Ibi Zoboi: Interview with a Writer
To call writer Ibi Zoboi ‘versatile’ is an understatement. Her pen will write a compelling essay one minute, a short story the next, and a children’s book the next.
A recurring theme in her works is identity and culture, mostly as seen through black and Haitian-American identity. What distinguishes her from other contemporary writers and authors with a Haitian background is the science fiction and fantasy factor.
Zoboi founded Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, an initiative for women of Haitian descent. “The Harem”, a short story she wrote was among the short story collection in the anthology Haiti Noir. Her latest work Bandit, a young adult fantasy novel, has garnered lots of acclaim, as well as the honor of being one of five works nominated for the prestigious Lee and Low New Visions Award.
Zoboi’s A is for Ayiti is part of a series of children’s titles published by One More Book publishing.
You are currently working on an MFA in Writing for children and teens. Yes, I’m in my second semester. Best decision, ever! I’ve been calling myself a writer for fifteen years. I think in my last semester, in a matter of six months, I learned how to write a book. And I’m very much committed to writing for children and teens. This is the age where magic happens. Magic can be real in the mind and imagination of a child–magic for black children especially. I teach creative writing and essay writing in New York City public schools, so I call myself an “Imagination Teacher”. You wouldn’t believe how many of our children can’t fathom a magical world outside of their own realities. They’ve inherited such rich cultural traditions from the American South, the Caribbean, West Africa, and all they can come up with is Harry Potter, sparkly vampires, fairies, and unicorns. This is especially true for Haitian children. Why can’t we have tales of the lougarou and even the Vodou pantheon to instill cultural values? Ti Bouki and Ti Malice are fine, but we need some new narratives, silvouplé!
You were born in Haiti? What do you remember of it? I remember being raised by a village. Every woman around was an aunt, every man an uncle, and every child a cousin. I left Haiti when I was four years old, but there’s so much I remember. In recent years, before I returned as an adult, certain sounds and tastes, and combination of colors would remind me of home. That’s why I’m so sure that memory is a muscle. And my memory is very dreamlike—vivid but tinged with a bit of magic fog. I guess that’s why I write fantasy. Haiti will always be within the confines of my four-year-old imagination, no matter how many times I go back.
Can you recall the first time you went back? I went back as an adult six months after the earthquake. I was plagued with a deep sense of loss. I’d spent all these years not having gone back and now Port-au-Prince’s landscape had completely changed. Traveling back to Haiti was like teleporting. Four hours away and you’re in a completely different world. I remember having to adjust my vision—–taking off my glasses and putting them back on again. Port-au-Prince was broken. But not the people. I’d spent time with some teenage girls and that’s when I remembered my own spirit. Jokes for days. And sisterhood. They didn’t know each other but there was none of that cattiness that I see so often here in Brooklyn. And my own reconnection with my long lost half-sister confirmed this as well. Culture is blood, bones, and DNA. What I saw in Haiti wasn’t just resilience. We have a strong sense of who we are. The earthquake happened, people perished, homes in ruins, but we move on. Ou reziye w, as they say. The second time I went was just this past November for Gédé. Now that’s when I discovered Haiti’s magic. There are lots of things looming in Haiti’s shadows. You listen well enough, they whisper to you. You shut your eyes and ears, the move around you like the wind. I went with ears wide open.
How was it growing up Haitian in Brooklyn? That’s like an oxymoron. A Haitian in Brooklyn is basically…Haitian. There are enough Haitians around to make you feel right at home. The adjustments and the assimilation happened on the outside—–at work and at school. There’s a huge difference between growing up in Flatbush—Little Haiti & Little Caribbean—and growing up in Bushwick where I lived from age five to ten—Little Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. If I’d spent my early years in Flatbush, I think I’d be a different person. But Bushwick was rough for a little Haitian girl. My mother had held on to her childhood memories of Haiti so she sent me to school wearing the very finest in French colonial schoolgirl attire—stiff, lacy, bright party dresses with matching ribbons. We’re talking 1980s crack era Bushwick here. Despite my name and clothes screaming Haitian against the graffiti and crack vile-strewn schoolyard, I denied it every single time. Someone would accuse me of being Haitian and I’d vehemently protest saying that I was full-blooded Dominicana. This was survival! Admitting to being Haitian was permission for a beat down. There were other Haitians around, but most times, we denied it so we never really found each other unless if our parents knew each other. You remember AIDS the 4 Hs back in the 80s? The saying was that you got AIDS from being a Homosexual, Heroine [addicts], Hemophiliacs, and—drumroll please—Haitian!
I’ve read about the whole AIDS and whole 4Hs controversy. In his book Stone of Hope, the writer Jean-Robert Cadet writes about how he was a cab driver for a bit on the upper east coast and he would tell potential passengers who asked that he was from Martinique. But that’s him as an adult, knowing how to cope. But as a kid, were you ostracized by some of your friends? Did some teachers treat you differently? There were some African American girls who lived next door to me when I was growing up in Bushwick. I remember one girl inviting me over, then saying, “You don’t know what a barbecue is ’cause you Haitian!” I remember getting that a lot. There were other Haitian children in my Catholic school, but they all seemed to have assimilated much quicker than I did. My mother sent me to school in stiff party dresses and ribbons in my hair. I matched perfectly, but because I was Haitian, I didn’t match and had HBO—Haitian Body Odor. I was smart and soft-spoken. Some other girls I knew would curse them out in Kreyol. I remember transferring to a public school in fifth grade, and because of my name and how I dressed, I was put in the E[nglish for S[peakers of other]L[anguages] class. I didn’t say a word. Yes, teachers did treat me like an…immigrant. Then I took a test and was sent to the top class. I learned then that being smart was power. Again, if I had grown up in Flatbush with all the other Haitians, I don’t think I would’ve had this experience.
At which point in your life did you ultimately embrace being Haitian? When I moved to a predominately Caribbean and Haitian community in Queens–Cambria Heights. And I went to a mostly white Catholic school where most of the black kids were Haitian. Elementary school kids are gullible. But you can’t fool teenagers into thinking you’re Dominican with a hefty Haitian name like Pascale. But you assimilate nonetheless. I still didn’t quite fit in. Even in the Haitian community there is a hierarchy. You had Haitians with money who sent their kids to Haiti every summer. Haitians who scraped pennies to send their kids to good schools and raised their kids to forget Kreyol and slip smoothly into the folds of society.
I embraced being African and Pan-Africanism and feminism first. I went in through the back door. Understanding Egyptian and West African mythology helped me to understand and claim Vodou culture. I know very little about Haitian popular culture, though—the konpa bands, etc. But ask me about the origins of veves in Taino symbolism or the meaning of Ayibobo and I’ll tell you. No, I cannot name one single Sweet Mickey song.
You’re probably the first, and probably the only writer with a Haitian background, as far as I’m aware, who writes science fiction and fantasy. What drew you to this genre? I don’t think I’m the first and only, but I may be the only one categorizing my work as such. I’ve just been introduced to the work of Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrie. I think I try to write what he paints. He draws from Vodou cosmology. There’s a book called Quantum Vodou that describes the cosmology as a science. African spiritual traditions are essentially sci-fi and fantasy. It’s real to us. Possession is time-traveling and teleporting. Our songs and drumbeat rhythms are all about sound vibrations and frequency to incite the right psychological reactions in the minds and souls of the worshipers. But what the categories of sci-fi and fantasy do for me is allow me to push Vodou mythology towards those boundaries. What if Papa Legba and Gédé are fully realized beings in our world? What if Poto Mitan was a real time-traveling portal? I was interested in world mythology first. My stories reflected this. When I was introduced to the work of Octavia Butler and discovered the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, I ran with it.
Do you remember the first book that just wowed you? In terms of how you were able to relate to its characters, and it having a downright profound effect on you? Yep. Indaba, My Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. This isn’t a fantasy or sci-fi novel. It isn’t a novel at all. The title indicates a collection of African Folktales. That’s a misnomer. It’s an epic, multi-generational, astro-journey into the collective psyche of the Zulu people with references to Kemet—Ancient Egypt—Yoruba, Ashanti, Mali and Songhai Empires, Nubians, etc. Their oral history dates back to little red people who were annihilated by a sun-wielding goddess all the way through modern day South Africa. There was even an explanation for the Tutsi/Hutu genocide in Rwanda—well, I made that connection—decades before it happened. That book opened up a whole world of rich history and magic for me. I saw stories and myth as having deep, profound significance for the people who tell them. I was able to understand the power of Vodou and its impact on the Haitian Revolution.
You were born Pascale Philantrope. Ibi Zoboi is a name you adopted, it turns out. Yes, I thank New York’s spoken word movement of the late nineties for this. Before attempting to write novels, I was a poet during a time when just about everybody had a poet/stage name and as homage to the Black Arts Movement, I guess, it had to be an African name. I literally translated my name into Yoruba from an African Baby Names book. It was supposed to be temporary. I was like Ntozake Shange–Paulette Williams— and Amiri Baraka—Leroi Jones—for the time being. I was a Journalism major and would use my birth name for serious articles and my poet name for stuff I’d get in trouble for. But I had a professor by the name of Marimba Ani—who was once SNCC member Dona Richards—write on my paper, “Use the name you want to be called”. Then another creative writing professor by the name of Estella Conwill Majozo—Ma for Mary Mcleod Bethune, Jo for Josephine Baker, and Zo for Zora Neale Hurston—gave me an assignment where I had to find the meaning of my name. What sealed the deal was meeting Haitian scholar, historian, and activist Bayyinah Bello—who once had a very Haitian name too—who asked me if I had another name besides Pascale. And I did! She did not call me Pascale. I was born with and given a very French name. By the time I got to college and was reading so much about Haitian culture and history, I did not feel so “French” anymore. Plus I married a man whose very untainted African name was Zoboi. Pascale Zoboi just didn’t have a nice ring to it. Ultimately, I had met three women who themselves had changed their names and challenged me to consider it. Renaming myself was one of the absolute most empowering things I’ve ever done. And it’s legit, too. And Zoboi is not French as in Dubois, it’s Loma from Liberia. And yes, I know it means “bone wood” in Creole.
Do you think of yourself as a feminist? No. Yes. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what that word means. I’m a Haitian woman. I will roll my eyes and neck at my husband in one second and bring him a plate of food in the next—he’s made the meal and will wash the dishes too. You know what I mean. On the other hand, I think my husband is a feminist man—extremely supportive, present for his children, highly respectful of women. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s what we need more of. I’m raising our son to be a feminist man. I allow him to cry and be emotional and not have him think that he’s just this little muscular ball of testosterone jumping around. Is Ezili Danto a feminist? She’s a defender of women and will cut you if you betray her. I’m that too. But in Haiti, do we have a word for feminist? No. We just have Ezili Dantò and Grann Brigitte and Ayida Wedo. We have all these different ways of expressing the feminine in our cosmology. We’re fanm vanyan. As long as I look to mythology and its pantheon of women badasses, I don’t need feminist ideology. Maybe womanist if you need an answer.
Womanist? What would you say is the distinguishing factor between a womanist and a feminist? Some people might think that they’re interchangeable. Womanism was coined by Alice Walker. Womanism includes conversations about race and the role of men, black men in particular. Feminism brings into question the choice for mothers to work outside or inside of the home for equal pay as men. Womanism brings into question the underpaid nannies that help take care of these families for low pay while their own families are neglected. That’s how I see it.
Haitian mommies and papis would rather their kids go into the medical, law, and hardcore science and engineering fields. How do they feel about the fact that you’ve taken this artistic direction in your life? Thank goodness for Edwidge Danticat for being a model of Haitian literary success. And my mother recently met her. I realized long ago that I’d have to somehow align myself with her for my mother to even vaguely recognize my efforts. I don’t think they really know that I’m in grad school for creative writing. We’ll keep it that way. I’m old school. I like to make my mother proud. She worked hard. But I find a good balance between that and living my dreams. That’s why I have to push myself. My mother’s like, if you’re going to be a writer, you better be a damn good one!
It sounds like your mom is extremely supportive of your writing career. As you realized that you had a gift for the written word, did you show her some of the things that you were creating? The support did not come until I published a story in Haiti Noir. Then she associated me with Edwidge Danticat. And again with One Moore Book’s A is for Ayiti, which Edwidge was also a part of. My mother took a picture with her. She showed her friends and co-workers. Now I’m legit. But before, not so much.
When you were growing up, did you feel that there was this gender inequality in Haitian culture? I don’t know if its inequality as much as it is downright misogyny. Haitian women are not passive. We fight. But where you have oppression and poverty, patriarchy and misogyny will reign supreme and at the expense of the bodies of young girls first.
What inspired the short story you contributed to the anthology Haiti Noir? My philandering father, may he rest in peace. I had just learned that my childhood friend in Haiti was really my half-sister weeks after the earthquake. My mother had only told me just in case she had perished in the earthquake. But she was a survivor. I found her on Facebook. We were indeed half-sisters, born six months apart. I was trying to emotionally cope with all the images of Haiti on the news and was simultaneously watching “The Bachelor” for the first time. Hence, “The Harem” was born.
Who are your favorite authors? Ayi Kwei Armah, Octavia Butler, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nancy Farmer, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula LeGuin, Virginia Hamilton, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz. I’ll stop here.
From “The Harem” to the picture book A is for Ayiti, to your novel Bandit, you’re one of those writers who are just as deft at writing a novel as a short story. The idea of writing a novel can be overwhelming to some. Is a short story much easier to write than a novel? Yes, it is. The story arc is much more compact. You can practice plot and characterization with a short story. Novels can take months or years to write and re-write. I wrote several short stories before I even attempted to start writing a novel. Novels are very hard to write.
Do you care to offer some advice to writers out there on how to develop and perfect their craft? There’s not much else to do but to read and write, then read and write some more. And re-writing is important. Craft books about writing are very important as well. I learned a lot by submitting my work and getting feedback. While getting an MFA is certainly not for everyone, it’s been extremely helpful for me. It’s a huge investment, but it can be worth it for someone who is very serious about writing.
Any tips on how to battle and come out the conqueror with Inquisitor Writer’s Block? To be quite honest, I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I’ve always been able to sit down and start writing immediately. The words that first come out are not perfect, but they flow freely. I first started writing poetry and I journal a lot, so I really think that helps. Free-verse poetry, free-writing, and journaling—can all be helpful.
Do you go to Haiti often? No. Next time I go, I’m skipping Port-au-Prince altogether. I need to visit some historical spots to unearth some of Haiti’s magic and have it whisper in my ears once more.