Finding hope in unlikely places
In a sequel to 'Push,' Sapphire tells the story of Precious' son
It has been 15 years since you wrote about Precious Jones in Push. What inspired you to tell her son's story? Was this something you had in mind before the movie version of Precious' story came out?
The Kid is not a sequel in a traditional sense in that we don’t enter into and follow up on the life of Precious Jones. It is a sequel in the sense it continues to look at the profound and devastating effects of AIDS on the African-American community. I would posit that AIDS/HIV has hit us as hard as slavery in some ways and that the way AIDS has been dealt with in the black community has been directly related to our disenfranchised position in American society. African-American women who were diagnosed with AIDS at the time Push was being written were many times more likely to be dead within months of their diagnosis than gay white men who were diagnosed at the same time. I believe that was the result of racism. People like the gay white male activist Andrew Sullivan said things to the effect of, if there is to be a triage for the dispensing of antiviral drugs they should go first to gay white men who have and do contribute so much to society as opposed to poor blacks who don’t even know what has hit them. One reason I wrote Push was to show how “precious” those poor blacks might be if given an opportunity to live. The Kid resonates on many levels and has many reasons for being and indeed one of them is to show the continuing impact of the loss of our “precious” one(s).
I started working on The Kid (or The History of the Future as I was calling it, among other things, back then) many years ago. So “the kid” was definitely there before the movie, but I might have still been “working on my novel” to this day had it not been for many outside fortuitous events in my life; the movie was definitely among them.
The Kid can be a rather grueling book. How did you prepare psychologically to write it?
I don’t know if one prepares psychologically so much as one prepares intellectually and even physically. I remember a favorite professor at Brooklyn College, James Merritt, who had written about the Romantics poets, talking excitedly about actually walking around Grasmere Lake where Wordsworth and Coleridge had walked. That became important to me, the concreteness of physical action—walking with attention—I walked Harlem. There’s a fascinating book (dated, but it served my purposes) The Geology of New York that gives you a sense of what you’re walking on, what’s underneath your feet, underneath the concrete, when you walk the streets of New York. Evidently there’s a fault that runs through northern Manhattan, Harlem. And even though I had lived in Harlem, I lined up with the German and Japanese tourists and took walking tours of Harlem trying to find out the places Langston Hughes had lived and where this or that historic place had been. I worked with an eighth-grade teacher’s earth science class teaching them how journals could be used in the middle-school science classroom and went on a city “earth walk” with them.
I read texts like Shengold’s Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation, Brunner/Mazel Clinical Psychiatry Series No. 1: The Child Molester, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, The Betrayal Trauma: The Logic Of Forgetting Childhood Abuse by Jennifer J. Freyd, and Young Men Who Have Sexually Abused by A. Durham from the NSPCC/Wiley series that explores current issues relating to the prevention of child abuse. (There is no dearth of written material out there, as a fiction writer and non-clinician the challenge is choosing what to read not finding material to read.) I went to school; I enrolled in seminars on the works of Richard Wright and Dostoevsky. I’ve studied dance. I spent hours at the Bodies exhibit when it opened. I have taken college level classes in anatomy and physiology, anatomy and kinesiology, choreography and dance history. Zora Neal Hurston said, "to know there you got to go there"! I went to Pat Hall, the famous Afro-Haitian dance teacher, and to Bernadine Jennings (who taught for years at the dance center in Harlem mentioned in the book) and took their classes. I bought tickets to Ailey, ABT, Savion Glover. I went to see snippets of films that showed African-American tappers (who never got the big movies parts like Fred Astaire and hence their contributions to American dance while imitated were never acknowledged).
All that, I think was a “preparation”, and while not “psychological”, it laid a foundation so that the hard psychological truths that would be revealed in writing the novel had a context and were not reduced to exhibitionism.
How did you capture the voice and thoughts of a teenaged boy so well?
I think it was desire. I wanted him to be known! And the only way he was going to be known, this particular little boy, was through me. So, again I put in the time, I listened. I wasn’t always sure I had “it," the voice; but I kept working. This was a place I had to have faith, I mean I couldn’t know what it is to be a little boy but I had to believe a boy’s voice could come to me or allow itself to be “captured” by me. I also put the focus on connecting with him when he was little and not so filled with rage and hurt. So when I did have to show him engaged in some very questionable and outright bad behaviors I, as a writer, was also connected to that part of him that had been an innocent little boy
Why is Abdul drawn to dance (as opposed to astrophysics or anything else)?
Almost from the moment Abdul’s mother dies his body goes from being a location of connection and pleasure to being one of pain, betrayal, and disconnection. One of the things I wanted to do was show how pain breaks the connection one has to one’s own body and by extension the connection one has to the world. But I also wanted to show how that connection can be rebuilt, re-established, and nurtured. I did not think “astrophysics” or even painting or photography (for a minute I had thought of Abdul having a camera or notebook and “recording” his environment and through that means understanding his life). These things might have been interesting but would they have restored the site—the child body, the black male body, his body—that had been the recipient of so much pain. While astrophysics probably wasn’t going to do that for him, dance did.
Dance enables him to bear reality: “once I get warmed up and moving I’ll get over the pain.”
Dance takes him out of a painful past and a frightening future and connects him to the now: “You’re off Abdul! Listen to the drum, come down on the one!” [His teacher tells him] “Shit! I get back on the beat put everything out of my head except the drums.”
Dance connects him with himself: “I move on out, dancing fast. . . . I go with what I feel . . .” [emphasis added]
Through dance the primal connection with his mother/the earth/ humankind is, if only fleetingly, restored: “My body is not stiff or tight, [when he’s actually dancing as opposed to just warming up or doing exercises] I’m like my mom, soft, dark, and beautiful . . . I feel her kiss, kiss her lips . . .”
Most importantly dance defies the authority of the trauma that’s been inflicted on him to be the sole determiner of his reality. Dance gives him back, in a healthy way, some of the power abuse has robbed him of: “[dancing] my body is not a stranger, not a traitor tricked by white homos in black robes, not a little boy in a hospital bed . . . here [dancing] my body is my own . . . here I got a mother.”
Why did you name the school St. Ailanthus? Isn’t that the name of a tree?
Most Catholic schools or institutions are named after saints. Had I named the school in the novel after a real saint it might have looked as if I was pointing fingers at a specific school or boy’s home which I most decidedly was not. I think for most readers St Ailanthus will just seem to be a saint they’ve never heard of before.
Ailanthus is a tree, also known as the Tree of Heaven, it is the tree referred to in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ailanthus has also been called the Ghetto Palm because it’s frequently found in areas where few trees can survive. It is one of the most pollution-tolerant of tree species; evidently its leaves absorb sulfur dioxide. It can withstand cement dust, mercury, and coal tar. The Tree of Heaven thrives in hell. Unfortunately it is a bit of hell itself, actually earning the nickname Tree from Hell because it is malodorous, aggressively invasive and hard to eradicate, and its roots produce a poison that inhibits the growth of other plants.
The end feels like a cliffhanger. Any plans for a sequel?
Actually I don’t see the last chapter or the ending as a “cliffhanger." It’s not a happily ever after or he dies or is doomed etc. The reader goes through a dark night of the soul with Abdul in a real or imagined place of ever lit and blindingly bright darkness. With the help of Dr See Abdul confronts the only part of the vicious cycle abuse he has total control over, that which he does to others. We never know what is the truth or what are his guilt ridden tortured imaginings, but a confession of sorts emerges, whether it is “real” or whether the events if his past have filled him with a need to construct a false reality where he has the power to be as brutal to others as they have been to him.
Too much happens at the end to talk about right now, but he is freed from the real or imagined hell he finds himself in. One of his last acts before he is freed, inadvertent though it was, was to shatter the artificial lights (and those could symbolize almost any of the false gods he’s been oppressed by) that have cut him off from nature (his own and the world’s!). When the book ends he’s free to really be an artist (or anything else he wants to be), something “Slavery Days” (his great-grandmother) and his mother never had a chance to do.
You're also a poet. Do you still write poetry, or do you consider yourself more of a novelist now?
I used to think of myself as a poet who wrote a novel. Now I think of myself as a really old “emerging” novelist. I’m making fun of myself there, but seriously, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, God willing, write stories.
Both The Kid and Push deal with the legacy of abuse. Judging by your writing, it would seem that you believe breaking free of that legacy is close to impossible. Why do you feel compelled to tell these sorts of stories?
Quite to the contrary, I feel it is entirely possible to break free of the legacy of abuse. It is possible but not easy. I feel that one way to break free of the legacy of abuse is to tell the story. Silence is not just a collaborator with evil; it is, I believe, a perpetrator, of evil.