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A Voice That Carries

When Bebe Moore Campbell Speaks--and Writes--She Traverses a Variety of Emotional and Societal Terrain, Including African American Life.

March 13, 1998|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When we think about voice--an author's voice to be precise--it's beyond the sound that emerges from the mouth, the manner in which he or she might orally shape a story, its rests, its stresses. It is about one's bearing and authority, about claiming emotional territory and doing so with unmitigated confidence.

All this, of late, is what is threading through Bebe Moore Campbell's consciousness. Messages. Modeling. Resonance. All of it in the last few days and moments before her own book tour commences, the one-woman roadshow to promote her new novel, "Singing in the Comeback Choir" (Putnam).

In the waning quiet there's some prep work, centering to tend to. Campbell's just finished reading "Paradise," Toni Morrison's latest, long-awaited message to her masses. And she's sort of lit with it, flush, like one is after a long hard run. ("She gave me permission to be, just her being there," Campbell says as if lifted by a charismatic's lesson.) Consequently, it's the first business to dispense with, as if checking in on the whereabouts of a mutual friend: "Have you read it yet?" she implores, peering through stylishly thick, black-framed oval lenses.

"The thing that I love about Toni is that she doesn't have to stay in one place," continues Campbell, dressed demurely in shades of gunmetal gray, a black cloche set round the tops of her ears. She settles into a corner away from the reggae-splashing speakers tucked throughout Coley's Jamaican Kitchen, a quick coast from her View Park home. "That she refuses to stay in one place. That we have to come along with her. I like her attitude, it's like: I'm going over here now; you people just have to catch up with me."

Campbell's voice--her speaking one--sounds like drizzled honey. Her homes have somehow stuck to it, wound themselves within it: It struts with a bit of Philadelphia, the sway of North Carolina, Atlanta and a sprinkling of Southern California spring laced through.

Her author's voice is equally varied and before lighting on fiction had traveled through the worlds of political commentary, nonfiction and memoir. Consequently, her novels are threaded through with unwieldy sociopolitical preoccupations of the moment--race, class and gender politics, to name a few.

Campbell's concerned about message and point of view as a way to elevate popular fiction. And thus, though lyric in moments, her earlier two novels, "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine" and "Brothers and Sisters" (Putnam, 1992, 1994), are issue-weighty--full of jangled nerves and sharp edges.

Race, and the politics around it, is obviously still something that compels Campbell, but this time, at 48, the married mother of two kids, she's homing in on a way to write about it more metaphorically, letting it burrow itself beneath the story--just as it does within so much of our lives: We know about it when we step on it.

The new book dips in and out of the disparate, suddenly merging priorities of Maxine McCoy, a late-30ish executive producer in L.A. who's dodging her way through a maze of mishaps on the TV talk-show circuit.

As a black woman, Maxine plays corporate hardball in virtual isolation. At the same time, she's wrapped in worry about her teetering marriage, her child on the way--all at the very moment she's suddenly pulled back to her old Philly neighborhood, to the heart of a decaying inner city and to her grandmother who is ill, but more infuriatingly, obstinate.

Set on whittling away what's left of her life with cigarettes and scotch, the once great and now self-silenced singer, Malindy Walker, is left like the rest on Sutherland Street to figure out why everyone has seen fit to desert them.

"Comeback" is a book infused with sweet-scented homilies. The book's strength is its conversation: chattering gossips, know-it-alls, been-through-it-alls. It's full of women who stuff their drawers with buttons and pencils and decorate their coffee tables with years' worth of Jet magazines, arranged like a centerpiece fan. It's a tight clutch of men, women, "grandmothers, bilingual women fluent in English and Leather Belt," telling their stories 'round a kitchen table, cajoling, "Whatcha know good?" arguing about nothing and everything--remarkably familiar voices that scare up history and home.

"I think of our neighborhoods as a beat-up old singer, like Lindy, down-and-out, lost her voice, out of tune," says Campbell, "and we need a vocal coach . . . someone to take us through the paces, up and down the scale."

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