Fans of Sapphire might be surprised to discover that The Kid treads even darker waters than Push, the basis for 2009's Academy Award winning film Precious. In The Kid, Sapphire's stream-of-consciousness narrative relays the journey of Precious' son as he struggles to overcome the unspeakable circumstances of his youth.
Abdul watches his mother die from AIDS, barely survives a stint in a hellish foster home, and finds himself in an orphanage staffed by pedophile priests, all before he turns 14.
Later, abandoned to a welfare system that makes him cruelly aware of his powerlessness without helping him overcome it, he gives in to violent sexual impulses while moving in and out of flashbacks to the abuse he suffered as a child.
Sapphire is aware that some readers may view Abdul as a stereotype, a criticism she faced after Precious. “I enter into the steretotype and crack it open,” she said by phone from Seattle, where she is promoting the book. “Nobody in their right mind would call Precious a stereotype.”
She describes The Kid as the end of the cycle that Push began. Precious provides her son with a stable home, but when she dies from AIDS, “it's as though the safety net doesn't exist. This child finds himself in situations where he is being abused, and he approximates the power of his abusers for himself.”
While the Precious of Push was a victim, Abdul has a strong sense of agency. After his mother's death he becomes a tyrant, molesting a younger boy in his orphanage and acting on graphic rape fantasies. As an adult he uses sexuality to manipulate others. Eventually he turns to prostitution to survive.
Abdul, Sapphire explains, is what happens when AIDS, child abuse, and an overextended welfare system flourish unchecked. The novel explores what she calls “the collective phenomenon” of children orphaned by AIDS and the stigma they often carry. “Abdul really feels the shame of having a parent who has died of AIDS,” she said. “I think that sets this disease apart from any other we have known.”
Critics have compared the Kid to Jean Genet, but Marquis de Sade might be more accurate. Every page features an act of unspeakable violence, as Abdul finds himself conned and betrayed in increasingly disturbing ways. The book might be all but unreadable if it weren't for Sapphire's tendency to send even her most doomed characters on a search for beauty.
“I knew I was going to go to some dark places in both my books. But it was never my intent to build my house in the darkness,” Sapphire said. “We would pass through and enter into a light.”
Abdul ultimately finds solace in dance, an arc culled directly from the author's life. Abdul's “ambition, that physicality, that love of movement came from young African-American dancers I had known when I was studying dance in New York.”
Still, even after he achieves artistic satisfaction, his nightmarish past continues to haunt him. Like Richard Wright's Native Son, The Kid's ultimate effect is to wake readers up the larger social framework in which these characters exist. “This book would not have been written if Abdul had been adopted,” Sapphire explained. “The child least likely to get adopted is the African-American boy child. A dog or cat has a better chance of being adopted than a black boy.”
Sapphire will discuss The Kid with Michael Silverblatt on Sunday, July 24 in West Hollywood. More information is available at the KCRW website.
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