MOST OF us are familiar with that old adage ‘black don’t crack’. But upon discovering that US author Sapphire is 61-years-old, I was quietly stunned.
Meeting her in a plush London hotel, her multiple earrings, nose ring and slick black leather jacket – combined with her occasional foul-mouthed outbursts – were a clear indication that the gifted writer is not your average pensioner.
Mind you, her work is evidence enough that she’s not much interested in living the cosy life.
Her bestselling debut novel Push (1996), which was made into the Oscar winning film Precious, told the story of illiterate teenager Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones who experienced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her parents. Set in 1987 and exploring issues of incest, racial identity and AIDS, the book, though gripping, isn’t an easy read.
But for Sapphire, a former teacher, what was really unsettling was the frequent assumption that Push was her own life story; that she was the obese 17-year-old who couldn’t read and who had two children with her own father, who raped her as a child. As far as Sapphire is concerned, this assumption is not only false, it’s racist.
GRIPPING: Gabourey Sidibe starred in Precious
“People thought I was Precious – as if I’m not old enough to be Precious’s grandmother,” she says. “And as if I didn’t spend a year teaching and researching in order to make that book. It’s as though people can’t imagine there being an African American equivalent to [William] Faulkner or [Charles] Dickens; like we can’t be imaginative enough or be capable enough to write such a story unless it’s our own story. That’s out and out racist.
“Like I’m some little urchin who recorded my story by talking into a tape recorder and then these white people found me and decided to help me tell my story. That kind of thinking denies us [black writers] our intellectual development.”
She continues: “That’s not to take away anything from those who give first-person narrative. I mean, the basis of African American literature is first person narrative; the slave narratives. But the slave narratives are what [US author] Toni Morrison is gonna study to make a great novel – she’s not actually a slave! She’s a woman with multiple university degrees. She’s a genius. She takes our heritage and makes these novels. For anyone to suggest otherwise is racist.”
Sapphire also draws on heritage for her latest novel The Kid. The follow-up to Push, it follows the life of Abdul Jones – the son of Push’s heroine Precious – who is orphaned following the death of his mother. (Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what the book is about).
Nine years old and left to navigate the world without his mother, Abdul, failed by the social care system, falls victim to sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in a school he is enrolled in; subsequently becomes and abuser himself; but soon discovers his passion and talent for dance.
Like the literary equivalent of Marmite, Abdul is the type of character you either love or you hate. Though many of his actions make him easy to detest, some of his thoughts are truly hilarious – particularly when he meets his great-grandmother.
SUCCESS: Sapphire with Precious director Lee Daniels and Sidibe
A seemingly unintelligent woman, with a thick southern drawl that sounds like something out of a slave movie, Abdul’s great-grandmother is like a thorn in the youngster’s side. Temporarily placed in her care, Abdul refuses to accept that the Mississippi-born matriarch – who pronounces the word ‘natural’ as ‘natchall’ – is any relation to him, and instead hilariously refers to her as Slavery Days. Sapphire laughs as she recalls the inspiration for this character.
“Years ago, I was sitting with a group of African American writers and we were talking about what we thought would be the new African American literature. One writer said, ‘I’m so f*****g tired of hearing about slavery days! When are we gonna start to write new literature?’
“To me, you can write about your privileged life all you want, but [slavery is] you’re f*****g history. No matter what we do as African Americans, our history is our history. No, we don’t have to dwell in it; it doesn’t have to be the focal point of every African American writer’s work. But we can’t deny our history.”
Though The Kid has garnered an array of positive reviews, for others, it was simply too raw, too graphic and too difficult to absorb.
“People hate to look at difficult things,” Sapphire reasons. “They would much rather read a romance novel that has a fairytale ending; they don’t want to deal with anything difficult or negative.
“It’s like being here,” she said, whilst looking around at the hotel’s grand interior. “Why go to Tottenham [north London] in the wake of the riots when you can stay here, in a nice place like this? That’s how many people see things; they don’t want to deal with anything too difficult. But I’m not here to be anyone’s therapist. There are plenty of writers who write feel-good books. The Kid offers a slice of reality.”
What many readers found heartbreaking (I confess, I was one of them) is that the story’s springboard is the death of Abdul’s mother; the courageous and determined Precious. With many coming to know her character through Lee Daniels’ 2009 hit film of the same name, it seemed tragic that her life – which, despite her learning she was HIV positive, appeared to be on the up at the end of the film – was cut short at just 27 years of age.
But though Precious succumbs to a HIV-related illness, Sapphire doesn’t feel that her character’s life was tragic.
“I never intended her life to be tragedy and I don’t see it as a tragedy. The truth is, Push didn’t really tell it how it is. In the 1980s, a young African American who was diagnosed with HIV in the United States would often be dead within three months of the diagnosis. African Americans didn’t have access to anti-viral drugs. In fact, until Obama came on the scene, we didn’t even have a discussion about universal health care.
“So in the case of Precious, she had 27 years of life, nine of which she had to raise her son and give him a life she never had. So her scenario was actually a best-case scenario of a woman in her position.”
Of Lee Daniels’ award-winning film adaptation of Push, which starred Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey and Paula Patton, she said: “For years, I said I’d never do a film, but then Lee Daniels just kept at me! Initially, I told him no. At that time, he’d never done a film before. But then he did Monster’s Ball and when I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I told him no!’
“Then he did Shadowboxer and I went to the premiere of that and that’s when we clicked. I trusted his vision and I was very happy with the whole thing.”
Ever-ready to tackle tough issues, it’s clear that Sapphire isn’t in the business for fame or accolades. On the contrary, her aim is to make a difference through her work.
“I did a reading in Brooklyn recently and there were people lining up to buy the book. This African American man, aged, I’d say, between 18 and 25 who was lined up told me, ‘This is the first book I’ve ever bought in my life.’ That’s what you get when you’re true to yourself as a writer. You might not get all the book prizes in the world or the front page of literary publications. But I didn’t set out for that. I wanted to try and make a difference.”
The Kid is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton