Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Push by Sapphire

"Father," she say. "What's your daddy's name?
"Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the Bronx."

She say, "Whats the baby's father's name?"
I say, "Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the same Bronx." 
She quiet quiet. Say, "Shame, thas a shame. Twelve years old, twelve years old," ... 
She say, "Was you ever, I mean did you ever get to be a chile?" Thas a stupid question, did I ever get to be a chile? I am a chile. 

After reading Atonement I think I thought I was ready to tackle all the other horribly depressing books on my To Read List, and thus I picked up Push. It's a short first-person novel, so we as the audience are getting everything from Precious's perspective and in her voice. Many readers find the phonetic spellings and illiteracy to be frustrating or a bad attempt at 'keepin' it real' (as spelled in several 1-star amazon reviews),'s how some people talk? 

I spent four years teaching in a minority-majority urban school and her voice felt very true to me, particularly how she acts in class. One second she is refusing to follow directions and yelling "Mutherfucker I ain't deaf!" and when she refuses to leave the classroom she says "I ain' going nowhere mutherfucker till the bell ring. I came here to learn maff and yo gon' teach me" and then her internal monologue reveals, "I didn't want to hurt or embarass him like that you know. But I couldn't let him, anybody, know, page 122 look like page 152, 22, 3, 6, 5 - all the pages look alike to me. 'N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like on TV. I'm gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me - I'm gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class. But again, it has not been that day." Finally, when the other kids start acting up, she tries to keep them in line. "In fac' some of the other natives get restless I break on 'em. I say, 'Shut up mutherfuckers I'm tryin' to learn something.'" All of these are so true - teens talk that way, teens FEEL that way (that they will magically wake up and their problems will be solved), teens who are illiterate, and teens who are disruptive and failing and then defend you against other kids for seemingly no reason.

The subject matter is obvious from the first page, so I haven't given anything away. However, it is more depressing, more joyful, more funny, more uplifting, and more fucked up than these opening quotes indicate. 

Everything, from the description of the sexual abuse to the other people in the GRE prep course to the way that every system in place to protect children and women and poor people often makes it impossible for them to make real meaningful changes to improve their life situations in a permanent way...felt true. 

In contrast to the haters who feel like this book is trying too hard, promoting stereotypes, and glamorizing poverty and sexual abuse, I have to agree with Sapphire in this interview  where she says she felt she had to write this novel because "[she] had the intense feeling that if [she] didn't write this book no one else would" and that the story forces people to see "an obese black woman as a feeling, intelligent person, as a person who dreams, as a person who wants the things that [the audience] wants."

This novel moved me emotionally in a way that I haven't been moved in a long time, and I think it is a very important book, especially for anyone who thinks they want to work with someone like Precious in education or social work. 

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