Sapphire does not shy away from difficult subjects.
The author, who chose her pen name as a salute to strong black women, is known for penning devastatingly realized stories of childhood sexual abuse and trauma. Her 1996 novel Push tells the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones, an illiterate, obese, 16-year-old girl pregnant with a second child by her own father. The novel was adapted in 2009, and the resulting film, Precious, garnered many accolades, including two Academy Awards. But the film also stirred controversy with its graphic depictions of incest and domestic abuse.
Sapphire was herself the victim of childhood sexual assault. In 2010 she told the London Evening Standard that her father, a Korean War vet, had molested her at age eight. Her mother abandoned their family five years later.
“It was traumatic — but to be left with our crazy dad, doubly so,” she told the paper.
She created the character precious from an amalgam of her own experiences and those of students she later mentored in Harlem.
Sapphire followed Push with a sequel, The Kid, in 2011. As the novel opens, we learn that Precious has died of AIDS, leaving her nine-year-old son Abdul alone in the world.
Abdul is sent to live in a Catholic orphanage, and what befalls him there is brutal and heartbreaking — and all too familiar to anyone who follows the ever-unfolding story of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. (A new wrinkle in that story unfolded just this week, as files released by the Diocese of Joliet revealed decades of abuse hidden by high-level clergy.)
Abdul is sexually assaulted by a priest during his time in the orphanage. And as sometimes happens to those who have been abused, he goes on in turn to become an abuser, raping younger, weaker boys living in the orphanage.
“While numerous heterosexual black male writers and critics have bemoaned the … one-dimensional portrait of black man as victimizer, few have been interested in or have had the courage to explore the obvious other end of the stick: the black male as victim of sexual abuse,” Sapphire said at a talk in Chicago last week, reading from a Q & A section published alongside her novel. “The Kid, among other things, begins an accurate portrayal of what happens to many young males who have been abused and their sometimes hideous response.”
The results for Abdul are devastating, as they were for his mother. And while Push addressed the failure of the nuclear family to protect its children, The Kid takes up the failure of institutions charged with their care.
“We’re really looking at the abandoning of the social contract in a way we didn’t see in Push,” Sapphire said. “That was something I really wanted to show: What happens when everything except the soul of the individuals fails?”
Sapphire read two passages from The Kid during her appearance at Chicago Public Library. We’ve included an excerpt of her talk here in audio form, but please be warned… .
TRIGGER WARNING: The book excerpt Sapphire reads here includes a graphic rape scene, in addition to a later scene which shows some redemption and healing for her main character.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Sapphire spoke at an event presented by Chicago Public Library in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.