Interview: Ibi Zoboi And Yusef Salaam, Authors Of 'Punching The Air' Author Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, turn his childhood pain into poetry in this new novel in verse, about a Black teenager convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
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'Punching The Air' Tells A Story Of Hope Behind Bars

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'Punching The Air' Tells A Story Of Hope Behind Bars

'Punching The Air' Tells A Story Of Hope Behind Bars

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"Punching The Air" is a novel in verse about a 16-year-old boy, Amal Shahid, with a budding artistic talent and promising future who is put away in prison for throwing a punch. But in a way, was he put away before that? We'll ask Dr. Yusef Salaam, co-author with Ibi Zoboi, to read a verse from the book titled "Clone."

YUSEF SALAAM: (Reading) Ever since that day in the fifth grade, my teachers watched me so hard, so close that I felt like I was trying to break out of prison, even though I was just in school. Every dumb thing I did, they thought it was because of trouble at home - an absent father, a tired mother, not enough books, not enough vegetables, not enough sleep. They believe those lies about me and made themselves a whole other boy in their minds and replaced me with him.

SIMON: Dr. Yusef Salaam, who has become a noted educator and activist after spending more than six years in prison for his wrongful conviction in what was known as the Central Park jogger case, joins us from Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.

SALAAM: My pleasure.

SIMON: And Ibi Zoboi, the bestselling author of "My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich" and other books, joins us from Maplewood, N.J. Thank you very much for being with us.

IBI ZOBOI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Ibi Zoboi, the verses are so powerful in this book. I wonder if I can ask you to read one called "Hope."

ZOBOI: So when Yusef and I decided to work on this book together, I was coming with the experience of having been a young adult author. I write books for children. And I wanted the world to remember that Yusef was a child when this happened to him. And I was a child as well when I remember this case, and those boys looked like the boys in my classroom. The character had to be inspired by Yusef, and this story had to instill a sense of hope in the reader. So we came up with a name, and that name is Amal. And Amal means hope in Arabic.

"Hope" - (reading) I hope they don't kill me in there. I hope I can handle the pain. I hope I have time to heal. I hope I am stronger than I think. I hope all the books I've read will save my life. I hope my brain is a muscle. I hope I have superpowers. I hope I am superhuman.

SIMON: Dr. Salaam, does a powerful verse like that come about because you tell your co-author, this is how it felt?

SALAAM: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, one of the things that is important is once you accept defeat, you then become your own worst enemy. You begin to internalize and then, therefore, live out a life devoid of purpose, a life as a mistake. But you are born on purpose, and you have to remember that, and that gives you tremendous hope in being able to overcome anything.

SIMON: You were born for a purpose. There must've been moments when you doubted that.

SALAAM: Well, you know, the interesting thing about it is you always have moments of doubt. And just before you give up hope, things happen in your life that jar you back awake to the reality of what purpose is all about. You look up at the sky, even though you're behind bars, you can still see the beauty in creation.

Had I given up hope, had I given up everything, my humanity, I would've turned into what they wanted me to turn into. And I'll never forget; my mother said - when she came to the precinct, she said to me, they need you to participate in whatever it is that they're trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse.

SIMON: Ibi Zoboi, how did you two work together as co-authors?

ZOBOI: Well, as you can hear, Yusef has so much wisdom to bring to his story. When thinking about how to write the story, it wasn't so much about us coming up with a plot, coming up with the characters together. We decided that we had to make Amal a 2020 version of 1989 Yusef, and that is a boy who is incredibly self-aware. He was aware of just a history of criminal justice in this country at 16, while it was happening to him. So in that sense, this was my way of just taking all of Yusef's worldviews, his perspective, his hindsight, and putting it in the form of poetry through the eyes and experiences of a 16-year-old fictional character.

SIMON: Dr. Salaam, you believe what happened to you was for the reason to help others. A lot of people would find it just a reason to be angry for the rest of your life.

SALAAM: That is when I look at mentors. You know, Nelson Mandela said that he had to leave anger and bitterness in the prison because if he took it out with him, it would turn into something and destroy him, whereas Dr. Maya Angelou said, you should be angry, but you must not be bitter. She said bitterness is like a cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn't do anything to the object of its displeasure. And then she gives us a way to become alchemists in our own lives. She tells us to use that anger. You dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it. Then she said, you talk it, never stop talking it.

And that's really what this book is about as well. It's about the artistry. It's about finding purpose, finding resilience. It's about falling down in life and getting back up. It is about becoming your best self, even though you are being judged by the color of your skin and not the content of your character.

SIMON: You know, it is inescapable to note that we are speaking in a week in which much of the nation is looking at events in Kenosha, Wis. A Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot. We learn more about the details, but we do know he was shot seven times in the back and is now in critical condition. I'm wondering what's on your minds this week.

SALAAM: You know, what's on my mind is, we are not free. We are fighting in a war that we didn't know we were in. But one of the beautiful things about it is that because of the color of our skin, we are automatically fighting on the side of right because we are trying to make the best out of what we've been given.

You know, being shot in a way that Mr. Blake was shot is beyond tragic. And then when you couple that with the fact that his young sons was in the car witnessing this tragedy - it's a miracle that he is alive today, but what does that say about how the people who are supposed to protect and serve us move in reality? It says that there is two Americas, separate and unequal, divided and disunited.

SIMON: Ibi Zoboi?

ZOBOI: Well, this was always part of my reality, our reality, in fact, growing up in New York City. And I'm coming at it from an immigrant's perspective. I was born in Haiti and came to the U.S. at 4 years old. So in that sense, for many people around the world, being here is the American dream. But once we are here and can start to connect the dots that make up the racial injustices in this country, we realize that it can be a nightmare for some. And while there can be individual successes - we see it with, you know, the recent vice presidential nominee, and we had Barack Obama as a president. There are individual successes. What do those successes mean when there are constant injustices? So this is something I'm grappling with as a mother, as an author for children's books - that what does freedom mean when there are still these tragedies taking place year after year after year?

SIMON: Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam - they are co-authors of "Punching The Air," a novel in verse - thank you so much for being with us.

ZOBOI: Thank you.

SALAAM: Thank you for having us.


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