Seeking Hope Sharing insight with author Sapphire

Acclaimed New York author Sapphire challenges the literary languor that afflicts much poetry by taking it out of its rarified academic arena to a more visceral realm with her fiercely honest and uncompromising work. Sapphire's potent imagery and acute ability to plumb the harrowing depths of her characters' lives has resulted in a body of work that stands as some of the most affecting in contemporary American letters.

Her first book of poetry and prose, entitled American Dreams (Serpent's Tail, 1994), was a searing journey into the urban realities of emotional and physical abuse, poverty, and violence. Push (Knopf, 1996), Sapphire's debut novel, tells a painful story in the voice of Precious Jones, a 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Harlem. Pregnant for the second time by her father and abused by her mother, the narrator also struggles with illiteracy and later, the knowledge that she is HIV positive. Push won the Book-of-the-Month Club Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association's First Novelist Award for 1997.

Out writes of her most recent collection Black Wings & Blind Angels (Knopf, 1999): "Sapphire's poetic ear always remains close to the page, alert, fearless, confronting what so many would sooner forget." Yet it is this "fearless" emotional intensity which has proven difficult for some readers to handle. Her poem "Wild Thing" from American Dreams was the catalyst for the dismissal of John Frohnmeyer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, under the Bush Sr. administration. The controversial piece, based on an actual brutal rape of a female jogger in Central Park, convincingly exposes the mindset of a teen rapist. This character portrait forcefully illustrates how racism, classism, and sexism can combust into a destructive act.

The first time we heard Sapphire perform was at the San Francisco Book Festival in 1999. Her moving, raw, and sometimes disturbing poetry riveted the audience and we vowed to interview her one day. Fortunately for Comet, Sapphire served as artist-in-residence last summer at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, California, where we had the opportunity to meet her. She was warm, genuine, and funny as she shared with us her insights and reflections on the American dream, the cycle of oppression, and the ultimate transformative power of art.

-Maw Shein Win


You write both poetry and fiction. What do you find interesting about writing in each form? How is each different for you?

Definitely, it seems like the poetry is ... not easier, but a more immediate and a more accessible form. And it's something that I've done for a long time. If each genre is a country or a territory that you need a map to get through, I'm more familiar with the route to poetry, whereas I'm still learning the form of the novel, and also just how to get into the headset of writing a novel. In some ways I'm still learning poetry but I know how to get there, how to assess material and deal with images. With the novel, this whole form is relatively new to me.

Tell us about your writing process.

Even though I've been writing for awhile, I'm still formulating [my process], and it's changing. I have a very different process when writing poetry. I almost always carry a notebook with me, and what comes up, comes out. I'll write the poem, often I'll rise in the morning, and before I'm out of bed, I will have written a poem. So there's an immediacy with the poetry. Then I may spend a week, several months, whatever, working on that poem that I've written. But that process doesn't work with the novel. I certainly can't write a novel in an hour, so mapping out and structuring my time has been very different.

What inspired you to write Push?

There are many ways we can think of genre, but if you think of genre as a container, what happened was that the container that I was using, poetry, could not carry the story of Precious. I actually tried that, but it didn't work. So this story that was in me, these experiences that I had accumulated from seven years of teaching in Harlem and almost 13 years of living in Harlem and the Washington Heights area of Manhattan - this whole world and environment and experience wasn't fitting into the genre of poetry as I knew how to use it. So I needed a new form. And certainly the novel is not a new form, but it was new for me. So I used it, and that was the form that was able to hold the idea and the person that I wanted to bring forward.

It seems like in your early writing you were exorcising some of your own demons, and now you're doing that for society.

I think in many ways I was doing exactly that, exorcising my own demons, and there was a very cathartic process to the poetry. Even though people have told me it's painful to hear, it was a bloodletting. But in Push it was very different. After writing Push, I didn't have that feeling of catharsis. In Push, instead of releasing demons, I took on demons. I took on this horrible mother - I mean, not that I had a great mother, but she wasn't as horrible as the one in Push - a horrible father, a societal condition that I was in many ways only an observer of. I came to Harlem as an adult. I went there to go to college, so this whole condition of not having language, of being illiterate, of dire poverty, of welfare, was something that I was encountering in my students. So I took on more than I had ever experienced in my life. I encountered these young women - and men, but I chose to talk about the women - young women and men's stories - and I knew that they needed to be told.

One of the themes we found very compelling in Push is how art is a transformative force. Because Precious learns to read, the future opens up to her, she learns to write.

Precious does become an artist in the book, but she's already a child who's predisposed to art. Part of the oppression that she's suffered has taught her to do what artists do anyway: dissociate from their present surroundings and enter into themselves and come out with something else. So you already see that she's a child that's capable of daydreaming, fantasizing, of spacing out, and so with some structure, this becomes the beginning of a child who has a facility with language and observation.

What really happens for Precious in the beginning is that she is not so much deprived of her ability to become an artist, but she's deprived of her ability to become fully human because she doesn't have language. If there's anything that separates us from the animal kingdom or from infancy, it's the acquisition of language. And in the book what we see Precious has is the ability to begin to name herself. The power to describe herself, whether she'll be a victim or a survivor, whether she'll be an unwed mother or a single mother. All of these things are language. How she will view herself and how she has viewed herself has a lot to do with how other people have defined her. Is she stupid or is she a late bloomer? You know, all of these things are just language, but they're the difference between surviving and not surviving. Is her child worth taking to a shelter? Is it worth it for her to invest this energy into her own life? And ultimately she decides that she is worth it, and we see the system decides that she's not worth it, that school shouldn't happen for her, that she should be punished for her condition, be sent to work, as opposed to be allowed to pursue the American dream.

You have an extraordinary empathy that allows you to enter into characters and then write from their perspective, even characters that are unsympathetic. What is your process of getting inside?

A lot of that for me is just acute observation. And then in some ways just being saturated with the character. While this particular child never existed, she is a composite character of many of the children I met. So everyday, being inundated with their speech, their language, their problems, their stories, and even when I didn't want to, having to listen. I mean, I'm not deaf, I had to listen. And so you begin to take that on. And the character and the situation and the fiction come out of a way of trying to process your own experience. Their experiences become my experience. I became the witness. I didn't ask to do it. I'm like all people, if I can avoid pain I will. I'm in a deep avoidance pattern like most Americans. But I encountered these stories, and I became the witness and then from the witness I became the one who gives the testimony, who tells the story for others who perhaps can't tell their stories.

Is serving as witness part of the responsibility of an artist?

Well, I think that every artist will have to figure out what is her responsibility. I think that our literature and the world have been enriched by artists who have totally focused on themselves. My favorite painter is Frida Kahlo whose strongest paintings are portraits of herself. So I certainly don't want to say that there's anything an artist should do. Probably that's the worst word an artist can have is "should." For me, coming out of my background, my culture and who I was, I assumed the role of witness. So that was what I needed to do. And at some point just as a human being, whether as an artist or not, you look at a situation and people and you may realize - I'm seeing something much bigger than my own life. I could keep writing about myself, or I could look at what was being shown to me and talk about it, and that was important. And it was certainly a turning point in my life. And I think Push is a bigger book than American Dreams. Not a better book, but a bigger book.

You said that "one of the myths we've been taught is that oppression creates moral superiority. I'm here to tell you that the more oppressed a person is, the more oppressive they will be." Can you discuss the cycle of abuse?

I think that this myth that if you are a survivor of a crime or societal oppression that you're going to be a good person or a noble person is wrong. We know that the effect of genocide on the Native American population has been poverty and alcoholism. We certainly can't say that the survivors of the Holocaust who went on to establish the state of Israel have been particularly kind to the Palestinian people. We can't say that African Americans who survived slavery are particularly empathic or loving. So racism and abuse tend to make people more oppressive. Like the people that came out of World War II, survivors of World War II and Vietnam. They [the veterans] came back unable to parent, unable to love, unable to function, devastated from Vietnam. So what oppression gives you is what we now call post-traumatic stress. And it's a syndrome that some people die of. And certainly some people are able to take pain and agony and make something out of it, but most people are not. You're certainly not going to think of Rwanda as being a nation that will produce a lot right now. They've had 800,000 people murdered. And what is going to be the effect of that on the culture, how do they deal? So that's what I mean. But I do think that there's been a romanticizing of survivors. And artists play into that. It could just be their own nŠivetŽ, that they don't really understand it, but I think that's wrong, to think that someone is going to be raped and then grow up to be a better parent, a more empathic parent, as opposed to grow up to fuck their own kids. But I think that we know that hatred and hostility breed hatred and hostility. There's no interruption.

You talked a lot about how our society destroys our youth. Can you tell us more about that?

I think it's bigger than just our youth. And also, I should say, a lot of kids make it. A lot of kids make it, so I don't want to negate that. I think that what you really have to look at with youth is depression and fatalism and the lack of hope that kids are really functioning in. And the fact that, you know, Littleton, Colorado, wasn't ghetto kids. Those kids walked in there to kill. Whatever the images of themselves, whatever they had been given in white middle class culture. Both of them were children of soldiers, their dads were Marines, so throw that in too. But more and more children are acting out in ways, suicidally. More and more kids really want to die. I think that's an issue. Whether this society is destroying them, maybe that's too dramatic, but the reality is that we have a culture of people who are being profoundly hurt, and a lot of it is youth.

What do you think artists and writers can do?

We can do our art, set up and show a new value system. In Push I try to show not just the obvious things - that my character is not so-called beautiful - but that she functions in a mode of cooperation with her peers. So they're not sitting around talking about who has the highest SAT scores or booby-trapping their supplies - you used to hear about dancers putting nails and glass in other dancers' toe shoes at auditions and stuff like that. So actually we see a world, a little microcosm where people get better by helping each other. They help each other. And we can show that as not just do-gooderism, because these are some pretty rough characters, but we can show what they get in return for it. That there's something to be gained by this, that living with other people in mind can benefit you as a human being. So I think we can do that, and I think the other thing we can do is begin to de-romanticize [violence] - like in "Blood on the Tracks" (a poem from Black Wings & Blind Angels), the character is pretty pathetic. There's been a way that this whole born-to-lose, James Dean culture has been romanticized, you know, the shallow person, the killer, and the hardened person who can't feel. We need to show that it's limited, and not to be romanticized or imitated. This whole belief that our art excuses us from a certain kind of socially responsible behavior. We need to dispel that too. We're accountable in a certain kind of way. And everyone has to decide how.

Do you feel that writing has saved your life?

I think it has. I think that the process of trying to become an artist in all the different forms I tried to work in, has certainly - if there's a difference between me and the people I write about, it's that I write. That would be the big difference, and that there is something about the process of learning to be an artist that has changed me. I'm not the person I would have been had I not been an artist.

It takes an awful lot of courage to write as honestly as you do. Where do you get that courage?

When I finished Black Wings & Blind Angels, I felt like it was an honest book, but I didn't feel it was as honest as it could get. There are writers I read, like Sharon Olds and think, damn! I want to go there too, I want to get that honest. And I know that I'm not there, but I keep pushing for it. And I think in Push I got more honest than I could get with myself, because it's a character, so she's able to say things and do things that I could never admit to. Also, I have to deal with the fact I'm not the same person who wrote American Dreams. And that no matter what I write, it's always a construction. It's art, I'm not writing autobiography. I think many people do not give African Americans imaginative capacity. So I have found that many things that I write that are art, that are not true, people take them and read them as the "I", they interpret it as actual reality. So that's been very problematic for me, my family (laughs). So now that I'm more aware of it, it pulls me back. I have to fight against it. At one point I was dealing with an admissions process, and I had submitted poems to get in someplace, and one of the poems was "Wild Thing" and the people attributed it to me. And later I heard about this, and they were hesitant to let me in because they thought I might be a psychopath. So that's something I've had to deal with a lot. I have a certain distance now, that more and more critics and intellectuals have approached the books and are able to put the distance between the artist as creator and the artist as lived experience of the work. But it's still a challenge.

You mention Sharon Olds, who are some of your other influences?

Sharon Olds, I really really admire. Lucille Clifton has been a big influence on me. The poet from Arizona, Ai - Killing Floor, Sin, Cruelty - I would say she's one of the most important poets that I ever read. Certainly novelists, Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison - I really have drawn deeply from black literature. Richard Wright, the whole concept of the protest novel, James Baldwin. Flannery O'Connor is absolutely a favorite of mine. Kafka. I read a lot of Dickinson, Dostoevsky. Also, I was very very influenced by the poets around me in that New York scene like Bob Holman, Willy Predomo, Paul Beatty, all of these fabulous Nuyorican poets were very important to me. Bay Area poets - I used to live here in the '70s, so some of the first poets I saw were Jessica Hagedorn and Ntozake Shange when they were collaborating and working together and putting elements of music and dance into poetry, so this was just absolutely fantastic to me.

You said once that "I'm still awed by the mystery of life. I want to live and create and be part of an evolution that is moving us to a higher place in the planet." You mentioned before how part of you feels hopeful and part of you feels cynical. Overall and ultimately, do you feel hopeful?

I read somewhere that part of the reason we're cynical is we now expect more from people. In the olden days we expected to gather around the guillotine and watch someone's head roll down the street. This was commonplace. Part of the reason people are appalled by capital punishment is that we know we're beyond it. People are sickened at this. We talk about things like child abuse, but you know, come on, a couple hundred years ago, the marriage age was 12, wasn't it? So what we're looking at now is we expect more from women, so we are outraged when a 12-year-old has a child, because it is limiting what she can do in life. So now we have debunked over and over again the pseudo-scientific basis of racism, from measuring people's skulls to IQ's to whatever. So after the Holocaust, after slavery, to see racist ideology reinstated and treated as science, it's - we're enraged. So things that were taken for granted 100, 200 years ago, we are very upset about. We're livid that women are getting 60 cents to the dollar, come on! A hundred years ago we couldn't even own property. We were owned property, black people too. So believe me, people 200 years ago would be grateful for our problems today.

I think there's hope and we're making progress. When I grew up it was obvious who the good guys and bad guys were. Now it really is not so much about the group that you were born into. More and more it's about how you choose to live your life. Are you going to turn your back or are you going to turn toward it. Let me have this choice. It's a privilege. Three hundred years ago when I was a slave I didn't have the choice of whether I was going to be an activist or not, whether I was going to cooperate. But now we have a choice.

For a longer version of our interview with Sapphire, email us at