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A community tells Toni Morrison how much it loves her as she visits Harlem to read from and talk about her new book.


NEW YORK — She is one of the world's most celebrated authors, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III told almost 2,000 congregants at the Abyssinian Baptist Church here Sunday. "And if there's anybody on Mars who knows what we're doing down here, she's celebrated there, also."

Here in Harlem, where almost 30 years ago the Princeton professor and author of a string of top-selling novels gave her first public reading, her credentials were met with acclaim. But what mattered most in the grand sanctuary of the church made legendary by the late Rev. Adam Clayton Powell was that the Nobel Prize-winning author was known more simply this Sabbath as Sister Toni Morrison.

"Sister Beloved," said Pastor Butts, using the fond honorific of his denomination. "That's probably the most important thing."

Newcomers at Abyssinian stand to be welcomed, and as Morrison rose, the crowd thundered its greeting. Soon, the whole church was on its feet. Butts beamed down from the marble proscenium. Morrison smiled and let her eyes circle the sanctuary. It was a sublime moment. "Reverential," Morrison said later.

Without doubt, the feeling was mutual. Following the service, Morrison read from her rich new novel, "Paradise" (Alfred A. Knopf). It seemed fitting, she agreed, to come back to Harlem to launch the final volume of the trilogy that began with "Beloved" in 1987, followed five years later by "Jazz."

Morrison, a Depression-era daughter of a ship welder and a homemaker from Lorain, Ohio, was an editor at Random House when her first book, "The Bluest Eye," came out in 1970. She had two young sons and a marriage that was foundering. Life was chaotic enough--and a career as a writer, at that point, sufficiently unreal--that the debut novel of Chloe Anthony Wofford came out with a childhood sobriquet for a first name and a soon-to-be-jettisoned-husband's patronymic for a surname. By the time she saw the first dust jacket, it was too late to think of becoming anyone other than Toni Morrison.

When the owner of a Harlem bookstore called Liberty House and asked her to come up and read from "The Bluest Eye," Morrison jumped on the subway and got off at 125th Street. The only piece of furniture was an old barber's chair in the center of the store. She sat in the chair and captivated her audience.

Now, at 66, Morrison was once again enthralling her listeners, albeit in a setting of considerably more grandeur. The marble stage was so slick it was scary, Morrison said later. But standing there in a long black dress slit boldly up one side, she looked regal, not remotely tentative. She wore gold hoop earrings, gold-heeled pumps and a golden pendant shaped like the continent of Africa. Her hair has turned smoky; wrapped in dreadlocks that twisted halfway down her back, it looked like a skein of soft gray wool.

"Paradise" is a strong novel that plays with paganism and with the complicated religious fervor of a fictional, all-black hamlet in Oklahoma in the 1970s. For her reading, she carefully selected a pair of churchy passages. "I thought it would resonate in this place," she explained afterward. "And there were not a lot of suitable sections." She threw back her head and laughed. "Paradise" is nothing if not an ironic title for a book she thought about calling "War."

With an obvious pride of ownership, she read her prose in clear, passionate tones. Her listeners on Sunday loved it. But what they really relished was the long question-and-answer period that followed. Almost to a one, they began with near-devotional homage.

"Ms. Morrison," said her first questioner, "let me thank you first of all for your deep and abiding love of black people."

"Ms. Morrison," said another, "I have to start by thanking you for the body of your works."

How does she develop names for her characters? "Generally speaking, they have to introduce themselves to me, with a name," she replied--although, she added, "I have worked with characters where I later concluded that what I thought was their name was not their name. I found it difficult to get them to say or do anything interesting."

When did you know, another questioner wondered, that you would set a pen to paper? "I didn't want to be a writer as a young person," she disclosed. "I was quite happy to be a reader. And I do not remember my life, literally, before I could read. I didn't come to life as a writer until I was in my 30s." She paused to survey an audience in which many members were considerably older than that. "So," she declared, "there is always hope."

Love and its enduring complexity is a frequent theme for Morrison. God has a habit of showing up, too, although not always in the most benevolent of capacities. An audience member wrapped up this duality by inquiring, "If God is love, why does it seem God has given us so much trouble?" To which Morrison responded, "That's a private question."

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