feel I can truly explore magical and otherworldly ideas. I’m a child at heart, a perpetual twelve- or sixteen-year-old maybe. So writing from this perspective is not necessarily inspired by my children. Even when they become adults, I will still write for children. I am, essentially, writing for my own inner child. Growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, I always felt that I was missing some sort of magic in my own childhood.


If you had the opportunity, which of your works would you want to see on the silver screen? And who would play the main character?

I would definitely love to see American Street on the big screen. I have no idea who would play Fabiola. Though I would want an undiscovered talent from Haiti or Detroit. That would be amazing!


On your blog, you recently commented, “There’s now enough post-earthquake Haitian literature for a whole college course!” Based on what you’ve read so far, is this new wave of Haitian literature doing our country justice?

Absolutely. Well, most are. Except for one and it was not written by a Haitian. There have been lots of books published about Haiti since 2010. Haiti Noir being the most important, I think. It’s a collection of Haitian writers edited by Edwidge Danticat. All this talent in one book! I wrote a story called “The Harem” and it’s set during the earthquake. Any book or story highlighting Haitian people and the culture in a truly loving and authentic way is doing our country justice.


As an author, what is the significance of having these Haitian narratives reflected and celebrated more often in literature?

We have a very long and impressive history of Haitian narratives in literature. Two of the most renown black women writers in the U.S. are of Haitian decent—Edwidge Danticat and Roxane Gay. This speaks to the profundity of our stories and perspectives. Even non-Haitians are writing about Haiti with such grace and beauty—as in Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea and Laura Wagner’s Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go. We may not have huge pop stars or mega movie stars, but our gift is in our literature.


Who is your favorite author? What books are you reading now?

My favorite authors are Octavia Butler, Edwidge Danticat, Nancy Farmer, Nalo Hopkinson, and Ayi Kwei Armah. I just finished Bone Gap by Laura Ruby and I’m now slowly reading The Alphabet versus The Goddess by Leonard Shlain.

Team Woy

Team Woy

Haiti through our voices. Ayiti nan vwa pa nou.

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