Two books about incarceration

Somehow I ended up reading and listening to two books about incarceration at the same time.

I had borrowed the audiobook of Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (narrated by Ethan Herisse) for the Reading Women Challenge – book about incarceration. I had also borrowed Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time for Read the World, an Instagram challenge. I borrowed Our Happy Time without any clue of what it was about, just that it’s written by a Korean author, only to find out later that it’s about a death row prisoner. For some reason, I didn’t feel that two books about prison was too much. They had very distinct voices and sentiments.


Punching the Air

This novel in verse is just amazing. I chose to listen to it as I’ve enjoyed listening to other verse novels such as those by Jacqueline Woodson. The only drawback is that now I can’t quote things to you, except for what I find online (I suppose I should learn to take notes when I listen to an audiobook?).

Yusef Salam is one of the exonerated Central Park Five and he and Ibi Zoboi have created an incredible story and a great character in Amal Shahid, a black teenager who’s been accused of beating up a white teen who’s now unconscious.

I find it hard to write a review about an audiobook, but there are very many parts that stick in my mind.

The jury, the media, they all see him as the black defendant, as a fully-grown man. Compared to the white teenager, who’s the “boy”, although they’re the same age. Amal is already viewed as guilty before his conviction.

His art history teacher throwing him out of class because he asks if non-white people had works of art that were worth featuring too.

His mother asking him to persevere. And reminding him what Maya Angelou said about dust. “It rises.”

Amal drawing all over his cell with markers that he stole from the poetry teacher.

The writing was honest and true. It was such an emotional ride. I’m not the best at listening to audiobooks, I get easily distracted. But this one held my attention. It hit me, hard, and wouldn’t let go. It was hard hitting and devastating.


In Our Happy Time, Yujeong is in hospital after her third suicide attempt and her aunt comes to visit. Her aunt, a nun, asks Yujeong to accompany her to the prison. Aunt Monica has been visiting the death-row prisoners, and one of them has asked to meet Yujeong, who used to be a singer and once sang the national anthem at a baseball game.

Yunsu was sentenced to death because of his role in a rape and murder. In some notes that he’s written, that are interspersed throughout the book, we learn of his childhood with his younger brother and abusive drunk father. He had to take care of his younger brother, Eunsu, as they lived on the streets and did whatever they could to survive.

Yunsu and Yujeong couldn’t be more different. Yujeong’s family is wealthy, she works as a professor after her success as a singer. And I suppose that’s the point of it. That when they first meet, she judges him based on what she knows about his case, which had been in the news recently. But as they continue to meet and talk, she begins to understand that her initial thoughts about him were wrong. And as they get to know each other, Yunsu realises that despite her affluent background, her success in life, she too is broken inside.

Our Happy Time is a beautiful book about the fragility of life.

This book was made into a movie, called Maundy Thursday, and at least from the Wikipedia entry, it sounds like the plot is the same.

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