Award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five joined forces to write their newly released novel-in-verse “Punching the Air.” In 1989, Yusef Salaam was one of the five boys wrongfully convicted in the “Central Park Jogger” case, which forced them to spend between seven and 13 years in jail until they were exonerated in 2002. Since being released, the five have received a multimillion dollar settlement from the city of New York, and their story has been documented in the 2012 film “The Central Park Five” and the 2019 Netflix documentary series “When They See Us.”
Zoboi writes that the wrongful conviction of the Exonerated Five awakened her and many others, “to the injustices of their country and of the world.” Having met Salaam two years after he was released from prison, Zoboi was a college reporter anxious to investigate the case and share Salaam’s story. Now, nearly 20 years after their first encounter, Zoboi brings Salaam’s perspective to light once more.
In the novel, the fictional Amal Shahid is a 16-year-old Black Muslim poet and artist who is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Amal’s story begins in the courtroom, where he awaits his verdict. Though Amal’s story is inspired by Salaam’s, it is not an exact replica: “We decided that we had to make Amal a 2020 version of 1989 Yusef, and that is a boy who is incredibly self-aware,” Zoboi shared in an August interview with NPR. Infused with Salaam’s wisdom, perspective and even some of the poetry he wrote while incarcerated, Amal’s truth comes to life on the page.
Amal’s life dramatically changes after one intense night when he is accused of assaulting a white boy. When he is found guilty, he is sent to a juvenile detention facility. An echo of Salaam, Amal is simply a boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; all the while, Amal is continuously referred to as “the defendant” and portrayed as a fully-grown man rather than the young boy he is. We follow Amal as he flashes between the past and present, wondering what his future will bring. His shifting emotional states are notably interwoven with recurrent motifs like stones, dust and butterflies, striking accompaniments to the verse that establishes an intimate and emotional connection between the reader and Amal.
Throughout the novel, Amal transparently expresses his experiences in jail, which mostly confine him to his cell — four small corners. Alone, Amal is trapped in his own mind with his explosive thoughts. To escape and to express his anger and pain, Amal looks to art and poetry as outlets. When able, he attends poetry workshops (rewards for good behavior) and draws with broken crayons in his free time — “I didn’t know that / I could hold this little / bit of freedom in my hands.” In addition to artistry bridging Amal and Salaam, Amal too has the support of his visiting family and friends, who bring him letters and books. They do not let Amal forget who he is as he battles in a setting designed to drain him of everything.
Through the use of verse, Zoboi illuminates the power of art and words that saves Amal from the sinking despair and rage that nearly swallow him whole, while detailing the unjust systems that have placed Amal in this position in the first place. This chiefly includes the judicial and prison systems in America that disproportionately fail and oppress Black people. One motif Zoboi and Salaam use is blind justice, invoking Lady Justice to give voice to this truth: “because where I come from / jail or death / were the two options she handed to us / because where he comes from / the American Dream / was the one option she handed to them.” This sentiment is reiterated by the imbalanced structure of the verse, calling to mind the tipping scales Lady Justice holds.
The underlying question beneath the details of the discriminatory systems and policies Amal faces is the question of anomaly. In an interview with The Guardian, Salaam clarifies that “we wanted to tell the story of how this is not an anomaly. We wanted to tell ‘the story of the two Americas’; what it’s like to live in a world where you may not make it home because of racism and systemic oppression.” This implicit question is present throughout the novel, and often unveiled through a clone metaphor — how racist and discriminatory assumptions create a new person out of Amal that people accept and believe: “They believed those lies about me / and made themselves / a whole other boy / in their minds / and replaced me with him.”
But, while Zoboi and Salaam identify the center of Amal’s story as “the cycle of racial violence that continues to plague this country,” “Punching the Air” is not just a story about a crime or race. Instead, for Zoboi and Salaam, “‘Punching the Air’ is about the power of art, faith and transcendence in the most debilitating circumstances. The expertly written verse enables the compelling melding of words and art with the other serious themes. The painfully honest first-person narrative adds depth to the poetry, and the fragmented structure leaves room for questions and reflections from the reader.
Perhaps one of the most important, yet easily overlooked, details of the novel is the meaning behind the name Amal. In Arabic, Amal means hope, something Zoboi and Salaam set out to instill in readers. Hope and truth are the main drivers of Amal’s story, and reminders for the reader of what “Punching the Air” represents: one boy’s struggle to hold on to his humanity, something we all must fight for.
Daily Arts Writer Lillian Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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