In Punching the Air, National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five create an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline through the story of 16-year-old Amal, who is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated after a false accusation. In spite of his surroundings, Amal clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity. BookPage spoke with Zoboi and Salaam about the power of poetry, their book's origin story and the message they hope it sends to young readers.
How did you two meet? How did Punching the Air come about? What was it like to work with one another on this book?
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.
Ibi, tell us about the choice to write Punching the Air in verse. What did writing in verse allow you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to in prose?
Zoboi: Yusef’s book of poems served as a foundation for Punching the Air. While only about five of his poems made 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.
Of the book’s many poems, is there one that you’re the most proud of?
Zoboi: I love “The Scream." Many of the poems share titles with famous classical art pieces, and this one is based on Edvard Munch’s famous painting. That’s intentional. I really wanted to capture what rage feels like and what it does to the body. I could only imagine what Yusef must’ve felt while experiencing that tragedy, and he tried to tell me in so many ways. So I thought of the act of ingesting something that is harmful to the body—swallowing something that could potentially kill you.
Salaam: I love how Ibi was able to include my poetry in the story so seamlessly. For example, “Microphone” is more than a poem. It’s a message. It’s a speech that Amal is trying to convey while incarcerated. He is referencing Kunta from the movie Roots being in captivity. He was once free in Africa, but slavery has stripped him of all his identity. There is pride in that poem, pride in his history and in his dark skin color. It’s about liberation while in captivity.
Yusef, what were some of the challenges of creating a character whose experiences have much in common with your own, but who is not merely a fictionalized version of you? What was rewarding about it?
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 labeled 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.
Ibi, what kinds of research went into creating the character of Amal and representing his emotional landscape as well as his experiences?
Zoboi: Aside from having extensive conversations with Yusef, I watched Time, the documentary about Kaleif Browder’s time on Rikers Island. I also read Liza Jessie Peterson’s nonfiction book, All Day, about her experiences teaching incarcerated boys. I also pulled from my relationships with teen boys from when I was a teen and as an educator and a mother of a teen boy. My husband is a high school art teacher, and he was very helpful in offering some insight into some of his students’ experiences.
What other works of art and literature, especially for young people, do you see Punching the Air as engaging in dialogue with, drawing inspiration from, contributing to a larger conversation alongside? What do you hope Punching the Air adds to that conversation?
Zoboi: I truly think pairing music with books is a good way to get young readers to meaningfully engage with a text. Young readers can create their own playlists. Of course, the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a perfect pairing. While Walter Dean Myers’ Monster focuses on the events of a crime, Punching the Air narrows the lens on the experiences of an incarcerated boy. In fact, the lens is within him, inside his heart, mind and soul. Ava DuVernay’s 13th as well as When They See Us should be required supplemental material alongside Punching the Air. Before that, the Ken Burns documentary on the Central Park Five is instrumental as well.
Punching the Air focuses on the inner life of a child caught up in the system. I hope readers will sink into Amal’s skin not only to empathize with his story but also to begin to see themselves in that situation. What would you do to make it through to the next day?
Yusef, can you share how you see the role of arts and creativity in Amal’s life and in your own life?
Salaam: The importance of art is to tap into the creative force of God. There is beauty in everything. With the power of art, Amal does not have to conform. His creativity is not put into a box. In my life, art has been a key to unlock the mystery of what it means to be free.
What would you say to a young person who feels discouraged or disheartened right now, or who feels like the ability to impact the world and make positive change is too far out of their reach?
Salaam: I would say to young people that you are the answer to the question. You have been gifted with unique abilities that only you can give to the world.
Zoboi: Your very presence in the world is enough change for now. You are here, and you matter. Don’t be ashamed of being silent and being still. This is where art and creativity are born. As long as you are present, observing, witnessing and taking notes. Create something new. That is change, too. Whatever it is that you created did not exist before you made it come alive. There is power in that. It could be a drawing, a funny meme, a TikTok post, a beautiful sentence. Even asking questions is art. I don’t want young people to feel defeated and discouraged. This is when we begin to lose hope.
Photo of Ibi Zoboi courtesy of Joseph Zoboi. Photo of Yusef Salaam courtesy of Staci Nurse (Staci Marie Studio).