Q&A with Sapphire

The author whose novel inspired the film Precious discusses extreme violence and sexuality in literature and her take on trigger warnings.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

The 2015 Winter With the Writers season kicked off a day early last week with a screening of Precious at the Enzian followed by a Q&A with Sapphire. The Academy Award winning film is based on her New York Times bestselling novel Push. After the film, she answered questions ranging from representation of race to the casting choice (she thought Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique were perfectly cast as the protagonist and her mother; Paula Patton as the teacher Blue Rain, less so).

The following day, Sapphire led a master class followed by a reading from her second novel, The Kid, which tells the story of Precious’ son, Abdul Jones, who is left to navigate the foster system at a young age after the death of his mother.

Sapphire talks with a student at the Enzian before the screening of Precious. (Photo by Scott Cook) Sapphire talks with a student at the Enzian before the screening of Precious. (Photo by Scott Cook)


Laura J. Cole: Can you share a little bit about the creative process and what a day in the life of Sapphire is like?

Sapphire: Because I travel a lot, there’s not an ordinary day for me. [But when I’m writing,] I definitely try to follow my body rhythms. I’m a morning person, so when I am not traveling, I just try to wake up in the morning and hit it. A good morning is if I start writing at six and finish at nine o’clock, take a breakfast break, and then come back and do some work. That’s an ideal morning for me. I have no more brain after noon.

That’s really important to me—to honor that as part of my creative process. I need to guard my time, so no, I don’t do my doctors’ appointment at 9 o’clock and all that kind of stuff.

LJC: What inspired you to write Push and The Kid?

S: I was really driven with both novels by the circumstances that I was observing in the African-American community and just the American community in general, in terms of these issues of child abuse, poverty, neglect, and the effects of early childhood abuse and education. That was really powerful to me.

I really wanted to write about these issues, but I also wanted to write character-driven novels. I didn’t want to write just a “guilt-tripper.” I really wanted to do something that inspired empathy as opposed to guilt, that inspired some respect for these characters as opposed to pity. I think you read Push, and you have to respect Precious. In a certain type of way, you read The Kid—you fear and respect [Abdul], but these are not people you feel sorry for, which I think is demeaning. We empathize with them, we’re horrified, […] but they’re alive. They’re alive. They’re not objects of pity.

LJC: Both novels are certainly emotionally difficult books to read, but they’re also very psychologically difficult and complex. For example, I’m thinking about the chapters in The Kid where Abdul is removed from St Ailanthus and taken to live with his great-grandmother. The reader goes back and forth between what’s happening in real time and what’s going on in his head, which feels very much like a breakdown—but also a breakthrough.

S: It was both. Because he’s being so isolated and arrogant, over and over again, we see what we didn’t see with Precious. Precious is amenable to group consciousness and love and connection. This character—to reach him, we have to break him.

The great grandmother intuitively knows that and knows the truth, the story about her life, which in some ways is a story about black people’s lives. That’s part of what he’s in denial and rejection of, you know—he’s the Armani suit downtown artist, and he’s not going to want to deal with Slavery Days [what he calls his great grandmother]—literally or figuratively. But in order to be an artist or have any depth of character and to be like the people you admire—to be a Nureyev—you have to go there.

The story that she tells him, the pathos, it breaks his heart—and it breaks his heart open. And he’s able to [have his heart broken], genuinely, even though he knows to become who he needs to become, he can’t stay with this woman. He’s got to move on. But he’s a child who has very little materially, and what he’s gotten, he’s had to pay dearly for. So that is a big thing for him—to give this one precious thing that he has, his kaleidoscope, to his great grandmother who admires it.

So there are several things there that show an opening of the heart. It’s almost like in the telling of this story, we get this feeling that […] it’s almost like the salmons swimming upstream to spawn—[her telling this story] depletes her totally and wipes her out. This basically in some way is going to be the end of her life, where she’ll kind of disintegrate and someone will come find her in the apartment dead or something like that. She garners all of this energy, the last of her consciousness (because obviously she has a little dementia stuff going on), but she finds clarity to deliver this narrative before she dies because she knows that she’s talking to save his life.

Sapphire workshops student writing during the master class. (Photo by Scott Cook) Sapphire workshops student writing during the master class. (Photo by Scott Cook)

LJC: How do you get yourself into the space where you’re writing emotionally difficult scenes?

S: Well with this novel, I worked on it for so long. I don’t know if it needed to take that much time, but there were times when I couldn’t just enter back into it. The material was hard but it was also hard to write. Part of the novelistic process is that I needed to re-read some of the material and some of it I couldn’t always go back to. I literally had to close the book and go back to it. Especially the scenes of the great grandmother, not just the violent scene, but that scene of the economic deprivation of her [living] on the plantation, literally eating the dirt and all that kind of stuff. That was just awful for me to write that. That was harder in some ways than the violence—the stunting that the poverty left her with. That was difficult. She never recovers and she remains basically illiterate for the rest of her life. She has very little job options, which is not why she got in to what she got in to [prostitution], but why she stayed in it.

LJC: That part was interesting because it talks back to Push a little bit. It gave a lot of background on and insight into Precious’ mother and where she was from.

S: Exactly. So remember when the murder scene is described? Well these women who are working in these joints don’t always have babysitters. So literally Precious’ mother is behind the screen in a crib, so [Slavery Time]’s turning tricks while her baby’s there, and Precious’ mother, in addition to all the trauma she’s gone through, witnesses this murder. This is part of why she’s no good for the rest of her life. We get what Precious’ family, the females at least, have gone through.

LJC: Because there are violent, difficult scenes in both novels, I’ve seen on a couple of websites where they’ve placed trigger warnings on your work. What is your position on trigger warnings on literature?

S: I think [trigger warnings are] a cop out. I just don’t think it’s right. It’s the wrong way to approach literature and art. It’s like what are you going to do? All the great operas and stuff, what are they about? Murder.

I remember when I read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. I remember reading when she really described cliteradectomy, the actual cutting and stuff like that. I can just remember reading and at some point going to sleep. I went to sleep because I couldn’t deal with it. Then I woke up and realized time had passed and I had to bring myself back to the text. It was that painful, but I stayed with it. You know what I mean? I stayed with it.

Toni Morrison has something beautiful in one of her books. Someone is whining about something and one of the characters said, “Well if she can live it and experience it, we can surely listen to it.” So that is my take. If people have experienced it and gone through the Holocaust, if people have been cliteradectomized, I certainly can listen to it. If they lived it and wrote it down, there’s no reason why I can’t be the witness. Because the reader is a witness. The writer testifies, and we’re the witnesses to that testimony. That expression, “We bear witness,” it means it’s not easy. We’re going to bear this story, we have the courage and strength to bear it, and if we don’t… well, there are other majors that you can take aside from literature and humanities.

LJC: You described your writing as social realism. Can you elaborate on what that means? Was it a conscious effort to use that style and is that the type of writing you enjoy most?

S: I’m using and adhering to a structure of things that can happen. There’s nothing in any of my novels that hasn’t happened to someone. The welfare system exists, homelessness exists, and extreme sexual violence exists. We’re looking at Bill Cosby and decades of this madness. It may seem impossible at the time when the writer writes about it, but that’s a part of what realism is to me. It’s not just exposé or handing people these very difficult stories to get in your face. They hopefully, for me at least, in the writing, they have some social redemption.

There’s a reason why you’re being exposed to this extreme sexuality or extreme violence, and it’s so that the reader will hopefully evolve and come to a greater understanding of humanity.

LJC: Was there any particular author that influenced you while growing up or even continues to influence you? You mentioned Dostoevsky a few times this evening.

S: Well, because I think it’s so obvious in my writing—if you read the writings of course because I mention her so many times in the past—someone like Alice Walker. I think someone was trying to insult me and they said something like “Well, Push is just an urban version of The Color Purple.” And I was ecstatic. That is so cool. I feel pretty good about that, you know what I mean? Her emphasis on literacy and her emphasis on evolution out of pain through love and learning. The Color Purple was just a big book in my life. And Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved. These women were really primary for me, and poets like Lucille Clifton and Jayne Cortez and people like that. I don’t mean to slight the women, but I talked about them for so long and they’re in the book. Lucille Clifton is mentioned in Push. She’s one of the books Abdul, the baby, has. Miss Rain teaches The Color Purple. So that’s all woven into the text, and it’s obvious that those are major influences on me.

I mention [Richard] Wright and different people like Ernest Gaines because I don’t mention them in the text, so I want people to know those African-American writers meant a lot to me too. I got a lot from them. Ernest Gaines was really seminal to me because when I read A Lesson Before Dying and the education that these teachers called upon to give this man in prison—I thought about [that book] a lot in writing Push. I knew early on that I wasn’t going to have [Precious’] death in Push—that she was not going to die. But the lessons that she gets—we have so much hope for her, and she’s still a hopeful character—but her hopes are dashed [when she learns she has HIV]. It doesn’t mean that anymore, but HIV was a real death sentence for poor people, so everything is tempered by that diagnosis. The fact that learning and education are cast in a new light that they are not just the objects for middle class attainment and what you can get in a larger culture because those dreams are kind of shut off.

Education in and of itself, and the actual act of learning in itself are things that make life worth living. And Precious adheres to that and goes deeper into her learning after she learns that she has this diagnosis. So that was important to me, and I got that from Ernest Gaines. In A Lesson Before Dying, the man is condemned to die and his mother sends him to the prison like “you help Jefferson,” and the teacher’s saying, “Why should I do this? Jefferson was on his way out.” But in the process, every minute is life. And he understands that this lesson before dying that he teaches this man is the most important lesson that he’s ever taught as a teacher.

LJC: You taught for a while.

S: A long time.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

LJC: When did you become interested in psychology, history, and social issues?

S: I think those were always areas of interest in my life. I was always interested [in them], even before I was interested in literature and novels, I was always reading stuff about psychology because it was always just really interesting to me. I even thought at one point I would become a psychologist or a doctor. It still remains a core interest of mine and when I was younger, my interest was much purer than it is now. I was really interested in how the mind works. Now I’m all, “This school of psychology…” I didn’t know all that then.

That stays [with me] and I would think in a certain type of way, if a person enters into the work without that knowledge, they would probably be missing something in my writing because it would probably seem so in your face or full of gratuitous violence. So if you really didn’t understand that [Precious’] mom is in the grip of post-traumatic stress and she’s acting out, it can really seem over the top.

LJC: What advice do you have for would-be writers?

S: Read, read, and read. Read outside of class. If I had to write a paper about some of the things I read, I wouldn’t read them. Just read everything. I also use as my reading list the people I admire. I love Alice Walker, so who did she love? She loved Zora Neale Hurston, obviously, but she also loved the Brontës, Thomas Hardy. And I read those things because they influenced the people who I liked. If they’re good enough for them, they’re good enough for me. I read all of that outside of my classes.