Sapphire says Precious’ grim fate is realistic for the era in which she lived.
Updated: October 8, 2011 12:18AM
Millions of readers and moviegoers came to love and admire an unlikely heroine from Harlem: Claireece Precious Jones, who, at 16, is obese and illiterate. She has been beaten by her mother and impregnated by her father, who infected her with HIV.
But Precious survives. In spirit, she may even triumph over what has been done to her. She learns to read.
By the end of Push, the 1997 debut novel by a writer who calls herself Sapphire, and “Precious,” the 2009 movie adaptation, the girl is learning to make it on her own. She’s becoming something she never had herself: a loving mother.
But not for long. Sapphire’s second novel, The Kid begins on the day of Precious’ funeral.
Precious’ son, Abdul, a toddler at the end of Push, is now 9. He says to himself: “I know my mother ain’t dead like they be saying ’cause I be talking to her all the time just like I always did.”
Sapphire, 60, says she knows that Precious’ death at 27 is “going to disappoint a lot of readers who’d like to read another 300 pages all about her.”
So why kill off her most beloved character?
“I don’t think I’ve killed off Precious,” she replies during an interview at the busy Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. “She made good use of her short life, as the reverend says at her funeral. And she lives on, through the memory and history of her son.”
And as a writer “committed to both art and social reality, I recognize the reality of that time. [Push is set in the late 1980s.] A lot of young African-American women were dying from AIDS. Poor African-American women were 10 times more likely to die from AIDS than were upper-class white gay men. ... People like Precious didn’t get the help they needed.”
Sapphire got more than a little help when Push was turned into the movie “Precious” by director Lee Daniels, who says the novel “sucked the wind right out of me. I knew it could be a great movie.” (Sapphire’s original title refers to the fact that Precious is urged to do a lot of pushing — in school, where’s she told to “push herself,” and in the hospital when she’s giving birth.)
Book tour stops at Costco
His film propelled her novel “beyond its comfort zone,” Sapphire says, “beyond the artists and intellectuals and black teens and social workers. It moved it out into mainstream America.” (Former first lady Barbara Bush hosted a screening.)
Sapphire marvels that her 17-city book tour for The Kid (Viking, $25.95), includes not just venerable independent bookstores (Elliot Bay in Seattle and Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.) but bigger, more commercial stops, including two discount warehouses: Costco in Inglewood, Calif., and BJ’s in Brooklyn, N.Y. She jokes, “Imagine me next to those big boxes of detergent.”
Daniels, who is in the midst of casting “The Paperboy,” a film based on Pete Dexter’s novel about a Florida murder, says he’s eager to read The Kid. He has heard it opens “with Precious in a casket,” which as a plot device could be “brilliant,” he says. “It could bring [Sapphire’s] writing to a whole new level.”
But he says he’s probably not interested in directing what might be thought of as “ ‘Precious 2,’ although I’ll be the first at the theater to see it.”
The Kid is an often brutal coming-of-age story narrated by Abdul, who struggles to find a home, an identity and a life. It ends, not fully resolved, when he’s 18 or 19. “It’s a little fuzzy,” Sapphire says, “because Abdul is a little fuzzy.”
While Sapphire lives in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, we meet at the Harlem library branch, where she once worked as a literacy volunteer.
Precious got her first library card here. In The Kid, Abdul, a prodigious reader (who loves stories about Crazy Horse and Frederick Douglass) comes here at 13 to borrow a copy of “Macbeth” to impress a teacher who’s a “Shakespeare freak.” Later, he imagines that Hamlet would look like Kurt Cobain.
Across the street is Marcus Garvey Park, named for the leader of the Back-to-Africa movement, who’s celebrated with an annual parade in August. In The Kid, Abdul visits the park to trade sex for money and drugs. These days, it’s been spruced up, filled with flowers rather than syringes, part of Harlem’s gentrification.
As Sapphire puts it, “It’s no longer Precious’ Harlem, or Abdul’s Harlem, and that’s good.”
She says her second novel is not a traditional sequel and was written to be read independently of the first. Precious’ friends, teachers and mother, Mary (played by Mo’Nique, who won an Oscar for her portrayal in the movie), appear only at her funeral, where Precious is celebrated for earning a GED and beginning “the slow walk toward a college degree.”
In the years between Push and The Kid, Precious was a counselor at Positive Images of Harlem and the “full-time mom of a beautiful little boy” who made the computer graphic design next to the Langston Hughes poem on the funeral program.
Blue Rain, a teacher who became Precious’ friend (played by Paula Patton in the film), says at the funeral: “We who knew her watched a child become a woman, a half-full glass spill over, something broken become whole. And in the act of witnessing became more whole ourselves.”
The Kid is more ambitious than Push. Abdul struggles in a foster home, where he’s beaten, and in a Catholic orphanage, where he’s sexually abused by priests and, in turn, abuses another child. He finds his great-grandmother, his only surviving relative, whom he mocks as “Slavery Days” but who teaches him a heartbreaking history of his own family from Mississippi to Harlem. (“S---, you don’ know who I am, you don’ know who you is,” she tells him.)
Sapphire, a former teacher who once worked with students like Precious, says she writes “political literature that is fraught with messages.”
The Kid explores the shame of the foster home system and why more black kids like Abdul aren’t adopted.
At the orphanage, when he’s 13, Abdul is told he’s too old and too big to be adopted. As he sees it, “They want little boys. If they’ll take black kids, they want mulattoes and girls.”
Sapphire says: “That’s true and that’s sad. At 9, Abdul would have been a perfect candidate for adoption. He could have been nurtured. But by the time he’s 13, woe to any family that adopts him.”
Sapphire also wanted to explore “Abdul’s accountability for his actions, his role in the cycle of abuse. He’s a victim, but he’s also played that game. He’s a good kid who does bad things. But when he’s bad, he could be worse.”
He’s far more sophisticated and analytical than his mother. “At 9, Abdul is reading and writing better than Precious did at 18,” Sapphire says. “That’s because of the way she raised him — to be someone. But it also fuels his rage and anger. He has expectations that his mother never had.”
If anything will save him, it’s Abdul’s passion and talent as a dancer — African, modern and classical ballet.
Sapphire has studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey School “more as a hobby than anything else.” She dances for exercise and, much like Abdul, loves African, modern, tap and ballet.
But she’d rather talk about her fictional characters than herself.
Born into a military family at Fort Ord, Calif., she moved to New York in her 20s. Her legal name is Ramona Lofton, but she has always published, first as a poet, as Sapphire: “I wanted a blacker name.”
It’s not autobiographical
She notes it used to have negative connotations. (Sapphire Stevens was the Kingfish’s belligerent wife in the TV and radio comedy “Amos ’n Andy”). “I thought I could help make it positive.” Perhaps she has: “In the last few years, I’ve met two baby girls named Sapphire.”
She declines to answer most personal questions, saying, “The focus on biography and the insinuation that my writing is biography is an insult and negates my talent as an artist.”
She sees a “racist negation of African-American literary talent. The idea that we don’t research, read and study is wrong. The idea that we have no creativity or imagination is wrong. The idea that what we are really doing is telling a biographical story that we dictated into a tape recorder and that some white editor came along and shaped into a novel is wrong.”
It’s as wrong, she adds, “as assuming Flannery O’Connor lived the life of some of her semi-illiterate characters or that Dostoevsky was a murderer because he wrote about murder.”
(In The Kid, Sapphire uses epigraphs from O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment because “they fit so well.”)
She says it’s premature to talk about The Kid becoming a movie but can imagine it being adapted as a theater/dance performance. She’s not sure if she’ll write again about Abdul.
“It depends on how he turns out,” she says, as if he’s not fully her creation. “I’m not interested in staying in pathos.”
Gannett News Service