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Sapphire’s first novel, Push, is a regular selection for my Introduction to Women’s Studies classes. Students enjoy reading the novel and watching, on their own, the film, Precious directed by Lee Daniels, with its major stars. Often we discuss the movie’s fidelity to the novel and where it diverges, thinking about how the two forms of artistic expression work differently. More importantly, however, we discuss the important questions Push raises about literacy, poverty, and AIDS. Some of the best discussions have examined the ways that Precious is literate as well as the ways that she isn’t. Push challenges us to think about what illiteracy means, particularly for African-Americans, and who has a stake in people being illiterate. I’m aware of the challenges of teaching Push; I’m a white woman living in a comfortable home that I own. I teach students from a variety of racial-ethnic backgrounds and from a variety of class backgrounds; most of them, however, have not encountered severe poverty. I regularly ask myself, as some critics contend, is this poverty porn? My answers vacillate. I appreciate these critiques of Push and understand the jaundiced eye with which some approach it. Yet, I return to Push for its characters and language, for the fierce and difficult world it creates, for its unrelenting and unforgiving focus on challenging subjects. Like my students, I was excited for Sapphire’s second novel. Like them, I wanted to find out what happened to Abdul.
The Kid answers the question “what happened to Abdul?” though the answers are not easy. The Kid, published at the beginning of July 2011, is not a beach read, but it is a stunning achievement for Sapphire. Two things distinguish The Kid from Push. Sapphire’s writing—her craft and technique—has leaped forward in breathtaking ways. Second, The Kid raises vexing questions about sexuality, which I think, makes it one of the important queer books this year.
The style that characterized Push is present in The Kid. Sapphire reasserts her ability to write through the consciousness of a young person, deploying language and dialect singular to the characters, Precious in Push and Abdul in The Kid. The leap forward for Sapphire as a writer is three-fold. First, the plot of The Kid is more complex. Although the novel appears to have a direct narration, in fact, the details of the plot emerge slowly through the mind and perceptions of Abdul. Without being either coy or formulaic, Sapphire reveals a plot with multiple twists and turns through extraordinary attention to time, details, and pacing. At times the revelations are stunning, at other times devastating, but always there is an unfolding plot that drives the narrative. Second, Sapphire’s lyrical prose, present in Push, is refined further in The Kid. Alternating between moments of extraordinary compression and others of lush ramblings, much like the mind of a teenager, the prose in The Kid dazzles. Incantation, stream of consciousness, and humor are all present. The Kid brings lyricism to realism and, at times, even takes flights into magical realism. There are passages in The Kid that reminded me of Toni Morrison.
Finally, Sapphire works with extraordinary sensitivity as she plumbs the connections between seemingly disparate emotions. In some of the most brutal moments of the story, she delivers extraordinary humanity while still acknowledging its limits. For instance, when Abdul returns to Harlem Hospital to retrieve his jacket, he has a terrible gash on his face. Without officially checking him in for treatment, a nurse has a student give him stitches; then she gives him a bag with clothing. When Abdul realizes he has a new pair of black leather pants and a watch, he thinks, “I wanna run back and give her a hug, thank her, or do something! But I don’t want to get her in trouble. Shit, probably everything she did was illegal! But shit, it was right.” The nurse’s actions delight Abdul, but leather pants and a watch aren’t going to help him navigate his new life in a roach-invested apartment with his great-grandmother, who he calls “Slavery Days.” In this way the nurse’s action is deeply ironic, but it is also profoundly human. Multi-layered meanings are where Sapphire excels. In Sapphire’s hands, humanity is never saccharine, nor is it life changing. Moments of humanity often animate moral tensions within the novel—and in the world.
So from the perspective of craft, The Kid is dazzling. From the perspective of content, The Kid is deeply disturbing–and in Sapphire’s way, it is unrelenting. What happens to Abdul? Precious is dead as the novel opens, and Abdul is sent to a foster home where he is beaten and raped, then to a Catholic orphanage, where he finds a haven for education and his own ambitions as an adult, but also more sexual abuse where he is both victim and perpetrator. With that narrative, we are not even halfway through the book. Difficult. Yes. Unrelenting, yes, but Sapphire explores each of these situations – and the others in the book – from the perspective of Abdul, and we are confronted with difficult questions about adolescent sexuality. What constitutes consent? What constitutes rape? Who are perpetrators? Who are victims? What is gay? What is queer? Is Roman as an older gay man exploiting the younger Abdul? Is Abdul gay? Is gayness situational? How do we understand sexuality as a site of both pleasure and danger for adolescents? For ourselves?
These questions are posed indirectly throughout the book; there are no easy answers. This is Sapphire’s brilliance. In a world that wants easy formulations of good (gay people like straight people) and right (sexuality only between consenting adults) and just (bad people are punished), most of us live in a world that defies epigrams. We live in a world that programs us to desire simple truths but delivers us complexity. We want vibrant, organized rainbows or at least the clarity of black and white; we get gray. Sapphire renders the gray palette not as a spectacle but as a rich, multi-layered monochromatic rainbow.
Near the end, when Abdul turns eighteen and is no longer subject as a juvenile to the state, our heart begins to cheer, but then he is arrested and detained in a mental institution. In recounting the events that led to his detention, Abdul says, ““I don’t know anything after that,” I tell him. It’s the truth.” If there is a message to take away from The Kid, this may be it. I don’t know anything. It’s the truth.
The Kid isn’t a book of joy or the resilience of the human spirit; it doesn’t lend itself to Hollywood tropes. Though I argue neither did Push, or the film Precious. The Kid is an extraordinary artistic achievement. After the success of her first book, Sapphire buckled down and wrote an even better second book. In The Kid, she challenges readers with difficult questions, difficult situations, and painful experiences. This is fiction at its best. Not easy, not fun, not light, but well crafted and deeply meaningful.
The Penguin Press
Hardcover, 9781594203046, 374pp