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Artist with a Mission: A Conversation with Sapphire
From Outlines
by Owen Keehnen

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( This interview initially appeared in Chicago Outlines in August 1996 and subsequently in Metroline in Hartford CT. and OutNow in San Diego. )

PUSH is the harrowing tale of "Precious" Jones, an illiterate and brutalized Harlem teenager who gains power and confidence by learning to read and write. The ability to express becomes her freedom. Throughout the course of this brief and arresting novel the reader sees Precious bloom and grow, soaring above her dire circumstances and conditions that include poverty, incest, and HIV. This stunning debut by bisexual poet Sapphire is harvesting a bounty of glowing reviews form both the mainstream and gay presses and seems destined to become a classic of socially conscious fiction.

Sapphire's previous book, AMERICAN DREAMS, a rich, gritty, and winning combination of poetry and prose, focused on the hidden lives in this country, the flip side of the American dream. One piece in the book 'Wild Thing' was lifted out of context and used in 1994 by Senator Jesse Helms in his argument to lower funding for The National Endowment of the Arts.

Recently I had the chance to talk with Sapphire about PUSH, the Helms incident, the power of language, her shift from poetry to prose, Hollywood's interest in her work, and her artist's mission.

Push is an incredible novel. Let's begin with a brief outline of the content.

The novel is about a young African-American woman, Clarice "Precious" Jones. We enter her life at 16 and exit at 18. It's a short time, but I think they're the formative years in a teenager's life. She's a resident of Harlem, a survivor of multiple abuses by her father and mother and also by the education system that has ignored her. When the novel opens she has already had one child by her father and is pregnant with a second. She is illiterate and the novel centers on her transformation. Literacy becomes the vehicle for that transformation.

What was your inspiration for creating such an unforgettable character?

She's a composite of many young women I encountered when I worked as a literacy teacher in Harlem and the Bronx for 7 years. Over and over I met people with circumstances similar to hers, many with her amazing spirit. I wanted to create a novel with a young person like that. To me she has not existed in literature before. She existed on TV …but as a statistic — as an 18-year-old HIV+ woman who can't read with two children. I wanted to show her as a human being, to enter into her life and show that she is a very complex person deserving of everything this culture has to offer.

Going back to your work as a literacy teacher, was self-esteem often the most important thing you taught?

Yeah. You can learn without self-esteem. There are very learned people with very limited self-esteem, but when you're in a position like Precious it's really important that there be a integrated approach so it's not just an acquisition of book knowledge. There has to be emotional knowledge, self-esteem is part of that.

Did you have a secret for maintaining the voice and getting into the character of Precious?

The secret was to make all the other characters silent. Every time I tried to speak through the teacher's voice or tell the mother's story they rose up like a big shadow and stomped Precious out. The minute I gave that book to the teacher, who had elements of myself, she started preaching and going into her own angst and I said, "Oh, just shut up!" Because Precious was such an underground figure, such a blade of grass coming up through the sidewalk cracks, I couldn't let a whole lot else in.

What did you want to convey with PUSH?

The power of intervention in a human being's life who is troubled. While I show a very destroyed family system I also show an extended family that rises up to help Precious. When one structure has fallen another appears — there's an alternative school, there's a halfway house, there's people who have learned that all children belong to us. I wanted to show those interactions in a distressed community. I also wanted to show the power of the human soul and what can be done when a person makes up their mind with what they want to do with their life. A lot of people have written Precious off. We have to see she's worthy. By entering into her life and helping her change things we possibly save her son from some of the same problems. Right now we have people who are living with HIV symptom free for 10-15 years after diagnosis, so with information and preventative health care we don't have to have a medical disaster. Things are bad, but they can get better.

PUSH creates multiple bridges of understanding class, sexual orientation, etc. Often you read about those things but rarely do you understand them. The theme of awareness of other experiences also struck me in your previous book AMERICAN DREAMS. Is that your career goal?

There's a blues song 'What's Been Done In the Dark Has to Come to the Light' and I think that's something that stays on my mind. I always want to bring out what's been hidden or marginalized. In Precious she is more misunderstood than invisible, we hear about her everyday. Every time Newt Gingrich opens his mouth it's about a welfare mother. I wanted to shed additional light. I wanted to show something behind the statistic. So yeah, I'm on a mission.

That's one of literature's great powers. How political of an act is writing for you?

Very. In my childhood one of the most influential books I read was THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. I read the story of this girl who would have been lost to history and humanity had she not written this diary. Even though I didn't start writing then I saw it had something to do with coming out of invisibility. Documenting our lives is the one act that almost everyone can do based on their ability and scope.

Was the shift from poetry to prose difficult for you or more a matter of degree?

A matter of degree. In AMERICAN DREAM there are short prose pieces so it was more the idea of writing an extended prose piece. I'd tried short stories and kept a journal that is a form of personal memoir, but the idea of a novel sounded so daunting. I was lucky to be in a writing program when I started. I went to my advisor and said, "I'm working on something, I don't know whether it's a novel or not." Rather than laying out all these conditions she very wisely said, "Sapphire, a novel is basically 150 pages." That was so liberating.

What poetic tool proved to be the most useful in creating fiction?

Because I'd done so much narrative poetry I'd say it was holding onto the idea of voice. Even though I'm a poet my stuff was always very narrative and story has always been at the center. I carried that vibration over to the prose and just expanded it. Also I wanted the novel to sing which was tough because Precious doesn't know how to sing yet — poetically, conversationally, or even in her thoughts — they're halting and broken and damaged.

I read in 'Newsweek' that Hollywood has been very interested in PUSH but you've been reluctant. What conditions would have to be met before you would allow a film of the book to be made?

I don't think it's their fault or anything, but there are many ways that Hollywood has done black people a disservice. That's not to wag fingers in anybody's face; it's just what I've seen all my life. I feel good about the novel, not because it's perfect, but because it tells the truth. There are a lot of stereotypes and negative things laid out in the book but Precious is a like a tree — she just busts through all that tired shit and we come away with a vision of a living breathing woman of intelligence and integrity. I try to think about Hollywood doing a picture of her without exploiting or sentimentalizing her. In print we can handle it. The reader processes the image and the writer and reader create reality together. But with film you're fed that reality and unless you're dealing with someone with a lot of integrity they're going to be hooked into making box office sales. I wrote a novel about learning to read and write so I wanted the print medium to take on even more power. It's all about being a book for me and I feel fine with that now.

As a writer previously on the fringes of the literary establishment, does Knopf's confidence in PUSH and sizeable first printing ( 150,000 ) copies, the media blitz, and the reprinting of AMERICAN DREAMS freak you out?

It's overwhelming. I wrote this in a writing program and was getting ready to get my resume together, and get my part time teaching position so I'd have time to write. This is the last thing I was thinking of. I wanted the novel to move outside of the poetry establishment. The issues here were mainstream — how money is being spent, how women are being treated, how we're going to deal with early childcare. No way did I think I was going to be in 'Newsweek' and 'Harper's Bazaar'. I really try to detach from that and remember it really is about Precious and the young women I've written about.

As an artist your modes of expression have repeatedly shifted from ballet to go-go dancing to performance art to poetry to prose. What do you see at the core of your need to express?

For me all that was 90% a good experience, but now I consider myself a writer. The other mediums still attract me, but I know I'm going to write and return to teaching. I'm 45 now so I'm not so interested in dancing anymore except for exercise.

How did it feel to have your poem 'Wild Thing' taken out of context and used as a tool against NEA funding by Jesse Helms on the floor of the U.S. Senate?

It was a drag. It was a real disservice to me. My work was used against me and I was painted as a pervert playing into the sexual exploitation of women. I spent so many years of my life undoing the effects of my own sexual abuse as a child, trying to help my students with this, and be an advocate in my own community with stopping rape, denouncing incest and exposing the sexual exploitation and victimization of women. Then to have someone parade the material like that was very harmful. On another level I'd finally gotten together enough credits to be eligible to apply for an NEA grant and instead of that I got all this attention without furthering myself as an artist. I was further marginalized and seen as subversive, transgressive, and antagonistic to society as opposed to a person who is very concerned about the culture and wanting it to change.

What's next for you?

I'm heading out on my book tour. I'm going to Europe in September for the English and Dutch editions of PUSH. Then I'm hoping to wind down and creep back into my old life, which, aside from being poor, wasn't so bad. I love teaching and getting up in the morning and writing. I just want to do my thing so I'll be happy when all the hype does down.

Thanks Sapphire and good luck with the book.

Thank you Owen.

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