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Just Don't Call Her Controversial: Novelist Sapphire And Michael Silverblatt On 'The Kid,' Precious, And The Future of America

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Photo by Salvador Farfan
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Last Sunday, local literati convened in the penthouse of the Soho House West Hollywood, and settled into deep-set sofas and velvet armchairs for an evening of intimate conversation with acclaimed author Sapphire and KCRW's Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt.

Sapphire is the author of several books of poetry and two novels. Her debut novel Push, was made into Lee Daniel’s Academy Award-winning film Precious, and this month marks the release of Sapphire’s newest novel, The Kid, (which picks up where Push left off, told from the vantage point of Precious’ son, Abdul). The event was the fifth installation of KCRW’s UpClose series, which serves to ‘reinvent the art of conversation,’ by providing public radio listeners exclusive access to intimate conversations with cultural icons.

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Photo by Salvador Farfan
With lit-legend Michael Silverblatt (whom Joyce Carol Oates once called, “the reader writers dream about”) at the helm, and surrounded by nearly 360 degree views of LA, guests sipped from wineglasses, thumbed through worn copies of Push and new copies of The Kid, and listened to Sapphire read and ruminate on all things literary. Prior to the event, Silverblatt and Sapphire spoke with the press about writing, stereotyping, and why ‘controversial’ isn’t really an insightful thing to say about a book.

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On Push

Michael Silverblatt: “I hadn’t read Push when Penguin called and asked me if I would be interested in talking with Sapphire. And it was funny because they had said, “This may not be something you do.” And I thought, what did they mean by that? So I took it as a challenge and I went and read Push. I thought it was so great, I was crying when I read it. And I wondered, ‘why hasn’t anyone told me that this was really literature?’ This isn’t just something that became a movie, or that was there because of race.

I think both of these books will be part of the American legacy. The history of American literature is a history of our people telling their own story. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Saul Bellow or Amy Tan. Literature is always one generation after another of people who get to step up and tell the story honestly, and with the respect for what literature is. And that is what I think Sapphire has done.”

Sapphire: “At the time when I wrote Push, in 1996, I had been teaching and in a MFA program, where I was exposed to a lot of different writing, but I wasn’t hearing this story. I wasn’t seeing a literature that reflected a young, female urban population. I wasn’t hearing it at all. As Toni Morrison said of The Bluest Eyes, I wrote the literature that I wanted to read. “

On Stereotypes

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Sapphire: “The 'stereotype' exists. The writer doesn’t create the stereotype. Kafka said, ‘literature is the ax that breaks open the frozen sea inside us.’ The stereotype is an unfeeling two-dimensional picture. In Push, the stereotype of the obese black woman turns out to be a story of a precious child. So you take the stereotype and you crack it open. You got to get to the blood and the guts and the heart of the story. The stereotypes are there; it’s not our job to avoid them. Our job is to open up the stereotype so we can find the human being inside who has been lost and negated by it.

“Specifically, Push is about the acquisition of language. In the beginning, Precious quotes society’s view of her—she says, “don’t nobody want me, don’t nobody need me.” And by the end of the book, she’s able to say, ‘I’m somebody, I’m worth educating. I’m worth having a life. I’m Precious.” And that is a 3-dimensional picture, as opposed to a stereotype.

“Think of [the stereotyping of] welfare and the intense hostility toward people on welfare. There is this idea that people on welfare are ‘sucking the system dry.’ But, of course, we know about British Petroleum, we know about the bailouts—the multi-billion dollar bailouts; this is who's undermining the economic base of America, on some level. But when these guys get up in their 4-piece suits, or whatever they’re wearing (laughs), we don’t look at them as ‘sucking the lifeblood’ of this country through their criminal activities. Yet we turn to a family that is maybe getting $140 every two weeks and some food stamps, trying to educate themselves and trying to get the medication they need—and we talk about them sucking the system’s blood.”

Reaction to Precious, the film:

Sapphire: “I had never been on a movie set before, so I wasn't familiar with the language. I didn’t understand what the 'dailies' were and I didn’t realize that I could have seen, at anytime, what had been done. So the couple of times I visited, I just did my cameo and went home. I had no idea how the movie was going to be. The first time I saw it, was in its entirety, in a screening room. It was a total surprise to me when the movie started. Around 3 minutes in, I forgot about me, I forgot about my book. I was totally captivated, and stunned at the depth of the performances. I thought [Lee Daniels] did a wonderful job.”

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On ‘Killing Precious’:

Sapphire: “I wasn’t writing a romantic fantasy. I wasn’t trying to satisfy people. In other words: I wasn’t taking on the role of a cultural massage therapist, trying to make you 'feel good.' Since I was through with the character, I felt that to continue on with her would be kind of pandering to the audience who now wanted to embark on a sentimental journey with this character. And that just isn’t where I wanted to go.”

On Writing The Kid

Sapphire: “It kind of happened in writing Push. My original notes were that Precious would have a baby girl and, somehow, while I’m writing, Precious has a boy. And I wondered, ‘why did I let that happen? I’m supposed to be in control here (laughs).’ But I was trying to be true to a certain kind of social realism, and it happens to be true for the female students who I taught; most of the working-class, African American young women in my classes wanted boy children. I didn’t create that and there are a lot of things that would explain that. But Precious got this wonderful gift and it was a baby boy.

“Abdul was always in my mind. At one point, I got a letter from a woman who was ill and incapacitated. The only way she was able to get books was from a traveling book mobile. She told me that she couldn’t rest some nights worrying about Precious and her son. She said, ‘I always wonder what happened to her son.’ I wrote her back and told her not to worry--that Precious was a created character, and that she didn’t really exist, and that, therefore, nothing bad could happen to her son. I didn't want her to worry. But that note really stayed in my mind.”

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On ‘Controversial’ Content

Michael Silverblatt: “Everyone keeps saying ‘controversial,’ and I get annoyed because I don’t see the book as controversial. I see it as one of the first books of the new century that speaks the new language. Most people in the near future are going to be undereducated. They’re coming out of schools without learning their own language. The Kid is an internal monologue. You’re going into the head of a boy who has been badly misinformed. You’re going to a place you didn’t know was there, that you only feared was there. And you’re with him and you’re pushing for him as a reader, but you don’t get to enter the novel and effect what’s going to happen next.

The novel is about truth telling for this kid and I found it to be really exciting. There’s a review in the New York Times, wherein Michiko Kakutani says, “I don’t want to be inside this person’s head for such a long time—“

Sapphire: “—And she doesn’t say that about Proust! (laughing) She can be in his head for 14,000 pages, as long as he’s what; educated, white…?”

Michael Silverblatt: “—She doesn’t say it about Dostoyevsky, either. In literature, you enter into places that you don’t necessarily want to go, but hell, you’re in your room holding your book. You’re not being taken anywhere against your will. And if you are, put the book down. It seems to me that it is very necessary that we protest that there are still critics saying inane and empty things about literature, which is supposed to educate us about the lives of others.

“People forget that there are two sides to ‘controversy.’ What I saw in [The Kid] was language I hear in the street, incorporated into a literary texture. This is not the language of The Bluest Eyes or The Color Purple. This is the language you’re hearing now.”

On Education:

Sapphire: “For Americans, education is absolutely the most important thing in the world. They can burn down your house, they can come and beat you, but they can never take what’s in your mind. They can never take away your education. That’s true even while Precious is homeless. Even as Abdul is disenfranchised from education—he puts his heart and his mind on learning to dance and that’s the reason he doesn’t end up in the penitentiary. It’s the reason he doesn’t put a needle in his arm. It’s because he has this passion to learn. Is that typical of all troubled youth? Of course not. It’s much more typical to join a gang or act out, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to write.”

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Photo by Salvador Farfan
Near the end of the reading, Silverblatt asked Sapphire to open up The Kid to any page and read it aloud, no matter how ‘controversial’ the language or content might have been. The novelist read from one of the several epigraphs found throughout the book.

Like Push, terse prose and evocative imagery reins in Sapphire’s newest novel, but the voice of impoverished ‘kid’ Abdul is singular, and it is potent. Sapphire’s song-like reading of her own text evinces the author’s careful attention to syntax and rhythm—her verbal intonations embody both the playfulness of a young narrator clumsy with language, and the startling frankness of a boy weighted with harsh life experiences. “This is the story of the future of America—“ Michael Silverblatt said; “here comes Sapphire, who says that language can be taught.”

When the Bookworm host commended Sapphire on the commitment to risk-taking inherent in her work, the novelist replied, “The same risks that I ask my readers to take—to say that there is no comfort here—I take those risks, too.” Silverblatt sighed, tearful. “This is why I love you,” he said, “I always held myself back from writing.” The novelist shook her head. “Art is not perfection,” she said, “and as Martha Graham once said; ‘everybody has something unique.’” Sapphire grinned fiercely and leaned forward, “You can’t prevent the naysayers, of course—but I just knew that I had to throw down.”