On the evening of the Hollywood premiere of Precious, the film adaptation of the acclaimed 1996 novel Push by Sapphire (née Ramona Lofton), the author sits in a lounge in the Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from the hoopla taking place in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Following our interview, she will dash over with her niece. Dressed in a black cocktail dress topped with a sparkling jacket, Sapphire easily looks 20 years younger than her nearly six decades. Passionate and witty, serious but far from somber, the poet/activist/teacher/sexual-renegade novelist spoke to L.A. Weekly about the controversies that dogged the book, the trade-offs of movie adaptations, and why it doesn’t matter what others think about our painful confessions.
L.A. WEEKLY: How much of the enormous controversy that greeted Push upon its initial publication was due to your taking on the sacred cow of the African-American community?
SAPPHIRE: Black motherhood. It was totally around that, I believe, because the other aspects brought up in the book had been dealt with before. We’d had The Bluest Eye. We’d had The Color Purple. And I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explicitly dealt with male/female sexual abuse. I think to show the mother as not a redemptive character, to show her as perpetrator, was in some ways to break the stranglehold of black female victimhood. Part of being fully human is that we are victimizers also. I had one older African-American woman tell me that the only reason white people paid me money for that book was ’cause I made us look bad. And she went on — I guess she had read a little Marx or something — to say that I was a tool of the oppressor.
When I look at rape, incest, I don’t look at this as being male behavior. This is human behavior. We know that this is what people will do to each other. We know that sometimes this is what women do to children. We unfortunately know this is what children do to other children. So this is not behavior that is totally gender-specific and it is not behavior that is age-related. I was trying to show the decayed soul, the soul that is past redemption. And some of us are. That’s just how it is — unless there is something really magnificent that happens. Many people … first it’s the culture, but then they cooperate with the culture and become horrific people.
Also, when people are — or feel — powerless, they assert themselves by attacking someone even lower on the totem pole.
Exactly. I think that most people are reactive, so if there is not a strong cultural movement going on, people turn in on themselves. What we saw in the 1950s, 1960s and part of the ’70s in this country was a powerful civil rights movement, so a lot of that razor-tiltin’ and self-hatin’ and throwing lye in each other’s faces was circumvented as we came together to stop the oppression of ourselves. Part of what resistance movements do is mobilize people’s self-hate, their feelings of worthlessness, and turn those feelings away from themselves and their neighbors to really look at the oppressor. And that moves them to change their social condition.
One of the most important aspects of the book is that the abuse Precious suffers at the hands of her parents is countered by a circle of women.
What was your first reaction to the creation for the film of the male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz?
First, I wanna say I love what Lenny Kravitz did. I loved having a male nurturing figure in the film, who becomes a friend. Part of what I was trying to do [in the book] is show a real, multicultural world, where Precious’ world is intersected by people of different races, cultures, sexual orientations. One of her first angels in the book is this Hispanic man who comes and helps her literally give birth, and gives her the motif of her life, which is to push. I don’t know all the reasons why that particular part got left out [of the movie]. I know one of the things [director Lee Daniels] was trying to do was follow the book as faithfully as he could, and then use what film can do. I loved the way he put emphasis on the fantasy scenes. It gives visual relief, because a reader can put down the book, but the moviegoer is there for an hour and a half and they need to breathe. I was very, very happy with what happened. I realize there had to be some sacrifices, as there were also some gains.
If the male nurse weren’t there, the only representation of black males would have been the rapist father, the young jerks at her school and the guys who shove her to the ground while she’s pregnant.
Exactly, exactly. He shows himself as a strong, empathic heterosexual man who accepts her and sees into her soul, and sees her for who she is.
One of the most wrenching aspects of the book and the film is Precious’ racial self-hate, her equation of whiteness or fair-skinned blackness with superiority. Do you see any forward movement within the culture on that issue?
When I’m on public transportation around three or four in the afternoon, surrounded by school kids, I still hear things like, “Your lips so big you have to pick them up off the floor.” Somehow, I thought that would have been dealt with. I [published] the book in ’96, but we had a movement in the ’60s and ’70s that was supposed to be about Black is Beautiful — or if not beautiful, at least as good as everybody else. So, I’m still stymied by that. We still need to look deeply into issues of colorism within the black community.
You were approached by many people who wanted to make the film before Daniels. What were some of their visions?
Lots of people, dozens, had approached me years ago. I remember one African-American man I was talking to told me he had already talked with Brandy. He was gonna line her up [to play] Precious. We just stopped talking. He didn’t even get why I wasn’t returning his phone calls. When I was shopping the book around, one publisher came to me and said, “We love it. We’re willing to pay top dollar for it. But we’d like to see a better ending. We know she learns to read and everything, but we’d like to see her lose weight and get a boyfriend.”
Now, what I was trying to show is that maybe that’s not gonna happen for everyone, and you can [still] have a good life with a community of friends who support you. Young women should have multiple goals. There should be relationship goals, academic goals, social goals, familial goals, so when one thing doesn’t pan out, you don’t jump off a bridge ’cause you can’t find a boyfriend.
How do we strike the balance between examining issues that a lot of black folk sweep under the rug, and the commodification of black despair or dysfunction? Because what we repeatedly see is that complex issues go out into the world and become co-opted by folks — including a lot of black folks — who use these stories or revelations to bolster stereotypes and bigoted theories.
I think at some point we can’t worry about that. That is something I have never allowed to get in my way. Anything you put out there can be used against you. If you are going to be actively engaged in your own health and your own recovery, then you just have to put it out there.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is now playing in L.A. theaters.