Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author and performance poet Sapphire, 61, calls “The Kid,” her second novel, the most difficult thing she’s written. She expects many readers to have a hard time confronting its often brutal, bare-naked truths.
She hopes, too, that fact-based fictions in “The Kid” will move readers to action on behalf of, say, the dozen black and brown foster kids she recently met in Florida, while on her book tour. Their hardships mirror those of fictionalized Abdul, who, in “The Kid,” languishes in foster care after his mother, Precious—from the movie “Precious”—dies from AIDS.
I spoke with Sapphire about her latest work, and the difficult questions she has faced about portraying torments versus joys in the black experience.
When did it become clear that you’d be writing the story of Abdul, who’s introduced at the outset of “The Kid” as Precious’ orphaned son?
I’d actually started working on the idea in the late 1990s but stopped to write a book of poetry and to focus on teaching. My working title for the novel, which was a part-time writing project back then, was “The History of the Future.”
Around 2005, I began putting more energy into it, knowing that if I didn’t ramp it up, I’d never finish. And after the movie, “Precious,” came out, I realized I had a whole new market, a whole new audience.
How did you go about studying for and creating Abdul and the other characters in “The Kid,” which seems a follow-up to “Push?”
Precious is Abdul’s mother, but “The Kid” isn’t really a sequel. Abdul’s story is his own story. At the start of the novel, his Aunt Rita is nudging him awake so he can prepare for his mother’s funeral. Precious died from AIDS, so “The Kid” features a whole new scenario.
Abdul’s life isn’t defined, as Precious’ was, by parental abuse. He’d started out with a mother determined, despite what she’d suffered, to create a good life for Abdul. When she dies, that good life is destroyed. Abdul has no safety net, no widower father, no kind grandmother to take him in.
“The Kid” has gotten mixed reviews, including some complaints of Abdul’s run-on self-destruction and abuses, from outsiders, that are heaped upon him.
When I first started conceptualizing the novel, I remember telling a friend that no one is going to believe this shit about the priest molesting Abdul. Nowadays, that sort of thing is front-page news.
A lot of research that I did for “The Kid” was on the social services system, the issues and challenges of adoption and foster care. And I looked at the core issue of Adbul’s care and of his not being cared for: His mother kept reminding him to drink his milk and eat all his vegetables. But after she dies, the first thing he sees in his new foster home, in terms of food, are all these poisons they want feed him. He ends up stealing food. What does it mean to be a child without parents in Western culture? Have things changed that much since Charles Dickens wrote of the orphan’s plight in “Oliver Twist?”
“The Kid” looks at the peculiar, particular circumstances of a male child in New York City foster care, someone who’d been born perfect and, at 9, is 100-percent adoptable but doesn’t get adopted into a decent home. He seems headed for trouble, partly because he is part of the least adoptable of adopted children in this country, where people will go to Russia to find a baby before taking in black male children.
Too often, we focus on the end statistics—and not the early troubles—including the overwhelming number of African Americans caught up in the criminal justice system. Of that population, there are a disproportionate number who’d languished in foster care before they landed in prison.
I’m looking at all those things as the core issues, and then I’m looking at the joys of this text.
For the reader who discovers the torments more readily than the joys, explain what you mean.
I’d been one of the poets and writers teaching in New York City classrooms. For a little while, I was in an eighth-grade earth science classroom. Abdul’s fascination with the earth, with rocks in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem, are symbolic of stonewalls that he comes up against. He says, “I’m a Capricorn, and I’m used to climbing rocks.”
He’s an articulate, educated, self-aware child who knows the depth and beauty of the Schomburg Center on Research in Black Culture, of the bell tower in Marcus Garvey Park. At the age of 9, he’s reading better than his mother did at 18. He’s enamored of Basquiat, the artist, and journalist Greg Tate. He listens to Charlie Parker. And in the midst of getting his good African education, he stumbles on an African dance class in the gym, on the floor above where he’s been taking swimming lessons. He follows up his study of African dance with ballet and ends up in downtown’s avant-garde arts scene…. There’s all of that in this book.
Not all readers and, for that matter, all the folks in the movie audience for “Precious,” which is based on the novel orginally known as “Push, view these two stories as redeeming. Why so?
By the time I got to Lansing, Mich., in late August, I’d done 17 cities in my book tour for “The Kid.” The Lansing audience was 60 percent African American; most had not read the new book, though they’d read “Push,” which was retitled as “Precious” after the movie came out.
An African American woman, who had to be in her 40s or 50s held up the book with a bewildered look on her face and said, “I’ve never heard anything before like this in my life.”
Before I could answer, an African American woman who, as it turns out, is a social worker stood up and said, “I hear and see it every day. I’m so glad that there is a piece of literature that let’s us coalesce around these issues.”
There are a lot of things in “The Kid” that we’re not willing to engage on. The artist is not there as a massage therapist to make you feel good, to give you the warm and fuzzy…. After “Push” was published, it took 15 years for people to be willing to talk about that story. Now, maybe Precious, the movie character, does not horrify and embarrass, especially black people, anymore.
Does that kind of audience reaction pain you?
Thankfully, that audience in Lansing didn’t leave it on me to explain things. Some in the audience know realities of male rape—and how many male rape victims mostly don’t talk about it. They didn’t leave it to me to explain other, un-discussed aspects of the experiences of some embattled black males.
For some people, it’s really true that they’re lives are so different from Abdul’s. Some people will never come into contact with an African American male, except as someone who delivers their groceries.
For that woman, Abdul’s story is so hard to believe. For many people, there is willful denial of the signs and symptoms.
As commentary, what do you hope the novel achieves?
I stayed connected to the 9-year-old and his ambitions. Abdul didn’t end up a drug addict or in prison. He escaped from the hell he was in, with the mad doctor, and gets out with full possession of his life and faculties. I see him, in many ways, as not being as empathetic and lovable as Precious. But his outcome is 10 times more positive than Precious’ outcome.
At then end of the story, Abdul is 18, 19 years of age. His dance teacher is comparing him to Baryshnikov, the great Russian dancer who defected. Will Abdul be a flawed person? Aren’t they all? But he comes out in the story with the means, attention, and ability to create great art and to thrive. In my eyes, Abdul is a king.
I really turned a corner with “The Kid.” I felt good, bad or whatever, I’d completed the feat of a second novel. I began to feel this is what I wanted to do with my life. I’m 61.