In Ibi Zoboi’s Fictional Worlds, Black Girls Dream in Color

This Haitian American author shakes up young adult literature with characters who transcend universes

Minal Hajratwala
ZORA
Published in
6 min readAug 26, 2019

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Ibi Zoboi speaks at the Foundation Of Letters Gala on October 26, 2017 in New York City. Photo: Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images Entertainment

IIbi Zoboi’s first novel, American Street, established her as a powerful new voice in young adult fiction. A Haitian American coming-of-age story set in Detroit, it landed on numerous best of 2017 lists and was a National Book Award finalist. Since then, she has published an anthology, Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America, and a second novel for teens, Pride, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Bushwick.

For her third novel, due out on August 27 from Dutton Books, Zoboi turned to her own first love: science fiction. Set in the 1980s, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich (the author’s sly sidestep of the trademarked Oreo) is the story of seventh-grader Ebony-Grace Norfleet, an avid sci-fi fan whose imaginary alter ego is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet. She moves from Alabama to Harlem when her NASA engineer grandfather falls ill, but her nerdy interests and superhero T-shirts make it hard to fit in with girls who care more about Double Dutch and breakdancing. The young narrator’s space-travel fantasies are depicted in comic-book panels interspersed throughout the book.

In advance of its release, we talked with Zoboi about her new projects, her passion for telling the stories of Black children, and her commitment to creative risk-taking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: How did you dream up this book?

Ibi Zoboi: I wanted to write about a little Black girl who is smart and awkward and funny, and make her as strange as possible because that’s how I felt as a little girl. I also included other Black people who took creative risks, pulling from Black music history, people like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and Sun Ra, these weird Black artists who were thinking extraterrestrial thoughts when so much was going on in the world. In the book, it’s the 1980s, HIV/AIDS has hit, the crack epidemic is about to hit, but the kids are outside doing rap battles. It’s about kids developing a play culture in the midst of all the brokenness and imagining a…

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Minal Hajratwala
ZORA
Writer for

AUTHOR of Moon Fiji (guidebook); Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (poetry); Leaving India (nonfiction). COACH at Write Like a Unicorn. @minalh