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It Was a Rare Visit With a Rare Author

July 28, 1998|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even if it wasn't a sanctuary, it just may as well have been.

White Hall, a multipurpose room at Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles, was just that for the 700 who filed in to pay respects and say thank you. The room was bathed with something airy, indescribable and, consequently, indelible.

Die-hards had put punctuation to things early, even for a Friday. Slipping out of work, eyes cast over the shoulder. They were the ones who began filling up the front rows at the West Adams district church, a little after 5 p.m., even though the lecture wasn't until 7.

You see, Toni Morrison, novelist and Nobel laureate, was making a rare visit West, and things would just get done. In their own time.

Killing hours, fans broke up into ad hoc groups for discussion. Sharing their "First Toni," their "Most Memorable Toni," their "Life-Changing Toni" experiences.

"She's been my favorite author since the 'Bluest Eye,' " said Janis Moore, who teaches hearing-impaired K-8 students for the L.A. Unified School District. She'd grabbed a chair early on, fifth row, dead center. "There was no question. I had to be here."

That promise of a visit (one of her few L.A. appearances since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993), hosted by Eso Won Books had convened a diverse gathering--generationally, racially. Book collectors, children, babies, filmmakers, teachers, musicians, bank tellers, students, writers of various disciplines. There were seasoned poets, like Saundra Sharp. Emerging poets like Ruth Forman. Midnight poets, who hide their scribbling in loose-leaf journals who were there to say thank you, even it was a silent one. For those, the mantra seemed to be: "If not for Toni . . . ."

At the stroke of 7, elegant and magisterial, Morrison took the stage to a standing ovation. Layered in flowing skirt and tunic, the color of putty, an accent drape the color of fresh moss, her dreadlocks long, pinned elegantly in back, swirled down her neck and shoulders like the arcs and curlicues of Gothic script.

Before dipping into two selections from "Paradise" (Knopf), Morrison explained her circuitous route to Los Angeles. The tail-end of her spring tour had been eaten away by calendar demands; Morrison having to get back to her teaching duties at Princeton University, where she is Robert F. Goheen professor. But the West Coast, she explained, stayed on her mind.

"I knew I had a good readership here. I called my publicist and said: 'Can you get me into some of the independent bookstores? African American bookstores?' I said in a pointed manner," this detail uttered with an eyebrow arch; the audience responding with appreciative applause.

Morrison shared homilies: rules to live and dream by. And like the best of sermons, she left everyone with something to vex or celebrate over, to fit into the template of their lives. Fielding a range of inquiries--from the writing process, African American literature, morality, isolation--the most daring was the question of "how to read" one of Morrison's books. The question inspired a brief twist of the nose: "I know what your imagination is like. I know how difficult it can be. But it is what I write toward. [As a reader] I don't want to be patronized. So it doesn't matter if you don't get it all the first time. You might get more the second. The third. I read books at 19 that changed at 28. That changed at 34. It's like music that is complicated emotionally as well as technically."

A receiving line that whipped around the perimeter of the room provided closure. Morrison wasn't signing; instead, she was greeting with hugs and handshakes, sitting in the big, pink ministerial chair, smiling up, calming the speechless.

"So, Miss Morrison, you think that that is your Nobel Prize. . . ?" local teacher Yvonne Hutchinson asked in her opening remarks. She knew she needn't finish the thought. It was understood.

The gift was shared.

Hers and ours.

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