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Taking the Shot

Writer Nina Revoyr Knows From Experience That the Basketball Court Can Be a Good Place to Get Your Head Together

March 20, 1997|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many have written, earnestly and eloquently, about sports as salvation. And about their uneasy place in urban America's consciousness. About how too many kids hang their hopes, their entire precarious futures on elusive dreams of fast money and the embrace of the spotlight.

For young men, sandlots or asphalt courts can, with enough imagination, become diamonds or buffed-to-gleaming gymnasiums: a distant but not unattainable dream.

But for young women who possess a gift of speed, agility, grace and a modicum of confidence, the chance of following that route up and out is even more remote.

For those who seize that chance, even "up and out" is like a fast break off a cliff, a body suspended in hang time over a yawning life chasm. For women who excel athletically (except, perhaps, at tennis or golf) find rewards scarce in the professional world on the other side.

This is just the incidental music in Nina Revoyr's new novel, "The Necessary Hunger" (Simon & Schuster). One of many compelling themes wending through a complex smear of the politics of gender, sexual orientation, class and race, interracial friendship, interracial love, intolerance and acceptance, with Los Angeles and its frantic mix and contradictions as theater in the round.

The story is told as a not-always-longing backward look through the eyes of Nancy Takahiro, an Inglewood High senior and star forward, whose entire sphere of existence (when it isn't diverted by Raina, the young woman and athletic equal who drives her to distraction) is the ritual of basketball:

[It] was more of a calling than a sport, it was . . . sustenance; it underpinned our lives. . . . Every Sunday morning, as I drove the 28 miles from our house in Inglewood to a gym in Cerritos, I saw well dressed people on their way to the churches, mosques and synagogues that were scattered throughout Southern California. . . . The only differences between my faith and theirs were that I wore workout clothes instead of my Sunday best and that I worshiped every day.

Pressing one's body and spirit to their limits, Revoyr knows, has more import than a tally of impressive stats and gilded laurels at season's end.

"When girls grow up they are socialized to be objects, to be looked at and acted upon," says Revoyr from her home in Ithaca, N.Y. "Sports is where they act . . . in terms of positive things, instead of sexualized things. Studies show that if you are comfortable with your body, that translates into being comfortable in other things in your life and your career."

In Nancy, her quietly conflicted, gently nuanced Japanese American protagonist, Revoyr has constructed the model post-restrictive housing covenant, post-white flight, post-upwardly mobile people of color flight, urban border town dweller.

"It was a very personal thing," says Revoyr, who is of Japanese and Polish American descent and grew up in Los Angeles herself. "I wanted to talk about L.A.--the physical part of L.A. that doesn't appear enough in fiction."

Nancy's feet are firmly planted on either side of the racial divide: living in the skin and traditions of her own culture and learning the rhythms of the dominant culture outside--the one that would most significantly augment her worldview:

It's not that I ever forgot who I was, or that I wanted to. But I had no history yet--or rather, no sense of the history that I had. I was trying hard to be accepted, which meant trying to be black; I didn't know, yet, what it meant to be Japanese.

Reflecting on process, Revoyr says: "I didn't say, starting out, 'I'm going to talk about all these issues.' But . . . obviously in what I was writing about, all these things were going to come into play. It was very important for me to portray ideas about class and race. I just hoped that the implications would work out for themselves."

*

Revoyr grew up in Culver City, a crook of Los Angeles County that in many ways was an integrationist's petri dish. A proving ground for all collected around its rim, that if this thing, this larger concept called integration was going to work--the seeds of its success would take root here where cultures convened, languages merged, and interest and identity ultimately intersect.

"Culver City is such a microcosm of the entire country," says Revoyr, aware of the city's rich mix of cultures--Irish, Cuban, Indian, Thai, Argentine--but equally aware that despite proximity, "Definitely people tend to stick with their own. One of the things that moved people out of their racial group was the sports team."

Like Nancy, who finds a solid place among her African American teammates, Revoyr got off the social and literal sidelines by developing her physical prowess. Being 5 feet, 10 inches didn't hurt.

Ultimately, her sense of self bloomed on the court and then transferred to the world beyond it.

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