Liz Baudler reviews Sapphire in Conversation with Donna Seaman

Liz Baudler reviews Sapphire in Conversation with Donna Seaman

Sapphire is a small woman, her head shaved and her ears and nose pierced with silver loops. When she reads, her voice suddenly expands, drops and fills with the syllables so recognizable as her own, no matter what character is speaking. It is this voice as much as the crisp words she says that lets you know Sapphire is a force to be reckoned with, a woman in control of her own mind.

In introducing the poet-cum-novelist at the Harold Washington Library last evening, interviewer Donna Seaman (who, if you want to be interviewed by a woman who truly thinks about writing, beg for her to interview you) mentioned that back in the 90s, Sapphire’s second book of poetry got the director of the National Endowment of the Arts fired when he supported one of its more explicit verses. Throughout the evening, Sapphire made no apology for the way she confronts social issues. The Kid, her latest work and the one Seaman focuses on, literally picked up where Push left off, following Abdul, the son Precious struggles so hard to birth and raise, after she dies of AIDS.

Discussing The Kid, Sapphire painted a cycle of victims who victimized others and used their initial victimization as an excuse for doing so. It’s clear that she has no patience with that cycle, or with the society who lets these acts continue. There was a note of resigned surprise in her voice when she talked about initial reactions to the male-on-male sexual abuse in The Kid. Over the ten years she worked on the novel, Catholic sex abuse scandals became news and ballooned. As The Kid took its first steps into the bookstore, we all learned Jerry Sandusky’s name. As horrifying as these revelations were, they put The Kid in a context where instead of being just one author’s urban nightmare, abuse happens all around us in ways too public to ignore. As Sapphire put it, Push was about the failure of the nuclear family and society rising up to take care of Precious, but in The Kid, society and its organizations fails her son.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the evening were bits of insight that clearly came from the connections Sapphire’s agile mind made with her research. That most victims of male on male sex abuse are fatherless boys whose single mothers wanted desperately to find them a male role model. That Crazy Horse, the Native American warrior Abdul and Sapphire both identify, was an outcast to his own people, refusing to wear the feathers and makeup, and spending much of his time in a trance state. That the least damaged survivors of the Iran Hostage Crisis were the ones who could go into that same trance state as electricity coursed through their body--and how eerily like artists’ work that trance is.

Sapphire seemed oddly professorial about her own work. Though this may have not been true in the afternoon event, in the evening she spoke very little about process other than to mention the research involved. Instead, she offered a guide to the various symbols present throughout The Kid--mirrors, fluorescent lights, and a kaleidoscope. Most authors, either by design or truthfully, appear clueless about their symbolism, so fascinated, I asked her about it during the audience Q and A. She said it has to do with being a poet, which made sense. This professorial tone stood out in the Q and A, but to be fair a lot of the questions were better asked of a writing professor in the first place.

Throughout, Sapphire’s knowledge and rigor of thinking were on display. She answered questions using literary examples, speaking little about herself, until the end, in response to a audience question about how her work will be received as the years go by.

“In 1996 “Push” was considered pornography. Now it’s everyone’s favorite book--Barbara Bush hosted a screening of “Precious” down in the Texas (the audience groaned). Pretty soon, [The Kid] won’t be shocking anymore. Then what will I do?”

 --Liz Baudler

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