Profile: Sapphire - The Kid
Author set for appearance at 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival
This article is from 2011.
Broadcaster and author Bidisha will be interviewing Sapphire in Charlotte Square Gardens. Here, she paints a picture of the US author’s power and influence
Sapphire is the voice of America. She doesn’t write about the glitz of Manhattan, the subtle discontents of suburbia or the gothic claustrophobia of the deep south. Her terrain is one in which the American Dream has not only failed but is a total joke, an insulting mockery of her characters’ lives, a fantasy so distant and ludicrous that it doesn’t even figure.
It is an America in which black people are a majority, discrimination and deprivation are the norms, and anger, sadness and frustration are the leading emotions. Adults are untrustworthy exploiters (those kind exceptions who offer help will fail), while the future is something to dread and mistrust for its hidden shocks, rather than welcome for its promise. Salvation comes only through dogged self-reliance, education, hard work and rare luck.
Sapphire’s is an America which is rarely explored in literature, one of welfare, poverty, discrimination, ghettoisation and cycles of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Her characters are tough and damaged, their dialogue pulsing with rough poetry. This America is real and experienced by millions of its citizens.
The author’s latest novel, The Kid, her first in 16 years, is dedicated to ‘the 16 million and still counting orphaned by HIV-AIDS’. It follows the enormous success of her debut novel, Push, which was recently made into an acclaimed film, Precious. The book was a huge international hit and its publication marked the author out as a fearless thinker and a writer of enormous talent, insight and skill.
It told the story of a teenage girl who is sexually abused by her father, neglected by her complicit and equally damaged mother and almost saved by the inspirational teachers and other adults around her. Written from the point of view of its protagonist, Push is an urgent, unforgettably adroit act of the imagination. Precious is slangy, bruised, defiant and powerfully resilient despite the outrageous abuses and betrayals she suffers.
The Kid, meanwhile, is the story of Precious’ son, Abdul. Precious has died of AIDs and Abdul becomes another name in a terrifying and loveless system of welfare, care homes, substandard schooling and support. Told in the first person, Abdul’s story is frighteningly realistic as he descends, stage by stage, and transforms from a victim into something far worse.
He is an intelligent, witty, talented and promising boy, but he is also an unformed individual, brutalised into cruelty. The novel itself is a consummate work of art, style and brains, shining at times with the possibility for hope and joy, such as in the descriptions of Abdul’s talent for dance. Sapphire shows every permutation of her protagonist’s metamorphosis with unblinking acuity and crackling, sharp writing. Housed briefly with a relative after Precious’ death, Abdul observes, ‘I look down at her, her dress look like she cleaned a bicycle chain with it … I don’t get this; I got a home, a bed. I feel like someone cut my heart out and is eating it in front of me. I feel stupid, wild, lonely, like after my mother die, everything just fall apart.”
The Kid is even more accomplished than its predecessor and a thousand times more frightening for what it says about the genesis of abuse. Abdul’s voice rings true and is full of the energy of pain, rage, grief and doubt, of misdirected intelligence and unconsoled pain. The only thing that disturbs me is critics’ conflation of these protagonists’ experiences and Sapphire’s own life. Abdul and Precious are fictional creations reflecting the reality of many young American lives. But Sapphire is of a different league. As well as being a novelist, performer, published poet, teacher and community worker, she is a highly educated and independent woman with power and politics.
She did not rise, suffering, silenced and subjugated, out of some primordial jungle of disaffection and chaos. She is not tearing pages out of her personal diary, she’s an intellectual who creates important and crafted works of art. It’s a mark of her genius that the voices of Precious and Abdul are rendered so convincingly. It’s a mark of a damaged society that Precious and Abdul represent just two of the world’s billions of betrayed and broken young souls.
Sapphire with Bidisha, 22 Aug, 8pm, £10 (£8).