The following piece is published as part of our TLM Young Writers series, a dedicated section of The London Magazine‘s website which showcases the work of exceptional young talent aged between 13-21, from the UK and beyond.
Punching in the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Punching in the Air, Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, HarperCollins, 400pp, 2020, £7.99 (paperback)
It feels impossible to adequately convey the profundity of Punching the Air. Based loosely on co-author Yusef Salaam’s experience as one of the ‘Central Park Five’, it is a heartbreakingly beautiful verse novel that grapples with institutionalised racism and systematic oppression. Salaam and Ibi Zoboi paint a poignant picture of 16 year old Amal Shahid as he is wrongfully incarcerated and wrestles with the consequent tribulations. However, Punching the Air is not just about Amal’s wrongful conviction – it is a story about a young boy who maintains his humanity and voice through artistic expression; one that incites both outrage and hope.
Amal is an incredibly nuanced main character, being neither a sinner nor a saint. His multifaceted nature is a significant counter to the stereotypes that he is forced into by white prosecutors. As a Black, Muslim teenager, Amal is labelled as a ‘monster’, ‘predator’, and ‘animal’. In stark contrast to this antagonism, the reader meets Amal as a young boy trying to hold onto his art, faith, love, and hope in a world that seems rigged against him. Despite the ostensible futility of his situation, he consistently rebels against the conformity and restrictions imposed on him. Fittingly, Amal’s name means ‘hope’ in Arabic, which is precisely what the character embodies as he utilises the arts to regain control of the narrative and define his identity. His resilience in the face of adversity is a beacon of light amidst the American justice system disproportionately failing and oppressing minorities:
Locking you up isn’t enough
for them They will try
to crush your spirit until
you’re nothing but—
we both say together
And what does dust do, Amal?
What did Maya Angelou say about dust?
It rises, I whisper
The reader follows Amal’s journey, both literally and figuratively. As Amal is incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre, the reader gains insight into the degrading treatment of Black youth and how the Thirteenth Amendment establishes the prison system as a legal form of slavery. One of the most poignant elements of the story is when Amal frames the prison system as the modern-day equivalent of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. On a more personal level, the reader witnesses Amal’s journey as he goes ‘from kid to criminal to felon to prisoner to inmate’ and the indelible effect it has on him.
In light of the Black Lives Matter protests, people are increasingly educating themselves on social justice issues. Punching the Air is a timely and indispensable read, highlighting both systematic issues, as well as the individuals who continue to fight against them. Zoboi and Salaam unwaveringly examine how racism manifests itself in society and the impact it has on individuals like Amal. They have not only tackled crucial subject matters but have also produced a beautifully written novel, with heart and soul poured into each word. Punching the Air is a literary feat that is both a devastating look at the present and hopeful for a brighter future.
Amadea Hofmann is 18 years old, currently on a gap year, and due to study law at the London School of Economics in September.
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