‘A heartbreaker and a heart mender’: how Sapphire’s Push birthed a new American heroine

In the Reagan years, I was a teenager, more reader than writer, when I discovered the work of Sapphire. As a college student, I hung out with a cluster of intense, arty types, sharing battered copies of chapbooks, zines and small-press volumes. My good friend Angela passed me a sheaf of xeroxed pages by an author who called herself Sapphire. What I remember most clearly was a poem from the point of view of Celestine Tate Harrington, the quadriplegic boardwalk singer who fought the city for custody of her child. The poem was defiant as the speaker focused less on the joys of motherhood and more on ownership of her sexuality. Angela speculated that Sapphire would likely never receive her due in the world of letters, because she had chosen as her subject the people whose bodies are stigmatised, whose families are pathologised, and whose very lives are held up as everything America rejects. “She is a hero,” Angela declared, and I nodded in solemn agreement.

Imagine our shock and delight in 1996 when the entire literary world was on fire with the publication of Push – the author had been given a major advance, the first chapter would appear in the New Yorker, and there would be a serious book tour. I called Angela, as we were now living on opposite sides of the country, trying to figure out adult life. “Is that our Sapphire?” This was pre-internet, so I ran to the bookstore. The slick packaging was a far cry from the tattered pages we’d passed back and forth, and the woman in the author photo wore a close crop instead of long, thick dreadlocks, but the fingerprint of an author is her words.

Push is told in the extraordinary voice of Claireece “Precious” Jones, who introduces her story with an agonising declaration: “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.” From there unspools a novel that is a merciless indictment of a society that abandons its most vulnerable citizens.

Without a doubt, Precious has trouble aplenty. In addition to being impregnated by her father twice, she is also sexually abused and beaten by her mother. She is functionally illiterate, obese and destitute. She lives at the intersection of racism, sexism, classism, colourism and more. Yet while her life is certainly shaped by these forces, they do not compromise her vibrant humanity.

Push the novel is much like Precious herself. Some critics were appalled by the very idea of this story, with this heroine, being held up as an important work of literature – just as Precious herself, walking down the streets of Harlem, endures stares and sneers from people who resent the very fact of her existence. The response to this work was similar to that of The Color Purple, with some of the same critics bitterly complaining that the novel failed to present black men in a positive light. But this novel, like Precious herself, finds its people.

Tayari Jones: ‘I called my college friend, breathless and clutching the slim book to my breast.’
Tayari Jones: ‘I called my college friend, breathless and clutching the slim book to my breast.’ Photograph: Peyton Fulford/The Observer

Precious’s people are Ms Rain, the teacher from Each One Teach One, the alternative school where Precious learns to read and, just as important, to write. There, she meets an unforgettable cadre of young women who create a community that heals their trauma and empowers them, both on the pages of their journals as well as in their day-to-day lives. Push is a heartbreaker and a heart mender in one.

Push’s people are those who know first hand the trouble Sapphire has seen. They are the survivors, the first responders, the essential workers and the school teachers. They are also those who have never known the pain of homelessness, Aids or incest, but who desire a world without these scourges.

A novel is a work of art, and Push is no exception. The miracle of Sapphire’s gift is that she weaves her sharp social commentary and critique into the fabric of this story without shredding its fibres. This is a novel about people and their problems, not problems and their people. Sapphire the poet begat Precious, a poet in her own right. The book is like a crown of sonnets, each movement lending an image to the next, building upon itself, growing in beauty and intensity.

This is no easy read. It is accessible but, no, never easy. The experience of reading this novel is best captured in the scene from which the novel takes its name, when Precious gives birth on the kitchen floor. As she is racked with labour pains, the parmedic coaches: “When that shit hit you again, go with it and push, Preshecita. Push.” Sapphire wants us not to push past the pain, injustice and trauma. Instead, we must push through it. We must feel it to be changed by it. By the last page, we don’t have the type of happy ending that Precious would call a “Color Purple”. Yet we have the gift of a new day and a mandate to act. When I finished Push in 1996, I immediately called my college friend, breathless and clutching the slim book to my breast. “It’s the same Sapphire. I can tell.” “Yeah,” Angela sighed. “It’s her. Always a hero.”

Push by Sapphire has been reissued by Vintage. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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