Sapphire's first book became the Oscar-winning film Precious but, she says, her new novel is so dark that Hollywood is unlikely to call
Sapphire never flinches from the truth. When her debut novel Push came out 15 years ago, readers were enthralled and appalled by protagonist Precious Jones, the New York girl who was abused by her father and failed by the system ? only to fight back, educate herself and transcend her background. The book owed its initial success to its use by social workers, abuse survivors' groups and psychologists treating victims of rape and incest. But in 2009 the film adaptation, Precious, promoted heavily by Oprah Winfrey, catapaulted it into the mainstream. Nominated for six Oscars, including best actress for the young unknown Gabourey Sidibe, it also featured excellent performances from musician Mo'Nique, who won an Oscar as the abuse-colluding mother, and Mariah Carey as a social worker, prompting the classic line from Precious, "I mean, what are you? Are you Italian? Are you some kind of black?"
It was also one of the few times the white, male bastion of the Oscars was stormed by a film with so many vivid roles for women, of all colours, sizes and ages. Sapphire dismisses critics who complained it was unrealistically brutal, saying this reaction reflects audiences' ignorance about the ubiquity of abuse. "There are people who are really horrified," she says. "In Michigan one woman held up the book, trembling, saying: 'I've never heard of anything like this in my life.' On the other side of the room there was a psychiatrist who said: 'I hear it every day.'"
True to this belief, Sapphire's second novel, The Kid, is even more unflinching. It takes up the story of Abdul, Precious's son, the product of rape by her father. Abdul's bleak descent into abuse is balanced by his streetwise angry slang and the sharp descriptions of his Harlem hometown and reads like Oliver Twist with added rape. The novel begins with Precious's funeral and Abdul's introduction to the foster care system among disturbed sex abuse victims and perpetrators, where he is sexually assaulted by his roommate. From there he is moved to a Catholic boarding school where the pupils are groomed by the teachers and eventually go on to assault younger boys. Later Abdul turns to sex work, before a talent for dance offers the possibility of redemption.
Because of the explicit scenes and the focus on Abdul as a victim who becomes a perpetrator, Sapphire thinks it is unlikely this book will get the Hollywood film treatment. "In Precious it's about her as a victim and a survivor. In The Kid, it's so dark in what it says about Abdul. We wouldn't be able to get it made without an R rating ? and with an R rating not everyone would be able to see it."
She believes there are still certain expectations of what black American writers' subject matter should be. "There is a tremendous opposition to stepping out of the prescribed role of what you're supposed to write. In Push the white people are not the enemy and they're not the hero. Usually in stories about children in the ghetto, the kid is black and the teacher is white. The conflict between black and white has to be primary, or the attraction between black and white has to be primary. But in The Kid, Abdul usurps the role of the bad guy himself."
Sapphire, who is in her early 60s, was born Ramona Lofton. She adopted the name Sapphire for its connotations of vividness and to reclaim the demonised figure of the fiery black woman. She is from California, but has lived in New York for decades. Her background is modest and normal ? army parents who broke up.
Sapphire lived with her father, but was also in touch with her mother and studied dance, poetry, ancient history and medicine before teaching creative writing for years and publishing highly acclaimed collections of poetry. It's a far cry from the deprivations suffered by Precious and Abdul. Yet readers often assume Push was an autobiography. "That is the same thing as thinking Mark Twain was Huckleberry Finn. This has something to do with class and race and the way African Americans are perceived in the world of literature. We're not often seen as people with imagination and vision and focus and artistry," she says.
"Instead of thinking I was talented or intelligent or intuitive when I wrote Push, well, that couldn't be, because I'm black. They just assumed it was an autobiography."
The Kid was, she says, inspired by a pupil at a film-making class she taught in 1983: "Out of the blue one of the girls starts talking about growing up as a foster child. To listen to someone who basically raised themselves in a series of hostile environments, that was the beginning. It was a jaw dropper."
The long gap between books has been down to conscientiousness: "I had been steadily working on the novel bit by bit, year by year. With Push, people were saying: 'Here is this poet who has written a novel.' After that, I was on a path to recreating myself as a fiction writer. I was writing like I could die tomorrow and when I handed it in I was bedevilled by doubt because I knew I had put out a disturbing work."
For research for her second novel she read psychiatrists' and social workers' case studies, spoke to people who had been in care and contacted professionals in the welfare system for examples of the children's histories, medication and rates of recidivism.
Every anecdote and experience in the book is grounded in fact, she asserts. "What is so tragic is that this is a large part of America. The fact that it's still so invisible to mainstream America says something about the country. People know nothing about the life of someone like Precious or Abdul but they know everything about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. You set up this one tiny stratum of society, the white rich blondes and their neuroses, and then you have this vast universe of African Americans, Latin American kids and women who are invisible and disenfranchised from the culture."
I question the relentless abuse, neglect and violence that permeates the lives not only of Abdul but also his mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, girlfriend and teachers. But Sapphire assures me: "It happens a lot. I remember one of my relatives who was incarcerated. I asked him, 'What was it like?' He said, 'Fuck or be fucked.' So either you're going to assume a position of dominance or power, or you're going to be abused."
The cycle of abuse is compounded for male survivors by false constructions of masculinity, pride and homophobia. One of Abdul's fears is that the abuse has "proved" that he is gay. "It is not shameful for a woman to come out of a rape situation and talk about what has happened to her; women have an idea of what happens to other women. To the best of my knowledge, men don't talk about it. The silence makes it worse. We screened Precious to 99% white Christian Mormon conservatives in Salt Lake City and we got a standing ovation. A woman of 90 stood up and said: 'I am Precious.' Although I know from my research that this kind of thing happens all the time, no man has yet stood up and said: 'I am Abdul.'"
? This article will be open to comments from 9am (UK time) on Thursday morning