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Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, a largely working-class town northeast of Detroit. Her father, Edward Lewis McMillan, a sanitation worker, was an alcoholic. Her mother, Madeline Tillman McMillan, a hardworking, determined woman, finally tired of being physically abused by her husband and divorced him. He died three years later, at the age of thirty-nine.

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As the oldest of the five McMillan children, Terry had more than her share of responsibility. One of the jobs she took in order to contribute to the family income, however, brought her more than the meager $1.25 an hour she earned. When, at sixteen, she started shelving books at a local library, McMillan learned to love books. At first, seeing the classic works by writers such as the German novelist Thomas Mann and New England essayists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she assumed that all authors were white. Only when she saw the picture of African American writer James Baldwin on the cover of a novel did she realize that blacks, too, could be writers. Even though she as yet had no idea of becoming a novelist herself, McMillan would come to consider this moment a turning point in her life.

At seventeen, McMillan decided that there was no future for her in Port Huron. Leaving her job as a keypunch operator, she headed for Los Angeles, where she found secretarial work and enrolled at Los Angeles City College. There, in a course on African American classics, she learned for the first time about the richness of her own heritage.

For a writer who was to be preoccupied with relationships, it was appropriate that McMillan’s own first literary effort, a poem, was the result of an unhappy involvement with a man. Soon, she said, words began “turning into sentences.” She decided to major in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and she also began writing fiction. In 1976, thanks to the novelist Ishmael Reed, she saw her first short story in print.

It was to be eight years, however, before McMillan’s writing career would begin in earnest. First, she had to defeat her alcoholism and her drug habit, which had already begun to dominate her existence. After graduating from Berkeley in 1979, McMillan moved to New York City and enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, then dropped out of graduate school and started working as a word processor with a law firm. In her free time, instead of writing, McMillan drank and took drugs with her boyfriend, Leonard Welch. Finally, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, McMillan decided to change the direction of her life. She gave up cocaine and a few months later joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stopped drinking. In 1984, she had a son, Solomon. Several months later, seeing in her life the same pattern of abuse that she had observed in her own parents, McMillan broke off with Welch, resolving to make a new start for her baby and herself.

At the urging of friends in the Harlem Writers’ Guild, McMillan had turned one of her short stories into a novel, Mama. After it was accepted by Houghton Mifflin for publication in 1987, the author realized that her publisher intended to promote it only minimally. With characteristic determination, McMillan sent three thousand letters to universities, colleges, book chains, and independent booksellers, set up her own promotional tour, and managed to get the first printing of her book sold before it was even published. Her success at this venture amazed Houghton Mifflin and made McMillan a legend in the publishing world.

In 1987, McMillan took a teaching position at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and began work on her second novel, Disappearing Acts (1989). Praised by critics, the book became a best seller and was optioned for film production. McMillan followed it with a collection, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990), composed of fifty-seven selections by both established and relatively unknown black writers.

In August, 1990, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit was filed against McMillan and her publishers by Leonard Welch, who alleged that the character of Franklin Swift in Disappearing Acts was actually an unflattering picture of him. The case, however, was decided in McMillan’s favor.

In 1990, McMillan had accepted a teaching position at the University of Arizona in Tucson, but in the fall of 1991, taking leave from the university, she moved to Danville, California. Her 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale was both a critical and popular success. The paperback rights alone brought the sum of $2.64 million, and Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film rights to the book. In the wake of her enormous success, however, McMillan commented that the amount of money she made would never be more important to her than being happy about her work and her life.

McMillan’s next novel was to be entitled A Day Late and a Dollar Short. However, she had modeled the heroine of the story on her mother, and when Madeline McMillan died suddenly in 1993 after a severe asthma attack, the author had to put her work aside; it would not be published until 2001. The following year, McMillan’s best friend, the novelist Doris Jean Austin, died of liver cancer. Too stricken to go on with her writing, McMillan decided to take an extended vacation. On the beach in Negril, Jamaica, she met Jonathan Plummer, a resort worker some twenty years her junior. Four months later, he followed her to the United States, moved into her mansion in Danville, California, and began attending college. He later became a pet groomer. Meanwhile, McMillan wrote their romantic story in the semiautobiographical book How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), which she dedicated to Plummer. On September 5, 1998, McMillan and Plummer were married on the beach in Hawaii. In January, 2005, however, McMillan filed for divorce, charging that Plummer had concealed his homosexuality from her until he knew that he would be approved for U.S. citizenship.


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In a relatively short time, McMillan has established herself as a spokeswoman for a new generation. Although her major characters are black, McMillan’s stories of bright, spunky, ambitious women who have everything they ever wanted—except the love of a good man—have evoked a warm response from women of all races.

McMillan justifies her use of profanity and her often unflattering portraits of men, as well as her inattention to racial and social issues, by insisting that she describes life as she sees it. However, though she is a realist, McMillan is not a pessimist. While her women are often disappointed in the men they love, they do find pleasure in their children, acceptance in their friendships with one another, and strength in family ties.


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Terry McMillan was reared near Detroit by working-class parents and later moved to Los Angeles, where she attended community college and read widely in the canon of African American literature. In 1979, at the age of twenty-eight, she received her bachelor of science degree from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987, she began a three-year instructorship at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, and in 1988 received a coveted fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. After teaching in Tucson at the University of Arizona from 1990 to 1992, McMillan pursued writing as her full-time career.

The environment in which McMillan’s views were formed prepared her for early marriage and a family, not the life of an intellectual and an artist. Her failure as an adult to meet the expectations of her culture and family created pressures that her work has consistently sought to address. Not surprisingly, her own struggle to adapt to cultural expectations resulted in an emphasis in her work on the tension in relationships between professional and blue-collar blacks, between women and men, and between members of the nuclear family. Mama depicts an acceptance by an intellectual daughter of her flawed mother. Disappearing Acts follows a love affair between a professional, responsible woman and an uneducated tradesman. Waiting to Exhale builds an ambitious collage of images from all three types of relationships.

McMillan’s fiction addresses the archetypal dilemma of the disadvantaged—escaping the limitations imposed by one’s culture and family while trying to preserve the advantages they inevitably offer. This dilemma leads her characters into conflicts of ideology; their struggle is the struggle for truth, their quest the search for meaning.

While some reviewers have attacked McMillan for her use of vulgar language, others have defended its realism and immediacy. The same is true of the explicit sexual references throughout her work, and indeed for her character portrayals themselves. Critics observe that MacMillan’s characters all seem at times to have been exaggerated to achieve a calculated effect. McMillan’s popularity, however, suggests that she understands her craft and that her audience approves her purpose.

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