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Precious - Push (Sapphire)

Precious / Push
Sapphire, 1996
Knopf Doubleday
192 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307474841


Summary
An electrifying first novel that shocks by its language, its circumstances, and its brutal honesty, Push recounts a young black street-girl's horrendous and redemptive journey through a Harlem inferno.

For Precious Jones, 16 and pregnant with her father's child, miraculous hope appears and the world begins to open up for her when a courageous, determined teacher bullies, cajoles, and inspires her to learn to read, to define her own feelings and set them down in a diary. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Aka—Ramona Lofton
Birth—August 4, 1950
Where—Fort Ord, California, USA
Education—B.A., City College of New York; M.F.A., Brooklyn
   College
Awards—Fellow Award in Literature from United States
   Artists
Currently—lives in New York City, New York


Ramona Lofton, known professionally as Sapphire, is an American author and performance poet.

Sapphire was born Ramona Lofton in Fort Ord, California. She was one of four children of an Army couple who moved all over the world. After a disagreement over where the family would live, the family parted ways, with Sapphire’s mother "kind of abandon[ing] them". Sapphire dropped out of high school, moved to San Francisco where she enrolled in City College of San Francisco, only to drop out and become a “hippie”.

She attended City College of New York and obtained her master's degree at Brooklyn College. Sapphire held various jobs before starting her writing career, working as a performance artist, a social worker, and a teacher of reading and writing.

She moved to New York City in 1977 and immersed herself in poetry. She also became a member of a gay organization named United Lesbians of Color for Change Inc. She wrote, performed and eventually published her poetry during the height of the Slam Poetry movement in New York. She took the name Sapphire because of its association at one time in American culture with the image of a "belligerent black woman" and because she could picture the name on a book cover more than her birth name.

Sapphire self-published the collection of poems Meditations on the Rainbow in 1987. As Cheryl Clarke notes, Sapphire's 1994 book of poems, American Dreams, is often erroneously referred to as her first book. One critic referred to it as "one of the strongest debut collections of the '90s".

Her novel, Push, was unpublished before being discovered by the renowned feminist literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, whose interest created demand and eventually led to a bidding war. Sapphire submitted the first 100 pages of Push to a publisher auction in 1995 and the highest bidder offered her $500,000 to finish the novel. After its publishing, Sapphire noted in an interview with William Powers that "she noticed Push for sale in one of the Penn Station bookstores, and that moment it struck her she's no longer a creature of the tiny world of art magazines and homeless-shelters from which she came." The novel brought Sapphire praise and much controversy for its graphic account of a young woman growing up in a cycle of incest and abuse.

The film based on her novel premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009; it was renamed Precious to avoid confusion with the 2009 action film Push. Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for best actress for her role as Precious; Mo'Nique was nominated for best supporting—and won—for her portrayal of as Mary. Sapphire herself appears briefly in the film as a daycare worker.

Sapphire's writing was the subject of an academic symposium at Arizona State University in 2007. In 2009 she was the recipient of a Fellow Award in Literature from United States Artists.

Sapphire lives and works in New York City. Push is actually based on her own childhood. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Precious's street-smart, angry voice, [is] a voice that may shock readers with its liberal use of four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex, but a voice that also conjures up Precious's gritty, unforgiving world. Sapphire somehow finds lyricism in Precious's life, and in endowing Precious with her own generous gifts for language, she allows us entree into her heroine's state of mind.... Although the reader comes to feel enormous sympathy for Precious, one is constantly aware of the author standing behind the scenes, orchestrating her heroine's terrifying plummet into the abyss and her equally dramatic rescue.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


To read the story [is] magic.... [It is] paint-peelingly profane and thoroughly real.
Washington Post


Precious's story, told through her own unique style and spelling, is a major achievement. It documents a remarkable resilience of spirit.
Boston Globe


A fascinating novel that may well find a place in the African-American literary canon.... With a fresh new voice that echoes the streets, Sapphire's work is sure to win as many hearts as it disturbs minds.
Philadelphia Inquirer


Brutal, redemptive.... You just can't take your eyes off Precious Jones.
Newsweek


With this much anticipated first novel, told from the point of view of an illiterate, brutalized Harlem teenager, Sapphire (American Dreams), a writer affiliated with the Nuyorican poets, charts the psychic damage of the most ghettoized of inner-city inhabitants. Obese, dark-skinned, HIV-positive, bullied by her sexually abusive mother, Clareece, Precious Jones is, at the novel's outset, pregnant for the second time with her father's child. (Precious had her first daughter at 12, named Little Mongo, "short for Mongoloid Down Sinder, which is what she is; sometimes what I feel I is. I feel so stupid sometimes. So ugly, worth nuffin.") Referred to a pilot program by an unusually solicitous principal, Precious comes under the experimental pedagogy of a lesbian miracle worker named, implausibly enough, Blue Rain. Under her angelic mentorship, Precious, who has never before experienced real nurturing, learns to voice her long suppressed feelings in a journal. As her language skills improve, she finds sustenance in writing poetry, in friendships and in support groups-one for "insect" survivors and one for HIV-positive teens. It is here that Sapphire falters, as her slim and harrowing novel, with its references to Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes and The Color Purple (a parallel the author hints at again and again), becomes a conventional, albeit dark and unresolved, allegory about redemption. The ending, composed of excerpts from the journals of Precious's classmates, lends heightened realism and a wider scope to the narrative, but also gives it a quality of incompleteness. Sapphire has created a remarkable heroine in Precious, whose first-person street talk is by turns blisteringly savvy, rawly lyrical, hilariously pig-headed and wrenchingly vulnerable. Yet that voice begs to be heard in a larger novel of more depth and complexity.
Publishers Weekly


Performance poet Sapphire unflinchingly probes the consciousness of an all-too-real teenager from a severely abusive household. Push opens to find Precious fat, unloved, illiterate, deeply confused, routinely raped by her father, and physically and emotionally molested by her mother, enduring her second incestuous pregnancy. Crawling from self-hatred and violent loneliness to determination and, occasionally, hope, Precious enters a pre-GED program, learns to read, bears her second child, and breaks from her parents, all under the inspiration of Blue Rain, her steadfastly encouraging and apparently tireless new teacher. Precious's name loses its irony but soon takes on a dark new meaning as she learns the extent of her father's abuse. Written as an internal monolog and journal entries by Precious, with her rudimentary spelling skills and abrupt transitions, Push is compelling, graphic, and occasionally facile but disturbing and not soon forgotten. Recommended.
Library Journal


Clareece Precious Jones is a study in abuse. Continually raped by her father since the age of five, she's now pregnant for the second time with his baby, the first having been born with Down's syndrome when Precious was 12. Meantime, her mother is no help, calling the overweight girl a "fat cunt bucket slut," beating her at will, and satisfying her own bizarre sexual needs from her daughter. Schools have also all failed her; teachers find her "uncooperative," and she considers her last a "retarded hoe." Finally, Precious enrolls in a Harlem alternative school where she begins the tough climb out of illiteracy. No longer dreaming impossible ideas about rappers and movie star fame, she joins six others in a basic-skills class run by Blue Rain, a self-proclaimed lesbian who isn't afraid to editorialize in class. In short order, Precious discovers the joys of the alphabet and journal-writing, the pleasures of owning books and composing poetry. Although she raises herself to a seventh-grade level by narrative's end, she also finds out she's HIV positive. All of this is transcribed in a phonetic spelling that's supposed to reflect Precious's actual abilities, but seems condescending—and woefully unauthentic—since Sapphire often loses control of the voice. The homage to The Color Purple ("One thing I say about Farrakhan and Alice Walker they help me like being black") highlights Sapphire's commercial aspirations, as well as, by contrast, her technical inadequacies.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. What does this story tell us about the inadequacy of ordinary schools to deal with students' problems and with their resulting learning handicaps? "I got A in English and never say nuffin', do nuffin'" [p. 49], Precious says. Precious's principal in effect tells her teacher to give up on her, saying, "Focus on the ones who can learn" [p. 37]. Is this an understandable or forgivable attitude? How would you describe Mr. Wicher and his teaching methods? Is he merely a coward or is he trying his best?

2. "The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain," says Precious. "The tesses paint a pictureof me an' my muver—my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible" [p. 30]. In what way are Precious and her family members invisible to the larger world? If you have read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, can you compare the way the two authors use the metaphor of invisibility for their characters?

3. During the course of the story, Precious is obliged to confront her own prejudices and modify or reject them. Her experience with the Hispanic EMS man makes her look at Hispanics for the first time as human beings like herself; her friendship with Ms. Rain and Jermaine makes her reexamine her knee-jerk homophobia. Early in the novel she says, "I hate crack addicts. They give the race a bad name" [p. 14], but later she questions that uncompromising position. In an interview, Sapphire said of Precious that "she doesn't know that hating gay people or hating Jews or hating foreigners is detrimental to her" (Interview, June 1996). Why is it detrimental to her? Why is it imperative that she lose her prejudices before she, herself, can be helped?

4. How would you describe Precious's self-image at the beginning of the book, and how would you describe it at the end? How have her friends and supporters succeeded in helping to alter her view of herself?

5. What is Precious's attitude toward Louis Farrakhan and his movement at the beginning of the story? How does this attitude change during the course of her education? Why have Farrakhan and his opinions become such a vital part of her worldview? What do you deduce the author's attitude toward him to be?

6. A famous—or perhaps infamous—Labor Department study, the Moynihan Report, blamed the absence of fathers and the dominance of women (rather than economic and racial inequality) for the problems confronting the African American family. Many black scholars and activists have argued against the report's conclusions. Which side of the argument do you believe Push to support?

7. Push presents what one reviewer called "one of the most disturbing portraits of motherhood ever published" (City Paper, November 1996). How would you explain or interpret Precious's mother's behavior?

8. "Miz Rain say we is a nation of raped children, that the black man in America today is the product of rape" [pp. 68–69]. What does Ms. Rain mean by this metaphor, and does it strike you as an accurate one?

9. Precious tells Ms. Rain that the welfare helps her mother, to which Ms. Rain responds, "When you get home from the hospital look and see how much welfare has helped your mother" [p. 73]. What does this novel indicate about abuses and inadequacies in the system? How might an ideal system be constructed?

10. Precious's file reflects the government "workfare" point of view, that Precious should already be earning her own living, possibly as a home attendant. Precious objects violently to this idea. Can you understand the social worker's point of view? Have Precious's and Jermaine's arguments [pp. 121–123] changed any opinions you previously held on this subject?

11. "Miz Rain say value. Values determine how we live much as money do. I say Miz Rain stupid there. All I can think she don't know to have NOTHIN'" [p. 64]. Which opinion do you agree with, or is there something to be said for both? What answer, if any, does the novel offer?

12. "One of the myths we've been taught," Sapphire has said, "is that oppression creates moral superiority. I'm here to tell you that the more oppressed a person is, the more oppressive they will be" (Bomb, Fall 1996). How does the novel illustrate the concept of the cycle of abuse? How does Precious break that cycle, and what aspects of her own character enable her to do so?

13. Push has been called a Dickensian novel, to which Sapphire has responded, "Part of what's so wrong in this story is that we're not in a Dickensian era. Those things shouldn't be happening in a post–industrial society" (Bomb, Fall 1996). She sees the novel as "an indictment of American culture, which is both black and white" (ibid). What aspects of our culture have enabled the inequities described in the novel to develop? Would you say that contemporary American cities consist, as Dickens's London was said to, of two entirely different cultures, the rich one and the poor?

14. Why do you think Sapphire has chosen to end the story where she does? Does the book end on a sad or hopeful note? What sort of future do you envision for Precious?

15. What is the significance of the novel's title, Push? At what points in her life is Precious enjoined to "push"? What is meant by this word, and how does Precious respond to the injunctions?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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