As with most Oprah-certified, book-to-film adaptations, Precious drummed up the kind of anticipation you can't pay for — unless your name is Tyler Perry. The two teamed up to executive-produce the critically acclaimed film in 2009, slinging Sapphire, the author of Push, the wildly controversial 1996 book on which the film is based, back into the national spotlight.
Now, cruising on the current of a re-established notoriety, Sapphire has released her second book, The Kid. The gritty novel chronicles the life of Abdul, Precious' son from her incestuous relationship with her father. As with Push, this book offers no shortage of I-can't-read-anymore moments: Abdul kissing the lips of his dead mother after she loses her battle with AIDS, his grueling travels through a neglectful foster-care system and the abuse that follows, and his own dreams and urges of molesting young boys.
"The thing about The Kid is this isn't an easy text," Sapphire told The Root. "It's not a romance novel; you can't just breeze through it."
Sapphire, keen on using her work to tell the "profound and devastating effects of AIDS," is never shy about using vivid, harsh — and maybe crass — language to convey the social realities that plague the black community.
One day after the official release of the book, Sapphire spoke with The Root about Abdul's complicated character, who she hopes will play Abdul in a film and what she thinks of the New York Times' biting review of The Kid.
The Root: Why did you kill Precious?
Sapphire: I'm a social realist in terms of writing. African-American women who were diagnosed with AIDS at the time that Push was written were 10 times more likely than upper-class, gay white men to die in the first couple months of diagnosis. So Precious couldn't survive. One of the reasons I wrote Push was to show how precious — ha, ha — these kids might be if given the opportunity to live.
TR: You say that The Kid is not a sequel to Push?
S: It is Abdul's book. The sequel thing is just a marketing thing. It is only a sequel in a sense that it touches on HIV/AIDS. Abdul's mother could have been anybody, anywhere. But this is his book.
TR: Did you think about pulling from any other characters from Push for The Kid?
S: I did, and it didn't work. The character I was most attracted to was Rita Romera, the surrogate mother and best friend of Precious. But we see when Precious is in the hospital dying, when the doctor asks Rita to lift Abdul up, Abdul says, "She's not strong enough to carry me." And that was a metaphoric statement, to say that Rita was also sick and a part of this horrific AIDS epidemic, and soon she would be swept away. And as good as her heart was, she was not going to be the one character who stood behind Abdul.
TR: Did you ever think about continuing the story of Precious' mom, who was a standout character in the movie?
S: I do continue the story of Mary in this text. In Push, Precious asked herself, "What kind of story does Momma have to make her do me like she do?" [In The Kid] we uncover that Precious' mom was literally born in the dirt. [Mary's mother] describes taking care of Mary as "pulling death behind me." So we see where the cycle of abuse begins, and get some answers about Mary. Mary comes off as this big monster, but inside, she's dwarfed. What dwarfed Mary? That answer is laid out clearly in this book.
TR: As you did with Push, you chose heavy topics in this book: HIV, incest, rape. What did you want to convey to the reader about these things?
S: What I am really addressing is the cycle of abuse. What shouldn't be forgotten is that Precious broke the cycle with Abdul. We see in the first chapter that despite very limited resources, Precious pulled it together and made a life for her child. She does not perpetrate what had been done to her.
From education to the support system she had with her girls, she provides a life for her child. We also see the tragedy of single motherhood, the things that happen when there is no extended family. When she falls, he falls. So in this abyss, Abdul falls and the cycle of abuse begins again.
TR: In Push, sympathy was really a driving element in how readers related to Precious. In The Kid, Abdul is abused, but he also does some abusing and dreams about molesting young boys, making it hard at times to show him compassion. What role does sympathy play in this book?
S: Can't you still love and admire him even though he is a deeply flawed human being? That's the question I put forth to the reader. We see all the good things about Abdul's ambition and his integrity. But given what has happened to him, can't we still love this child? Because how can we find our ways back to life without love?
TR: What role does dance play in the novel?
S: I am trying to show the power of dance and the power of real love to change things. The dance defies the authority of the trauma afflicted on Abdul to be the sole determiner of his reality. Dance gives him back, in a healthy way, some of the power that the abuse has robbed him of.
S: Exactly. Precious dies, just like all of our ancestors move on. The only place where they really live is in the memory. So in Abdul's dreams we see the power of Precious' parenting, and the power of her love really sustains him. This is why he doesn't end up in prison. Even when he is suicidal, he says, "If I kill myself, I'll never get to dance." That's Precious inside of him. Even though he is going through all of this, he is able to imagine, because his mother was able to create images for him of happiness and hope.
TR: A New York Times review of your book says that "The Kid, in Sapphire's hands," comes off as the "confused ditherings of a mentally confused character who has difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality." How do you respond to that?
S: I thought that was a vicious attack. But I will say this: You can't play in the major league and get mad when you get hit with a hardball. That's par for the course. What was interesting is that [the NYT book critic] did the same thing to Push 15 years ago. But at the end of the review for The Kid, she doesn't sound like a Push hater. There are a lot of people who changed their tune.
This is a hard book to deal with. You can't have your editor send you the book on Friday and deliver a critique on Tuesday. No, this is not a literal, linear narrative. But neither is Invisible Man. Am I not, as an African-American woman, allowed some complexity in my writing?
TR: Is it your hope that The Kid will also be adapted for film?
S: I was thinking more of like a brilliant choreographer, like Bill T. Jones, adapting it as dance theater, so as to not tell the story in a linear way. You couldn't do that in a movie. You'd be too busy trying to tell the story.
TR: If it did go to film, who could play Abdul?
S: I would prefer someone who we don't know, an off-Broadway actor who is really well-trained in dance. I wouldn't want an actor doubling as an actor-dancer.
TR: Are you planning on writing a third book?
S: I'm going on a 17-city tour, girl! So I'm not really thinking about another book. Hopefully I'll get to bring some work with me, but I am all about this book. I feel like I'll have to be Muhammad Ali and get my gloves and defend this book to the bitter beginning.
TR: Just like you did with Push.
S: Yes. I fight for my texts.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is the assistant editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.