PHILADELPHIA — She had to kill off Precious.

That was what Sapphire, the 60-year-old author of the 1996 underground classic “Push,” the novel that was the basis for the unflinching movie “Precious,” concluded.

The California-born literacy teacher, poet, and author had no choice, given her commitment to social realism: An HIV-infected black woman in the 1980s would not have lived long enough to make it past the first page of her sequel, “The Kid” (Penguin Press).

So, the new book, published Tuesday, begins with Precious’ funeral.

“At the time Precious is diagnosed with HIV, African-American women who were diagnosed with HIV were dying at a higher rate than white gay men,” said Sapphire. “For Precious to have made it as long as she did, to age 27, was a miracle.”

Social realism only begins to get at the way Sapphire approaches her work.

Though some have taken issue with her portrayals of urban African-American characters — an obese, sexually abusive and predatory welfare cheat, in the case of Mo’Nique’s Oscar-winning role as Precious’ mother in the movie — her work confronts incest, abuse, poverty, cruelty and pain with a steely-eyed, full-frontal daring.

“The Kid,” which focuses on Abdul Jones, Precious’ son, similarly won’t look away.

The novel covers familiar ground. Sapphire writes sexually graphic scenes involving young people — who are both abused (by priests, family members and others) and abusers — that can be tough going. The question is whether Abdul can move beyond that to find love and salvation through art.

In Sapphire’s writing, the inner life of her characters is often at odds with the harshness of their experience. In their minds, they progress from defilement to purity, from guilt to innocence, from the present back or forward.

In “The Kid,” Abdul has these thoughts during an otherwise uncomfortably graphic scene: ” … Thinking of Christ and the D train going across the bridge, me and my mother, January night the whole city cold and lit up, fireworks going off across the water like the end of loneliness.

“For a minute I’m who I was and who I will be, a little boy and a man, in the last inning and I’m winning … it’s my birthday, Mommy is bringing me ice cream and cake.”

“We see how the human mind works,” said Sapphire, who is surprisingly reticent about the details of her own personal life.

“He’s undergoing some type of traumatic situation, he remembers Precious taking him on the bus, going down to the Port Authority, to go upstate to see trees and stars.

“We really get to see her appear over and over again as his last angel. Only through the processes of dance can he reclaim his body and his innocence.”

People assume that her life story is the basis for that of Precious, the illiterate, obese, traumatized victim of incest and sexual abuse who overcomes by learning to read and write well.

It’s both a compliment — the portrayal feels so vivid that it must be based on personal experience — and an insult, she said.

“Some of it is people being uninformed, or the inability to credit an African-American woman with the ability to create a character like Abdul or Precious,” she said. “They assume I talked it into a tape recorder and a white editor transcribed my notes. They feel I can’t be a Flannery O’Connor.”

Sapphire said the character of Precious is based on people she met as a literacy tutor, but much of the novel is, simply, fiction. The only person ever to step forward and say, “That is my life,” she said, was a 75-year-old white woman in Salt Lake City.

“The authenticity in ‘Push’ comes from being so intimately acquainted with the learning process,” says Sapphire. “That process is what keeps the novel moving, not National Enquirer tell-it-all-ism. With ‘The Kid,’ I had even less access to any type of experience creating this child.”


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