I thought that an interview with Ibi Zoboi would be a nice way to close out 2018 and move into 2019 because of all the good stuff she’s got going on. I particularly enjoy how this interview reveals her skill at editing anthologies and her passion for children. Thanks, Ibi for taking the time to chat!
EC: I’m working on a review of Pride (Balzer + Bray) right now and I cannot help but note your use of geography in the story. Were you intentional in your use of setting, or am I just picking up on something?
IZ: Yes, I am always intentional in my use of setting. My characters or my story have to be grounded in a place that determines my protagonists’ world view and how they navigate their surroundings. In Pride, this is the neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Bushwick is undergoing a major shift in terms of demographics and landscape. The low-income Black and Brown people are being priced out and single and two-family homes are being torn down to make way for high-rise condos and pricey rentals. All these things have a huge impact on Zuri and her life choices.
EC: Why was Pride and Prejudice the story you needed to re-cast?
IZ: It was actually the other way around. I decided to insert the Pride and Prejudice storyline and structure into a love story about two Black kids trying to understand each other and their world.
EC: Is pride Zuri’s curse or her blessing?
IZ: Zuri’s pride is a curse only for a moment where it gets in the way of her seeing others for who they truly are. Her love for her community is thick in the beginning, but ultimately, it’s this love that allows her to expand her world view in order for her to see the upside of change and opening her heart to someone new and different. In the long run, her pride will be her anchor.
EC: Ibi, you have a lot going on! Pride came out in September, you have an anthology, Black Enough Balzer + Bray), coming out in January and a middle grade novel later in 2019. I also hear you’re working on a biography told in verse. Let me ask you about that anthology first. How did it come about?
IZ: My writing career started with anthologies. My first professionally published story was in an anthology called Dark Matter: Reading the Bones edited by Sheree Renée Thomas. It’s a collection featuring African American speculative fiction. Since then, I published in four more anthologies, and as an educator, part of my job was to collect students’ writing and publish them in anthologies over the course of the school year. So, I’ve technically edited or been featured in almost twenty anthologies. During my debut year, I noticed quite a few Black authors were publishing (although this number is comparatively quite low), yet, I was afraid that with the conversations surrounding social justice themes, there was a risk of our stories being pigeonholed as always having to be about a “Big Black Issue.” Considering how long it takes for a book to make it out into the world, I realized that it might be years before we see a plethora of books featuring Black children who are simply being carefree and are navigating social issues in different ways. Also, as an educator, I would always look for short stories to teach—something my students could examine within a week or so. I also wanted to expose readers to the diversity within diversity. I knew that the authors would deliver a wide range of settings and stories to show the world that we are not a monolith.
EC: Editing an anthology is a whole other skill set! How did editing that volume grow you as a writing?
IZ: I’ve spent fifteen years workshopping my short stories, essays, and novels. I would sit around with 13 to 16 other writers to give and receive feedback. I also completely a very vigorous MFA program where I had to write lots of essays and critiques about books and my fellow classmates’ work. I simply brought those skills to the editing process. I also leaned heavily on my editor, Alessandra Balzer, who looked for things like structure and clarity. My questions were around “What does this story have to say about Blackness?” and I had a clear vision of how I wanted the whole book to feel. There’s also the process of placing the stories in a certain order. Like a novel, there has to be a beginning, middle, and end. It works the same way with putting together an anthology. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and it’s definitely a labor of love.
EC: As this year moves to and, what are some your favorite memories that you’ll carry into 2019?
IZ: Some of the most magical memories for me were when I’d travel to a city for a school or library visit, there’d always be someone who takes a good look at me and basically says, “You need to come hang out with us!” They’re usually people who are either professors, poets, aspiring authors, or community activists who are deeply rooted in the Black community. They take me around to the best food spots, talk about gentrification, the Black history of the city, etc. One time, it was a teacher in St. Louis who also owned a hair salon and she hooked me up before introducing me to her family, telling me about Ferguson, and driving me to the airport. School and library visits are wonderful and I’ve met some great librarians and teachers. I also love when I get a chance to experience the Black people who live in these cities. They fuel me and keep me grounded. These are definitely memories that I will always carry with me into next year and as I continue to do this work.
Ibi lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist and educator Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children.
Her debut novel, AMERICAN STREET, was published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers was a finalist for the National Book Award and has received five starred reviews. Under the same imprint, her latest YA novel, PRIDE, was released this Fall, and, BLACK ENOUGH, a collection of stories about what it’s like to be young and black in America, will debut in January of 2019. Her middle grade debut, MY LIFE AS AN ICE-CREAM SANDWICH is forthcoming from Dutton/Penguin Books.
If you are interested in a school visit from Ibi, arrangements can be made through The Author Village.