Author-poet Sapphire knew that her novel "Push" was "something special" when she started writing it in 1993 as part of her master's project at Brooklyn College. But its success as an award-winning book and Oscar-nominated movie has been a major surprise.
She thought it was special "because I was a poet writing a novel, and it was different from the standard, mainstream novel," she says, referring to her experimentation with language and dialect.
The book went on to win several awards and last year was made into the acclaimed — and controversial — movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." The film has been nominated for six Academy Awards.
The book and movie tell the story of Precious, an overweight 16-year-old who is pregnant with her father's child and lives in Harlem with her abusive mother.
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Sapphire, who is originally from San Francisco and now lives in Brooklyn, says her goal in writing "Push" was to present a multilayered story that would convey what she saw around her while she was working and teaching in the heart of Harlem.
"I didn't want the things I was seeing in Harlem to disappear into people's consciousness," she says. "I wanted them to know what I had seen, though some of it was depressing. But I was uplifted because I knew I could give to the world and change the world."
The book encompasses literacy and language first and foremost, Sapphire says, but it also looks at poverty and welfare; HIV transmission among heterosexuals; colorism, the idea among African-Americans that light skin is preferred over dark skin; standards of beauty; and how abusive behavior can come from anyone, not just men.
She felt she couldn't let girls like Precious "continue to get swept under the rug and thrown in the trash."
The stark realism of the world Sapphire portrayed in "Push" led many to believe it was a true story. It is not.
Sapphire knew she'd tapped into something big after the book's publication when a Harlem girl walked up to her and told her "Push" was the best book she'd ever read.
"There's literature that's hard to deal with, and literature that's soft and fuzzy," she says. "I never purported to write something to make everyone happy or that was easy to read. I wanted to write something to make people think and feel."