(Language Advisory: This conversation contains language that may be considered too graphic for young listeners.)
Movie fans know the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones — the pregnant African-American teen who was a victim of incest and abuse — from the provocative, award-winning film Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe. The movie was based on the novel Push by Sapphire.
Sapphire's second novel, The Kid, is out this week. It opens with the funeral of Precious, who has died of complications related to her HIV/AIDS infection, and then follows her son, Abdul Jamal Jones, as he grows up.
Abuse is central to the experiences of both Precious and Abdul. In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Sapphire says Abdul begins a downward spiral after the death of his mother. He is placed in foster care, where he faces physical and sexual abuse. He then goes into a Roman Catholic orphanage and is victimized again.
Ultimately, Abdul becomes a victimizer himself.
"This is what happens to a vast majority of people who have been abused," Sapphire says. "There is a cycle of abuse that is very much above water, and then there's another area of the cycle that is very much hidden. That's part of what I wanted to bring out in the text."
For example, at one point, one of Abdul's abusers says to him, "Show me some love." A few pages later, Abdul repeats the phrase to one of his own victims.
Sapphire says she wanted to show how an innocent boy is transformed by his negative experiences.
"I don't want you to forget as a reader, even though you've had to go to some hard places, how Abdul is transformed by his positive experiences," she adds. "Precious has imbued in him a deep sensibility of ambition, and he is transfixed by the idea of becoming an artist, which actually puts a harness on some of the bad things he would do."
The novel highlights not just the transformative power of art, but also of memory. Sapphire explains that when Abdul conjures up memories of his mother, he stays emotionally alive. For example, she says, when Abdul dances he says he feels "warm and dark like my mom."
But — spoiler alert — the book does not offer a feel-good ending. Abdul is ultimately confronted by a doctor who allows him to see himself, to stop pointing the finger at the world and look at himself as a victimizer. "If he's willing to go back with the truth about who he is, we get the feeling that he can begin to get a life," Sapphire says.
Her book is also an indictment of society, she says: "We do see what happens when there was a loss of social services, and there was no safety net. So the child fell. We also see what has happened through centuries of people turning a blind eye to what was happening in our religious institution. The abuse that Abdul suffers in the Catholic Church is in the media now. But it has existed as long as I can remember."
When asked how she keeps such graphic images in her head, Sapphire explains that she doesn't hold onto them. "Sometimes I don't even remember what I've written," she says. "To create the art that I create, I have to compartmentalize. I can't stay in it."
Sapphire refuses to concede a step to critics who claim her writing is so graphic as to occasionally be regarded as unrealistic.
"I could write another way. I choose to write this way," she says.