March 17, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "Push," by Sapphire

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Push, by Sapphire

Push (1996)
By Sapphire

Here in Chicago, the Uptown neighborhood where I live is still chock-full of lower-class black families, a situation that originally developed during the "ghettoization" of this neighborhood in the white-flight 1950s; and so among other things, this has led my neighborhood library to stock an entire wall of what they call "African-American Literature," an endless series of horribly bad melodramas that all seem to have covers featuring shirtless gangsters draped in gaudy gold jewelry, with titles like Dark Chocolate and Thug Daddy and with ashamed authors hiding behind such one-word pseudonyms as "Diamond" and "Tiger." And every time I spy this wall of books, I always think to myself, "Why would someone actually read trash like this?" Given how many challenges the average black person in America faces every day just from the mere act of existing, why would they then want to so profoundly reinforce the lazy stereotypes about their race by voluntarily reading such worthless, insulting potboilers? Who would do something like that?

I'm sure it's because of this that it took me so long to become aware of the remarkable 1996 novel Push by one-named author "Sapphire," although now of course just about everyone has heard of it; after all, it's the source material behind the film Precious, which this year racked up all kinds of awards including several Oscar nominations, and has inspired a growing amount of people to declare it the best movie about lower-class blacks ever made. And so it's ironic that the book should happen to be just about the diametric opposite of that "African-American Literature" I was talking about before, in fact more an angry response to those kinds of books than anything resembling them; because without the high-profile film adaptation the novel would've likely faded into obscurity, and ended up getting lumped in with all the other unreadable crap I see at my local library on a daily basis. It highlights a growing problem within the literary community in our Obamian "post-race" age, one that is rarely discussed among polite company -- that for some reason, it's seemingly okay for Caucasians to be offered a broad choice in themes and genres as far as their intellectual entertainment, but among all other races it's considered an unpardonable sin, not only among the white executives making the decisions but even the traditional community leaders within such racial groups. (Don't believe me? Just look at the shameful amount of scorn that black leaders have heaped on the comic strip The Boondocks by Aaron McGruder, merely for attempting to create something enjoyable for black people who happen to be cynical, over-educated and pop-culture savvy.)

Written by a performance poet during the cultural height of the poetry-slam format, the textually complex Push isn't as much the weepy tearjerker you might think it is, but surprisingly enough is actually more like the ghetto version of the 1966 science-fiction novel Flowers for Algernon. See, it's the story of a morbidly obese teenage girl named Precious, who has been dumped on by life in about the most thorough way possible -- raised by an abusive, alcoholic, mentally retarded mother, sexually abused for decades by her father, the teenaged mother of two children of incest, one of whom has Down's Syndrome, unable to read or write, and HIV-positive on top of everything else. But right at the beginning of the novel, Precious is enrolled in an alternative educational organization designed exactly for lumpen-proletariats like herself; and since the whole thing is written in a real-time first-person voice, we literally watch Precious through her diary entries progress from barely being able to communicate to eventually becoming a functioning member of society, just like Flowers for Algernon but without the experimental drug of the former.

This is where Sapphire's performance-poetry background really comes into play; because far from the illegible trainwreck you might think the beginning of such a book might be, she instead carefully combines Precious's broken English with a subconscious but very definite formal structure, to produce a haunting, rhythmic, utterly readable cadence, which much like Toni Morrison's Beloved uses the often derided dialect known as ebonics to instead turn in an unexpectedly powerful tale, a story that flows much more smoothly than you would ever think possible under such circumstances. And also like Flowers for Algernon, Sapphire uses this framework not just to explore language but as an inventive way to dole out story information as well; because as Precious slowly learns to better and better communicate, she simultaneously learns to better and better understand the world around her, resulting in a series of revelations she makes about life throughout the book, and a series of steps taken to make that life better.

In fact, this seems to be Sapphire's main message, which of course so many people seemingly don't get -- that education leads directly to self-understanding, and that self-understanding leads directly to power. And that's why Push is ultimately a positive story, although it practically radiates anger at the world off each page like steam rising from a microwaved burrito; because as Precious starts actually accomplishing things in her life, even little things like reading a letter by herself for the first time or writing her first poem, she comes to realize for the first time not only how destructive the people and circumstances around her have been (something she's always at least kind of understood), but that she also has the choice to walk away from it all if she wants, leading for example to some confrontational scenes with her mother near the end that are some of the most intense moments of the entire manuscript. Precious would've never been able to come to these conclusions, Sapphire seems to be arguing, without the basic education that has trained her mind to start thinking this way in the first place; and that's a great message to convey, I think, that the main point of education is not just some abstract concept like "Reading Is Good," but that it literally changes the way your brain works, so that you can more easily understand both yourself and the environment in which you live.

Now, yes, Push does end on a sour note -- an excruciating 40-page section that is supposed to represent the final class writings of the troubled teens we've been following, full of the exact kind of terrible poetry and weepy memoirs that the rest of this book is an antidote against -- but it's easy enough to just skip this entire section if you want, especially since it's laid out in an entirely different typeface. For the most part, though, I found Push to be a huge surprise, an imminently smarter and more entertaining story than I would ever expect from a project that's been embraced by the mainstream so whole-heartedly, and I'm looking highly forward now to checking out the movie version when it comes out on DVD, if for nothing else than to see how they possibly begin to deal with the overwhelming amount of inner-brain dialogue featured in the book version. It comes highly recommended.

Read even more about Push: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:51 PM, March 17, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |