For more than 20 years, author/poet Sapphire has taken readers through the looking glass, using her works as a mirror to reflect the beauty, brutality, power and pain of the modern-day black experience. Raw and unflinchingly realistic, her texts have left a large and lasting mark on contemporary American and African American literature.
Released earlier this month, her new novel “The Kid” continues her exploration of how race, poverty and gender shape black people’s lives. The book plunges readers into the mind of Precious son Abdul, whose life spirals out of control after his mother dies of AIDS. And while the compelling coming-of-age story uses “Push” as a jumping-off point, Sapphire describes the books as “two very different stories.”
Tell us more about the character Abdul.
He’s a smart kid. Yeah, he has some bad days and does some bad things, but he’s not a gangster, you know what I mean? Although he is tall, and he is big, and he has had violence inflicted upon him, and he is violent at times, he is also creative; he is also obsessed with the idea of making it and becoming a part of the mainstream, becoming a dancer, becoming an Alvin Ailey. He does not want to be a gangster; in fact, he’s angry that he gets put into positions where he doesn’t have the material things he needs. So he’s not an outlaw. But he could be if we don’t help him.
Why did you choose to make dance his outlet for expression?
As a little boy, [Abdul] had this strong physical and warm and healthy connection to [his] mother; with her death, that [bond] is broken. From there, he goes on to foster homes and places where he’s abused, so his body becomes the site of pain. It is through the act of dancing … [and] the rhythmic connection with the drum and the music that he reconnects, and he heals, and his body becomes a place of power instead of a place of pain. I didn’t think that could happen by [him] playing a horn.
Abdul encounters many challenges that threaten to keep him from achieving his potential. Did you encounter any challenges that could have prevented you from completing this book?
There were a couple hurdles I had to jump over, and one of them was being afraid of what people would say. I was afraid to hear again, “Oh, too heavy, it’s too dark, it’s violent.” And I did not want to change my book or my message based on the fear that I would not be accepted. That meant that I had to go deep into that place where I could only hear my characters and their connection to the world. I would have this battle with myself to really go in there and live up to my “own” expectations that I had for “myself” … I wanted to write a deeper book than “Push.”
Your poems and novels explore social issues such as poverty, abuse, violence and racism. What impact do you think literature can have on how people deal with those issues?
Well, I think that for each reader, the text is different, so it has a different effect on different people. For people who have survived some of the situations … it can [make them feel] less isolated, less alone; [they can] know that people who have had experiences like them are not worthless, are not ugly, are not stigmatized.
Other artists might read it and say, “Oh! I thought these subjects were off limits, I thought these people were off limits. I see now this is something that can be written about with dignity and power.”
Other people have told me they read it and they felt bad; you know, they felt misrepresented and all that kind of stuff. But I can say, based on my experience, literature can change how people see things.
Sapphire will be reading from “The Kid” on Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m. at The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets are $12 and include admission to a special screening of “Precious” following the reading. Visit http://brattlefilm.org/ or call 617-876-6837 for more information or to purchase tickets.