Imagine Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s relationship—the heart of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—blossoming in contemporary Brooklyn. That idea was one of the sparks for author Ibi Zoboi’s new YA novel, Pride (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Sept.). Zoboi calls her book a “remix” of Austen’s work, set in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. “It features two black teens falling in love,” she said. “But I also examine class and what it means to call someplace home, and change, and what it means to be part of a community and sisterly bonds, familial love. I feel like I examine a lot in the book and at the center is a love story of a girl who comes to love and accept change within herself and in her community as well.”
Pride arrives fast on the heels of Zoboi’s 2017 debut, American Street, about a Haitian girl who’s thrust into the rough Detroit neighborhood where her relatives live, while she tries to free her mother, who is being detained by U.S. immigration. “American Street was just so hard to write,” she said. “I wanted to go a little bit lighter after that and write about kids not dealing with violence or trauma, just falling in love, but still making some sort of political statement. I just didn’t know how to structure it.”
Zoboi said she was having some difficulty finding not only the right approach to the book, but the proper mindset for it, too. “Love stories are hard for me,” she said. “And it was especially hard to write a love story within this political climate. I actually started some projects before the election, and during, and after the election, but it was really tough for me to capture a light love story. I kept trying to be way too political.”
It was Zoboi’s editor, Alessandra Balzer, who suggested looking at the structure of classic works for inspiration. “Pride and Prejudice came up because I said I wanted to deal with political issues between two kids falling in love and the conflict between them,” explained Zoboi. Austen’s world helped her realize she wanted to address class and socioeconomic status in her book. “I have teens, too, and it’s something I’m dealing with personally living in Brooklyn,” she noted. Over a series of drafts it became clear that the book would not be a plot-point-by-plot-point retelling of Austen’s original, “so there’s more freedom to examine some more contemporary teen issues,” Zoboi said.
But in the end, Zoboi hopes readers will consider her book a bright spot in often-dark times: “As a writer, I needed something to take my mind off the heavy politics of the day, and I wanted readers to be able to do the same. I want to give them a moment to breathe—especially teens of color—and some moments to be able to dream, shut out the world, and dive into something sweet.” She says that the experience of creating a book that delivers “a little bit of joy and hope and tenderness” for her readers inspired those same restorative emotions in her. “I even scale down the writing a little bit because I want young readers to fall into the story,” she said. “It’s something they can discuss in the classroom and it can be a nighttime cozy read as well. That’s how I see my daughters read certain books that they return to over and over again. And those are not usually the heavy topic books.”
Next up on Zoboi’s busy docket is the January 2019 release Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America (HarperCollins), an anthology featuring 16 African-American authors, which she edited, and to which she also contributed a story. And after three YA projects, Zoboi is currently immersed in writing her first middle-grade novel, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, due from Dutton in summer 2019. “I’m really excited about this book, because it’s all joy,” said the author. “It’s set in 1984 Harlem, and is about a black girl who comes from Alabama. She is a Star Trek and Star Wars fanatic who desperately wants to be the first kid in space. But, unfortunately, the kids in her neighborhood don’t allow her to be herself. She has to find a way to fit into her funky Harlem surroundings while still embracing her quirky sci-fi imagination.”
Pride by Ibi Zoboi. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 Sept. 18 ISBN 978-0-06256-404-7