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Ibi Zoboi Talks Writing Process With Yusef Salaam in New YA Book

Award-winning young adult author Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam shared their writing process on their upcoming YA book.

On Instagram Live Wednesday, Ibi explained how she infused her writing into Yusef’s poetry in Punching the Air. It tells the story of 16-year-old Amal Shahid, a black Muslim teen pursuing poetry and art, who finds himself in prison after “an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy,” according to the publisher HarperCollins Publishers.

During the video chat, Ibi wore a T-shirt printed with art by Yusef that he named “Born Brave” and had designed while wrongfully convicted for seven years over the 1989 rape of a white female jogger. He was a part of the Central Park Five, the group of four black teens and one Latino teen blamed for the infamous crime. They became known as the Exonerated Five after filmmaker Ava DuVernay brought their story to Netflix last year in When They See Us. The group was exonerated in 2002 after the identity of the real rapist was discovered. Yusef was 15 when he went to jail.

While in jail, Yusef found ways to create art and poetry with the tools he could find like a pin in his clothes.

“Art is a completely liberating meditative process,” he said in the chat. “When you get the opportunity to delve into it and be free with it, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. And the beauty of it is when you finish coming out of the meditation and see what you’ve created, it’s like, ‘Wow.'”

Attendees were allowed to ask questions, and the first question focused on how Ibi and Yusef co-wrote the book.

“I’m the writer and Yusef is the storyteller in this situation,” Ibi said. “It was collaborative in the storytelling process, and I could not have written this book without Yusef’s input and Yusef’s history and Yusef’s mindset.”

She said while Yusef was busy promoting When They See Us she was hard at work. “While he was doing that, I was typing away and really having conversations with him, so in that sense he was the storyteller and I was the writer and transcriber, and Yusef was giving me ideas.”

Though they didn’t go into detail about the specific crime that leads Amal to trouble, the co-authors said the crime is inspired by their upbringings in segregated 1980s New York. They also said they didn’t want to apply Yusef’s real story to the novel.

Ibi and Yusef said they were inspired by the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a black teen, who was killed by a white teen mob in the predominantly white section of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn after inquiring about a car for sale with his friends. His group was mistaken for another group going to a birthday party of a girl one of the white boys had a relationship with.

The authors also recalled the Jena Six case of six black teens in Jena, Louisiana who had beaten a white classmate in 2006. The incident followed a black teen at their local high school trying to sit in a part of the courtyard reserved for white kids. The Jena Six received attention from civil rights leaders after they had been heavily charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Since this incident occurred before social media took off, Ibi said we tend to have a collective amnesia about racially charged events.

“I was scared to write this story, but I knew I could lean on you,” Ibi told Yusef. “I couldn’t have never written this story without you at all. One of things I asked you is whether or not you were OK with me as a woman telling this story and do you remember what you told me?”

“Absolutely,” Yusef said. “I don’t remember exactly what I told you, but there’s a certain power from a woman telling a story that can’t be not from a woman. I’m thinking about my mother as a nurturer. I’m thinking about Ava DuVernay as a master storyteller, who can take something out of the world …. I want to say I was so blessed to be able to have you in that space.”

Ibi and Yusef met in 1999 while they were both attending Hunter College in New York. American Street, Ibi’s debut novel, was a National Book Award finalist. She also wrote the YA novel Pride, a Pride and Prejudice remix, and the middle grade novel My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich. She edited the YA anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America.

Punching the Air is being recommended to readers who like Jason Reynolds, who made an appearance in the Instagram Live stream, along with fellow YA novelist Nic Stone.

The book is scheduled to come out Sept. 1. The authors said in the chat that they plan to do a book tour, but no news yet on if it will be in-person or virtual.

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