Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam: Finding Power Within

Ibi Zoboi
(photo: Joseph Zoboi)
Yusef Salaam
(photo: Staci Nurse)

Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam collaborated on the novel-in-verse Punching the Air, due out from Balzer + Bray on September 1. Here, they spoke with Shelf Awareness about their working relationship, the restorative power of art and youth incarceration.

Ibi Zoboi is a bestselling children's and YA author. She followed her debut, American Street, a National Book Award finalist and New York Times Notable Book, with the YA novel Pride and the middle-grade My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich. She lives with her husband and children in New Jersey.

Yusef Salaam is an activist, poet (Words of a Man: My Right to Be) and one of the Exonerated Five. As teenagers, he and four other boys were wrongfully convicted in the "Central Park jogger" case--each serving time for crimes they did not commit. They were exonerated 13 years after their false conviction. Today, Salaam travels widely giving lectures.

When and how did you meet and then conceive of Punching the Air?

Ibi Zoboi: I ran into Yusef while traveling to promote my debut novel, American Street, in 2017. He was at a book festival selling his self-published poems he had written while he was incarcerated. I remember thinking, "Why on earth does he not have a book out?" He has such an important and inspiring story to tell, especially to young people.

Yusef Salaam: Ibi told me that she writes for teens and she visits high schools. She said I needed a book, so we began discussing the possibility of telling my story through the lens of a modern teen boy who is just like I was when I was convicted at 16.

Collaborating on a novel in verse seems challenging. Why was it important that Amal's story be in verse? What was the writing process like? 

Zoboi: Yusef's poems provided the foundation for Punching the Air. We came up with the story together, I wrote the poems and infused some of Yusef's own words, ideas and worldview.

Salaam: One of the cool things about poetry is that poetry is hip-hop. Hip-hop is a genre that was created by us for us. It is the language of the people. It is a protest language. It is a way that we codify the more powerful and salient ideas. Poetry can capture a feeling and when it's being read or spoken, it's magnetic.

Visual art and poetry allow Amal to reclaim his identity and personhood in prison after the justice system attempts to strip him of both. Why did you choose these mediums? 

Zoboi: I visited Yusef's home and he showed me all the illustrations and graphic designs on t-shirts he'd created while he was incarcerated. He was able to painstakingly cut out shapes with a needle and work with non-toxic watercolor sets. This resonated with me deeply. Time and time again, I see young people creating and innovating with so little. That is genius at work. Ultimately, Yusef was clearly a poet and artist, so Amal is an updated version of him.

Salaam: For Amal to not only be a prolific artist, but the idea of him being able to hold on to that dream and make it real when he doesn't have access to basic supplies allows him to become his full self. That necessity is heightened when there is so little to work with. He realizes his full potential and his passion when there is no other option than to make art. This is his way out and his way in.

Amal has a handful of supporters in and outside of the prison. Was there one who you felt most strongly about including? 

Zoboi: The book begins with Amal's mother giving birth to him. Throughout my conversations with Yusef, he would always say that in jail, he went from the womb to the tomb and back to the womb. His prison cell was a metaphor for the womb. It was like an incubation for him to be reborn, and he needed his mother's constant support. Amal's relationship with his mother is a reflection of Yusef's relationship with his mother, as well as my relationship with my teen son.

Salaam: Definitely Amal's mother. At the end of the day, there is nothing like a mama. My mother is my rock and, in my situation, I was always able to smile a lot easier through the pain when my mother was part of the journey. Even as a 16-year-old, I needed that nurturing, that feeling of being tucked in at night. When she visited, sometimes we would both sit in silence and that was nurturing.

Amal is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated at age 16; legally, he is still a child. What is the effect of incarceration at such a young age? 

Salaam: There is this saying in our community, "You're gonna be dead or in jail by the time you're 21." That was an idea that was planted into our collective psyches. It's one of the most unfortunate realities to take a child and imprison them and rob them of the opportunity to turn their life around and become something great. This is more than just about potential, it's about hope. Even before they are incarcerated, if they believe in this statement, it means that they are fulfilling other people's vision for them. You then become a commodity for their wishes. This is the continuation of slavery. This is the 13th amendment fulfilled.

What impact do you hope Punching the Air will have on young readers?

Zoboi: Punching the Air is about the humanity of a boy who has nowhere to turn but within himself. My hope is that this book will be a guiding light for young people who feel trapped by walls, real or imagined. I want young readers to start with the self and pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a book--anything that will inspire them to create something out of nothing.

Salaam: I'm hoping that it gives young people hope and the ability to know that whoever they are in their personal lives, that they can be better. There's always the opportunity to be great.

What can young people do today to advocate for the reform of the U.S. criminal justice system?

Salaam: One of the things to do is to study the criminal justice system. They have to know that prison is not a rite of passage. Dr. Angela Davis said that we as a people have historical amnesia. Slavery was just yesterday, and slavery is going on right now with the criminal justice system. Young people have to read and study to understand history and our place in it.

Zoboi: Yes, read and study before you act. We live in a time when activism forces us to have knee-jerk responses to everything. This is good, but what's even better is to plan, organize and strategize. The best way to do that is by being patient with learning and understanding the information that is presented to you. --Sylvia Al-Mateen

Powered by: Xtenit