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The Search for Self

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a “Linda Goodman Sun Signs” moment, an astrological intersection plucked fresh from the cusp of the beanbag ‘60s--just at the dawning of the mood-ring ‘70s. Author April Sinclair inspires the flashback:

Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, Sinclair’s savvy, sassy, 16-year-old protagonist of “Coffee Will Make You Black,” has just filled out and into her new sense of cool, of belonging.

“By the way, what’s your name? And your sign, while you’re at it?” asks Sean, the new dream man on campus. He’s crowned by a halo of a ‘fro, as “fine as he wants to be,” Stevie reverently observes, “Jermaine of the Jackson 5.” A senior to boot.

“I’m a Libra,” she tells Sean. A set of scales seeking balance.

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They take up teasing, he asks her out for a milkshake and--within paragraphs, the dream comes true--to be his heavy steady.

But mere pages later, Stevie, writhing in menstrual cramps and thus exiled to the nurse’s office, starts up a conversation with Miss Horn, a white woman testing her liberal politics at a predominately black South Side Chicago high school.

Somewhere within their tense exchange and their attempt to resolve it, Stevie feels the spark of something: “What if somebody walks in here and sees us all hugged up like we’re in a Hollywood movie? But it felt kinda good. . . . Then I began to inch away. . . . A warm feeling passed through me as I stumbled into the mad rush of students in the hallway. . . . Damn, I felt like running out and tasting a snowflake steda going to chemistry and making a stink bomb.”

In a flip, crackling style, Sinclair herself is concocting something far more complex and volatile than a chem class stink bomb.

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In both “Coffee” (Hyperion, 1994) and her latest novel, “Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice” (Hyperion, 1996), she measures in equal parts gender and race politics stirred up by Stevie’s budding sexuality. While calling up evocative cultural touchstones crossing race and gender lines, Sinclair turns up the amp on the black boomer experience--the ‘60s and ‘70s with hide nor hair of the Beatles. Wisecracks and antics aside, her books are all about balance. But they are also about searching--without limits--for the richer self.

Because Sinclair’s touch is light, at first it doesn’t seem a potent dose. Yet she fervently rallies against the enforced borders of labels and the cells of pigeonholes.

This ambiguity makes Sinclair a problem poster girl--for anyone’s cause. And that’s just fine with her.

“With the first book some black people were upset,” says Sinclair, 41, glowing with “sistah-friend” warmth, her open smile at turns a foreshock to a temblor of a chuckle that swallows her words.

Her countenance softens the no-nonsense gray pinstripe traveling suit and black oxfords. The pink earrings dangling from her lobes accent the pink blouse peeking out through the V of the lapels. The look: Chi-town smoothed by Cali.

“ ‘How could you make [Nurse Horn] white?’ ‘Why didn’t you make her black and sensitive?’ ”

Sinclair frowns at that notion. “It brings up more issues this way.

“Now,” she says, sinking back into the couch in her West Hollywood hotel suite, “there are some people who think I was hard on white women in [the new] book. And lesbians hiss at Buster during readings when he tells Stevie she just hasn’t met the right man yet,” Sinclair says with a world-weary shrug, refusing to offer a tidy solution. “Life is not all that way.”

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But, undeniably, she’s struck some sort of a chord. From podiums, she’s looked out on a mosaic of faces--all colors, ages, sexualities--who have emerged bumped and bruised through at least one Stevie moment of their own.

Mothers, daughters in tow, who have never set foot in a bookstore for something as formal as a reading, buttonhole her: “ ‘Because of you, she was able to talk to me about something. . . .’ She couldn’t even say what ‘something’ was. But I knew. And she knew it. It was the way the daughter was standing there.”

Unbeknownst to Sinclair, she’d breathed life into an Everyteen/woman: A big-city girl who struggles with the usual coming-of-age quandaries, then dusts herself off--attitude intact.

“The crowd really responded to her, and not just black people,” says Roberta Dyer, co-owner of Broadway Books in Portland. “She has total recall of what it’s like to be a 12-year-old. And even though she’s from the South Side of Chicago and I’m a puny white girl from Southern California, I had the same apprehensions about being different that every 12-year-old on the planet did. She made me remember what it was like. And it was true. Every word was true.”

Maturing from shy outcast to opinionated iconoclast, Stevie begins to learn that identity is fluid, ever-changing--but not without judgment or consequence.

Learning to flirt with boys is just as important to her as exploring her perplexing feelings about Nurse Horn. She challenges her mother’s antiquated notions of beauty and refinement (processed hair and the king’s English) against her own (Afros and her grandmother’s just-folk tales). And while learning to articulate her own racial pride, she remains open--despite her friends’ and family’s warnings--to friendships with whites.

But writing frankly and vividly about bi- and homosexuality in a black milieu is rare to the pages of mainstream fiction. Novelist E. Lynn Harris holds up mirrors to the intimacies and complexities of black gay identity. “I, like April, don’t really like labels,” Harris says. “I’ve faced criticism for not being gay enough, that my success has come from not being real militant about gay issues but rather human rights.”

Harris, however, knowing his audience, approaches with caution. The challenge, he says, “is to do it with tender loving care. Not to offend but teach.”

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Sinclair has found the reaction to her work visceral.

“One woman wanted to go off on me and hadn’t even read the book,” she says of a journalist she encountered early on the tour: “ ‘Black men and women are trying to get their thing together and then you come out with this!’ And then when she saw she couldn’t label me a lesbian, that really got her.”

What made the woman uneasy, Sinclair imagines, is her notion that sexual identity is something one grows into, quite like a training bra or a 10-speed.

“There are thousands upon thousands of people who have had a lesbian or gay experience--whether it was in college or high school--with a friend or an attraction,” Sinclair says.

And so, like Harris, Sinclair chooses to teach but has most certainly felt the sting of detractors. “You get it from both sides. The politically correct on the right and the left. . . . The attitude has been: Choose a side and stick to it. But I think people are resisting that and saying that I don’t want to have to sign on the dotted line.”

These are weighty pronouncements in both communities and within their intersecting subsets. For black audiences, it’s even tricker. Messages about homosexuality, long hushed, scrambled or drowned out by the fury of fire and brimstone, have failed to find a powerful frequency.

“Bisexuality is always bigger in the black community than homosexuality,” Sinclair says, “because in white culture there is more of a tendency to define yourself. Having lived with a gay man [and] seen who he dealt with--men who would just stay in the closet, saying: ‘Well, I’m just dealing with a dude. I’m not gay, he is.’ ”

In both novels, Sinclair speaks to that range--from guarded silence to blind intolerance. And because of that and the erotic nature of Stevie’s new adventures, she wasn’t certain what to expect from her black audience this time out.

“I expected to be boycotted. But they surprised me,” she says with a victorious smile, pulling out notes and letters of support, a handmade pin with a cup and saucer. “People aren’t as closed as you’d think.”

*

What helps open them up is Stevie: An accessible, regular, ‘fro-wearing sistah, true to her volition, who doesn’t forget her hometown’s rhythms despite her crazy foray in the sexed-up hot tub and disco-inferno bedlam of ‘70s San Francisco.

In a sense it is fitting that Stevie would return here. The character made her debut on the Bay Area coffeehouse circuit. It was a way for then-actress Sinclair (accustomed to immediate feedback) to test her out on audiences. Since the early days, “They’ve really taken her to heart,” says Sinclair, realizing, though, that with love comes expectation.

“There’s a woman who heckled me . . . because she’s mad. She loved ‘Coffee’ but she doesn’t like the direction that Stevie took in this book. When I offered to sign it, she said she doesn’t want anything to do with it.” Sinclair leans into her rumble of a chuckle, “This is her Stevie. That’s how they get.”

She’s had a few charges to answer to among gays as well, in reaction to Stevie’s flip-flopping and Sinclair’s adamant refusal to label herself.

“I expected more. In some places when they want me to be on the cover of the magazines, a poster person, they are proud of me. But it’s all conditional. When they find out that I’m not labeling myself a lesbian, it’s like, ‘Oh.’ The cold shoulder.”

Even though, as Sinclair likes to put it, she and Stevie share the same heart, this is Stevie’s story. Not hers. Speculation about her own proclivities, she knew, was inevitable. While some readers want her to maintain a “mystique,” others demand her to be firm and clear. In response, she’s struck a linguistic compromise: “I’m bisensual . . . in that I can appreciate both. I love women, but I don’t want to live in a woman’s world. For my growth it’s important for me to have . . . an intimate relationship with a man. That’s important for my balance.”

A little elusive, perhaps, but Sinclair explains it allows room for investigation.

“I wanted to create a space for people to heal and also explore. I’m not promoting promiscuity or sexual exploration in and of itself,” she says.

For young people the message relieves the weight of expectation.

“You’re young, be young. You don’t have to be gay. You don’t have to be straight. You don’t have to be bisexual. Just be young,” and in the balance, “love yourself.”


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