This month’s Across the Page includes three books that feature lesbian or bisexual characters and that have made it to the big screen: Sapphire’s Push, a harrowing coming-of-age story about a teenager who turns to words in an attempt to survive her abusive past; Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, an erotic murder mystery told in verse; and Ernest Hemingway’s controversial posthumous novel The Garden of Eden, about a young couple whose marriage is challenged when they invite another woman into their relationship.
Push by Sapphire (Vintage)
At sixteen-years old, Claireece Precious Jones (Precious), the narrator of Sapphire’s debut novel Push, is illiterate, obese and pregnant for the second time with her father’s child.
Her first child born of incest has Down syndrome (“Down Sinder. She’s retarded”) and was conceived when Precious was twelve. Precious’s own mother is not much better—physically, sexually and emotionally abusive, she often refers to her daughter as a “Slut! Nasty ass tramp!”
The treatment Precious suffers under both hands is graphic and brutal to read, particularly because it is written from her perspective and in her language—“How you gonna marry me and you is my daddy,” she thinks during one of the rape scenes. “I’m your daughter, f**king me illegal. But I keep my mouf shut so’s the f**king don’t turn into a beating.”
Life begins to slowly and unexpectedly change for Precious when she joins a pre-G.E.D program and comes under the influence of Blue Rain (“Miz Rain”), a dedicated and radical literacy teacher who also happens to be a lesbian.
One of the most important ways that Blue Rain helps Precious is by encouraging her to write her own story in a journal. The idea terrifies Precious: “I don’t remember never doing no writing before. My head spinning. I’m scared.”
But it is here that Precious, away from her abusive family and oppressive neighborhood, finally finds her voice. Push is the record of this journey, and the entries track both Precious’s emotional and intellectual growth as her writing and language develops.
Gabourey Sidibe as Precious in the film version of Push
Precious also finds a connection through various support groups, a place where she sees her pain reflected in other characters. Sapphire connects Precious’s ability to articulate herself to her capacity to understand her experiences. Her story is transformative, powerful, and in the end, more tragic than Precious, Blue Rain or even the reader expected.
Push is also about redemption and both the small and big steps a person has to take in order to survive an abusive past. Though it is Blue Rain who provides Precious a safe place for this growth, the novel shows that changing one’s life is often more about self-determination and enlightenment.
Sapphire is a poet, performance artist and teacher—all roles and experiences she uses to make the characters and world of Push excruciatingly authentic. The novel was published in 1996 and while the film version has yet to be released, it won several awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for director Lee Daniels. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe stars as Precious and Paula Patton plays Blue Rain.
The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter (Arcade)
It’s an old adage, but in this case entirely true: the book version of Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, an erotic murder mystery written in verse, is better than the movie.
Lesbian private investigator Jill Fitzpatrick is hired to find Mickey Norris, a young poet and college student who’s gone missing. Though Jill is tough (“I like my courage/ physical/ I like my courage/ with a dash of danger”), she is in for more than she initially imagined when she promises Mickey’s parents “‘I’ll bring her home.’”
The book takes places in Sydney, Australia, and explores the darker side (who knew?) of the city’s poetry scene. Jill stumbles across her fair share of corruption and sleaze and the case gets even more complicated when Mickey’s poetry teacher, Diana Maitland, enters the picture.
Jill is quickly taken Diana’s seduction. “She’s got eyes/ that flirt or fight/ she’s gritty/ she’s bright/ oh Christ help me/ she’s a bit of alright!” The two begin an affair despite Diana’s marriage to Nick, or “Mr. Diana,” and their relationship is intense and distracting from the start:
As Jill moves closer to unraveling the mystery and receives disturbing news about Mickey, she has to question everyone around her, including Diana: “she taught me/ to drop my guard/ close my eyes / and fall over.” But even here, all is not what it seems.