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The Search for Self

Race. Gender. Sexuality. Sure, April Sinclair's teenage heroine deals with all 'the big issues.' But don't look for any pat answers.

February 26, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | 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.

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.

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."

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.

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