Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Terry McMillan published her first novel, Mama, in 1987. On the strength of her evident skill in Mama, McMillan received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockland Center for the Arts, enabling her to write and publish Disappearing Acts in 1989. Her second book was received with less enthusiasm than her first; however, her third novel, Waiting to Exhale (1991), remained on The New York Times’s list of best sellers for more than six months.
Mama focused on a resilient single black mother rearing her family in the midst of poverty, drugs, and violence and succeeding against these social forces. The title character has power and originality. In Disappearing Acts, McMillan looks closely at the relational problems of a single and successful African American professional woman but leaves both protagonists’ development incomplete and their relationship in limbo. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, a romance, is similar to the popular fiction of Danielle Steele. However, its theme of specifically African American professional women supporting one another in their problematic relationships with men remains important.
In Disappearing Acts, McMillan first stepped away from the work of many other contemporary African American women novelists in her portrayal of a heroine comfortable with her sexuality and with white artistic norms. Moreover, Zora, unlike most African American fictional characters, lacks a strong foremother figure in her life. Such departures from the norm have earned the author some unfavorable criticism. Nevertheless, Disappearing Acts ranks as a valuable contribution to African American literature.