Terry McMillan 1951–
American novelist, short story writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of McMillan's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 50 and 61.
McMillan's best-selling novels Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), Waiting to Exhale (1992), and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) describe the frustrations and hard-won pleasures associated with middle-class security and female autonomy—both financial and sexual—among African-American women in modern American society. While focusing on the everyday experiences of energetic, black female protagonists who overcome oppressive men and socioeconomic obstacles to achieve self-actualization, McMillan avoids aligning herself with any specific political or racial agenda. Through zesty, conversational prose and realistic dialogue, McMillan challenges stereotypical views of African-American women and speaks to a large, transracial audience.
Born in Port Huron, Michigan, McMillan, the oldest of four children, was raised by her mother, a maid and auto factory worker; her parents were divorced when she was thirteen. McMillan became an avid reader while shelving books in a local library as a teenager, but was not exposed to African-American authors until several years later as a student at a Los Angeles community college. After dabbling in poetry, she published her First short story in 1976 at age twenty-five. McMillan earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's in Fine Arts at Columbia University, both in 1979. At age thirty, McMillan experienced an epiphany that prompted her to overcome a drug and alcohol addiction. In 1984, she gave birth to her son, Solomon. She published her first novel, Mama, in 1987, which she single-handedly promoted by writing several thousand letters to booksellers and arranging her own publicity tour. McMillan received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship the next year. She taught creative writing at the University of Wyoming in Laramie from 1987 to 1990, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson until 1992, where she was an associate professor. Her second novel, Disappearing Acts, was published in 1989, and Breaking Ice, an anthology of African-American fiction that she edited and introduced, was published in 1990. Wait-ing to Exhale, published two years later, was adapted into a popular Hollywood film in 1995. McMillan's fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, became an instant bestseller upon its appearance in 1996 and was adapted for film in 1998.
McMillan's fiction typically revolves around strong, intelligent African-American female characters whose personal crises and romantic entanglements mirror the conflicted aspirations of working-class and upwardly mobile black women. Mama relates the difficulties of a poor black family in Michigan and Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. The protagonist, Mildred Peacock, is a twenty-seven-year-old mother of five who struggles against mounting bills and alcoholism to raise her children. When her abusive husband, Crook, leaves the family, Mildred takes on the full financial burden of the household by working odd jobs, hosting rent parties, and briefly working as a prostitute. Mildred is unable to find a suitable male counterpart and sinks further into depression, drink, and debt. In the end, a reconciliation with her daughter, Freda, a recovering alcoholic, and plans to attend community college offer her new hope. Disappearing Acts examines the strained love affair between Zora Banks, a college-educated music teacher and aspiring singer, and Franklin Swift, a high school dropout and perennially unemployed construction worker victimized by racial discrimination. Set in New York City, the narrative is presented through the alternating first-person monologues of Zora and Franklin, who disclose their respective expectations and disappointments. Though financially independent and despite Franklin's alcoholism and physical abuse, Zora bears Franklin's child and assumes the role of mother and provider. The novel ends as Zora plans to return to her family with their child, leaving Franklin and their relationship on uncertain terms. Waiting to Exhale explores the supportive friendship and romantic frustrations of four self-reliant, professional African-American women in their late thirties. Savannah Jackson is a successful television producer with material security but without a meaningful, long-term relationship. Bernadine Harris, a mother of two children, is divorcing her husband of eleven years after learning that he is having an affair with a younger white woman. Robin Stokes, an insurance underwriter, is single and unhappily dating a succession of deficient men. Gloria Matthews is a self-employed beauty shop owner in search of love, though resigned to the solace she finds in work, food, and caring for her teenage son. In the Phoenix, Arizona, setting, the four women discuss their careers, contemporary social ills, and single parenthood, and declaim the shortcomings of prospective black men, revealing their shared loneliness and deep longing for monogamous heterosexual relationships and conventional domestic arrangements. How Stella Got Her Groove Back recounts the fantasy vacation of Stella Payne, a forty-two-year-old affluent black security analyst and single mother who escapes to a luxury Jamaican resort for some much-needed rest. There she meets and falls in love with Winston Shakespeare, a handsome twenty-year-old chef-in-training. A passionate affair ensues on the island and at Stella's palatial California home, where she brings Winston to live with her and her son, Quincy. When Stella loses her lucrative job, she lives comfortably on savings while weighing the risks and benefits of a relationship with a man half her age. McMillan also served as editor of Breaking Ice, a collection of fifty-eight short stories and excerpts from novels by African-American writers including Trey Ellis, William Demby, Charles Johnson, Colleen McElroy, Darryl Pinckney, and Gloria Naylor. The anthology includes an introduction and short story, "Ma' Dear," by McMillan.
McMillan is recognized as a prominent force in contemporary African-American women's fiction. Her first two novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts, received favorable critical attention and established her reputation as an innovative new voice of middle-class black America. She is also highly regarded for her work as editor of the anthology Breaking Ice. While some critics praise McMillan's direct, unpretentious style and authentic portrayal of African-American relationships and social concerns, others fault her for uneven prose, excessive use of profanity, and thinly veiled sociological commentary. Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back won enormous popularity and launched McMillan into celebrity status. Though some critics laud the humor and acerbic honesty of both, others disapprove of McMillan's interest in material wealth and conspicuous consumption over unresolved issues of racial discrimination and women's rights. Waiting to Exhale also elicited controversy for its unflattering portrayal of African-American men. Despite the intensity and wide appeal of McMillan's novels, her detractors assert that her work does not stand up to the literary fiction of acclaimed African-American authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, another huge commercial success, was dismissed by many critics as a superficial romance novel. Nevertheless, McMillan's engaging stories, appealing characters, and insightful commentary on recent American-American experience are considered a vital contribution to contemporary popular literature.