Is Sapphire the bravest, toughest–and most optimistic– author in American literature?
One of the highlights of my literary year so far has been the telephone interview two weeks ago with Sapphire, author of the acclaimed novel Push, basis for the movie Precious, and its just published follow-up, The Kid. Grim and uncompromising on the page, she is warm and engaging in conversation.
Almost everything Sapphire had to say was a surprise, at least to me. For example, though her two novels face squarely against the grim realities of black poverty –sexual abuse, illiteracy, family dysfunction, institutional predation — she is optimistic about the future.
“One thing I see over and over when I go around the country is how far we have come,” Sapphire says. “We have some answers now. The question is how to put them in place.”
Most of the answers lie, as they always have for black Americans, with education: “What I’m hearing is that we need to start very, very early. A good kindergarten can offset the effect of a bad home, and no kindergarten at all can derail a child’s path for life.”
Another thing that surprised me is the roster of older writers Sapphire cites as influences. It begins with Alan Ginsberg, who she studied with as a young woman chasing an MFA at Brooklyn College, and goes on to include such unlikely predecessors as Erskine Caldwell and Walt Whitman.
Back in the day — which, for Sapphire, 60, is the 1970s –Ginsberg came to Brooklyn College once a week to teach students who couldn’t afford the tuition at NYU, where he taught full time.
“He told us the basis of poetry comes from the African tradition of the town griot, or the town crier,” Sapphire recalls. “That really stuck with me. He was telling us our job is basically to bring the news, even though it will usually be traumatic.”
Therein is the crucial insight for fully appreciating Push and The Kid: Beneath the ambitious stream-of-consciousness narrative and the bleak subject matter, Sapphire practices a very traditional kind of fiction — naturalism, or what she calls social realism. She “brings the news” about those living on society’s margins in the tradition of Emile Zola or Stephen Crane.
“I’m an old-fashioned social realist with a little bit of the grotesque of Flannery O’Connor,” Sapphire says. “But never the magical realism of Toni Morrison or the elegance of some of the others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I’m doing.”
Largely forgotten now, Erskine Caldwell was popular and critically acclaimed in the 1930s for novels such as Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. His subject was the squalid lives of poor white people living in the South. For his part, Whitman simply had a prophetic gift for identifying right from wrong.
“Caldwell was a really socially conscious writer,” she says. “His biographer said his career ended because he depicted the white working-class South too harshly. And Walt Whitman wrote, ‘I stand beside the Negro.’ He was not loved for that.”
Sapphire is possibly the bravest author working today. Of course, she is willing to, as they say, “speak truth to power” by exposing the realities of life among the urban poor. But even more, she has that rarer courage — essential to any real artist — to scorn the expectations of her readers.
For example, by the end of Push, the obese heroine, Precious, has overcome poverty, rape, abuse and illiteracy by learning to write. Yet Sapphire did not think twice about killing off one of the most beloved characters of modern American fiction — The Kid opens nine years later, with Precious’ funeral.
“I’m not writing to please readers who had fallen in love with Precious,” Sapphire says. “The Kid is not a sequel in that way. It’s a sequel in that it looks at the continuation of the socio-economic effects that formed and killed Precious.”
For my complete profile of Sapphire, which ran last week in the Sun-Sentinel, here’s the link. Better yet, see the author for yourself Wednesday evening at Miami Dade College. It promises to be a rare opportunity to interact with an author of uncommon honesty.
“You know, instead of writing about welfare and sexual abuse and HIV in Push,” she said, “I could have written an empathetic story about an obese woman writing in her journal.”