Loyalty vs. Heart: An Ibi Zoboi Book Review

by - April 07, 2022

For best-selling novelist Ibi Zoboi, her writing journey began during her adolescence.

She kept her stories to herself, jotting them down on the blank pages of notebooks left over from the school year. She didn’t read many books herself - the culture of borrowing and returning books in a classroom or library either did not exist yet or did not exist in her struggling community - but instead immersed herself in magazines, which were more accessible and cheaper to buy.

It was easy for Zoboi to fall in love with writing. Poetry first, then journalism. Her poetry became short stories. Those short stories became novels. Whatever she was writing, she knew she wanted the audience to fall into the young adult category.

“I decided to write for young people simply because I love speculative fiction,” she said. “I thought I could try my hand at fantasy and sci-fi, and those were the first stories that I started to write.”

Her latest novel, Okoye to the People, finds the Dora Milaje General going on her first trip to America with King T’Chaka. She has been tasked with joining other African leaders as a special envoy to the World Humanitarian Aid Council, but is thrown into conflict when she finds herself in a New York neighborhood that is struggling with gentrification.

As she gets to know the young people of Brownsville, Okoye uncovers the truth about the plans of a manipulative real-estate mogul pulling all the strings - and how far-reaching those secret plans really are. Caught between fulfilling her duty to her country and listening to her own heart urging her to stand up for Brownsville, Okoye must determine the type of Dora Milaje - and woman - she wants to be.

Zoboi found herself really connecting to the story of the Dora Milaje, who were based on the Dahomey, an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa. As an immigrant of Haiti, she loved reading about and seeing photos of these women who learned how to protect their children and their villages.

She also immersed herself in the Black Panther comics, learning as much as she could about the Dora Milaje and Okoye.

“There’s a lot of gaps in the story and history of the Dora Milaje, so I had to rely on what’s already there,” Zoboi said. “Every time somebody writes about the Dora Milaje, they create a little something new. I had to rely on who she is as a character; as a character she’s fiercely loyal, so this book is about her loyalty versus her heart and her needing to help the kids that need it most.”

Okoye may or may not be the one who saves the day at the end of the novel, giving the reader the chance to question who they are as heroes and how they can create and affect change. Sure, there are superheroes, but what about everyday heroes?

Creating the story for Okoye to the People reminded Zoboi of a Rudine Sims Bishop quote that she tries to live by in her storytelling:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

The young adults who read her novels may not feel seen or may not see themselves, so Zoboi hopes her books help them find that window, mirror or sliding glass door.

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