Writer wanted to give a voice to teenagers like the pregnant, abused heroine of 'Push'

by Kevin C. Johnson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

3 March 2010


Author-poet Sapphire knew that her novel “Push” was “something special” when she started writing it in 1993 as part of her master’s project at Brooklyn College. But its success as an award-winning book and Oscar-nominated movie has been a major surprise.

She thought it was special “because I was a poet writing a novel, and it was different from the standard, mainstream novel,” she says, referring to her experimentation with language and dialect.

The book went on to win several awards and last year was made into the acclaimed — and controversial — movie “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” The film has been nominated for six Academy Awards.

The book and movie tell the story of Precious, an overweight 16-year-old who is pregnant with her father’s child and lives in Harlem with her abusive mother.

Sapphire, who is originally from San Francisco and now lives in Brooklyn, says her goal in writing “Push” was to present a multilayered story that would convey what she saw around her while she was working and teaching in the heart of Harlem.

“I didn’t want the things I was seeing in Harlem to disappear into people’s consciousness,” she says. “I wanted them to know what I had seen, though some of it was depressing. But I was uplifted because I knew I could give to the world and change the world.”

The book encompasses literacy and language first and foremost, Sapphire says, but it also looks at poverty and welfare; HIV transmission among heterosexuals; colorism, the idea among African-Americans that light skin is preferred over dark skin; standards of beauty; and how abusive behavior can come from anyone, not just men.

She felt she couldn’t let girls like Precious “continue to get swept under the rug and thrown in the trash.”

The stark realism of the world Sapphire portrayed in “Push” led many to believe it was a true story. Some even take it a step further, assuming that Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe portrayed her own life story.

Sapphire has problems with that.

“Precious is not a real person,” she says. “She’s a character in a novel. And Gabby is on a mission to show people she is not Precious. She’s sophisticated, articulate, educated and comes from an excellent family, and this girl is not in any way Precious.

“I must make these clarifications, though you don’t have to when you look at white films. When you look at ‘Monster,’ you know Charlize Theron isn’t a roadside hooker.”

Sapphire knew she’d tapped into something big after the book’s publication when a Harlem girl walked up to her and told her “Push” was the best book she’d ever read.

“There’s literature that’s hard to deal with, and literature that’s soft and fuzzy,” she says. “I never purported to write something to make everyone happy or that was easy to read. I wanted to write something to make people think and feel.”

Fans will be happy to hear that she is planning her first novel since “Push” for next year. It will look at the displacement of African-American children, especially boys, in the foster care and adoption system.

“People will go to foreign countries before they adopt an American black male,” Sapphire says of her new book.

She hints that even more is on the way.

“I never stopped writing,” Sapphire says. “I have quite a bit of material that will be coming out, now that I’m in a market that’s on my side.”

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