With Push, Sapphire introduced us to Precious Jones’ unforgettable tale of uphill survival against incredible odds. Precious’ son, Abdul, is the focus of The Kid, where the author continues to unabashedly dig under the filthy devastation that AIDS and horrifying abuse has unleashed upon the African-American community. We asked Sapphire what drove her to continue telling this story.

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You’ve previously described Precious as a survivor. Is Abdul also a survivor?

Abdul is a survivor in the fact that he is alive, stays alive and goes on to become an artist. Would he have been driven to act out in some of the ways he does if his mother had lived and been able to protect him? We don’t know, but what we do see is that the death of his mother alters his life and personality irrevocably. But we also see the fierce love and desire to be somebody that Precious instills in him is never totally stamped out and aids in his survival after she is gone.

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Why tell Abdul’s story without Precious?

Abdul’s story, that of an orphaned child trying to make his way in the world is a common conceit in western literature. I found it an ideal vehicle for showing how America doesn’t function for certain segments of society, particularly young African-American males, who ironically are then themselves classified as dysfunctional. My efforts to create a powerful and unforgettable character that embodied what it means to be human were aided by Abdul’s particular set of circumstances—being an orphan, being homeless and being fiercely talented and ambitious.

The Kid is not a sequel in a traditional sense in that we don’t enter into and follow up on the life of Precious Jones. It is a sequel in the sense it continues to look at the profound effects of AIDS on the African-American community. I would posit that AIDS/HIV has hit us as hard as slavery in some ways, and that the way AIDS has been dealt with in the black community has been directly related to our disenfranchised position in American society. The Kid resonates on many levels and has many reasons for being and indeed one of them is to show the continuing impact of the loss of our “precious” one(s).

Dream state vs. reality permeates the book—does Abdul suffer from a mental illness or is it merely a coping mechanism?

Abdul is a sane person to whom insane, inexplicable, to his child’s mind, and inhumane things have happened. These experiences fragment his psyche and at times we see the extremes of mental processes like denial and dissociation. He says it in the novel, “I feel shattered.” Dreaming, denial and dissociation from reality are coping mechanisms he employs to stay sane, to counter the further defragmentation of his psyche, and to ward off guilt and self-disgust.

After reading certain passages, I’d close the book and hold it closed, like I was willing what I had just read to back into the book or to at least stay there and not come out. Is the use of truly harrowing and vivid abuse necessary to “grab” the reader and not let them look away and forget?

Carolyn Forché wrote a poem called “The Colonel” about, among other things, the repressive regime in El Salvador. In the poem ‘the colonel’ spills a bag of severed ears on a table in front of the poet. With this rendering of experience we are forced by Forché to focus on something that, for many of us, if it was outside the realm of art would be more than we could bear. I believe this is what art is capable of—allowing us to see and bear what we might not otherwise be able to. I studied with Carolyn Forché in 1989. I came away from her workshop with the conviction that art had a job and it wasn’t to describe the sunset.