Terry McMillan Essay - Terry McMillan Long Fiction Analysis

Terry McMillan Long Fiction Analysis

Terry McMillan’s novels depict African American women whose lives are filled with personal crises, romantic entanglements, and conflicts as they aspire to upward mobility and professional success. The stories, written with honesty and humor and featuring engaging, interesting characters, chronicle the friendships between women and relationships between men and women. Considered autobiographical in tone, McMillan’s novels explore African American urban family life in an episodic format, using an “earthy” vernacular that some critics have found distracting but that McMillan defends as accurate. She contends that the amount of profanity her characters use reflects the way women of her era actually talk—and she is quick to comment that male writers are rarely chastised for the language they use, suggesting the existence of a double standard.

In regard to style, McMillan has expressed her belief that every sentence does not have to be perfect, that in fact her first draft is usually the “most honest.” She does not worry about how pretty her writing sounds or how lilting the imagery is, because most readers, she asserts, do not care about that sort of thing anyway. She believes that it is the people in the story who count; the human element and emotional responses are what make for interesting writing. Apparently, the critics’ opinions about some of her work have not been shared by McMillan’s fans, as most of her books have been commercial successes.

The themes of McMillan’s novels reflect what critics consider to be the author’s greater interest in material wealth and conspicuous consumption than in such unresolved issues as racial discrimination and women’s rights. Most critics agree, however, that her stories cross the lines of race and sex to reveal universal lessons of life and love, and that their engaging narratives, appealing characters, and insights into the contemporary African American experience are a valuable contribution to popular literature. McMillan’s upbeat novels about today’s black women are in fact a new literary genre.

Because her novels have strong, feisty black heroines, McMillan is often compared favorably to such black writers as Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. However flattering such comparisons may be, McMillan has stated her belief that African American women of her generation look at life differently from those earlier writers. Her heroines are intelligent, attractive, often unattached, often professionally successful middle-class black women who have strong, empowering relationships with each other and close ties with family. They also are often in disastrous relationships with the men in their lives.


The protagonist of Mama is Mildred Peacock, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of five who tries to hold things together when her abusive husband, Crooks, leaves her to deal with her own alcoholism and the bills that are piling up. To support her family, Mildred holds rent parties and takes all kinds of menial jobs, even working for a while as a prostitute. As her life sinks deeper and deeper into a morass of unpaid bills and increasing depression, she tries to escape more and more through alcohol. Finally, however, with her oldest daughter’s support, she begins to turn things around, even deciding to go to a community college to improve herself and her lot.

Mama has been praised for its realistic detail and powerful...

(The entire section is 1422 words.)