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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 this particular style. On the page it doesn't work.
Still, as I say, there are poems in American Dreams that are splendid in their language and strength. The "Gorilla in the Midst" series is very fine, particularly "1989 cont./Gorilla in the Midst #6" and "1965 cont./Gorilla in the Midst #3." Sapphire's work is unrelenting. Fucking and being fucked (by both women and men), disembodied penises, wilding, battery, rape, drugs, betrayal, S & M, sickness and death far outweigh connection, creativity, the retrieval of memory or the power of righteousness in this book. Most of the action is played out against a sordid backdrop or is itself sordid.
Often (though not often enough) a person in American Dreams comes through so multidimensional and real as to be worth the entire reading. Such is the case of Willa Mae, the non-narrating prisoner in "There's a Window," and Leroy in "Wild Thing." I look forward to a second book by Sapphire. Something tells me she will have cut and pared by then, further honed her considerable craft and weeded out much of what now seems superfluous.
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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. ("American Dreams")
"Nobody said that what was cannot be changed," Sapphire writes in the opening poem, "Are You Ready to Rock?" This is a brave premise for a woman with a childhood of extreme sexual abuse who lives...
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in a society which values her little as a black lesbian.
American Dreams unfolds with the spectacle of a black, middle-class family gone sordid, the father attacking all his children, male and female, with a complicit mother who never wanted them standing by. These are not nice poems. But they are rarely not good poems. Sometimes the imagery weaves too far from its frighteningly concrete base, as in "Rabbit Man," and sometimes the prose is not urgent enough, as in "A New Day for Willa Mae," but the breadth of the poet's sympathy overwhelms any flaws:
now you know why with a job on Wall Street, nice white boy husband & a house in the country she tore her wrists apart & bled into the nite dying alone on the bathroom floor you had scrubbed earlier that day. now you know now you know & now that you know you can begin to heal.
"Autopsy Report 86-13504:" is a strong eulogy crafted from Sapphire's brother's autopsy, his notes, and what the poet remembers of him. "There's a Window" is a near prose piece about prison lovemaking that bursts into vulnerability as the woman with the gray crewcut reveals she is afraid of being naked in prison, and the young woman cries because it has been six months since she has seen the moon. "I was a cave girl riding a dinosaur across the steamy paleolithic terrain snatching trees with my teeth, shaking down the moon with my tongue."
The speaker insists "i am that type of girl" in "poem for jennifer, marla, tawana and me." For a woman to admit she likes sex is dangerous—in the world of poetry where only the most asexual or secretly sexual are revered (think Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop)—but especially in the everyday world that implicitly condones the rape of "that type of girl."
Sapphire attacks colonialism obliquely but at its contemporary root in "Questions for the Heart of Darkness." It's Saturday morning TV where "a bunch of black African cartoon characters with bones through their noses and huge white lips like donuts spring out of the tangled underbrush." The poem ends with "The black child feels the wind blowing backwards, turns the tv off; tries to tell her mother something."
"Strange Juice (or the murder of Latasha Harlins)" describes the shooting of a child who shoplifts in a Korean grocery. "Listen to the gasoline on the wind / Listen to my blood rhyme—drip drop on the sidewalk." Sapphire gives voice to a girl so silenced that at the trial the murderer receives only community service and probation.
American Dreams presents the spectacle of a mind creating itself out of the sacrilege of sex, the very ground of identity. As if we won't believe her or have already forgotten, Sapphire provides notes at the end on the public atrocities: the bombings in Philadelphia, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the deaths of Tawana Brawley, Lisa Steinberg, and Latasha Harlins. But the most potent validation of her own experience comes at the end of "One Day." Having avoided children all her life for fear of abusing them, and now menopausal, the speaker hears the baby upstairs cry, a child who's been taken in for money:
If it was mine, I say slowly and see the tiny child body safe in my warm brown arms If it was mine, I whisper again Maybe the baby hears me cause the crying downstairs, in my soul, stops as I hold my work, the work of a lifetime close to me.
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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 syndrome and is quickly taken away from her. A week after her second child, Abdul, is born, Precious finds herself out on the streets of Harlem, without a place to live. Not much later, she learns that her father has infected her with H.I.V.
Given these circumstances, it's no surprise that Precious often feels as if her mind has become a television set, playing and replaying videos that offer her a brief respite from the bleak realities of her daily life. In these daydreams, she is thin, not fat; white, not black; loved, not mocked.
Push, however, is not the story of a helpless or self-loathing victim. It's meant to be a story of female empowerment and triumph. Through the help of a gifted teacher named Rain, Precious learns to read and write. She learns how to write down her own experiences and turn them into poetry. She also gets hooked up with an incest survivors' support group, and a H.I.V.-positive support group. She gains friends, self-respect and the hope of one day going to college. "Push," the paramedic says to her when she's giving birth. "Push," says her teacher, when she despairs of making anything of her life.
What prevents all this from sounding as cloying as the characters' names is Precious's street-smart, angry voice, a voice that may shock readers with its liberal use of four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex, but a voice that also conjures up Precious's gritty, unforgiving world. Sapphire somehow finds lyricism in Precious's life, and in endowing Precious with her own generous gifts for language, she allows us entree into her heroine's state of mind.
Precious talks of the neighborhood addicts with "kraters like what u see wen you look at spots on the moon" on their arms, and girls in her incest support group who sit in a circle with "faces like clocks, no bombs." She speaks of time seeming "like clothes in the washing machine at laundry mat—round 'n round, up 'n down," and the television in her own head, "always static on, flipping picture."
"I'm walking across the lobby room real real slow," Precious recalls. "Full of chicken, bread; usually that make me not want to cry remember, but I feel like crying now. My head is like the swimming pool at the Y on one-three-five. Summer full of bodies splashing, most in shallow end; one, two in deep end. Thas how all the time years is swimming in my head. First grade boy say, Pick up your lips Claireece 'fore you trip over them."
Although the reader comes to feel enormous sympathy for Precious, one is constantly aware of the author standing behind the scenes, orchestrating her heroine's terrifying plummet into the abyss and her equally dramatic rescue. The first time we see Precious with a book at school, she is having difficulty sounding out the words in a picture book and learning the alphabet. Only pages later, her teacher is trying to get her to read The Color Purple in class.
For that matter, Alice Walker's ghost hovers more and more insistently over Push as the novel progresses, lending Precious's story a blunt ideological subtext. We learn that white social workers are foolish, patronizing liberals, and that men are pigs who only think about sex. Though it's easy to understand how Precious might hold all of these views, it soon becomes clear that Precious's creator, Sapphire, is also stacking the deck.
In a lengthy postscript in which Precious's classmates tell the story of their lives, we are treated to a recitation of crimes committed against women by men. Rita's father kills her mother in front of her eyes, and Rita begins working as a hooker at the age of 12. Rhonda is raped by her brother, then thrown out of the house by her mother; when she gets a job taking care of an old white man, he asks her for sexual favors. Jermaine is molested by a boy at the age of 7, then raped by a friend's father a few years later; at 19, she is assaulted by six men.
No doubt this rapid-fire sequence of horrifying stories is supposed to mean that Precious has finally found a community of friends with shared experiences. Instead, they leave the reader with the feeling that one has abruptly exited the world of the novel and entered the world of a support group. In trying to open out her heroine's story and turn it into a more general comment on society, Sapphire has made the tale of Precious decidedly less moving than it might have been.
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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 gets worse.
When Sapphire was working on the novel as a graduate writing student at Brooklyn College, her classmates would "be dissing me," she said. "These guys thought it was overkill. They'd says: 'Do you hate men? Do you hate white people?'" When the manuscript was auctioned last year, some publishers found the story exaggerated. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the novel in The New York Times, found it "affecting and manipulative all at the same time."
Only a few feet from the plain stretch of Lenox Avenue where Sapphire says that Precious lives are side streets with nice houses, hydrangea, children bicycling. The suggestion that her character represents all of Harlem makes Sapphire angry. There are children like Precious everywhere, she says. "The common kid in Harlem actually makes it," Sapphire said. "The typical underclass kid is not in trouble. But the American family as a whole is in trouble, and black people are part of America."
Push, unlike some novels by black writers who have dealt with incest, carries a message of hope: Precious, unlike the abused child in Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye, is not psychologically destroyed. Nor does she find her salvation by falling in love, as the character Celie did in The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
"This book could not have existed if I had not read Alice Walker and Toni Morrison," Sapphire said. "But Precious learns to deal the hand she's dealt." This heroine is spunky and irreverent, and she sees through grown-ups' cant. She finds help within her own community, through the vestiges of Great Society programs, from public health to literacy, that remain intact. And there is her teacher, "Miss Rain," who loves Precious and teaches her to read.
"I don't have to answer to the black middle class," Sapphire said.
It is not the first time her work has stirred indignation. Gripped by the 1989 rape and near-fatal beating of a jogger in Central Park, Sapphire wrote a poem, "Wild Thing," from the imagined point of view of a would-be rapper who commits such an attack. "I had a young black woman ask, 'How is what you are writing different from what white people are writing about black men?' I was devastated."
Then the Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, spotted the poem, which included a homoerotic passage involving Christ, in The Portable Lower East Side Queer City, a journal that received financing from the National Endowment for the Arts. He circulated the journal in Congress as part of a campaign that led to the dismissal of John E. Frohnmayer as chairman of the endowment in 1992.
At one time Sapphire might have seemed destined to write another kind of novel, about an educated child of the black working class who comes of age in the 1960's, perhaps.
She was born in Fort Ord, Calif, part of a church-oriented, tightly disciplined family. "My father was very much into being a father on the surface," said Sapphire, the second of four children. "My mother was a housewife, wanted us to have nice clothes, do well in school. They had a deep need to appear normal."
When she was 13, her mother "abandoned us" and became an alcoholic, Sapphire said.
Raised in the era of black power and student demonstrations, Sapphire began reading the work of such black poets as Sonia Sanchez and Jayne Cortez. She attended San Francisco City College, thinking she might be a doctor, but grew more interested in dance. Eventually she dropped out and, inspired by the hippie scene in San Francisco, started calling herself "Sapphire."
In 1977 she moved to New York with only $20 in her pocket, and worked as a topless dancer, becoming a prostitute, she says. She also took part in the lesbian scene. "This was going to be a way out of living your parents' life," she said.
Sapphire started writing poetry in notebooks. She published her work in feminist journals and read her poetry aloud in Village cafes.
She studied modern dance at City College, graduating with honors in 1993, and then took a job with the Children's Aid Society as "a parent-child mediator." The experience allowed her to enter the private lives of white people and black.
In 1986, Sapphire's mother died, and her brother, who was homeless, was killed. Sapphire said she began to "remember things," specifically "an incident of violent sexual abuse" by her father when she was 3 or 4 years old. She confronted him, she added, but "he said it never happened." Her father died in 1990.
Was her mother aware of such an incident? "She didn't stop it," Sapphire said, "but I don't know if she knew." Later a sister confided that she, too, had been abused by their father, she added.
Around this time, Sapphire began teaching reading to children in Harlem and the Bronx, among them many "Preciouses." "Seven years of telling me their stories! But I don't hear this story back!" she said. She enrolled in graduate school at Brooklyn College in 1993 and in 1994 American Dreams, a collection of prose and poetry, was published.
When she started work on Push, her teacher, the novelist Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, read a draft and told her she had a novel. "I didn't know what a novel is; Susan says, 'It's 150 pages!'" Translation rights to the novel have already been sold in six countries.
But "I didn't write this book for the rent," Sapphire said. "I wrote it to feel this girl's voice. As an artist you have the responsibility."
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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 Precious' persona swiftly overrides whatever irritation the reader may feel at having to puzzle through her not always convincingly misshapen words. Precious speaks in a darting stream of consciousness that ranges over the events of her life, summarizing and classifying what affronts and interests her. By her own admission she knows nothing—"How we gonna figure anything out," she says of herself and her classmates. "Weze ignerent"—yet it becomes clear to the reader that Precious is smart, perceptive, curious and capable of expressing the bitter rhythm of her days in an exceptionally evocative fashion. Her sardonic voice is blunt and unadorned, sorrowful as a foghorn and so wholly engulfing that despite its broken words it generates single-handedly the moving power of this novel. Too debased and self-loathing to reveal them to anyone else, Precious lays her undressed emotions before the reader with fervent intimacy; we fairly feel her breath in our ears.
As a young child, Precious withdraws, taunted and ridiculed by her classmates for her size, her appearance, her jumbled speech. "First grade boy say, Pick up your lips Claireece 'fore you trip over them. Call me shoe shine shinola. Second grade 1 is fat…. No boyfriend no girlfriends. I stare at the blackboard pretending." Paralyzed with shame, Precious sits mutely at the back of the classroom in a dirty dress; rather than rise and attract attention when she has need of a bathroom she stays in her seat and urinates on herself. She hears television voices in her head. Abandoned as a hopeless case, she falters at school. At 12 she gives birth to her first child—engendered by her father—on the kitchen floor, while her mother, jealous of the sexual attention her husband has turned toward Precious, savagely kicks and beats her. The infant girl, called Mongo ("short for Mongoloid"), is passed off to the care of Precious' grandmother. Precious' mother, a horribly obese ("she ain' circus size yet but she getting there"), noxiously unwashed, lazy, controlling recluse, does little but watch television and inhale the huge greasy meals she commands Precious to cook for her. She beats Precious without provocation, abuses her sexually and verbally, accuses her of stealing her husband and greedily collects the welfare checks intended for the care of Precious and her retarded child. Precious attends to her mother, awaits the next sexual assault from her father.
At 16 and expecting her second child, Precious reflects on her life. "I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see … I don't exist. Don't nobody want me. Don't nobody need me. I know who I am…. Ugly black grease to be wipe away." "My fahver don't see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside." "Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don't know how to die. Ain' no plug to pull out. 'N no matter how bad I feel my heart don't stop beating and my eyes open in the morning."
Precious countervails. While her father rapes her, she escapes into daydreams as amusing as they are heart-breaking. She imagines herself a graceful dancer in a video, slim, virginal, pretty ("like a advertisement girl on commercial") and light-skinned ("Light even more important than being skinny; you see them light-skinned girls that's big an' fat, they got boyfriends"). She imagines herself married to her white math teacher, living in "Weschesser, wherever that is," or out on a date with John Kennedy Jr. or Tom Cruise; she imagines having Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner for a mother. But her greatest dream is simply to graduate from high school and find independence, to learn to read, to become visible. Her plans for the future, remarkable by their very existence, are marked by tender hope and dauntless determination.
Suspended from the ninth grade because of her pregnancy and wary of the teachers and social workers who decide her life for her, Precious lands by chance at an alternative school, where at last one teacher reaches her, a caring black woman from California who goes by the name of Blue Rain. It is her job to teach her class of disadvantaged young women to read, but she does more: she entreats them to live in language, to write and record their dreams and stories in a journal. She introduces them to black history and culture. Precious responds, aware somehow that in knowledge and literacy lies her redemption. "You can do anything when you talking or writing," she says in wonder, "it's not like living when you can only do what you doing." Precious' first written sentence, the start of her emergence into the world, is "li Mg o mi m": Little Mongo on my mind. Suddenly Precious enjoys school. The accounts of what goes on in Ms. Rain's motley classroom prove the most vivid and entertaining sections of the novel. Together the students read Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, which demands great effort on Precious' part. "Most of it I can't read myself," she says. "But how Ms Rain hook it up I am getting something out the story. I cry cry cry you hear me, it sound in a way so much like myself."
Push is a novel about acceptance, perseverance, self-discovery and the ways in which the three are intertwined; Sapphire has managed to work into her short book a number of divisive social issues: homosexuality, class prejudice, racism, welfare, misogyny, imperialism, drug abuse—issues difficult to treat without preaching or cynicism. In Precious' unsophisticated hands they are surveyed with irony and subtlety, yet when Blue Rain enters, the social commentary turns somewhat proselytizing. Indeed, as the catalyst for Precious' awakening Ms. Rain is an inexplicably underdeveloped character with some surprisingly wooden dialogue. But this is one of the novel's few flaws. (Another is a brief section early on when the narrative moves for no apparent reason out of the first person and into a decidedly more eloquent third person, which nonetheless slips erratically and puzzlingly back into Precious' rudimentary speech patterns. Perhaps we're meant to understand this as a future, more literate Precious portraying herself and exercising her own notions about the freedom and flexibility of writing. Whatever the case, the interlude is distracting and its purpose unclear.) In her journal Precious writes poetry and heartfelt letters to Ms. Rain, and Ms. Rain responds with enthusiasm both over-earnest and oddly undistinguished; nevertheless, as their relationship grows, so grows Precious. Upon the birth of her second child, a healthy boy, Precious leaves her mother's apartment and takes her beloved son to a halfway house. Things improve until Precious discovers that her father is dead of AIDS and that she is H.I.V. positive. Her brave response to this news is the measure of all she has learned.
Without benefit of intricate plot or beautiful language, masterly structure or terribly complex characters, Sapphire has created in Push an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling from a girl who should long ago have had all the feeling knocked out of her.
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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 by her equally depraved mother, who keeps the young girl virtually trapped in her own home, feeding the mother's culinary and sexual appetites: "She ain' circus size yet but she getting there," Precious notes.
Although right-wingers might dismiss the real-life Preciouses of this world as the Willie Hortons of welfare, Sapphire gives the fictional Precious something that surveys and case studies do not—a mind, a heart and a ferocious rage to survive that ignite the book and make it strangely compelling for all of the horror Precious relives in the telling.
Precious finds salvation when she is expelled from Harlem's P.S. 146 and enrolls in an alternative school, Each One/Teach One. Sensing the opportunity to escape from her abusive mother, Precious must push aside the memories of cruel molestation swimming in her head—the images she carries of herself as invisible, black and ugly, her fear of becoming a target of ridicule—and make her way into the classroom that first day:
"I takes in air through my nose, a big big breath, then I start to walk slow to the back. But something like birds or light fly through my heart. An' my feet stop. At the first row. An' for the first time in my life I sits down in the front row." Precious' guide out of her living hell is Blue Rain, the instructor in her pre-G.E.D. reading class, who encourages the teenager to keep a journal. Her initial entries are so indecipherable that Rain transcribes the words the badly abused girl can barely form: "li Mg o mi m" (Little Mongo on my mind), a pained reference to her retarded firstborn, always on the young mother's mind.
Astute readers will draw parallels between Precious' emerging identity and language skills and those of Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Sapphire almost invites the comparison when she places Walker's novel in Precious' bookcase, and later liberally quotes Walker's characters, along with the poetry of Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. But while it is interesting to see how Walker, Hughes and novelist Audre Lorde influence the fictional Precious, Sapphire could learn much from these masters—especially when it comes to creating an internally consistent black dialect for Precious to speak and write.
As it stands, Push is wildly inconsistent in its narrative voice and use of language. The criticism, however, is leveled reluctantly and with much sympathy for the author's dilemma: How do you write a book about a protagonist who can barely read or write? The author's solution is to mostly write in Precious' voice, although there is a lengthy section of the first chapter that inexplicably—and annoyingly—shifts to a distant third-person narrator.
Sapphire's attempt to replicate her character's speech on the page is even more unsettling. In Push, Precious sometimes drops the final G (as in "gettin'"), sometimes not. In some passages she says "that's" and later "thas." Occasionally, the conceit works to great effect—it makes perfect sense that Precious wouldn't want to know how to spell the reviled words "mother" and "father" over the names of heroes Louis Farrakhan, Harriet Tubman and Alice Walker. But trying to figure out why she can spell "Mongoloid," "intercourse" or "dungeon" and not "electric" interferes too frequently with the intense narrative that Sapphire works hard to achieve.
This is a dilemma other writers have handled with success. The well-crafted and well-edited novels of Walker, J. California Cooper, A.J. Verdelle's "The Good Negress" and the poetry of Hughes solved the problem by developing a grammar consistent in usage and context albeit unfamiliar to some readers.
Another shortcoming in Push is the lack of narrative balance. The scenes of Precious' torment at the hands of her parents are retold in horrific detail and searing imagery. But her hard climb upward to even the middle of life's crystal stair—to borrow, as does the author, from Hughes' famous poem "Mother to Son"—seems almost remotely experienced by comparison.
Still, the novel is intense and unflinching in its portrayal of abuse suffered by women and children. To her credit, Sapphire provides much-needed balance and a sense of triumph in Push through a highly charged scene at an incest survivors' group late in the book. There is also an appendix, "Life Stories," which includes excellent poetry by Precious and the writing of other students that opens up the narrative, revealing the diverse lives of the young women who have slipped through society's illusory safety net. For this reader, being privy earlier to the transformation of these characters—by experiencing their interaction and writing—would have made me care even more about their fates, making their achievement ultimately more moving and satisfying.
Regardless of the controversy that may surround the book's themes, perspective or language, Push is an impressive yet deeply flawed debut. One hopes Sapphire will continue to nurture her original voice, while incorporating difficult themes like incest and abuse—which she also explored in her earlier poetry collection, American Dreams—into a broader, vision of the black and human experience.
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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 told in often uncomfortably intimate first person. We are inside Precious' head and body, inside her anger and pain, inside her awe and occasional disassociation from reality. When we see Precious, we see her through her own eyes, through her take on how others see her. It is to Sapphire's credit that Precious is able to give us vital glances of herself without being overly self aware.
Like American Dreams, which scandalized with its raw, first-person description of the Central Park gang rape that introduced the word "wilding" to America, Push will also shock with its frank descriptions of incest and the ambivalence of Precious' desire.
But it should shock as well for its exposé of a world in which children are born without the slightest hope of a caress, never mind nurturing, an education or a job. In the world Sapphire describes, there is often little to distinguish the parents from the children, and virtually nothing divides wrong from right.
Sapphire begins Precious' story as she discovers she is pregnant again. She had her first child at age 12, a girl with Down's syndrome whom she calls Little Mongo. Like Little Mongo, the new baby's father is Precious' own father. The babies are the result of his constantly raping her.
Precious' mother, who is not married to her father, is aware of the situation but, although she has wild bouts of jealousy (yes, jealousy) about it, tolerates it, using Precious as bait so he will come to their miserable, stinky apartment. (She also uses Precious, and Little Mongo, who doesn't live with them, to get more money out of welfare.) No sooner does he leave, though, than she beats the daylights out of Precious, blaming her for stealing her man. On at least one occasion, Precious lands in the hospital as a result of her mother's blows.
As Precious attempts to negotiate her world, we discover she is barely literate. She has managed to get through elementary school and most of junior high with good grades but can't distinguish one page from another in a textbook. How does something like that happen? With just a handful of scenes, Sapphire deftly demonstrates how even the best intentions can contribute to this cycle of despair.
In the midst of all this madness there are good people who make a difference in Precious' life. The most vital is Blue Rain, a teacher at an alternative school who takes Precious into her pre-GED class. Ms. Rain, as her students mostly call her, is a committed teacher, part social worker, part angel, who helps Precious and a handful of other wounded and deprived young women realize that, even in hell, there are choices.
Ms. Rain is no Sidney Poitier, though, and Push is not a contemporary To Sir With Love, Although there are many lessons learned, there are no family reconciliations, no tidy resolutions and no happy ending in Push. If Precious' world still seems like a Stygian creek, at least now she has a paddle.