Poetry, while beautiful to many, falls on my very deaf ears with a resounding crash. I don’t understand poetry thus I struggle to enjoy it. Quite frankly, poetry, verse or anything remotely lyrical, are relatively obscure to me. That’s why Punching The Air feels like a breakthrough for me.
Written in lyrical prose, Black Muslim teen Amal Shahid is indicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Punching The Air powerfully and poetically takes us through Amal’s journey of imprisonment within the injustice of the American judicial system where he finds solace in art, writing and poetry.
I was incredibly excited when my copy of Punching The Air arrived through the post as I’d been waiting on it for weeks and it was well worth the wait! I’ve never read Ibi Zoboi or Dr Yusef Salaam’s previous work, so this was an entirely new experience for me.
Based on some of Dr Yusef Salaam’s experiences, the pain of being treated guilty until proven innocent written in verse is haunting and melancholic. His talent comes through in his expression of the harrowing experiences of Black American teens in juvenile detention while seamlessly overlapping with Amal’s artistic side.
While aimed and marketed at young adult readers, this is an accessible book for all ages. I soon realised I’d be able to get through Punching The Air in less than a week – Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s spellbinding writing skills in fleshing out Amal’s story make this a compelling read.
There are some gritty themes in the book involving racism, gentrification, police brutality, and abuse in prisons with the overarching theme being that of artistic expression and how it can never be quashed regardless of adversity. Amal and other young artists like him are part of the history of storytelling through art just like their well-known predecessors, Picasso, Van Gogh and Michelangelo, were. It’s frustrating to read how much of that is suppressed by Amal’s art teacher, Ms Rinaldi, who constantly undermines his talent and sets the wheels in motion for the path that his life takes.
Faith may not take centre stage in this book, yet it plays a natural part for Amal in questioning his belief in God for his circumstances due to his being from a practicing Muslim home. It’s refreshing to finally find some Black Muslim literature being published in the mainstream amidst a sea of books where the only Western Muslim stories originate from either South Asian or Arab backgrounds. As I wrote in another review, some of the first American Muslims were from the African-American communities and the racism they have faced over centuries hasn’t changed their ability to practice faith and maintain an ardent conviction in God. There are many lessons to learn from this.
What I took from Amal’s story is the palpable reality that is the vilification of Black teenage boys who are simply hanging out with their friends as people do, yet the association of thuggery and the likelihood of having the police called on them is immensely high to the point of dehumanising. They are boys who are treated, and therefore punished, as men.
Punching The Air is utterly phenomenal, and I don’t say this lightly. Masterful, captivating and written with razor-sharp clarity, this eclipses everything else I’ve read this year.
I’m rarely moved by poetry.
And yet for this non-poetry reader, Punching The Air is an earthquake.
- I would like to thank HarperCollins for sending me a review copy of Punching The Air. The book is due for release on 1st September and can be pre-ordered from Waterstones here.
- Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
- ISBN: 9780008422141
- Number of pages: 400