MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
If you are a movie fan, chances are good, then, you know something about the story of Clariece Precious Jones. She was the obese, pregnant 16-year-old African-American girl, a victim of sexual and physical abuse by her parents, and she was portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe in the award-winning film known as "Precious."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRECIOUS")
GABOUREY SIDIBE: (As Precious) Just ugly, black grease to be wiped away, find it a job for. Sometimes I wish I was dead. I'll be OK, I guess, 'cause I'm lookin' up, lookin' up for a piano to fall.
MARTIN: The movie was based on the equally provocative novel "Push" by the author who prefers to be known by her pen name, Sapphire. And now Sapphire's second novel, "The Kid," is just out. It tells the story of Precious' son, Abdul. To say the novel is an intense read about some very difficult topics would be an understatement. So we suggest right now that perhaps this last part of our program may not be suitable for all listeners, especially young ones.
So with that being said, Sapphire is with us now to talk about "The Kid" and whatever else is on her mind. She's with us from our studios in New York. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
SAPPHIRE: I'm really happy to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: There was a time when you really didn't give interviews at all, as I recall. Do I have that right? And I'm just wondering, is there something about the process of going through the movie that made you more willing to come out and talk?
SAPPHIRE: Well, definitely, the movie was an opening-up process for me, you know. I was really around a lot of media. And I also felt, you know, Lee Daniels, the director of "Precious" the movie had asked me to come out and be visible. And, so, you know, I just suited up and showed up, as they say, and really got behind it.
MARTIN: But your use of the name Sapphire is itself its own form of seclusion, if you don't mind my asking.
SAPPHIRE: Well, I think that may be, Michel, pre-Internet. So there's no more real seclusion. And, you know, my face is everywhere now. So people pretty much equate Sapphire with my given name. I'm out.
MARTIN: May I use it? May I use your given name?
SAPPHIRE: You can. You know, teachers use it. The police use it.
MARTIN: Oh, dear.
SAPPHIRE: My doctor uses it. But, like, my friends use Sapphire. So...
MARTIN: Your friends use Sapphire.
SAPPHIRE: Yeah, exactly.
MARTIN: OK. Well, we want to stay in the family.
MARTIN: We want to - may I ask why you chose the name Sapphire? It doesn't have the best connotation in, kind of, African-American culture.
SAPPHIRE: Exactly. Well, I really have joined in with the African-American tradition - mostly put in force by our youth - in taking something negative and trying to make it positive in the way you'll see young women talk - use the word (beep). And somehow they would try to construe that as positive in the same way I've seen young males try to make something out of the word (beep). And all that is problematic for me, but the word Sapphire does have a positive connotation.
So it was used at one time as a negative portrayal of an ambitious or feisty or nasty or mean black woman. But it also - it was a beautiful dark blue gem stone. So I thought originally Sapphire was a positive thing that had been made negative, and that by taking on the name as I did, you know, decades ago, it would become positive.
MARTIN: Just as an aside, Ramona's a pretty nice name, too. Just thought I'd mention that.
SAPPHIRE: Yeah. I did - I like it - and I still - I don't hate it. I just don't love it the way I love Sapphire.
MARTIN: Well, that being said, let's talk about the latest work. It starts where "Push" kind of left off, or there's a gap there. It starts on the day of her...
SAPPHIRE: There's a gap.
MARTIN: There's a gap. It starts on the day of her funeral, and her son - who has appeared in "Push" - is now nine. And the character is called "The Kid." There's so many things to talk about, like, why is he the kid? He has a name in the book, but he - but - which is Abdul. But...
SAPPHIRE: It's think it's interesting, because in the beginning, what I saw it as was - this was the scene in my mind, you know, time has moved on. Maybe some women are sitting in the lunch room and they - someone says, remember Precious Jones? And someone would say, oh, yeah. We remember her. And, you know, she passed away last month. And then the other person says, whatever happened to the kid? Didn't she have a kid? So I really wasn't thinking of it as a provocative connotation. Although obviously, words have many connotations, so and that suits it very well too that he is provocative and a character who has to be dealt with.
MARTIN: Central to both "Push" and "The Kid" is just a level of abuse, which by any standard is...
SAPPHIRE: A legacy, really, too, more than a level. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: And a legacy of abuse which is horrific. And speaking of the legacy point, I just want to remind people who perhaps read the book, which came out in 1996 and saw the movie, that there's a shocking moment that just chills a person to the core where the whole question of the legacy starts to unfold. So I'll just play a clip from the film.
MARTIN: And here's Oscar-winning actress Mo'Nique, who plays Precious' mother in the film, revealing why she allowed the abuse to continue, and here it is.
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "PRECIOUS")
MO'NIQUE: (as Mary) I don't want you to sit there and judge me, Ms. Weiss.
MARIAH CAREY: (as Mrs. Weiss) You shut up and you let him abuse your daughter.
MO'NIQUE: (as Mary) I did not want him to abuse my daughter. I did not want him to hurt her.
CAREY: (as Mrs. Weiss) But you allowed him to hurt her.
MO'NIQUE: I did not want him to do nothing to her (unintelligible) did she told you I did to her. Who else was going to love me? Hmm? Who was going to make me feel good?
MARTIN: And then we learn in "The Kid" the back-story to this.
SAPPHIRE: Exactly. Exactly. What we see in "Push" is a woman who is so decimated that when the choice is put before her that she has to choose - and it's an artificial choice, of course - that she must choose between her man and her child, she chooses the man. And so we enter into her story through her mother. Her mother had come from Mississippi and had actually tried to leave the plantation and first had tried to abandon Mary, Precious' mother.
Her mother describes Precious' mother as a shadow following me like my own death. So she never wanted the child. But she does continue to take care of Mary. But at one point there's a horrific scene of violence and the little baby who is going to grow up to be Precious' mother is standing there. And so in addition to being unwanted, neglected and abandoned, she is in some ways a lifelong victim of posttraumatic stress after having seen this murder, actually.
MARTIN: And then the legacy continues with Abdul, because after his mother dies...
SAPPHIRE: Well in a way, in a way the legacy is broken with Abdul.
SAPPHIRE: Precious does not abuse Abdul. And what happens is that she is a single mother and when she dies, he falls.
MARTIN: And what happens to him is horrific.
MARTIN: And talk to me about that.
SAPPHIRE: And it's also becomes even more horrific because of all Precious has done for him. By the time he ends up in the orphanage, and he has a sense, due to what Precious has given him, of entitlement. And we see as we did not see in "Precious," we see him begin, and part of it's that he is a male who is being abused by males, we see him begin to take on the traits of the oppressor.
MARTIN: Well, that's what I was going to ask you about because...
MARTIN: Precious, although is a challenging character, there is a fundamental decency about her where you root for her.
SAPPHIRE: She is an empathic character that you can love.
MARTIN: You root for her. You want to protect her. You want good things for her. But the character of Abdul becomes very challenging. The fact is, he does become an abuser himself. And I wanted to ask you about that.
SAPPHIRE: Because I am committed to writing a certain kind of realistic fiction, this is what happens to a vast majority of people who have been abused. Over and over again they will talk about what happened to them when they were children.
MARTIN: You've said in previous interviews that part of the character of Precious was based on what you had seen as a teacher, as a person who worked with young people and had heard their stories. And part of it is you wanted to tell their stories. Is that also the case here?
SAPPHIRE: There's much more research here. I really thought I was entering into a dangerous area so I really needed to know what I was talking about. But yeah, I did know about kids who had done this. I did have a chance to sit down and look at case studies. I did talk with, you know, people who were therapists and who worked with kids like this, so I did see a lot. And I think there is a cycle of the abuse that is very much above water and that we hear a lot about and then there's another area of the cycle that is very, very much hidden, and that is part of what I wanted to bring out in the text.
You know, I don't want to - I mean it's for the reader to discover and handle it themselves. But there is a part where one of the, one of Abdul's perpetrators says show me some love and then a couple pages later we hear Abdul himself say to a younger child, show me some love.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Sapphire, author of the newly released book "The Kid." She's the author of "Push," which was adapted into the Oscar-winning 2009 movie that was titled "Precious - Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
We are using the term abuse in part due to the sensibilities of the time of day we are on and who we think might be listening. But this novel is extremely graphic. I think if people thought "Push" was graphic, this novel I would argue is even more so. In part because your character Abdul seems to have more facility with language, right?
MARTIN: I think he's got, he's a more, he has been given the gift of words by his mother and so he knows how to use them. But...
SAPPHIRE: By the time his mother dies, he is reading and writing better than his mother. He is a gifted child. He's a child who does extremely well with language and he has a love of language and he is able to express himself and he does.
MARTIN: And this novel is also much longer than "Push." I'm going to ask about just how graphic it is. Can I ask why you felt the need to be as graphic as you are being? And I'm being discursive here because I want to be mindful of the sensibilities of all.
MARTIN: But it's, I mean I don't know, as a parent I found it very hard to read.
SAPPHIRE: Mm-hmm. How hard would it be for you to deal with that happening to your child?
MARTIN: I think that's why it's hard to read. You don't want to go there.
SAPPHIRE: Well, part of the reason why it's happening is because we don't want to go there. You know, and I think that there's a way that our being unable to even handle this, being unable to even look at the fact that children who have been drawn into certain cycles of abuse are capable of really horrendous things. But one of the things I wanted to do, I always think of Franz Kafka, where he talks about art should be like an axe that cracks the frozen sea within us. So I wanted to show, yeah, the horror of what this is, but I also wanted to show this beautiful little boy who is basically an innocent and how he is transformed by his negative experiences.
And I don't want you to forget as a reader, even though you've had to go some hard places, we'll see again how Abdul is transformed by his positive experiences, by, you know, Precious has imbued in him a deep sensibility of ambition and he is transfixed by the idea of becoming an artist, which actually puts a harness on some of the bad things he would do. There are actually times when he is considering things, even suicide, where he says, oh, but if I do that I won't get a chance to be a dancer.
So we see the transformative power of art and we see the transformative power of memory. The few memories that he is able to conjure of his mother in some ways keep him emotionally alive because the abuse that he endures has almost killed him. And there's a time when he's dancing and he says when I'm dancing I feel warm and dark like my mom.
MARTIN: But not to give it away...
MARTIN: because that would be unfair, and as you said, the reader has to discover it, there is not the storybook ending.
SAPPHIRE: No. there is not the storybook ending. I really wanted Abdul to go through - and he does - go through a dark night of the soul where he would have to stop looking at himself as a victim, and it's no mistake, in the end he - we can tell this much. In the end he is confronted with a doctor whose nickname is Dr. See(ph), and so it's no mistake that this guy's name is Dr. See, because he allows through a series of horrific events Abdul to see himself. And Abdul has to stop pointing the finger at the rest of the world and has to begin to look at himself as a victimizer. And he's able to if he's willing to go back with the truth, the truth about who he is - we get that feeling that he could begin to have life.
MARTIN: I remember something you talked to my colleague, Michele Norris, about when she asked you about those who might be concerned that this presented this kind of diseased image of the African-American community. And you said that, well, back then when the novel first came out, different time. But then, now in 2009, when the movie came out, we have a tremendous range of black families in the media. What you said is I think we're safe enough and secure enough to show this diseased situation with the hope that we can see it as something that needs to be healed as opposed to something that we need to hide from the public's view.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that in relation to this book, which is even more, if I may say, disturbing on many levels.
MARTIN: And shows some truly disturbing - and it also shows - and is also an indictment of society, because one of the things you say is that Precious tried very hard to lift herself and her family up and it's almost all for naught because there is no safety net under this child.
SAPPHIRE: Exactly. Exactly. So without kind of beating people over the head, we do see what happens when there was a loss of social services and there was no safety net. So the child failed. We also see what has happened through centuries of people turning a blind eye to what was happening in our religious institutions, you know what I mean? The abuse that Abdul suffers is in the Catholic church, in the orphanage, is in the media now. But it was all - it has existed as long as I can remember. So this is an indictment of society.
Dr. See at the end in the same way that he makes Abdul see, I'm hoping that the book can make society see.
MARTIN: I credit the point you made earlier where you said, look, you know, this might be hard to read and it might be hard to think about, imagine if it's happening to you or to your child. But I still want to ask, how do you live with these images in your head?
SAPPHIRE: Part of how I live is the same way that, you know, a dancer or a musician lives. You know, how did Charlie Parker play that music? How did Coltrane play that music? Well, when - for me when the music is over, it's over. When I enter into wherever it is I'm writing, whether it's in my private studio or whether I'm writing at the Writers Room or something like that, I immerse myself in what I'm doing, and then when I get up, I leave it. Sometimes I don't even remember what I've written.
But so, you know, what we're talking about is to create the art that I create I have to compartmentalize. I can't stay in it. The same way, imagine if you were a psychotherapist who are talking to these children every day. Some point in order to stay psychologically healthy and continue with the work you have to be able to cut off. And so it's something that I taught myself over the years, that, you know, when it's over it's over. You know, I reward myself, you know, if you get through this chapter, we can go to a museum or whatever it is. You know, whatever the carrot is you're holding out for yourself.
But then I also take responsibility for the fact that this is something I've chosen. I could write another way. I choose to write this way.
MARTIN: Sapphire is the author of "Push" and the newly released novel "The Kid," which is out just this week. She's also an award-winning poet and performance artist, and she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Sapphire, thank you so much for joining us.
SAPPHIRE: Thank you, Michel, for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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