Important Note: The following post contains very mature (but not graphic) content, and MAJOR spoilers for The Kid by Sapphire. If you’re sensitive to rape or interested in reading The Kid, don’t read this post.
We all here? Braced yourselves? Good.
I have a bone to pick with you. It’s about The Kid. I know you’re edgy, and poetic, and that you like unflinching looks at poverty and abuse, but enough is enough.
Listen, I loved Push (even if I keep calling it Precious in my head, due to seeing the movie before reading the book). We all loved Push. You took an obese, illiterate girl, pregnant by her father and forgotten by the world around her, and demanded that we recognize how precious she was. Her journey to learn to read and write at Each One Teach One was one of independence and empowerment. We watched her confront racist and homophobic attitudes she had held, realize gracefully that she had been wrong about others, and find strength in the realization that many others had underestimated her as well. Precious was kind and brave, reflective and irrepressible. By the end of the book, we knew she was destined to die young of AIDS, but we also got to see her rescue her children, establish her own community/family, and claim her worth as a woman, student, mother, and friend. She was an inspiration.
Then, in the opening pages of The Kid, we saw her funeral, not realizing this was also the funeral of everything she had stood for. Listen, I understand that the “gritty reality” suggests that one success story won’t change a corrupt system or society, but I have to protest how you handled the story of this family. I was saddened when Abdul had to be placed into foster care, heartsick when an emotionally troubled child beat him badly enough to cause permanent damage, and devastated when Abdul is sexually abused in both the foster home and Catholic orphanage where he was supposed to be safe. I was disgusted, however, when he began molesting other children.
Here is the thing, Sapphire. I know that in reality, the abused often grow up to be abusers. It’s ugly, but it happens. I can understand that if you want to portray something “real,” you need to address this. However, we’re still in the realms of the literary, and the poetic. As your protagonist, Abdul is more than a person. He is the manifestation of what the story stands for. If you draw a connection between the woman who rose above her own abuse and the son who was raped and went on to rape children, over and over, with no sense of remorse, then you negate the literary idea that you had established in Push. You are telling me that there is no point in working to overcome abuse, because as soon as you are gone the cycle picks back up where it left off, with relish.
Also, I want to express that at a certain point, even something as terrible as rape takes on an element of parody. Abdul was raped by a priest. Tough? Well, Precious was raped by her father and pregnant at 12. Abdul’s great-grandmother sees the challenge and raises it by being raped and pregnant at 10. Precious gave birth to her first baby in the kitchen with her mother kicking her? Fine. Great-grandma gave birth to her first baby in a field with several people kicking her. It starts to feel like a matter of, “oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ’til you hear this…” In a scene where Great-Grandmother Toosie is telling Abdul more than he wants to hear, he stands up and starts frantically masturbating over the kitchen table, and it feels more like a pornographic version of Dueling Banjos than anything “real.” You seem to assume any character in your book was raped, and it’s only a matter of time and pages before we get a vivid account, but by the time we hear Abdul’s adult friends confessing their molestation stories, our response is verging on “So what?”
Maybe your point is to desensitize us to it, but if that’s the case then I’m wondering again what you hope to achieve by doing so.
Okay, so then we’re supposed to regain our sympathy for Abdul the Unremorseful Child Rapist because now he can dance. African dance, ballet, he’s working hard and getting good at it. Whatever. I don’t care. Here’s why I don’t care, Sapphire: when Precious worked hard at writing, it went along with a change in her character. She transformed, becoming more self-confident and more tolerant. She had her tragedies and she had her flaws and education helped her face both of them. Precious learned about acceptance and real, trusting relationships while she learned to read and write. When Abdul learns to dance he’s still living with an abuser, still insisting he’s “a good kid,” still stunned and angry when one of the kids he raped comes back to confront him. When he thinks about the child whose face he had to press down into a pillow to get his way, he’s still imagining the child liked it. I do not care how good a dancer you are if the body that dances houses that kind of a monster.
Then there’s the ending. I’m a fairly traditionally-minded reader in that I like endings to feel like the natural, inevitable continuation/conclusion of the story. Surprise is lovely, but except in rare circumstances, finding out it was all a dream doesn’t cut it. Fantasy time travel definitely doesn’t cut it. What you’ve opted to do, Sapphire, is give us Door Number 3: The Insanity Plea, and spend the last sixty-some pages in a fugue state where Abdul is in an asylum for (what else? Come on, say it with me!) raping a kid. In the confusing final pages, what I understand to have happened is that the psychoanalyst hears Abdul’s confession of rape, decides he has a fighting spirit, and distracts the orderly to let him make a break for it.
Sapphire, I don’t know what happened to change your work from poignant, devastating poetry about the reality of abuse and the power of humanity to a spewing, mouth-frothing rapefest, but please reverse it. Bring back transformation. Bring back meaning. Bring back the poetry of your characters, instead of wallowing in lavish detail over each instance of unforgivable, unrelenting abuse. Bring back the reason to read your work.
Until then, I remain,