Sapphire's Push: Merciless Honesty

7 years ago

I first became aware of the buzz about Sapphire's debut novel Push in 1995 or 1996. The novel gained attention for its distressing storyline but possibly more because the novelist received a $500,000 advance, a sum unheard of in those days for a first novel. Well, unheard of except that another writer that year had received even more, Jacquelyn Mitchard.

The two women appeared on a morning news show. I think it was Good Morning America, Sapphire for Push and Mitchard for The Deep End of the Ocean, a novel also notable as the first pick for Oprah's newly-established book club. Mitchard's book terrified suburban mothers, pricking their worst fears, the disappearance of a young child. "How could she even write such horror?" people asked. That was more than a decade before incidents like that of the non-missing Balloon Boy glued some of us to our television sets.

And Push was another ghetto tale, but one about a girl, the victim of unspeakably heinous child abuse. Beatings, cruel words, incest.

So, both new novelists had hit the jackpot and both stories involved children in peril, but after that commonality, these stories diverged. Just three years later, The Deep End of the Ocean was released in theaters as a movie starring Michelle Pfieffer. It's taken 3 plus 10 years for Push to hit the screen.

The movie opened in limited release this weekend in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. On November 20, it opens in theaters coast to coast and stars Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey, introducing Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe as the main character, Claireece Precious Jones. The filmmaker behind the movie is Lee Daniels.

I probably remember when Deep End of the Ocean entered bookstores because of the publicity over Oprah starting a book club, and I bought the book. However, I don't remember when Push landed on bookshelves that same year. Even if I'd noticed its arrival, I'm not sure I would have read Push back then. I was married and living in the suburbs, a relatively young mother with my own teen daughter and a six-year-old son. I avoided gritty urban realism whenever possible and had been comfortably doing so for at least five years before Sapphire sold Push.

Did I see Boyz in the Hood, 1991? Despite the talk about its greatness, no. I'd heard it was phenomenal, realistic, that it told the truth about "the struggle," caused people to weep for our black boys and curse at the screen, and that's exactly why I skipped that movie. I didn't want to see misery.

And so, hearing that Push is about an obese, dark-skinned African-American teen coming of age in Harlem who is physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by not only her father but also her mother; learning that the character at 12 goes into labor on the kitchen floor, pregnant with her own father's child, while her mother kicks her and calls her names and that her the baby has Down Syndrome, a term Precious mispronounces as Down Sinder; hearing that this baby is only the first, that this 12-year-old has a healthy child four years later at 16 also by her father, and that she is nearly illiterate despite sitting in schools for 10 years, I was disinclined to read Push.

Or, as I might say if I talked more like Precious, F**k that! Who wants to read that sh*t and trap pictures in they head of m*therf**krs f**king they own children? F**k that b*tch Sapphire too. I'm not g'on read that, don't care how good she with words and money she make. That sh*t's nasty. NASTY.

Or as another character in the book, Jermaine, a young lesbian actually writes, "I'm with Rita, on that some things don't need to be written about." And then she gives the narrowest glimpse of what it felt like to be beaten and most likely raped by six men, but nothing she tells her readers is as horrible as what happened to Precious for the first 16 years of her life.

The novel Push is humanity stripped down to its worst moments flashing you behind locked doors its misused genitalia. It is also humanity lifted to its best moments of perseverance, hope, and faith. Some stories must be written and should be read.

But reading Push made me wish I could un-remember what I'd read. Reading Push made me scream at no one in particular while alone in my room. I cried watching a clip of the movie and Mo'Nique on Oprah, not because Oprah or Mo'Nique said anything I hadn't heard before but because I was in the middle of reading the book. Monique plays the mother in Precious, Mary Jones. When I say "cried," I mean shoulder-shaking sobbing prompted by memories of scenes in the novel.

And can I ever enjoy sex again after reading about a confused Claireece Precious Jones having her nipples bitten, being slapped on the butt as a sexual playmate, told "you know you love it," and having orgasms beneath her big, foul-smelling father or being "felt up" on the sofa by her mother? Probably. I can overcome these images one day, but most likely not any time soon. But how does a Precious Jones overcome them?

Precious is both a fictional character and non-fictional because we have real children in this world, victims of incest, who face this kind of abuse daily. To live a better life, they must overcome what actually happened to them, not what they read in a book, and we should hope they grow as Precious did to one day, after years of sexual abuse, to heal enough to want to know what it feels like to make love in ways that are loving.

But there's so much more going on in this book than incest. The author weaves a psychological web that sticks to the spirit.

Sapphire's Writing in Push

Sapphire writes the way writers are told to write in creative writing classes everywhere. They are told "write what you know," and "tell the truth," but "show, don't tell." The novel Push reflects parts of the author's life, rises with brutal honesty, and is one long showing of the kind of life that goes unseen. As the main character says often, she's invisible. But Sapphire makes Precious Jones visible to us in simple language charged with brute strength, with images so tight women incest survivors in a support group are described as having faces that look like bombs that wake Precious up to see herself: "I am a bomb" and perhaps us to see how we're all endangered when we fail to diffuse with help the bombs built in a basement called child abuse.

From the 1996 book review in the New York Times, "A Cruel World, Endless Until a Teacher Steps In:"

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.

... 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. (Michiko Kakutani's NYT review of Push)

From an interview with Sapphire:

There are many people who wish Sapphire would be silent. Those who witnessed her sexual abuse as a child. Those who are affronted by portrayals of black pathology. Those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality, bisexuality, genocide and rape. There are moments when Sapphire herself wishes Sapphire would be quiet.

"There are times when I've felt so violated [by criticism of my art] that sometimes I've wished I hadn't said something," she admits. "But the price of silence is great, you know? The price of silence is suicide [or] a lifetime of depression." And the real deal is this: if Sapphire were silent many of us would remain comfortably ignorant about abuse, violence and the ramifications of both. (Euroweb, 2002)

The story is true despite being a work of fiction. She deals with ignorance, colorism, black self-hate, the complexities of embracing pride in blackness as presented by Louis Farrakhan which gives rise to beliefs like "crack is not the problem but crackers," the bigotry we nurture to feel superior to others like gays, the isolation of illiteracy and poverty, tricks of the welfare trade and trade in welfare system trickery, mirrors of sexual orientation, and definitions of manhood. You read about this girl fighting to learn to read, her insane mother, depraved father, the caring teacher Ms. Rain, illiterate students, and incest survivors, and if you've been some of the places I've been, you admit these people are real.

Sapphire has an ear for how people from Precious's environment speak. I won't deny for the sake of protecting ethnic egos that I've heard people pronounce "mother and father" as "muhver and fahver," but the author doesn't write such a dialect to shame anyone. In fact, through the teacher Ms. Rain it's suggested that among her many other challenges, Precious may have an undiagnosed hearing problem, which is but another sign that she has been neglected all her life, never cherished.

And there's Precious's wishing she were white and thin, her fear that she may be like her mother--stuck, dumb, and ugly--her questions to the universe asking why couldn't she have had "normal" parents, a father that didn't rape her and make her HIV positive, and her heartbreaking talk that reveals to us no one has ever loved this child to a place where she can believe she is her name until she meets a teacher who cares, and this doesn't happen until age 16, almost grown.

Sapphire sugar coats nothing, protects no institution, coddles no belief system that's contributed to harming Precious Jones. She doesn't cloak black people and say we're all doing well or redeem us at the end in a singing church service. She doesn't declare all mothers sanctified by virtue of a womb nor lock the crippled and crazies in the attic until they're healed in the final scene, and perhaps that's one of the reasons some black people despise her work.

"I remember I was doing a radio interview at WBAI and an older African-American woman who was supposed to be an impartial person, a part of the group of people interviewing me, came up to me and told me I was a tool of the white man and the only reason I was being promoted was because ["Push"] showed a disintegrating black family situation," Sapphire recalls. Another interviewer at the station then proceeded to make fun of her name on the air. (Euroweb, 2002)

While some readers only see the ugliness in Push, there's humor and beauty in the midst of the novel. Some of the ways Precious Jones strings together adjectives to describe people she dislikes will make you laugh. Her journey toward self-revelation and acceptance will make you smile and grab a tissue. Her determination to teach her second child, a healthy boy despite how he was conceived, to read will give you hope.

The author splashes more literary colors on her word canvas with irony, allusions, clear metaphors, and crafty juxtapositions such as the name "Precious" versus how this child is treated; a mother accusing a child of taking "her man" from her who is the girl's father who is raping her and who is in fact not married to the mother at all but to someone else; descriptions of "crackheads" being a discredit to "the race" as though being a crackhead is a conscious decision--as though blackness is easily explained in Harlem where Marcus Garvey's room is rented without heat; a teen groping for freedom from her parents' sins against her while learning of Harriett Tubman and the Underground Railroad and seeing her first real glimpse of freedom in the house of the dream keeper, Langston Hughes; and the puzzle that illiterate black people exist, growing up in the cradle of the Harlem Renaissance, 60 years after the height of that black literary and artistic triumph; and finally that the book to which the author must have guessed her novel would be compared is frequently mentioned.

Sapphire makes no apologies for the strong correlation her story has to Alice Walker's The Color Purple. In fact, it's Precious's favorite book, one she discusses with her teacher Ms. Rain, who tells Precious that some people don't like Walker's novel because the ending is not realistic. It's too neat and happy.

No one will accuse Push of having a neat and happy ending, and yet its ending is not tragic. It holds readers to a sense of light amidst darkness and perhaps will leave with those struggling to overcome horrific childhoods or other wounds the will to "push" beyond their obstacles. I'm glad I read the book even though its images haunt me and force me to recall that somebody, somewhere, really lives like Precious Jones.

Push Reviews by Bloggers:

All in all, this was a hard story of a child’s struggle. It made me smile at times to see her persevere and to read about her dedication to her son. But, most of all, it made me feel disgusted. As a parent, I just couldn’t fathom two people conceiving, and giving birth to a child only to abuse her in that way. Even when she was “rid” of her parents she still lost, in my opinion, because her father left her with a disease that will affect the rest of her life.

  • Jeanine at Write On says the book blew her mind.

More on the movie, Precious:

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are the movie's executive producers, both prominent figures who have publicly admitted that they were abused as children. The two are good friends, and Oprah says she doesn't have many of those.

Gabourey Sidibe, star of Precious, her and interview at profile on

Push vs. Precious at Feministing

Given how pivotal negotiating representation is to Push's rendering of Precious' story, I was a little underwhelmed to notice one glaring discrepancy between a character in the book and a character in the movie. In the book, the description of Blue Rain, the half-messiah, half-educator that delivers Precious from the bondage of illiteracy and abuse is as follows: "She dark, got nice face, big eyes, and...long dreadlocky hair." (39-40) This character in the movie is played by Paula Patton, a light-skinned African American woman with straightened hair. By no means do I doubt the talent of Patton, but it means something that the directors chose to cast one of the most central characters of the film against Sapphire's original description.

The blogger also wants to see how the movie handles Ms. Rain's sexuality. In the book the character is a lesbian who confronts Precious about her bigotry against gays, which is cultivated through the girl's admiration for Farrakhan.

Alicia Villarosa at The Root to Precious's star: "Congrats on the role of a lifetime, Gabourey Sidibe. Self-esteem is a beautiful thing. But we should celebrate your performance, not your size. Obesity is a national epidemic." (Villarosa makes good points regarding health, but why is she so angry about Sidibe feeling good about herself for a moment. Is it honest concern?)

A review of the movie at Colorlines by Juell Stewart. My review of the review is that the writer doesn't seem to realize the movie is based on a book and so she spends time criticizing the director for his presentation of the black mother. I mean, she knows it's based on a book, but seems not to have read the book and so her critique, while she thinks it's of the movie and files under "black matriarch as villain," is really a critique of Sapphire's representation of an abusive mother. A political buzz words buzz words review that is excerpted at Diary of an Anxious Black Woman. ABW did read Push and found the portrayal of Mary Jones, the abusive mother, "problematic" and says the movie has an "investment in poverty porn."

Find out if/when the movie Precious shows in your area.

Nordette Adams is a CE and the African-American Books Examiner. You may keep up with her writing at Her411.

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