There is a trend with the writers invited to read for the Downtown Writer’s Center: they often receive greater national recognition after they have been booked for us. Take, for example, the fact that both Ted Kooser and Charles Simic were named Poet Laureate. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon was nominated for the National Book Award. Others have received honors or they were already prize winners before they visited Syracuse to share their work with our crew.
Now it has happened again but this time with the stamp of Hollywood’s approval. Sunday evening, Sapphire was among all the glamor of the Red Carpet. A poet and novelist, Sapphire is experiencing a second wave with her 1994 novel, Push, as adapted for the screen in the movie Precious. Sapphire read at the DWC in 2006. At that time, Push was a bit of an underground novel. Push is a bold, courageous look into one story based on one young woman facing extraordinary, terrible circumstances. The novel depicts both the horror of what a human can inflict or experience as well as the great odds that a human can overcome to achieve personal strength, self-esteem, even salvation.
With this novel, Sapphire opened a discussion about incest and rape at a time when we, as a society, were still silent regarding these “family secrets.” The brutal truth behind the veil is the high percentage of women who are raped, either by a stranger or someone known to them. Some say one in three, others one in four. Either statistic is chilling. Each represents a gash in that life that will never be fully healed, a person who may never be able to trust again. These data do not address the depth of pain associated with multiple occurrences of incest, sometimes for years.
In the late 80s, when this story is set, we were very closed-mouthed about incest and domestic abuse. But Sapphire needed to instigate the conversation. We were closer to exposing the horrors and commonality of these experiences when the book was released. Sapphire chose to be a part of that developing transparency.
Now, in the 21st century, the book has become film and has achieved critical acclaim. Had Lee Daniels, the director, won the Oscar, he would have been the first African American to receive the award. Instead, the first woman won so we can hardly find much fault with the Academy there. Another milestone has challenged the history. The many other nominations and awards that were given to Precious were warranted but also signal a change in America. We are more able to face our demons to tell the truth.
I believe that both the movie and the book are critically important as “herstory.” It is not easy to sit through the film. It is not comfortable to experience the novel. That is not the intention of the tale. But there is a heroic hope, just as there is hope for Haiti, or for our young people in urban schools, as there was for those who survived the Holocaust, or those who cross borders for work. Humans can survive just about anything but it is a confounding mystery as to how we do it.
The release of the film, and the recognition for its achievements, has spurred a challenging discussion over the internet about the depiction of African Americans, and Black men in particular. It has been fascinating to listen to the discourse, which has been quite passionate. There have been heated debates about the aspects of casting (light-skinned vs. dark-skinned actors for key roles), the negative view of men, the potential correlation of that one semi-fictional family to African American families in general. Noted writer and scholar Ishmael Reed has been very forthcoming with his objections and Sapphire has responded in print. There has been a lot of “How dare they?!” attached to the project. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have been implicated in the process because they took the film from its premier at Sundance last year as a low-budget indie film to major distribution. How dare they?!
I ask, when is any piece of art speaking for all of a culture? Were the Huxtables speaking for all of Black America? No. But are there upper middle class families like them? Yes, just as there are families much like the Evans family of the situation comedy from back in the day, Good Times. Is Waiting to Exhale, either the book or the movie, a statement of all Black culture? I see horrid stereotypes, particularly of women, in that story. Is the fact that the Hip Hop artist Common is in the trailer of another Hollywood movie as a pretty-faced thug with a gun a statement as well? I think so. Why does he take those roles? When will he be a male lead? A positive image on the big screen? His music breaks the stereotype of Hip Hop expectations but his acting career is sadly typical.
It cannot be escaped that humans have tremendous capacity for hatred and unconscionable deeds. We have to speak of the horrors to overcome them. We can open the discussion one story at a time. Sapphire was able to do that with her fiction and then, by patiently waiting for the right ensemble to bring her words to image, we now have Precious.
The up side is that Sapphire is being rewarded well for her book. The film is honored by many. Push has been reissued for the mass market. Target included it as one of their featured books a few weeks ago. It is on the shelves in Wegmans. I assume the royalty checks are huge. Sapphire deserves recognition and remuneration for the book. It is not perfect. It was a raw piece from an emerging writer. But hers is an important book.
Sunday, Mo’nique won the Best Supporting Actress title. In fact, she has swept the category in all the major awards this season for this brutal character portrayal. She was magnificent and chilling. The film won the Oscar for best screenplay adaptation. Unfortunately, as the Oscar recipients accepted their awards the other evening, neither thanked Sapphire nor her novel, although she was seated in the audience.
I hope all the other glory that has been afforded Sapphire makes up for the criticism and the lack of gratitude for all of her effort to create the work and then get it to print, then the long wait until she found the team she trusted to bring her vision to the screen. I will write to Sapphire and tell her that I am grateful. She changed me as a human and gave me strength to be clear about my truth as well as to maintain hope in spite of any and all adversity. She also gave me clear vision to my own purpose as a writer. We must start from the place of truth, no matter what the reaction may be.
Georgia Popoff teaches at the Downtown Writer's Center and in schools throughout NYS. In Fall 2009, she taught a class on contemporary African American poets for DWC PRO. She is a frequent poster to this blog.