Born Ramona Lofton in 1950, Sapphire is an American poet and novelist.
A controversial novel even before its publication, Push (1996) is set in the harsh world of Lenox Avenue in Harlem during the 1980s. It relates the miserable existence of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an overweight, African-American sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of learning to read so she can graduate from high school and find independence. Precious's story begins with her discovery that she is again pregnant by her own father, who also is the father of her first child, Mongo, a girl born with Down's syndrome. Not only has Precious's mother, who is not married to her father, been aware of his routine sexual abuse, but she beats Precious for stealing her man. After the birth of her second child, Precious learns that her father has died of AIDS and that she is HIV positive. Despite all the degradation she has endured from her abusive family and cruel classmates, she is not psychologically destroyed. A ninth-grade dropout due to her first pregnancy, Precious by chance gains entrance to an alternative school, where she is befriended by Blue Rain, a reading teacher who restores a sense of self-respect and hope in her students by encouraging them to keep a journal, "to live in language." Precious eventually joins an incest survivors support group. A lengthy postscript contains the life stories of other students in Precious's reading class. Critical reaction to Push generally has been favorable, but debate about the book's literary merits and its intense focus on incest, abuse, and prejudice has continued. Although many publishers thought that the unrelenting despair of Precious's existence was greatly exaggerated, reviewers have often compared Push to Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Critics have frequently commented on the angry yet intimate voice of Precious and her blunt, graphic language, to which many readers have attributed the emotional power of Push. "Without benefit of intricate plot or beautiful language, masterly structure or terribly complex characters," remarked Rosemary Mahoney, "Sapphire has created in Push an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling." Sapphire also wrote a collection of prose and poetry, American Dreams (1994), which explores similar themes of racism, misogyny, and the despair and injustice suffered by the poor. One poem in particular, "Wilding," scandalized critics with its frank description of a Central Park gang rape. Margaret Randall found the book "startlingly raw in places, imbued with a haunting power."
SOURCE: "Dreams Deferred," in American Book Review, Vol. 16, No. 6, March-May, 1995, p. 26.
[In the excerpt below, Randall discerns "considerable craft" in the poems of American Dreams.]
Sapphire's American Dreams is a first book and as such suffers from some of the problems such endeavors often display. It is also startlingly raw in places, imbued with a haunting power…. Sapphire is African-American;… concerned with the ugliness of race hatred, the mindless misogyny of woman-hatred, the despair of poverty-induced disease and injustice. The landscapes of these American Dreams range from the tenement bed to South Central LA, from the shabby stage of "lesbian love teams" to the girl child who tries to substitute her own story of sexual abuse for the fairy tale her mother insists upon forcing down her throat.
Sapphire is at her best in her rich prose. There are stories in American Dreams that stay with you, like "A New Day for Willa Mae," "There's a Window" and "Eat." Prose poems like "Reflections from Glass Breaking" and "Human Torso Gives Birth" are as close to perfect as anything in the book. This writer is less successful when she combines prose and the poetic line; some narrative pieces dwindle into several pages of lines rambling to no purpose I could discern. I have a feeling hearing Sapphire read might help to resolve some of my questions about why she has chosen...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
SOURCE: "Try Bondage," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 157-59.
[In the following excerpt, Svoboda observes of American Dreams, "These are not nice poems. But they are rarely not good poems."]
Every word costs in American Dreams, a High Risk book by Sapphire, published [in the United States] and in London. The title is the screen on which she projects both the shattering of those dreams and the dream of re-making them. The title poem yields yet another reading:
The woman looked at me & hissed,
"Stand up for the general!"
I said, "My father's in the army, not me."
& I remained seated.
& throughout 38 years
of bucking & winging
grinning & crawling
brown nosing & begging
there has been a quiet
10 year old in me
who has remained seated.
She perhaps is the real American Dream.
"Nobody said that what was cannot be changed," Sapphire writes in the opening poem, "Are You Ready to Rock?" This is a brave...
(The entire section is 771 words.)
SOURCE: "A Cruel World, Endless Until a Teacher Steps In," in The New York Times, June 14, 1996, p. B8.
[In the following review, Kakutani suggests that an ideological subtext diminishes the emotional impact of the narrative in Push, which makes it "disturbing, affecting and manipulative all at the same time."]
What do you get if you borrow the notion of an idiosyncratic teen-age narrator from J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and mix it up with the feminist sentimentality and anger of Alice Walker's Color Purple? The answer is Push, a much-talked-about first novel by a poet named Sapphire, a novel that manages to be disturbing, affecting and manipulative all at the same time.
Like Celie in The Color Purple, the heroine of Push is the survivor of a brutal childhood and youth; at the age of 16, Claireece or "Precious" as she calls herself, has already had two children by the man she knows as her father. Her mother has not only allowed these rapes to occur, but also beats Precious for stealing her man. She, too, sexually abuses Precious, and treats her as a maidservant around the house.
It's hard to imagine how things could get much worse, but in the course of Push, Sapphire throws a lot more misfortune Precious's way. Little Mongo, Precious's first child, to whom she gave birth at the age of 12, turns out to have Down's...
(The entire section is 1003 words.)
SOURCE: "Playing the Hand She's Dealt," in The New York Times, July 2, 1996, pp. B1, B4.
[In the review below, Smith discusses the controversy over some of the themes and perspectives in Sapphire's novel and poetry.]
This is the realm of "the voiceless," Lenox Avenue between 133d and 134th Streets in Harlem, where Precious, the teenage heroine of Push, a new novel by the poet Sapphire, lives.
"She lives there," Sapphire, also known as Ramona Lofton, said recently, pointing at a dowdy building over a check cashing store. Sapphire spoke as if Precious really existed. In the book, Precious, whose given name is Claireece, has a baby, "Little Mongo," who was conceived with her own father. The baby has "Down sinder" (Down's syndrome). Now Precious is pregnant again, by "my fahver," as she puts it, and attending an "insect survivor group."
Alfred A. Knopf paid Sapphire $500,000 for Push as part of a two-book deal and gave it a first printing of 75,000, big for a first novel. It is as unconstrained as anything that the house, better known as John Updike's publisher, has issued.
Even before publication, Sapphire, 45, was censured for her portrayal of a big, dark-skinned Harlem girl to whom almost every conceivable form of degradation occurs. When Precious goes into labor, her mother kicks her. Her mother also sexually abuses her. And it...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
SOURCE: "Don't Nobody Want Me. Don't Nobody Need Me," in The New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 9.
[Below, Mahoney calls Push "an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling."]
Intrepid will and raw intelligence ring forth in Claireece Precious Jones, the narrator of Push, the poet and performance artist Sapphire's first novel. Precious, as she prefers to be called, is a teenager in Harlem during the 1980's, and the numerous violations she has withstood in her young life have left her bereft of resources, utterly lacking in self-command and virtually unable to communicate. Black, poor, angry, profoundly illiterate, notably fat, rejected, enslaved by the cruel and violent mother she lives with, raped repeatedly by her father since she was a first grader and now, at the age of 16, pregnant by him for the second time. Precious Jones may have only one thing to be thankful for; that she has not also been struck blind. The world, however, is blind to Precious, and the resultant invisibility she suffers is, by her own assessment, her greatest obstacle.
Push is written in her halting dialect, a hobbled, minimal English that defies the conventions of spelling and usage and dispenses with all verbal decorum. At the outset, this occasionally uneven stylistic device threatens to obstruct the narrative, but the intensity of...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)
SOURCE: "Pushed to Survival," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following review, Woods calls Push "an impressive yet deeply flawed debut," pointing to inconsistencies in narrative voice and use of language.]
"I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver."
The opening line of Sapphire's first novel hits the reader like a Mack truck, and it clearly signals that the literary ride ahead won't be in your father's Oldsmobile. The journey of Harlem teenager Claireece Precious Jones is sickening and confusing, painful and hopeful. By turns thought-provoking and horrifying, Push is sure to provoke passionate debate about the book's literary merits and the author's talents—as well as issues ranging from incest to teen pregnancy, literacy programs and welfare reform. Despite its shortcomings, Push is a stunningly frank effort that marks the emergence of an immensely promising writer.
At its most fundamental, Push is an up-by-the-bra-strap success story, predictable as a TV movie refashioned for the downbeat '90s. It features the understandably enraged, savagely funny, totally unique voice of its protagonist. When we meet her, 16-year-old Precious is anything but what her name implies—she's obese, illiterate and pregnant by her father for the second time. She's physically and sexually abused...
(The entire section is 1058 words.)
SOURCE: "Living Hell," in Chicago Tribune—Books, July 21, 1996, p. 3.
[In the review below, Obejas briefly outlines the themes in Push, praising Sapphire's portrayal of inner-city life.]
Push is a story about hell.
It's about Precious Jones, a 16-year-old girl whose life is damned before she's even born. It's about economic and spiritual poverty, about violence and incest, about ignorance and prejudice, pregnancy and AIDS and death. It's the kind of story that gets more intense and infernal with every page.
Yet the miracle of Push is that, even at its most devastating, it is also a story about faith and possibility, about the way even the most scarred and scabbed human beings can respond to the lightest touch of love.
Written by Sapphire, a black poet best known for American Dreams, a book-length prose poem, Push is a quick 179 pages that often read like a slammer's angry verse in a smoky urban bar. It has rhythm and snap, rage and sensibility. Sapphire's choice is less black English than poor English—the speech of American-born city dwellers who live in indigence, with little or no education and virtually no exposure to or knowledge of any other kind of life. In Push, Sapphire gives us the voice of America's internal exiles.
To add to the relentlessness of Push, Precious' tale is...
(The entire section is 720 words.)