So many stories about the darkest aspects of the human condition — abuse, incest, orphaned children — are conveyed clinically and dispassionately. They share the facts and the facts are disturbing, but the stories can be easy to forget.
Sapphire doesn’t write like that.
The author of the best-selling 1996 novel “Push” — which was adapted into the Academy Award-winning 2009 film “Precious” — crafts tales in which young people endure unspeakable treatment at the hands of adults who should be caring for them. What her characters withstand is so real and so raw that readers can’t help but sit up and care.
In her new novel, “The Kid” (The Penguin Press, $25.95), Sapphire essentially lets the story of “Push” continue on its inevitable course. Claireece “Precious” Jones — an illiterate, obese, HIV-positive teen — gives birth to a baby boy named Abdul in “Push.” “The Kid” shares Abdul’s story, introducing him to readers at age 9 on the day of his mother’s funeral.
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“[Abdul] is like the second generation of the AIDS epidemic,” Sapphire said in a telephone interview with TODAY.com. “He’s an orphan. You hear the term ‘AIDS orphan’ and you think about Africa, but how about Alabama? Atlanta? Upstate New York? ...
“I don’t know how to write about these things without being as poetic and as graphic as possible. ... A lot of these stories are written in this clinical journalism. Why do we have to hear about these things in language that deadens us? What I have attempted to do as an artist is to make people not be able to forget it, not be able to turn away and say, ‘Well, that’s just how it is.’”Video: ‘Precious’ Sidibe recalls ‘proud moment’ (on this page)
Deconstructing a cycle of abuse
Make no mistake: Abdul’s story is both arresting and disturbing. Upon his mother’s death, he gets shuffled off into the foster-care system, where he’s subjected to physical and sexual abuse. He then winds up in a Roman Catholic orphanage. What happens there? More abuse.
The result is a stark exploration of how an abused child can become an abuser himself.
“With Precious, there was a kind of one-sided picture of abuse, looking at her as victim of abuse from her mother and father,” Sapphire said. “When we look at the perpetrator, the abuser, it’s briefly and horrifically through Mary, Precious’ mother. But we don’t see how Mary got that way. We don’t see how she rationalizes it.”
Despite what Abdul experiences and what he does, he consistently demonstrates potential to be so much more. In fact, he’s enamored with the idea of being an artist.
“He’s such a different character than Precious,” Sapphire said. “At age 9, he’s already reading better than his mom did at 15. He’s a digital boy; she was an analog girl. ... She has given him the tools to have a larger life.”
Sapphire wasn’t always known as Sapphire. The New York City resident was born in 1950 as Ramona Lofton. Before she became a writer, she taught people how to read, worked as a performance artist and earned a master of fine arts degree from Brooklyn College.
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In the 1970s she became immersed in poetry and assumed the one-word name Sapphire — a moniker that her closest friends and family members use when addressing her, she said. She tried to change her name legally back in the ‘70s, but her efforts were thwarted because property laws in New York required people to have two names.
“I would have had to get a lawyer,” she said. “Then, when I did have time and money to get a lawyer, I thought, ‘Forget it.’ It’s convenient now to have two personas as I move through bureaucracies. ... To the police or whoever is giving me the jaywalking ticket, I’m Miss Lofton.”
Sapphire wrote poetry collections before penning “Push” in the 1990s. Her choice to make the novel gritty and graphic was deliberate; she wanted it to have an impact. Once the movie adaptation “Precious” came out in 2009, she finally began to feel as if that may have happened.
“I was discouraged after ‘Push,’” Sapphire said. “I had really written this socially conscious novel and I really wanted to make change, but didn’t feel like that had happened. … The movie really put me in touch with whole new audience, a younger audience. I went to a movie theater where it was showing in Harlem, and the theater was sold out. That meant black, working-class people were seeing this film. That really touched me.”
The release of the movie catapulted Sapphire to a new level of fame. She began a speaking tour across the United States to discuss the issues raised in the novel and in the film. And then it came to her: It was high time for her to finish her second novel.
“I had started [‘The Kid’] in late ‘90s and I kept putting it on the back burner and putting it on the back burner,” she said. “Most of it was already written. It really had to be cut down. ... But I swear, if it hadn’t been for that movie, I probably would have been like Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee, walking around for 50 years working on that second novel.”
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