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Sean Tulien: Hi, I'm Audible editor Sean Tulien, and today I'm particularly excited to be talking with celebrated YA and children's author, Ibi Zoboi. Her first YA novel, American Street, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second YA novel, Pride, was a Brooklyn-themed remix of Pride and Prejudice. Her new book, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, is her first middle-grade novel. Welcome, Ibi.
Ibi Zoboi: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
ST: It's our pleasure. Getting right into it, not only is this your first children's novel--middle grade--but you also narrated it. And I felt like you really became the characters you voiced, especially the protagonist, Ebony Grace, and her father. I'm kind of curious, what was it like performing the characters in a book that you also wrote?
IZ: Well, I've been working on My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich for four years. It was actually the first book I sold back in 2015. I put out three other books before that, including an anthology, but I was always working on it and revising with my editor. It was very time consuming because it's also a historical novel. So throughout those four years, whenever I wrote a chapter or two, I always read it out loud. I have three children, and my middle daughter, who really, really loves to act and impersonate voices, did a good job at reading it out loud for me so I could know that I was capturing Ebony Grace's voice. I needed to hear a 12-year-old read it. And over the years of writing it, I hear Ebony Grace, I hear her father, I hear all the voices. And it's a novel that is very dependent on music and sound, so it was just not hard to nail it all; in order to write a character like Ebony Grace, I absolutely had to hear her voice. So it was not hard, ultimately, when it came to narrating the book.
ST: Yes. I imagine you spent a lot of time in these characters's headspaces, and it really translates well in the audio version.
IZ: Yes. Thank you.
ST: No problem. When you revisited your story when you were narrating it for the audiobook version, did you see anything in a different light or did you come to any new realizations?
IZ: Yeah, I realized how strange my character is, and I really wanted to write her that way. But it really is, as someone just recently told me in an interview, and I think that really describes what I was trying to do: unscrew the top of her head and let readers in. And I really wanted to do that. And some readers may be frustrated with her, but this is how she thinks. And this is how I think, oftentimes, because I'm a writer and this is how I come up with stories. I might be in a conversation with someone and they're telling me their life story or their problems, but I'm plotting a novel, and this is how I think. And no one knows that because I won't share it. I won't speak it out loud, but if someone were to unscrew the top of my head and peek in, they'd see that there is a lot of things going on. I have an overactive imagination, and so does Ebony Grace.
IZ: I have a T-shirt I just bought to wear for my book launch this Saturday. It says, "It may look like I'm listening to you, but I'm actually in my head piloting the Enterprise." And that nails it perfectly because, yeah, that's me. I may not be piloting the Starship Enterprise, but I'm plotting my next novel. I'm thinking about characterization and setting, and then I'll jump right back into the conversation when it's time to speak. But it's basically, yeah, just getting into the head of... a girl who has an overactive imagination. I didn't know how hard it is to follow her story until I was narrating the book. And I think I did a good job. I think it was my intention, but at the same time I'm like, "Whoa, she's really all over the place." And I think, yeah, I don't know if I would've changed it, but that's what I realized when I was reading it out loud for the first time.
ST: Yeah. For my part, I had no trouble following her flow of thought. And I think a lot of kids are kind of like that, you know, using something to frame their interests growing up.
IZ: Yeah. A lot of kids do, but usually we don't see that reflected with a black girl. And that's part of the title, the meaning of the title. Oreo is trademarked and it's basically a derogatory term for saying someone is black on the outside or brown on the outside, but acts white or is white on the inside. So in that sense, yes, a lot of kids do have highly active imaginations, but usually we don't see girls who look like Ebony Grace wanting to become an astronaut and having space adventures.
ST: Oh, for sure. Actually, could you talk a little bit more about that as a theme in the book? Obviously, we don't want to give any important points of the story away, but given it's in the title, I feel like it's pretty relevant to the themes in the story.
IZ: So the ice cream sandwich part is something that the girls in her Harlem neighborhood, her father's neighborhood, call her. And I'm kind of playing on some of the themes in '80s early hip hop where rappers or break dancers gave themselves these kind of interesting names, and the girls on the block call her ice cream flavor because of that reason. She's interested in all things that white boys are usually interested in. She's a black girl, she's coming from the South, and she wants to play space adventures. And some of her heroes are Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk, and Uhura from the Starship Enterprise, and Wonder Woman. So she loves, she is absolutely obsessed with science fiction, but this is not what little black girls from the South are supposed to be interested in.
So in that sense, she doesn't quite fit in with the girls in her neighborhood. She didn't fit in with the girls and kids back in Huntsville, Alabama, where she's from. So in that sense, she is in her own little world, and she retreats into that little world very often in order to be the superhero of her own story... [with] all of those things that she's interested in, including comic books. It's set in 1984, the summer of 1984. The third Star Trek movie was coming out. Of course, Star Wars was already a thing. And she loves those things, and she has not found a place or a friend who loves those things with her or who reflect that world back to her. So in that sense, that vanilla part of her, those interests are usually relegated to kids who don't look like her. And that's why I chose the title My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich.
Because in the back, I'm sure you don't have a hardcover yet, but in the back of the hardcover, it's Ebony Grace in a space helmet. And the designers and the artists came up with that idea because it's usually the trope in sci-fi movie posters where you have this astronaut, this brave and all-powerful astronaut going out to Mars or being lost in space. And the last one was The Martian, and you see this guy in a space helmet and kind of this ominous planetary background, and we just believe it because these are the people who go out to space. But Ebony Grace, with her brown skin and her pigtails, is in a space helmet. And that's on the back cover. And I think that Frank Morrison, the illustrator, did an excellent job. And Anthony Piper, who is a Marvel illustrator, illustrated the comic strips in the book.
ST: Yes. I wanted to specifically ask you about those. No, I don't have a hard copy. And I have a background as a comic book editor and writer, so I'm really curious, how did you decide which parts of the story to use to supplement with comic book strips?
IZ: The comic illustrations reflect Ebony Grace's imagination. So when she's thinking about this imaginary world... that started with her grandfather's stories, when she's just fighting this evil entity... this is where her reality comes to life. Even when I first started writing the book, I always knew that I wanted comic illustrations as part of the story to reflect her imagination. This girl who is just so immersed in the sci-fi world... she's in the real world, but if she's sitting down not doing anything or when she's ready to play, that's the world that she retreats into. And those are reflected with the comic illustrations illustrated by Anthony Piper.
ST: And how did you handle those segments when you were doing the narration for the book?
IZ: Well, I looked up how to write comic dialogue and narration. So I did the panel one, panel two; I did the dialogue and the description, and that was very hard to do. That's what took the longest, because I was trying to figure out, how can I describe what happens across four panels? The facial expressions with the body language. I didn't realize until later that I didn't have to do all those things. And towards the next couple of drafts I just had to write a paragraph for the illustrator, and they basically got the gist of it, and Anthony Piper nailed it. The first things that had to be approved were the illustrations of the characters. And the only thing that I asked for was that Ebony Grace look a little nerdier. Meaning I wanted her to be more awkward in her body, because she is a very awkward girl. She is socially awkward, and very vulnerable and not very confident in the real world. So in this imaginary world, I wanted her to look a little confident, but she's still her awkward self. So basically, the act of writing out comic script is very hard for me as a prose writer. So I know other people can do it much better, but I didn't have to do that ultimately.
ST: Well, I'm looking forward to reading those parts. I'm curious, too, when you're actually narrating the characters in those scenes involving comic segments, how did you handle those in the studio when you were recording?
IZ: I did not record those scenes. It was left out. Yes, because there wasn't much dialogue in there, and the dialogue that did happen didn't really move the story along. It was more just her imagination. It did move the story along a little bit, but we were trying to figure out how to include those. But ultimately, they're not included. They're only in the book.
ST: That's why I asked. I couldn't imagine, just knowing comics, how you could do that. So you talk a lot about Ebony Grace's or E. Grace's interests as a child being science fiction and comic books. And I particularly like the way she kind of retreats into that world where it's like the safe version where she can be herself, especially when she's overwhelmed by the real world. Are any of your other childhood interests a part of E. Grace's personality or her character?
IZ: Absolutely. I was an over-thinker, and while I didn't watch, if I had an older person, like an adult or family member watching Star Trek with me, I would have totally indulged. But I ended up loving, and I still do, The Twilight Zone. And I love some of those cerebral social commentaries. And I love Black Mirror now. So I was that kid being seven or eight and nine being fascinated by these ideas of these otherworldly things, and things that we don't quite understand as humans. And for me, I always wanted to delve into deep philosophical conversations with my peers who were eight and nine years old, and no one wanted to play those things. I probably wanted to play Twilight Zone. Let's play Twilight Zone, you know?
ST: I'd love to see how that would play out. Yeah.
IZ: Right. But I was an awkward kid. And the most important aspect of myself that I'm using in the story is my being an immigrant. I am not from Huntsville, Alabama. I'm from Haiti. And I immigrated to New York City at the age of four in the early '80s. So I came of age in New York in the '80s when kids played outside a lot. And I had to socialize. I had to learn the culture, the street culture, the girlhood culture of the streets and the scene. New York was very poor and disenfranchised and a lot of dilapidated and burnt out buildings, but ultimately the kids were playing outside and having a good time. Harlem looked rough in 1984, but it's not a story about how broken Harlem was or how broken New York City was. It's about how kids make the best of their environment and still had a good time and were being innovative.
And for me, I was watching that culture as an outsider. I had to learn that culture. I had to learn how to double dutch. I grew up during early hip hop. And it was always noisy, which is why there are a lot of onomatopoeias in the story, because New York in the '80s sounded like a heavy bass all the time. There was the boom box, there was speakers in the back of people's trunks. And I just remember the sound of New York City... I wanted to convey that because that was an important aspect to the story, which is why Ebony Grace had the idea of a sonic boom, right? And her grandfather's telling her, "Look, it's noisy, it's the sonic boom. Don't let it control you."
So it's a metaphor. I use science fiction as a metaphor for what was happening at that time. There was music, there was sound, there was technology, there was the space race. And crack is about to hit. There was violence, but she's still unaware. She's still unaware about all that happening because she's trying to make sense of it through the use of science fiction. But I am reflecting back on my experience as an immigrant coming to New York City as a first time [observer]. I could not write this story as someone who is already living in New York City, because there's no sense of wonder in that. But Ebony Grace is coming from somewhere else, and I wanted to capture that wonder, that joy, that curiosity about this new place. But I didn't want her to come from another country because that's a different story.
ST: Right. So it's sort of like one of my favorite lines from your story, "A captain has to change her mind to see a place with new eyes."
IZ: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
ST: Great. I love that theme.
IZ: Maybe she's a special snowflake.
ST: Right. Yeah. So as an aside, are you familiar with the rapper... he's done a lot of things, acting, rapping, slam poetry like you, and spoken word. His name's Saul Williams. He's a Brooklyn native as well.
ST: Oh, I'm glad to hear.
IZ: I kind of grew up in the early spoken word movement, and I performed on the very same stage.
ST: As Saul?
IZ: I wasn't a featured poet, I was on the open mic list. At Brooklyn Moon and Fort Green. They would have a featured poet and before the featured poet comes on, they'd have open mic... And on several occasions, Saul Williams was the featured poet.
ST: Oh, cool.
IZ: I'd get on the open mic. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ST: That's awesome.
IZ: But when we were doing things, he was already established when I was just getting into the spoken word.
ST: That's amazing. I used to listen to him all the time when I was in college. He mentioned specifically the gentrification of Brooklyn, using sci-fi as a retreat and writing as a retreat to deal with his problems and frame his life. I just saw so many parallels with this story and some of his work.
IZ: I'm so glad you brought that up, because my interest in science fiction didn't come from reading science fiction novels. It actually came from the spoken word scene, because so many poets were writing about these extraterrestrial galactic traveling poems. This is when I started writing sci-fi-ish poems and started reading it to get some of my ideas. So I'm glad you brought up Saul Williams. Before I read Octavia Butler, who is a pioneering black woman science fiction writer, I was listening to Saul Williams and Carl Hancock Rux and Liza Jessie Peterson, who were all from that writing using science fiction as a metaphor.
ST: And you got to study under Octavia Butler at Clarion West Writers Workshop, right?
IZ: Yes, I did. Yeah. I was, again, on another interview I was telling someone that, well, Ice Cream Sandwich is very different. It's an interesting novel. And I learned how to take creative risks when I went to Clarion West. So a lot of my foundations are not... Let's say I wasn't necessarily inspired by other children's books that did something similar. I was just in a writing workshop that forced us to do weird things with our art. In the novel, there's one or two mentions of Sun Ra, who was a jazz musician who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in the '60s.
ST: Oh, interesting.
IZ: Yeah. And I'm inspired by weird forward-thinking, progressive black artists. And I think Ebony Grace would be one of those people. I mentioned Sun Ra, I mentioned George Clinton. Parliament Funkadelic had an album called Mothership Connection, and they were talking about spaceships and aliens in the '70s and even in the '60s. So basically, this book is Afrofuturism. I'm introducing young people to the idea of Afrofuturism within a historical context.
ST: Oh, I think it works. It really works. It got me thinking back to a lot of things I like and wanting to read a lot more in the genre. So speaking of other interviews, I did obviously listen to and read a couple of them. And one of the questions that you mentioned a couple times that you wish people would ask is, how do you balance motherhood with writing? And I think I want to ask you that right now.
IZ: Oh, thank you. Some people don't want to be asked that, but I do. I think people avoid it so much that I was just like, I'm doing this very interesting thing. It's not a balance. It is chaotic. But I get a lot of support from my partner, my husband of almost 20 years who supported my writing from the very beginning, so he knew what he was getting into. And I juggle a lot of different projects at the same time, and I think I'm able to do that because of parenting and managing a household. I get bored if I'm only working on one thing. My mind needs to shift from one energy to the next when my mood shifts, you know? So I was able to write a YA novel while working on this middle-grade novel, and I would move from one thing to the other as sort of a palate cleanser.
IZ: This the same thing. Sometimes I'll do laundry and move to cooking dinner and probably making the beds or something. And it's just how my life is. I need to constantly be moving through different energies and different moves so that I feel like I'm actually going somewhere, like I'm moving forward with something. I'll feel stuck and bored if I'm doing one thing. That's kind of a weird thing to say, but it's part of my overactive imagination. Much like Ebony Grace. Reality feels a little bit humdrum sometimes, so it's a way of moving from different planets, basically, traveling from one world to the other in my imagination.
ST: You sound really well-suited to be raising three creative children.
IZ: Yeah. And they are very creative.
ST: Well, honestly, this is a huge pleasure. I really want to thank you for making the time. I've really been looking forward to talking to you about My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, so thank you. Thank you so much, Ibi.
IZ: Thank you. Thank you. Those were some great questions. I was happy to share my thoughts and my inspirations.