Author Sapphire describes the joy and pain of ‘Push,’ and her latest, ‘The Kid’

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Sapphire signing a copy of 'Push.' (Melissa Smith)
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“Once again, Sapphire put me through pure reading hell,” one reviewer wrote in to the website Goodreads, the book-lovers' sharing site. "And once again, it was worth it," she continued.

She was writing in about the author’s second novel, The KidAbdul Jones, the kid of The Kid, isn’t well-meaning or a victim of poverty eliciting our sympathies, like his mother, Claireece “Precious” Jones, whose story Sapphire chronicled in her debut novel, Push (and who became Hollywood-famous after Lee Daniels scored a breakthrough with his flim adaptation, Precious). Abdul is a bad kid, from beginning to end.

On Thursday his creator, on the other hand, was greeted with something like rapture.

“One of the greatest pleasures of introducing a writer like Sapphire,” began St. Joseph’s College dean Richard Greenwald at an event on Thursday, “is that there is no other writer quite like Sapphire.”

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Sapphire was appearing in the Brooklyn college’s auditorium as part of the Brooklyn Voices lecture series organized by the Greenlight Bookstore, in partnership with and The Brooklyn Rail and St. Joseph’s.

In Push, we follow an obese, illiterate black teenager whose mother is abusive and who has been raped by her father, resulting in two pregnancies and an H.I.V. diagnosis. But at the center of the book is a story of hope—Precious eventually learns how to read. It’s a grim, narrative, and drew criticism from those who believe that black literature is already too fraught with these kinds of negative connotations, leaving little room for more positive depictions of the black experience. But like that Goodreads reviewer, there's always an ambivalence.

“Sapphire excavates the issues of injustice and disparity,” Greenwald continued. “Many people of color, for a number of reasons, continue to endure in hardship…. Sapphire sees this and she cares to have seen it. She cares enough to write it down in heartrending poems and stories that invoke a better future for us all. Now, the danger of a white man like myself standing in front of you making statements like this is that it would seem to some as inappropriate or lacking in experience, but all I can say is: welcome to Sapphire.”

Sapphire came to the podium and began by reading a poem by acclaimed Brooklyn poet Marie Ponsot about a woman who died without realizing her full potential; a narrative that echoes Precious’s own (The Kid begins with her death). Ponsot, now 91 years old, was sitting in the first row, quiet and reserved. Sapphire then shared a few of her own poems, all engaging the topic of blackness in some way—child soldiers in Sierra Leone, segregation on the beach—before pausing to introduce The Kid.

The Kid is not a sequel in a traditional sense,” she said, pointing to something she said the book’s marketing had obscured. “We don’t enter into and follow up on the life of Precious Jones. It is a sequel in that we’re looking at the life of Precious’s child, Abdul Jones, who is now an AIDS orphan. And it is a sequel in a sense that it continues to look at the profound and devastating effect of AIDS on the African-American community.”

Sapphire then spoke of the disproportionate effect AIDS had on the black community in the late '80s, the time when Precious’s story was set.

“Precious Jones represents the last to be serviced due to the combined effects of racism and homophobia,” Sapphire continued. “Precious’s death in The Kid is a result of these forces as much as the abuse she suffered as a child. One reason I wrote Push was to show how Precious—those blacks who didn’t even know what hit them—might be given an opportunity to live ... Precious’s death and the forces that contributed to it are the backstory with which we enter an entirely different character’s life and circumstance.”

Sapphire had dog-eared four chunky excerpts of The Kid and read through them chronologically. In the first, Abdul is nine years old, unwilling to get out of bed to face his mother’s death; in the second, he is introduced to his foster mother, Ms. Milly, who very flippantly renames him J.J. (since his Medicaid card lists him as Jamal Jones); the following passage sees Abdul’s introduction to dance, through which he regains some of his lost identity; finally, a passage described Abdul’s times spent caring for his great-grandmother, an old-timey black lady of whom he is dreadfully ashamed.

“He is embarrassed by her old southern Negro talk,” Sapphire remarked about the excerpt, “and her raggedy clothes, and he nicknames her ‘slavery days.’”

A Q&A followed, during which a young woman asked Sapphire how she could bear to keep going back to stories that feature so much pain and hardship.

“I remember sending a bilingual version of this book to a friend,” Sapphire said. “And she texted me and said ‘Thank you Sapphire,’ and she then said, ‘It was pure protein.’ Life is painful. Literature is painful. And we feel like we have to apologize for bringing this pain and it also should be acknowledging the ecstasy of learning and finding beautiful things.”