In her 1996 novel Push, Sapphire ventured into the profoundly dark territory of a young black girl's experience growing up in late-'80s Harlem. The book dealt with the difficult topics of incest, rape, AIDS, illiteracy, poverty and violence toward infants, yet none of this prevented the 2009 film adaptation, Precious (produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry), from becoming an award-winning smash. Last summer, fifteen years after Push was published, Sapphire released her follow-up novel, The Kid, a similarly disturbing look into the dark worlds of abuse and torment, this time following Precious's son, Abdul, after Precious has died of AIDS.
Sapphire will be at the Tattered Cover on Tuesday, June 26, to read from the new paperback edition of The Kid; we caught up with her to discuss the book and ventured into such topics as Hollywood, J.T. Leroy and why readers don't empathize with male characters.
Westword: In The Kid, you frame the victim and the perpetrator within the same character, an incredibly un-Hollywood thing to do. Would you say this novel is even less likely to be made into a big-budget film? Sapphire: I think commercial media looks at things in terms of heroes and villains. And we all know that the psychological reality of people is much more complex than that. So, yeah, [The Kid] may be a problem for people looking for a shallow, rags-to-riches-type story, where you have a clear-cut hero. But the people looking to delve into complex characters -- this could be a good opportunity for them.
Then again, after first readingPush, I couldn't have imagined that being turned into a big Hollywood success, either.
No, you probably wouldn't.
That film was so dark and left the audience with an unsettling lack of resolution, so it's surprising that it had such success as a "message movie." What do you feel that people responded to inPrecious?
The book had been out for thirteen years before the movie was released, so what was shocking then has now become almost accepted knowledge. People are no longer shocked by the issues that the text showed; the more mainstream it became, and the more ability people had to look at certain truths, they were able to get behind it in a way that they weren't able to when the book first came out. Do you think there is any type of sadism felt by your readers toward these characters?
I don't think there is any type of sadism. I think what happens is there is a type of ironic identification. For many people who are watching the lives of their friends and their family, they see that life is no longer a fairy tale. We no longer look to fairy tales to explain our existence. So I think in many ways, there was an intense sense of identification with the character in Push.
And for many of us it was refreshing to see a movie that didn't follow a predictable narrative. You didn't know where the story was headed.
Yes. And there is a real overcoming of crisis that is not about rags-to-riches; it's not about the heroine finding a nice man to marry her, and they go off and live happily ever after. There was something about the fortitude of Precious, about the dignity of a person whose whole world was falling apart, but still had enough sense of self to begin to carve her little life out. When we usually see people who have it all, from Paris Hilton to Britney Spears, blonde millionaires who throw their lives down the toilet. So we look at someone like Precious, someone with one one-thousandth of their resources, steadily try to build something, try to make something out of nothing. And there is a real heroism to that. There's no glamor to it, but there is something to that that the audience attached to, they walked away taking something from that, feeling good about it.
What would you say to criticisms that your books are dark for the sake of being dark?
I think that that criticism falls apart with one visit to the Atlanta Center for Disease Control website. Look at the status of African-Americans in this country: mental and physical health, unemployment figures, the disparity between black and white incomes, or black and Asian-American incomes. There was no darkness for the sake of being dark; this was portraying some horrific realities that millions of people deal with every day. But you don't see them because they're not portrayed on the movie screens every day.
So many other authors in your field write these types of books autobiographically, pulling from their own dark histories. Though in cases like J.T. Leroy or James Frey, their careers were ruined because of untruths in their books (or, in the case of Leroy, that he didn't exist at all). Do you feel that your long-term success has been aided by the fact that you write straight fiction?
Oh, absolutely. And I had so many role models. From Charles Dickens to Toni Morrison to Dostoevsky; the world is full of people who assess the facts and then take those facts -- whether it's poverty or revolutions or the conditions of the Serbs in Russia -- and they begin to breathe a fire of imagination into it. And that's what makes good fiction. And with J.T. Leroy...that was just a travesty. Not only did he -- or whatever the human being is, I still don't have a grasp on what that person is -- not only did that person fool and disrespect its audience, but it was done to editors and agents. They believed that J.T. Leroy was an HIV-positive person of the underclass. And that person used that to get access, to get money. And that is a real depth of dishonesty. When all the time they could have just gone ahead and writtena story! That's what it is, that's what we do! We make up stories -- that's what a writer is.
Since Precious was such a far-reaching success, how has the process of releasing this new novel differed from the process of releasing Push?
Well, I think that in some ways it's been easier, because having your name out there makes people come in and ask about you at the bookstore. And in some ways it's been harder, because I am a creative artist and I didn't write a sequel, I didn't write a traditional monster-part-two. This is a very different and complex book, and I think that a lot of people were frightened by that. They really thought they were going to get a Precious Part Two. Though Precious was reasonably dark. I don't think people who had read it would go into The Kid thinking they were going to get a heart-warming tear-jerker.
I think what happened was over the course of thirteen to fifteen years, people were able to deal with [the subject matter of Precious]. They were no longer shocked. They were able to look away from some of the dark moments of the text, and just focus on how adorable Gabourey -- the star of the film, Precious -- was. Which was very different. She was wonderful, but I think people wanted a Precious number two, and that wasn't what I had been spending all this time writing.
What elements of The Kid do you feel are shocking for 2012 audiences, in the way that Push was for 1996 audiences?
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The Kid presents even more of a challenge than Push did. Many, many people are able to identify the victim -- but when you have a victim and a victimizer in the same person, it becomes problematic. And I think in general people identify more with women than they do with men. And also our culture definitely identifies more with black women -- people just loved The Help. And that's fine, but I think if you start to show the underclass of African-American men, they still generate fear.
Sapphire's reading and book-signing begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday June 26 at the Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information visit www.tatteredcover.com