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Wednesday, August 3,2011

The kids are not all right

In ‘The Kid,’ Sapphire paints a disturbing picture of an adolescent adrift in the inner city

by Bill Castanier

For more than a decade, Sapphire, the author of “Push,” put a sequel on hold.


“I put the ‘The Kid’ on the back burner,”
she said in a recent telephone interview. “I hadn’t had a novel in 15
years, but I was not feeling outward pressure. I was in academia and
writing poetry.”


Then “Precious,” a movie based on “Push,” went into development — and everything changed.


She candidly admits that the movie, released in 2009, was a market maker for the books.


“Push” tells the story (as does
“Precious”) of a 16-year-old black woman in New York City in the
mid-1980s. Precious, pregnant from a sexually abusive relationship with
her father, is thrown into an alternative school with other pregnant
women.


Inspired by their teacher, Precious and
the other students keep journals, and Precious begins to pull herself
out of her troubled life. She gives birth to Abdul, discovers she is
HIV-positive and joins a support group with others who share the
problems of sexual abuse and HIV.


Although the book and movie can be seen
as uplifting and hopeful, it is without question a disturbing look at a
young woman’s life.


Well hold on to your reading lights: “The
Kid” opens with Abdul, now 9, fresh from his mother’s funeral and being
shipped from foster home to foster home, each more brutal than the
last.


Unlike “Push,” in which the teachers and
adults outside the immediate family are often seen as heroes, Abdul —
who calls himself J.J. — faces sexual abuse from those chosen to help
him, including priests at the St. Ailanthus School for Boys.


But like his mom, homeless and outcast,
Abdul shows unflinching survival skills and a burning desire to succeed
in a creative expression of his life. He joins a dance group and
flourishes, but that’s as good as it gets when it comes to uplifting
events. 


Sapphire said “The Kid” represents a crossroads for her.


As a writer who has her roots in performance poetry, she saw herself as a poet who had written a novel.


Elements of poetry, especially imagery,
brevity and dreamlike sequences, abound in “The Kid.” Parts of the novel
can leave you breathless, like a slam poetry reading.


“Poetry is one of the purist forms of art, and it can only inform other forms of writing,” Sapphire said. 


She said that 10 to 15 years ago
performance and slam poetry were flowering in urban areas: “Poetry was
coming from the streets.”


The streets and sounds of New York City
and the backdrop of creative dance fill Abdul’s life, as the narrative
takes him from reality into dreams, a literary technique that Sapphire
uses often in the book.


Faced with a world as bleak as one could imagine Abdul responds in a physical way.


“He is different than a female character. He talks loud to himself and others as he tries to establish his own self. He’s a go-getter and his response to the world is physical.”


Sapphire said when she was writing the
book, “I would ask myself what would I do in this situation? I would
cry, and I would have Abdul do the opposite.”


Sapphire admits this fictional
coming-of-age story is a specific character study, but she said it
represents the sociological and economic world many African-Americans
live in.


“Conditions create characters,” she said. “Doors are being closed to African-Americans entering the American middle class.


“The problems of drug addiction, AIDS/HIV, loss of grandmothers — the family is falling apart.


“It’s happening now. Black boys are
unable to be adopted. No one wants them, and America is not functioning
for certain segments of society.”


In particular, she said she wanted to
write about the impact that AIDS has had on African-American culture.
She said that is “the backstory of the creation of Abdul.” 


As our conversation ended, she said she
was holding a front-page story from that day’s New York Times detailing
sexual abuse by priests.


A word of caution: This book is not for
everyone. There is strong sexual language and disturbing scenes of
physical and sexual violence, and the final outcome is ambiguous, which
will likely be the thing that most bothers readers looking for the
redemptive qualities of “Push.”


Abdul is a haunted hero. As Sapphire
writes in a chapter-heading quote from “Crime and Punishment”: “He
recalled it more vividly in his dream than he had done in memory.”


Sapphire
Talk and book signing
7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd.,
Lansing
Free
(517) 316-7495
www.schulerbooks.com

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