Interview: Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam on the Importance of Their Novel ‘Punching the Air’
Authors Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam (of the Exonerated Five) joined forces to bring forth their impactful novel, Punching the Air. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the book earlier this month and can easily say it’s been one of the best that I’ve read thus far in 2020.
Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a teenager who has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then, one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. Suddenly, at just 16 years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words: his art.
Check out the interview with Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam below:
What was the process like for you both writing Punching the Air together?
Dr. Yusef Salaam: Ibi and I met over two decades ago while we were both students at Hunter College taking a class in African Studies by one of the most foremost scholars of that time, the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s protege. This project was a desire of mine to tell the story of injustice in America, a story that often isn’t told, and to tell it through the eyes of a modern-day version of myself. This was important and necessary.
Working on this book with Ibi was liberating and amazing because of our shared experience of being close in age and also having known what it was like to be a New Yorker as youngsters. This gave us an advantage of being able to tap into a certain shared experience to tell this story.
Ibi Zoboi: I met Yusef in college in 1999. I was an editor for my college’s newspaper, and when he walked into one of my classes and I was reminded of who he was, I immediately wanted to interview him. I grew up in New York City and had seen all about the racial violence incident that had taken place on the news. This is why I wanted to become a journalist.
I never got that interview, but I ran into Yusef in 2017 while I was promoting my debut novel, American Street. He was selling his self-published book of poems, and I wondered why more people had not heard about his story as a member of the Central Park Five. (This was before I knew about the Netflix series).
My work with Yusef was simply a continuation of the work I had set out to do as an aspiring journalist in college. I wanted to tell stories that resonated with me and my experiences growing up in New York City, and the experiences of the young people I care about.
Why do you believe it was important for Punching the Air to be written in verse?
Ibi Zoboi: Yusef’s book of poems served as a foundation for Punching the Air. While only about five of his poems made it into the book, I was able to get a sense of his voice and his worldview as a wrongfully convicted incarcerated teen.
I was a poet before I was a novelist. My novels American Street and Pride feature some poetry, so writing a novel-in-verse came naturally to me. There is such power in being able to capture a certain emotion with only a few words. I really loved being able to use metaphor to describe how Amal saw the world and his place in it. He is a deeply wise young man in the same way that Yusef was very introspective as a teen. The best way I could capture that strong sense of self was through poetry.
How did you find balance in writing a story that while fictionalized, is still based on personal experiences?
Dr. Yusef Salaam: The challenge was to make it unique, even though there were similarities and things that overlapped, and to make a character that readers could identify with. The challenge in my story is that not everyone can identify with being falsely labelled a rapist or a sex offender. That part of my story is very unique. But a fight is something that lots of boys can relate to. They can see themselves in that position. The reward was in telling the story and giving it life so that we can begin to talk about it and see it without blinders on.
Punching the Air highlights the fact that many systems are set up in such a way that makes them stacked against Black people, including the justice and schooling systems. What was your process like in terms of wanting to shed light on these important issues, while still trying to show hope?
Ibi Zoboi: While Punching the Air addresses juvenile justice and wrongful imprisonment, this story is ultimately about the healing and redemptive power of art. There is very little we can do right now for the young people who are serving time. By the time we begin to see drastic changes, they would’ve already been processed through the system and are in danger of recidivism. This book addresses the present. It asks young people, what can you do now is to keep your soul intact and speak your truth. Creative expression and channelling rage is vitally important and this is the most important message in Punching the Air.
One of my favourite moments in the book was when Amal received the letter from Zenobia. So, I was wondering what were some of your favourite moments to write?
Ibi Zoboi: The moments with Zenobia are my favorite, too. I also loved the moments where the poems are in certain shapes in order to convey a message. “Cubism” conveys this idea of being boxed in, so there are four-line poems in the corners of the pages.
Amal has many important relationships and interactions throughout the book. How did you come up with the various characters and which were some you most wanted to showcase?
Ibi Zoboi: These relationships and interactions are based on Yusef’s experiences. Yusef had and continues to have a close bond with his mother. I needed Amal to be supported by his family and community because this is the reality for many incarcerated teens. Just because the system has thrown them away doesn’t mean that those who love them turn their backs on them.
What moments/experiences that Amal had did you feel were the most important to shed light on within Punching the Air?
The moments where Amal gets to express himself through art are the most important moments in Punching the Air. When he’s able to draw or recite his rhymes out loud are when he feels more in control and it’s healing and freeing for him, even while he’s incarcerated.