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‘Precious’ Author’s Message: Speak Out

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Posted on March 3, 2010

"We need to talk about what happens to us," said Sapphire, "even when it makes us uncomfortable."

The author of the novel Push spoke frankly about sexual abuse, incest, racial stereotypes, poverty and more on Feb. 23 when she visited Cal U as part of the Black History Month celebration.

Her novel inspired the hit movie Precious, Based on the Novel by Sapphire. The film won a Golden Globe award last month and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

In a program sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Programs, Sapphire answered questions from area high school students and members of Cal U's Black Student Union. After an informal reception and photo session, she read excerpts from Push and other works to a crowd of nearly 400, then autographed books for a line of eager readers outside the Performance Center.

        "The power of language and the ability of human beings to transform themselves through language and education is the message I wanted to give," she said, referring to both the book and the film it inspired. "Your education can change your life."

        Sapphire's 1996 novel describes a young incest survivor who enters a literacy program that changes her life. The main character, Claireece Precious Jones, is a composite based on young women the author met while teaching in Harlem, she said.

        "Before Push was published, I talked to thousands of women who have been sexually abused. Many of them had experiences that makes what happened in Push look like a walk in the park," said Sapphire, who still lives, writes and teaches in New York.

"I am not a social scientist but a creative artist. I took - and will continue to take - the stories of women I've listened to and turn them into fiction. I write about black women because that's the world I know."

        Sapphire said she stopped writing in the eighth grade, when a teacher wrongly accused her of submitting an assignment that was not her own work. She resumed writing and immersed herself in poetry after working as a performing artist, social worker and teacher.

        In addition to her own prose and poetry, Sapphire read from the work of  other black writers, such as Lucille Clifton, whose children's book Black BCs is mentioned in Push.

        "It was those stories of friends, students and colleagues that would become the seeds and the impetus for writing the novel Push," the author said. "I honestly believed if we told the truth of our lives and the people around us, we could bring about change. I wanted to show the generational effects of sexual abuse."

        Education can and does make a difference, Sapphire stressed.

        "If you can read at a third- or fourth-grade reading level, you can begin the process ... of beginning to teach yourself. The idea of people leaving elementary school without basic reading skills should just not be allowed."

        And when it comes to sexual abuse - a problem more widespread than most people care to admit - communication is imperative.

        "The most important thing (Precious actress) Mo'Nique said is, ‘If you've been touched, then tell,'" Sapphire said.

"When you have nothing else, you have your voice. We need to talk about what has happened to us, listen to our peers and begin to tell the truth.

"I believe fervently in the transformative power of language."