Terry McMillan

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Thulani Davis (review date May 1990)

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SOURCE: "Don't Worry, Be Buppie," in Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1990, pp. 26-8.

[In the following excerpt, Davis criticizes the assimilation of mainstream white cultural values in Disappearing Acts and contemporary African-American literature.]

Now that the '90s are at hand, it's inevitable that someone will announce a new generation of writers, folks who'll be the bridge to the next century. (WOW!) The "new generation" of African-American writers, novelist Terry McMillan said not too long ago, are "different from a generation before" because "they are not as race oriented, and they are not as protest oriented." I wondered at first who she was talking about. The novelists being published right now are, for the most part, around 40. Most of them began getting published 20 years ago, but those who were the talk of the '70s seem wildly different—and I mean wildly—from the crew McMillan is describing. The young writers back then were full of the anger, rhythms, sexuality, and wicked humor of jazz, r&b, and the '60s. I doubt if anyone would have guessed that the next generation was going to be less "race oriented."

In the poets' cafes Ntozake Shange, Wesley Brown, Charlotte Carter, Pedro Pietri, Gylan Kain, Pat Parker, Victor Hernandez-Cruz, David Henderson, and Lorenzo Thomas were ripping the lid off our neat and tidy preconceptions. Floating from hand to hand were out-of-print copies of J. J. Phillips's Mojo Hand and Carlene Hatcher Polite's Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play. Ishmael Reed's early books introduced us to the trickster, and Gayl Jones's novels spared us nothing. The energy was outside the mainstream, as it usually is for young writers, and that energy became a credo: let it be raw and raggedy, intense, black, and yes, self-righteous. It was fun.

All of us who're now somewhere around 40—whether we were in the marches, or in the Panthers, or the lonely Negroes at Hendrix concerts, or none of the above—were in the first generation to go en masse into white institutions when the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action took force. Before that time, we knew white America, north or south, largely by way of television (which we watched with some restriction because it was new, and our parents were understandably frightened of it). Like our parents and grandparents, we were, and are still, different. We started out life in a truly separate culture inside America, and therefore first learned to think, like it or not, with Race Mind, the black half of what W. E. B. Du Bois called double-consciousness. African-American literature of the '60s and '70s made the self-conscious choice to give voice to that black language without the explanatory context of earlier work. In today's self-censoring atmosphere, Race Mind is carefully muted. The white half of that double-consciousness is more often used for public presentations: Jesse Jackson uses it in speeches, and yet his Race Mind is coded within what he says.

If four novels published in the past few months, including one by McMillan, are any indication, there is a crop of African-American fiction coming in the '90s, written by 40ish folk, that's less interested in race and protest. It speaks in the practiced tongue of white mainstream literature. Melvin Dixon, Marita Golden, Tina McElroy Ansa, and McMillan show in their work a silent—in some cases maybe unconscious—struggle with assimilation. Each of their books describes some part of the lonely, self-involved journey of the middle-class African American who has access to some little piece of the Dream and is as deeply ensconced in American mass culture as in our boisterous...

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yet closely held black world.

More Bup Art than Black Art, these African-American writers' current work shares bourgeois mores and values with lots of other work by the 40-something generation. Buppism moves literature toward the middle of the road: conservative stylistic choices in form and language taken from mainstream American models; a personal focus, as opposed to the ever-enlarging world view that shifted from Mississippi to internationalism in the late '60s, '70s, and early '80s (and, in the case of Alice Walker, included several millennia); the death of the heroic figure, so prominent in black literature as recent as Beloved (Morrison raised questions about the nature of heroism in the African-American context); and an absence of protest, which has been replaced by homilies to survival.

Following Baldwin's edict to "take the language apart," African-American writers have been for some time revising or destroying forms to make them more expressionistic. The '90s writers return to story-telling as a private act, the exorcism of existential demons that could be viewed as nonracial. The old Race Mind, once a necessity for survival, is being lost to a naïve pragmatism: we can imitate and join. Despite many efforts to salvage them, the old sayings of the village have one by one been consigned to the place where America put the dog-tags, ankle-cuffs, and bills of sale for the village folk.

Twenty years after the introduction of Africana studies in American universities, African-American scholars have institutionalized the study of black life; they now argue that their black students need the courses to know who they are. As the culture continues to evolve, the language of black experience is disseminated and assimilated by the mass white audience almost as soon as it appears. Race Mind is marketed as late-night style with Arsenio Hall. The larger, more profound wisdom and practice is being lost to a culture that erases everything but success, and docs not replenish the spirit.

As we turn the corner of the century, the shared yearnings based on race, gender, generation, or family so common to black fiction could become inscrutable relics of the past, like the Motown records a Bup executive retrieves from the garbage in George Wolfe's play The Colored Museum, or those mama-on-the-couch shows he parodies, which actually did once say something about how we folks felt behind the veil in America….

Disappearing Acts, like Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, is an energetic and earthy book that takes place wholly within the confines of an intense relationship. While the narrator of Mama sounded like a character in the story, in this book McMillan uses two alternating voices that speak directly to the reader. The whole world is filtered through the self-naming, self-mythologizing first-person monologue—from racism to masturbation, parental conflicts to staying on a diet. And because there's no one obvious for Zora Banks or Franklin Swift to tell it to—they are loners in every way—the question is whether these folks are for real. In many ways they are quite ordinary, in other ways they are hardly tangible.

Zora is a young black woman on the lookout for the right man while she pursues singing ambitions; Franklin is a construction worker frustrated by his inability to get steady work in a closed industry. Zora sounds a lot like the narrator of Mama, in spite of her Essence-style self-improvement rap: "When I started visualizing myself less abundant, and desirable again, that's how I think I was able to get here—to 139 pounds." She likes to tell you straight up how it is: "I've got two major weaknesses: tall black men and food." Though reviewers have said that Franklin dominates the book, he has the same brassy, up-front, I'm-gon'-tell-you-exactly style as Zora. "Don't ask me why I did some stupid shit like that. Ringing that woman's doorbell at that time of morning. And with a lame-ass line like, 'You drink coffee?'… She was still pretty, though, even with no makeup. Her skin looked like Lipton tea. I saw them thick nipples sticking out through that pink bathrobe, and I felt Tarzan rising." Yes, a tall black man whose swinging thing was made in Hollywood.

Even though Zora and Franklin are last-week contemporary, they are also like classic folklore characters come to life in Brooklyn. She's the wily black woman of yore, smart-talking Eve who's always got a little something on the rail for the lizard, as we used to say. She's also a sophisticated shopper who likes fancy cheeses and bottled water, and she says shit all the time. Zora has all the pulls and tugs of feminism versus the feminine that a modern black woman who's read Walker and Shange is supposed to have. She's not unlike Zora Neale Hurston's sassy folk women—characters Cosmo would never dare to pop-psychoanalyze.

Complicated as Franklin is supposed to be, he is a savvy urban John Henry—he don't take no tea fo' the fever. An intellectual Tina Turner meets a hardhat Ike. They are both bricks and though they may chip each other, they ain't never gonna blend. They live and work in New York City, but are in a very insulated world: their problems are completely personal. Their relationship is doomed by mutual expectations and ended by an outburst of gratuitous male violence. Let's just say it wasn't needed for the love affair to fall apart.

These two are as they are; like other folk heroes, they don't change much, or drag skeletons out of the closet, and they learn their lessons the hard way. They've been created by years of past mythologizing, drawn their images from popular culture, black and white. They arc black, sho'nuff—the last thing I would say about McMillan's people is that they ain't black—but they're black in big, bold strokes. And that means her work will continue to raise questions among African Americans about the fuzzy line between realism and popular misconception. And at the same time, McMillan is, as she said, less race-conscious. She confines herself to the day-to-day life struggle, as told from behind the mask Claude McKay so poignantly described. McMillan uses, almost exclusively, the performance side of black character, emphasizing the most public, most familiar aspects of us. If you smell a little song and dance in the self-sufficient ribaldry, it's there.

Still, hard as it may be to imagine, for me at least, I suppose the time had to come when race would cease to be the obsession of African-American writers, and in its place would be some form of ordinary life—stripped in varying degrees of "context," depoliticized. If I can feel it in the street—the dislocation that can no longer be healed by inspiring leaders—I shouldn't be surprised to find it in our literature. I hope for some understanding from novels about African-American life, but perhaps it isn't there to be had. Welcome to the '90s.

The work of Marita Golden, Melvin Dixon, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Terry McMillan seems ambivalent and narrowly focused after nearly two decades of uninterrupted literary conjuring from those fabulous wild women of the '70s and '80s black-lit boom. Morrison, Walker, and company continue to write books that are ambitious, intensely lyrical, and profoundly disturbing; yet clearly their work is only one end of the spectrum. These new novels show that African-American fiction is miscegenating. Though the white world does not intrude in the form of characters, it is very much alive—recognized or not—in the minds of the blacks. The African Americans in these four works have become garden-variety Americans. They seem confined by the African-American culture that has defined and nurtured writers before them.

In the '70s, cultural nationalists ranted about black women writers, vilifying them/us as purveyors of "mulatto consciousness." I was amused by the clumsiness of the term, and, as intended, insulted. Was black culture so circumscribed that we could not merengue, or talk about men, or whatever it was that upset this crew of fuddy-duddies? Or were they just talking about the lightness of certain writers' skin? That happened too. A few weeks ago I heard Trey Ellis, self-appointed propagandist for the New Black Aesthetic invented by my colleague Greg Tate, proudly defining HIS (30ish) generation as "cultural mulattoes." While I think Tale observed that cultural appropriation is a common denominator among a certain cadre of artists, Ellis seems to be defining his generation by the conditions of their upbringing: We are therefore we are, something like that. It sure ain't like announcing you're the New Negro.

The writers of the '90s are sitting in the middle of a big mess—among critics and other artists screaming "Who are we?" while the newspapers holler that black music and white performers equal popular magic. American culture has not been a blending pot so much as a river Lethe for all its peoples, their languages and arts. Have we baptized our children there only to wonder later to whom they pray? I think George Wolfe is right—this cultural nervous breakdown is likely to land us in the Colored Museum. Collard greens and bean pie will be served at the snack bar.

Introduction

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Charles R. Larson (review date 23 September 1990)

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SOURCE: "No Time for Any Barriers," in Chicago Tribune Books, September 23, 1990, pp. 1, 4.

[In the following review, Larson offers praise for Breaking Ice, which he finds "brilliantly (and almost single-handedly) dispels a number of myths about contemporary African-American literature and the culture that has nourished it."]

The wonder of Terry McMillan's anthology of recent black fiction, Breaking Ice, is that it brilliantly (and almost single-handedly) dispels a number of myths about contemporary African-American literature and the culture that has nourished it. The scope of the stories repeatedly demonstrates the variety and the richness of African-American life—its tragedy and pathos, which we are accustomed to encountering in such literature, but also its humor and absurdity. In the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," many of the stories in this volume inform us that African-American life is not solely a response to racism. More importantly, they illustrate that "protest" in black writing is on the wane and that black writers are no longer taking potshots at members of the opposite sex, as was commonly believed to be the case during much of the past decade.

Those are quite a few myths for one volume to destroy, but McMillan has done her editorial work superbly. As she informs us in her introduction, the 58 stories in the collection were selected from 300 submissions. Clearly there is a renaissance in black fiction.

As far as gender goes, the writers are almost equally divided between males and females, and older established writers with household names appear alongside those whose first publication is in this anthology. The result is glorious variety: everything from traditional well-made stories to experimental stories to science fiction to stories that deal with minority sexual preferences within the minority itself.

As for humor, while the selections by Toni Cade Bambara, J. California Cooper, William Melvin Kelley (whose opening line reads, "Sweaty H. L. Mencken is climbing a steep rocky hill on an island in the Caribbean"), Percival L. Everett and Trey Ellis immediately stand out, those by William Demby and Charles Johnson are in a class by themselves.

In Demby's rollicking "Love Story Black," the narrator undertakes an interview of an aged Afro-American chanteuse for a new up-scale black woman's magazine and ends up being seduced by the crone. The unfolding of the action is delicious.

Johnson's "China" explores with John Cheever-like perfection the shifting relationship between a middle-aged husband and wife whose marriage has slipped into boredom and complacency, largely because the wife has made her husband into a sap. Then the husband becomes interested in kung fu. Within months, their roles are reversed, prompting the wife to conclude, "I want you back the way you were: sick." Perhaps it should be noted that "China" could be the story of any middle-aged couple, black or white, a further indication that African-American writing is becoming increasingly difficult to pigeonhole.

If Johnson's "China" is miles away from any racial context, a number of other works in this collection have taken earlier black themes and issues and imaginatively woven them into new patterns. "Wild Seed," by Octavia Butler {a winner of a Nebula Award for science fiction), is particularly striking. In this richly evocative story about African slavery, a character remarks. "I search the land for people who are a little different—or very different. I search them out, I bring them together in groups, I begin to build them into a strong new people." That remark might have been made 200 years ago, yet the story is set in the future.

John Edgar Wideman's "Fever" is equally impressive, though slavery in this story is placed in a very different context. Using blackness as an ironic metaphor for racism as a whole, Wideman writes, "We were proclaimed carriers of the fever and treated as pariahs, but when it became expedient to command our services to nurse the sick and bury the dead, the previous allegations were no longer mentioned."

Wideman is one of today's best-known and most compelling African-American writers, and "Fever" is one of the highlights of Breaking Ice. But several stories by newcomers are every bit as memorable.

"Spilled Salt," by Barbara Neely (who insists that her name be printed without a space), may be the most powerful work in the volume. From the story's simple beginning ("I'm home, Ma."), when a son returns to his mother's apartment after spending four years in prison for rape, to its crashing end ("I'm sorry. I just can't be your mother right now. I will be back in one week. Please be gone."), the story is a holocaust of filial emotions that conveys the anger and rage of every parent who has had to endure the transformation of his or her child into an adult that the parent does not want to know. To be sure, the horror here is viewed from the vantage point of motherhood: "She would have to live with the unblanketed reality that whatever anger and meanness her son held toward the world, he had chosen a woman to take it out on."

Yet another outstanding story, among the many fine ones gathered here, is John McCluskey's "Lush Life," an evocative account of the rush that music provides to those who are truly addicted to the making of it. As two musicians drive in the middle of the night to their next gig, one of them says: "It's this music we play, Billy. It opens people up, makes them give up secrets. Better than whiskey or dope for that. It don't kill you, and you … can whistle it the next day in new places. You can loan it to strangers, and they thank you for it.'"

I have two minor quibbles about Breaking Ice: the selections excerpted from novels are less satisfying than the self-contained stories, and some of the older writers are represented by material that is inferior to that of their juniors.

Still, what haunts the reader of this anthology is the possibility that black and white writers are beginning to explore a more common territory instead of emphasizing the uncommon barriers that have separated their work in the past. As an African-American university student says in Cliff Thompson's "Judgment," "After a while I stopped thinking of the two of them as my white roommates and thought of them as just my roommates, and then, gradually, as my friends." Or as McMillan herself states at the end of her introduction: "I wish there hadn't been the need to separate our work from others."

Principal Works

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Mama (novel) 1987
Disappearing Acts (novel) 1989
Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction [editor] (short stories and excerpts) 1990
Waiting to Exhale (novel) 1992
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (novel) 1996

C. J. Walker (review date September-October 1990)

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SOURCE: "Intriguing Effort Misses Mark," in New Directions for Women, Vol. 19, No. 5, September-October, 1990, p. 19.

[In the following review, Walker finds shortcomings in Disappearing Acts.]

The book was a smooth read; it had an easy flow. But, I think more likely, expectation kept me reading because Terry McMillan's new book promised great things. Disappearing Acts alternates between first-person reflections, reactions and responses of Franklin and Zora.

Franklin introduces himself, "I'm tired of women. Black women in particular, cause that's about all I ever deal with." He continued to fill us in on his way in the world: "Basically, I guess I'm a loner. Ain't got too many friends, ain't too many people worth trusting. Jimmy, a dude I grew up with, stops by every now and then to borrow a few dollars."

Okay, I have a sense of his honesty and the scope of his relationships as he perceives them. He offers his view and his experiences within the male-female sexual dynamic. I learn about his two children and estranged wife. He offers introspection, "I do know I can be a pain in the ass, but that's my nature. I just like to test people, see what they're made of … I got discharged from the Navy because of my temper, lack of cooperation." He continues, "But how can taking orders from the white man, killing people that ain't never done nothing to me personally do me some fuckin' good?"

Okay, I'm involved. What is the author going to do with this man, self-described as big and Black? What is his relationship to Zora, who introduces herself with "I've got two weaknesses: tall Black men and food. But not necessarily in that order," going to look like? I accept these two people for who they say they are; I expect Terry McMillan to provide the depth, to go beyond what I can see watching people on the street or catching bits and pieces of lives in my hallway. I want a view of the internal process and transitions if I'm to believe them. I already have my thinking on why they act as they do; I want to know Franklin, know Zora.

Unfortunately, Disappearing Acts doesn't deliver. McMillan creates a relationship between a Black man and a Black woman that she wants to be honest and successful, as in possibly happily-ever-after. Her desire is so strong that it interferes with the life of the characters, because she does not provide them with dimension. Bright, brash, clever language; fiery, loud, loving interactions, nakedness, good cliche, sparks of truth glowing. But their lives read like exchange on the Oprah Winfrey show—condensed, directed, framed, the ultimate dictator being the commercial.

Racism affects Franklin at his jobs, in his ability to get/maintain consistent employment, in the fact that he can't hail a taxi. Racial oppression in Disappearing Acts is real, but not developed beyond background cliche. Gender oppression while loudly present is not acknowledged at a level that would allow for a straight-on look. I understand that Franklin feels bad and is treated badly, but what does this really have to do with him not picking up his son from the sitter and why can't he and Zora have this discussion? It has to occur between Franklin and himself, Zora and herself, or between them if the changes are to be accepted as genuine.

Zora is waiting, in part, for Franklin to change. For all her dynamic Black woman rap she is quite passive, which makes believable her acceptance of what appears to me to be more of the same from Franklin. But I don't know for sure.

What are Franklin and Zora's nuances? What is their content as well as their context? In the end I know facts about them, but I still don't know them.

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 March 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 15, March 23, 1992, p. 58.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Waiting to Exhale.]

A racy, zesty, irreverent and absorbing book with broad mainstream appeal, McMillan's third novel (after Mama and Disappearing Acts) tells the stories of four 30ish black women bound together in warm, supportive friendship and in their dwindling hopes of finding Mr. Right. Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria are successful professional or self-employed women living in Phoenix. All are independent, upwardly mobile and "waiting to exhale"—to stop holding their breaths waiting for the proper mate to come along. Bernadine is married, but her husband walks out on her for a white woman as the novel opens. They also share speech patterns that some readers may find disconcerting: they utter profanities with panache, unceasingly. Indeed, the novel's major drawback may be the number of times such words as shit, fuck and ass are repeated on every page. These women have a healthy interest in sex, while deploring the fact that most of the men they meet are arrogant, irresponsible and chronically unfaithful. Each character is drawn with authenticity and empathy, and McMillan pulls no punches about their collective bad judgment in choosing partners for romance. After many vicissitudes, two of the heroines find love, but until then McMillan keeps us constantly guessing about which members of her lively quartet will be thus rewarded. There's nothing stereotyped in her work here: it is fresh and engaging.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Johnston, Tracy. Review of Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan. Whole Earth Review, No. 78 (Spring 1993): 84.

A favorable review of Waiting to Exhale.

Kaganoff, Penny. Review of Breaking Ice, by Terry McMillan. Publishers Weekly (21 September 1990): 68-9.

A favorable review of Breaking Ice.

Nichols, Charles H. "Exploring the Frozen Sea Within Us." American Visions 6, No. 1 (February 1991): 34.

A favorable review of Breaking Ice.

Payne, James Robert. Review of Breaking Ice, by Terry McMillan. World Literature Today 66, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 136-7.

A favorable review of Breaking Ice.

Interviews

Randolph, Laura B. "Black America's Hottest Novelist: Terry McMillan Exhales and Inhales in a Revealing Interview." Ebony 48, No. 7 (May 1993): 23-4, 26, 28.

McMillan discusses her early life, artistic development, and career.

"'Stella' in South Africa: Still Looking for Her Groove: Best-Selling Author Terry McMillan Reveals New Details of Art-Imitating-Life Love Affair." Ebony 52, No. 2 (December 1996): 116-18.

McMillan comments on How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the autobiographical parallels behind the novel's creation.

Terry McMillan with Wendy Smith (interview date 11 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "Terry McMillan: The Novelist Explores African American Life From the Point of View of a New Generation;" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 22, May 11, 1992, pp. 50-1.

[In the following interview, McMillan comments on the publication of her early fiction and her critical reception as an African-American writer.]

Terry McMillan blows into the Viking offices like a cool breeze off the bay in San Francisco, where she lives. She's toting two overstuffed carryalls, while her cab driver staggers under a garment bag crammed to bursting. She directs him to a nearby closet, warmly greets the Viking receptionist, then flings her arms around her editor, Dawn Seferian, and publicity director Paul Slovak. Introduced to her interviewer, she says, "Oh, God—can you give me a few minutes?" and disappears into a maze of cubicles.

When she rejoins PW, she's shed the carryalls and her coat, acquired some coffee, but not yet found an ashtray—a scarce commodity in Viking's smoke-free environment, but an essential accessory for someone who finds it easier to talk with a Kool in her hand. One is finally provided by a helpful staffer, and she flings herself with a sigh of relief into the nearest chair.

It's a hectic time for McMillan. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, will soon be published with an 85,000-copy first printing and a $700,000 floor for the paperback rights. Viking is sending her on a 20-city, six-week tour that begins with a breakfast speech at the ABA in Anaheim and includes nearly 30 bookstore appearances, closing with a July reading at Central Park's Summer Stage festival.

"I don't even believe the stuff that's happened so far," she says. "It's wonderful, it's a writer's dream, but it doesn't really feel like it's happening to me. 'There's this chick I know named Terry McMillan and, gee, I can't wait to read this Waiting to Exhale—it sounds like a good book!'"

But McMillan has never been one to hang around waiting for things to happen. Growing up in Port Huron, Mich., the daughter of working-class parents who didn't read to their children, she discovered the magic of books as a teenager shelving books at the local public library for $1.25 an hour. (A biography of Louisa May Alcott excited her because the writer, like McMillan, "had to help support her family at a young age." She started reading furiously, soaking up most of the classics of African American literature while studying at a community college in California, and began writing poetry after a romance went sour. Pretty soon, the lines of verse turned into sentences; she published her first short story in 1976, when she was 25. She wrote her first full-length work, Mama, while working as a word processor and raising her infant son alone.

When Mama was released by Houghton Mifflin in 1987, she refused to let it meet the usual fate of the first novel: scattered reviews, zero publicity and minimal sales. "I had seen it happen before to friends of mine, really fine writers, whose publishers did nothing except send out a little press release and the galleys. My publisher had come right out and told me what they couldn't do, and I said, 'Fuck this! I'm not just going to sit back; I've never been passive, and I'm not going to start now.'"

Indeed, it's hard to think of a less passive figure than McMillan, dressed dramatically in black stretch pants, a bright purple sweater and a boldly patterned jacket with a matching black-and-purple design, sporting fuschia lipstick and nail polish. With her vibrant brown eyes, wide smile and dimples, she fills the room with personality even before she begins to speak, leaning forward and stabbing the air with her finger when she wants to emphasize a point.

"I wrote about 3000 letters," she continues, on the subject of her promotional efforts for Mama. "When I was at some writers' conference I read this book, How to Get Happily Published [co-authored by PW's former managing editor, Judith Appelbaum], and I was so grateful; I wrote the author a letter. [Appelbaum] talked about how to promote your own book, and I went to the library, copied these different pages, then I wrote to the chains and the independent booksellers, universities, colleges. I did it all summer long: my friends were hanging out at the beach, and I was licking envelopes. Luckily I worked as a word processor, and the guys in the mail room were so sweet; they mailed my stuff for me.

"I got a shitload of readings, so I set up my own tour, because the publisher wasn't going to send me anywhere. Every week I sent my itinerary to my publicist—and it should have been the other way around. Mama sold out its first printing before pub date; my editors called and said, 'Terry, we don't think this would have happened if you had not done all this.'"

"It wasn't that I was stroking myself and thought I had written this incredibly strong, powerful, wonderful book, but if somebody thinks something is good enough to publish, then show your support! I know every book can't get a $100,000 publicity tour, but if you spent $5000 on all of us, it might sell a few more books."

McMillan continued to display a strongminded attitude during debates with Houghton Mifflin over her second novel, Disappearing Acts, which was structured as a series of alternating first-person monologues by the book's lovers, Franklin and Zora.

"They were so impressed with Franklin's voice and the fact that I was pulling it off that they wanted me to write the whole book from his point of view. It was going to be this coup: black woman writes story from black man's point of view, it's never been done, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, I didn't write Disappearing Acts to prove anything; that was the way the story had to be told. When my editor told me Zora sounded kind of preppy, I said, 'Look, she's not barefoot and pregnant, living in the projects and getting her ass kicked. I cannot apologize because some of us have been to college, okay?'"

Her already strained relations with the publisher reached a breaking point when Houghton Mifflin indicated it would like to see a completed manuscript of Disappearing Acts before making an offer. McMillan's agent, Molly Friedrich, promptly sent the existing chapters to Viking's Dawn Seferian, who bought the project two days later. Published in 1989, the novel received generally excellent reviews and went on to sell more than 100,000 copies in paperback for Washington Square Press.

It also provoked a lawsuit from Leonard Welch, with whom McMillan had a child in 1984, who claimed the portrait of Franklin libeled him. The case was decided in the author's favor last April, and Welch's subsequent appeal was denied.

"I was more embarrassed than anything else," McMillan says, "because I was concerned that people would think I really didn't write fiction, which Disappearing Acts was. I relied on some of my experiences with him, but Franklin Swift and this man are two different people. I worried about the effect on other writers, because everybody relies on their own experiences—even the ones that say they make it all up: they're lying! It's not; it's still fiction."

The ongoing lawsuit was only one of the factors that slowed the writing of Waiting to Exhale, which wasn't finished until December 1991, a scant five months before scheduled publication. "I had not been under this kind of pressure before." says McMillan. "I get tons of mail about Disappearing Acts; I'm so sick of that book I don't know what to do. After about 90 pages [of Waiting to Exhale], I'm saying to myself, 'Are they going to think this is as good as Disappearing Acts? Are they going to be disappointed?' Eventually, I just had to say, 'I cannot think about my audience; I can't guess what people are going to like.'"

Once she got into the thick of the novel, not even a move from Tucson to San Francisco could stop her. "I had the movers take my computer last; they were putting books in boxes, and I was sitting there writing. I get to California, I'm sitting in my sister's fiance's office going blind writing on my little laptop that's not backlit, I'm looking for a place to live while my furniture's on a truck somewhere, it's the end of August and I'm supposed to be finishing the book by September 1st! I finished the first draft November 20." There was still a lot of work to be done. "I'm not one of those writers who just edits, especially when I'm working on a first draft. Sometimes I actually delete an entire chapter from the memory so I have to type it all over, because that's the only way I can relive it. I have to stay close to these people. I have to have their experiences, too, and the only way to do that is to start all over—that stuff is cumulative. It can be very exciting, and it can be very painful, but I have to make the emotional investment."

Staying close to her characters means reproducing their salty, often profane language, which later dismayed PW's reviewer. "I was criticized for this with Disappearing Acts too," the author responds, "but basically, the language that I use is accurate.

"I said to Dawn when I read that review, 'You know, it's not on every fucking page!' Then I picked up the galley when I was on the airplane coming to New York, and when I got here I called Dawn and said, 'You know, I think they're right: it is on every fucking page!' But so what? That's the way we talk. And I want to know why I've never read a review where they complain about the language that male writers use!"

She braced for criticism about Waiting to Exhale's depiction of black men, who are seen only through the often exasperated eyes of her four central female characters. "The men are on the periphery, they're not the focus of this story, therefore they don't get the three-dimensionality that the women do. Periodically, I would stop and say, 'Oh, they're going to be pissed off at me now!' But I said exactly what I meant, and I'm not apologizing for any of it. This book is not meant to represent or portray any gender or group of people. Nobody thinks that a Czech writer is representing all Czechs, or a Russian writer is writing for all Russians."

In her introduction to Breaking Ice, the anthology she edited of contemporary African American writing, McMillan argued that her generation of black writers "are a new breed, free to write as we please … because of the way life has changed." Her own fiction, which often portrays successful middle-class professionals, is a case in point.

"This is 1992. I appreciate and value all the protest literature of the '60s, but I am tired of carrying this plantation on my shoulders. I know that if it wasn't for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X we wouldn't be able to do some of the things we do now, but I don't need to constantly remind you of that. I'm not trying to prove anything to white folks, and I'm not trying to make them feel guilty—my editor didn't enslave my ancestors. So why do I have to keep belaboring the point?

"Unfortunately, the black people who are the most militant are the ones who seem to be more hung up than anybody on what white people think. 'We're airing our dirty laundry, why can't we portray ourselves more positively?'—to me, that's stuck in the '60s stuff. They make the assumption that we are anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, when all we are is storytellers. They try to put this weight on our shoulders, which I totally dismiss. I'm prepared for them with this book: 'Why you make the brothers out to look like they ain't shit?' I say, it's only two of 'em in here, not two million. I want to tell my stories on a much more personal level, more intimate. It's not just the black man pitted against white society; it's deeper than that."

Characters drive a novel for McMillan, and right now, despite her commitment to publicize Waiting to Exhale and to write a screenplay for Disappearing Acts, she's eager to get back to the group of people waiting to be given voice in her new novel. "I'm stacking up stuff about the story and thinking about these people—I've known who they are for a while, I see them and I sort of know the story, but they haven't started talking to me yet. It's like a picture that's out of focus. I don't force things on my characters; I wait and watch then grow. While I'm writing the screenplay, these people keep intruding—and I'm so glad! I can't wait for this summer to be over so we can play some more."

Charles R. Larson (review date 31 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Comic Unlikelihood of Finding Mr. Right," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 31, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Larson offers favorable assessment of Waiting to Exhale.]

In the climactic scene of Terry McMillan's wickedly acerbic third novel, Waiting to Exhale, four African-American women—Gloria, Savannah, Bernadine and Robin, all between the ages of 34 and 38—celebrate the birthday of the youngest by drinking five bottles of champagne and talking about their on-going problems with men. All of them are single and/or recently divorced and "waiting to exhale"—yearning for the ideal mate who takes your breath away, although he never seems to materialize.

Furthermore, these women are all economically independent, horny and explicit in their feelings. Among other things, they conclude that the problem with black men is that they are "with white women," "gay," "ugly," "stupid," "in prison," "unemployed," "crackheads," "short," "liars," "unreliable," "irresponsible," "too possessive," "dogs," "shallow," "stuck in the sixties," "arrogant," "childish," "wimps" and too "old and set in their ways."

McMillan's dialogue is raunchy and wild, half black street speech and half one-liners. It's as if we're listening to four foul-mouth stand-up comediennes—all of them lashing out blindly at MEN.

Savannah, a TV producer, tells us that she may be hard up, but not to the point where she'll take any man. "There's a big difference between being thirsty and dehydrated." Later she ponders, "How do you tell a man—in a nice way—that he makes you sick?"

Her friend, Bernadine, whose husband of a dozen years has just left her for a white woman, muses, "When you finally come to understand the man you love, that's when you don't love him anymore." Robin, who works as an insurance underwriter, comments on the problem in another way: "In order for a woman to get a Ph.D., she's gotta pass Men 101." When Savannah reveals that she finally met Mr. Right at a convention in Las Vegas, Bernadine responds, "'Ask him if he can get here by fax or Federal Express.'"

While the dialogue sparkles throughout, the F-word appears so frequently that one has the feeling that McMillan is trying to one-up Spike Lee (whose films are alluded to a number of times). Indeed, McMillan seems to have written her novel with one eye on Hollywood and the other on the sisterhood of educated, articulate, independent black women who are very successful in their professions but frustrated and neurotic about the fact that there are so few black men they consider their equals.

This problem of mating is, however, about the only true lament of this otherwise very funny novel. Because of her biting comic tone, McMillan's work is distanced from that of a number of her contemporaries (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Marita Golden, for example). Although Waiting to Exhale is rooted in ethnicity, that ethnicity is never angry, bitter or bleak. One of McMillan's characters says, "I don't have anything against most white folks." The issue is gender, not race, and, above all, the question of sisterhood.

The setting—Phoenix, Arizona—also makes one rethink stereotypes of African American writing, although the story is only marginally related to its place. At the beginning, McMillan wants us to believe (and perhaps even expect) that her characters will get their men and, as Savannah tells us, still "be able to exhale." As their stories get told, the title gets jerked around a number of times.

The men (a rather grungy lot at best) initially leave the women breathless but finally teach them to inhale and exhale just fine by themselves. It isn't so much a matter of waiting to exhale, then, as it is of facing the reality that there simply aren't enough good men to go around.

To the richness of her four main characters' bonding, McMillan adds a number of revealing variations. Gloria, for example, struggles with the problems of raising her 16-year-old son without the support of a husband. Robin's identity is strongly bound up with her mother's attempts to deal with her husband's steadily debilitating Alzheimer's disease. Both Bernadine (with her own young children) and Savannah wrestle with their mothers' difficult adjustments to widowhood. The scope of these situations expands the domain of McMillan's novel to three generations, implying a sense of growth and continuity.

If what's been said makes Waiting to Exhale seem plotless, that is not the case. Rather, McMillan is such a clever storyteller that while the ending seems too predictable about two-thirds of the way through her narrative, everything shifts around once again as a series of final surprises unfold. It's not a pat ending, but something more bittersweet—all good bawdy fun.

When Lorraine Hansbury wrote A Raisin in the Sun back in 1959, one critic accused her of writing a Jewish play about people who happened to be black. I can hear readers on the beach this summer laughing away and saying something like that about Waiting to Exhale.

These aren't black women; they're most women at a certain point of no return. And that may make you think about race—if not gender—in a totally different light.

Paula C. Barnes (review date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Barnes offers praise for Waiting to Exhale, which she describes as "an important book" that "traces the problems of 'real' women in a real world."]

Within weeks of its publication, Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale appeared on The New York Times best-seller list exceeding the success of her first two novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts. Although specifically it tells the story of four African-American women, Waiting to Exhale addresses the dilemma of career women who want it all.

Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews, all in their late thirties, are reflecting on their lives, and although they seek to move beyond their pasts, they face uncertain futures. Savannah, having lived in four cities in 15 years, is getting ready to make another career move—from Denver to Phoenix. With a decent job, money in the bank, a nice condo, and respectable car, she has everything she needs but a man. Bernadine, the one with it all—husband, two children, home and condo, BMW and Cherokee—is told by her husband of 11 years that he is leaving her for a younger, white woman. Having placed her own dreams on hold, Bernadine is forced to rediscover them and herself. Robin knows exactly what she wants—love, marriage, and children. With five serious relationships during the past seven years, however, Robin seems to attract the wrong kind of man. Gloria, mother of a 16-year-old son and owner of a beauty shop, substitutes mothering, work, and food for love.

Career advancement, relocation, divorce, aging parents, illness, single parenthood, and the never ending search for love are the problems these women face and the issues McMillan explores. Yet her real purpose soon becomes clear—to sensitize readers to the real-life problems of Alzheimers', AIDS, breast cancer, hypertension, and the need for individual, communal and governmental action. McMillan's work does not match the caliber of Toni Morrison's, Alice Walker's, Gloria Naylor's, or Zora Neale Hurston's (to whom she has been compared), but Waiting to Exhale is an important book as it traces the problems of "real" women in a real world. McMillan has created a series of portraits that reveal the resiliency of the black career woman.

Although McMillan tends to over-explain, a flaw seen in her earlier works, her style is easy, her language bawdy; McMillan herself acknowledges that the novel is X-rated. Waiting to Exhale is refreshingly funny, but its message is hard-hitting—in the end, one must learn to depend on one's self for love and happiness.

Frances Stead Sellers (review date 6 November 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Sellers finds only "modest" literary merit in Waiting to Exhale, but notes its appeal among "glitzy, commercial women's novels."]

Terry McMillan's novel, Waiting to Exhale, raced up the New York Times bestseller lists immediately after its publication in the United States early last summer, and has lingered near the top for twenty-three weeks. There are already more than 700,000 copies in print. Paperback rights for the book startled the recession-conscious publishing industry by selling for $2.64 million, and McMillan's drop dead stare and Nefertiti hair-style have become familiar features on daytime television talk shows and in glossy magazines across America.

Most black women writers are associated with a recognizable tradition of serious, ideologically inspired black literature, written primarily for "concerned" whites and black intellectuals. McMillan, however, has little truck with ideology of any kind. She writes to entertain, by providing the type of sexy, popular novel that has been making Jilly Cooper and Danielle Steele rich for years.

Written for and about educated black women, Waiting to Exhale reflects the growing numbers of successful African-Americans who have fled the drugs and violence of the ghettoes for fashionable neighbourhoods, while trying to preserve a uniquely black cultural heritage. McMillan's characters believe in black solidarity. To act like a white is an act of betrayal. "White folks" hover disconcertingly on the novel's margins.

Waiting to Exhale's four protagonists live in Phoenix, Arizona. Apart from being black, female and thirtysomething, they have one thing in common: "None of us have a man." And they're holding their breath until they get one. Savannah wants to feel "important to somebody," though she's not yet desperate: she's just "thirsty," not "dehydrated." Bernadine has been betrayed by her acquisitive husband, who traded her in for a new trophy-wife, his twenty-four-year-old (blonde) book-keeper. Gloria has given up waiting for a man who can make her toes curl and takes comfort in God, her hair salon, a promiscuous adolescent son and much too much food. Robin's toes curl for "pretty men with big dicks," but she's hung up on an unscrupulous cad and doesn't know a good man when she sleeps with one. Waiting to Exhale chronicles these women's bedroom capers in their exhaustive—and exhausting—searches for Mr Right.

He's hard to come by. Black men prove to be "'Stupid.' 'In prison.' 'Unemployed.' 'Crack-heads.' 'Short.' 'Liars.' 'Unreliable.'" And worse. McMillan's generalized male-bashing has understandably alienated some black men. Her portrayal of women may be more sympathetic, but it is equally shallow. Her characters' preoccupation with deodorants, douches and dates soon grows wearisome. And the attention McMillan draws to male-female rifts within the African-American community seems at odds with the black solidarity she otherwise implicitly approves.

But whether her views are politically correct or not, McMillan has bit a nerve. Many African-American women identify with her heroines. Using the vibrant street-talk McMillan grew up speaking, her protagonists tackle sexual issues that most women can relate to.

It may in part be concern to avoid accusations of racism that has prevented some critics putting this book firmly where it belongs—among the glitzy, commercial women's novels. Its one true importance is that it appeals to a market that American publishers have previously overlooked—the new black middle class. But its literary merits are modest.

Darryl Pinckney (review date 4 November 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Best of Everything," in New York Review of Books, November 4, 1993, pp. 33-7.

[In the following excerpt, Pinckney praises the sincerity, force, and humor of Waiting to Exhale and discusses the novel's place within contemporary African-American literature and culture.]

Fannie Lou Hamer once said that she didn't want to be liberated from men. Her husband was, after all, six foot-two. There was a time, only two decades ago, when many black women looked at the women's movement as a middle-class white concern, a passing political fashion, or argued that black women and white women wanted very different things. No one, they pointed out, expected white women to express solidarity with white men. For black women as black people the real struggle was elsewhere, and it might prove endless. Though Toni Cade Bambara's anthology, The Black Woman (1970), discussed the "double jeopardy" of being both black and female, the historical moment belonged more to the mood of Elaine Brown's album for the Panthers, which included a song with the refrain, "We'll just have to get guns and be men." The year of Sisterhood is Powerful, 1971, was also the year George Jackson was assassinated in Soledad Prison.

But in the post-Watergate haze, some black women began to reason that everyone had had a movement except black women: white guys smoked dope and ran the antiwar movement; black dudes had dark glasses and Black Power; white women burned bras and had feminism. A new feature entered the landscape of consciousness-raising groups, theater collectives, and women's journals: politics and literature for black women. From the campus dorm room, this writing had the appearance of an avant-garde, and things avant-garde tended to come to students in the form of anthologies. On the shelf, next to Donald Allen's New York Poets and Clarence Major's The New Black Poetry, someone in 1975 might have found room for Black-Eyed Susans, edited by Mary Helen Washington, a slim paperback containing only ten stories by contemporary black women writers.

The spectacular successes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and now Terry McMillan give the impression that their triumphs were immediate. Surveys of contemporary fiction by black women remind us that before Song of Solomon, the previous books of this year's Nobel laureate, The Bluest Eye (1971) and Sula (1975), got very mixed receptions. Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Copeland Grange, appeared over twenty years ago. Her articles in Ms, in which she took on the obtuseness of white feminist studies that didn't include the black woman's condition, and the corrective essays Angela Davis wrote on black women and slavery for The Black Scholar had, back then in the late 1970s, a feeling of being out there all on their own. This period also saw renewed interest in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s, with the rediscovery of black women writers such as Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and, most importantly, Zora Neale Hurston, who was swiftly elevated to the rank of "foremother."

There used to be a saying down South that the most free people in the United States were the white man and the black woman. Perhaps the saying referred to unholy alliances; but most likely it meant that the black woman could move about unchallenged in a way the black man could not. A story such as Richard Wright's "Bright and Morning Star" gives a sense of her galling mobility: it doesn't occur to anyone in the lynch mob that the grieving mother who has come among them is hiding a gun under her clothes: she can't be a threat. We now know so much about black women in US history that it is almost impossible to retrieve the reality that folk saying could have been describing. If anything, the absence of consideration for the black woman's point of view in this specimen of folk wisdom would support what all the tone-setting essays by black feminists were criticizing when they talked about the black woman's "invisibility." Not surprisingly, during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, we were dealing with a privileged consciousness, one that resorted to strategies of exclusion, much like the argument black writers, including militant black women writers, used to make against white critics: How can you know what it feels like, how can you dare to judge this? A similar force field of intimidation surrounded writing by African-American women: you hegemonic male so and so.

To a large extent the "seized word"—taking control of the interpretation and the expression of your own experience—that black feminist criticism called for was the newest link in the chain of "positive images" that cultural nationalism had been advocating since Marcus Garvey. Furthermore, as Gayl Jones has recently suggested in her study of the oral tradition. Liberating Voices, making the black woman heard in literature looks, in retrospect, very much like the resolve of the separatist Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s to free itself from Western cultural domination. The same tendency, Jones points out, is found in many other subordinate cultures: Estonian, Chicano. Even realism in the US since Dreiser can be viewed as a history of "decolonized sensibilities." What these tendencies have in common is their belief in a transformed society.

Some of the many black feminist studies since the 1970s seem less "alternative" histories than positions criticizing an already existing history. Sweeping claims for a distinct black woman's voice and for "female values" impose recent critical ideas on a past that would not have recognized them. Some of the rhetoric amounts to little more than epistemological fantasy or assumes that black men were more unaware of or indifferent to this history than they in fact were. Nevertheless that the "historical face" of the Black is no longer only male marks, at least in print, a generational change as profound as the experience that separates those who knew Jim Crow from those who didn't.

Imaginative writing by African American women is controversial largely as a result of what it has to say about relations between black women and black men. This is too bad. Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976) were criticized by both black men and black women for portraying unmitigated domestic violence, even though what was truly extraordinary about these fictions as departures was Jones's ear for the vernacular and the spare structure that nevertheless managed to evoke a complicated social setting. In fact, Jones had left out all scenery and social detail. There wasn't even a white side of town.

When Ntozake Shange's "choreopoem" For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf hit Broadway in 1976 relations between black men and black women moved as a ruthless topic into mainstream US culture. Someone once described the message of the piece as, "If you think you've had it bad with black men listen to this." That sensation was followed by Michele Wallace's polemic, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979). Wallace let both the machismo of Black Power and the blame-the-female-headed-household of the Moynihan Report have it. Then came The Color Purple. By the time its very vocal critics, such as Ishmael Reed. Stanley Crouch, and Trey Ellis, argued that Alice Walker was making black men the villains and letting white society sit back to enjoy the show, black men writers were dismissed as having a bad case of Issue Envy.

The image of the oversexed black woman was a part of the racism that justified rape. This image kept the light-skinned, refined heroine of uplift at the center of many of the novels by black women well into the twentieth century. But now the argument against patriarchy, that the female body should be taken away from men as an object of use, and returned to women to dispose of as they choose, has brought about, in fiction, the comeback of the uninhibited conjure woman on her own terms. It is okay for her to have her nights out, like any man. The defeated or redefined images of loose women and big strong mamas—these brambles have been cleared, the dirt turned over, and Terry McMillan stands on very cultivated ground. Not a weed in sight.

2.

Popular novels ask complicity from the reader in the name of genre: we all know reality isn't like this. But Waiting to Exhale never winks at the reader. It comes at you with a completely straight face, with such intensity about its own convictions that the sincerity is irresistible. If the women characters are sentimental about love, then they are fierce about being sentimental; if they are conventional in their expectations, then they are defiantly prepared to be identified as such. The novel is at the same time hilarious, to the verge of camp, but the thoughts and feelings it captures are too much like life for it not to make a striking impression. There's nothing self-aggrandizing or moralizing about it.

It's a book that knows to whom it is addressed. For sheer topicality, McMillan doesn't miss a base on the wide playing field of issues, and her characters touch them in the most self-aware manner. Caring for one's elderly parents, condoms for teen-agers, day care, feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving, diet, high blood pressure, nail care, AIDS, anti-drugs, including Xanax dependence—anything that could be on the professional black women's list of concerns is there, woven into the conversations of supermoms, much like the false braids in the hairstyles McMillan's women disdain at the beauty salon that functions as their club away from the networking parties haunted by black men.

Very with-it and dialogue-driven, Waiting to Exhale is the story of four friends in their mid-thirties, each at a critical point in her life. Savannah and Robin are unmarried, childless, and speak in the first person. The two who do have children, Gloria, a single parent, and Bernadine, on the eve of a nasty divorce, are written about in a very internal third person. Though each chapter is from the viewpoint of one of them, laying out her case history, taking up threads of developing situations, the women share a common voice and are moving toward the same pole-position in the self-realization sweepstakes: dreaming of opening a catering service, doing something creative in production work at that cable channel, becoming a mother, or busting the estranged husband who is trying to hide his considerable financial assets. They recognize that black men have treated them the way they have because they, black women, have let them get away with it all these years. The love of a black woman isn't a black man's right, one character tells herself, it's a privilege. In her overdue anger, another character "bams" the phone down a lot.

McMillan's black women read Essence. They know that glossies targeted for their white middle-class sisters are just as full of hints, tips, and desperately cheerful features about sex and finding Mr. Right. They know it's a cynical, self-perpetuating market that goes after those gullible, hopeful bucks, which perhaps makes it all right that they continue to flip through it to check out the latest fashions. They may be fools for love, and fools for "bad" dresses they can wear the hell out of, but they are not victims. They make choices. In fact, out there in Phoenix, Arizona, these women act out, act up, and talk about big dick in a way that makes their white female thirtysomething (by now) counterparts in recent fiction of downtown scenes seem tame by comparison.

It used to be said, maybe still is, that blacks talk differently among themselves from the way they do among whites, and Waiting to Exhale is an extension of that, showing how differently black women talk among themselves from the way they do in the company of black men. When they are down, they pop their hymns, Paula Abdul or Anita Baker tapes, into the car tape deck. They say "Fuck you" to one another with affection, get drunk, and tell a friend some home truths for her own good. They call each other up and give advice: that they ought to use black men the way black men have been using them. "Get some," they say. Or "get some for me" and "get some to tide you over." And yet for all their rueful independence, cruising, salaries, and responsibilities, the musketeer-like code of "getting some" is apt to be forgotten the morning after. The man is never a trick. He's the one who "got some" and didn't call back.

Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria belong to an organization called Black Women on the Move, which is as safe as NOW. McMillan's women have the same relation to affirmative action and the "glass ceiling" as any middle-class white woman. There is nothing overtly feminist in Waiting to Exhale, but if the men can make the women doubt their own worth, the women have the last laugh. McMillan makes full, vivacious use of the tactic that makes Kate Millett's attack on Henry Miller in Sexual Politics so devastating: ridicule of masculine fantasies of sexual prowess.

He rolled over on top of me, and since I could no longer breathe, let alone move, I couldn't show him how to get me in the mood. He started that slurpy kissing again, and I felt something slide inside me. At first I thought it was his finger, but no … I was getting pissed off about now, but I tried to keep up with his little short movements, and just when I was getting used to his rhythm he started moving faster and faster and he squeezed me tight against his breasts and yelled, "God this is good!" and then all of his weight dropped on me. Was he for real?

Terry McMillan's women wouldn't date a white man, though they have nothing against black women who do. But when Bemadine's husband leaves her for his young, blonde bookkeeper, she recovers, burns his clothes and BMW, cuts her hair, drops by the software company she sweated to help him build, and slaps the shit out of the red-faced girl. Sometimes they don't know or don't want to believe that the black men they go out with who are afraid of commitment are already married, but sometimes they do know.

Their lives are full of topics that are covered every week on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but these black women never have to ask themselves the very Oprah-like question of why they're attracted in the first place to Scuzzes Who Lie, because, conveniently, for most of the novel's four hundred pages the black men are all No Good or Losers. But they keep the faith in the one black man who won't be like that, who is "sensitive," not threatened, and yet has a dick hard enough to make them quit smoking—it's either that or acupuncture—and when two Mr. Rights do come along, one is an inspired retired handyman, happy to fix everything around the house, and the other vows to use his law practice to get the state of Arizona to stop putting liquor stores in black neighborhoods.

The anxiety of these women about Mr. Right's whereabouts is far from the sensibility of, say, Andrea Lee's Harvard-educated heroine in Sarah Phillips (1984), whose notion of the romantic is the inappropriate, unsuitable man. Daughter of old Negro Philadelphia, she suspects that marriage to someone from a background similar to hers would be boring. The difference is one of class, of milieu: McMillan's women work with what they can find, not with what they have been born into. Indeed, what McMillan's women have been born into is what they have gotten away from.

Part of the appeal of McMillan's work lies in the forceful way it reflects the history of black women as also that of a labor force. Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and now Waiting to Exhale—each successive novel takes place on a higher level of prosperity as McMillan charts the fortunes of black women rescued or created by higher education. In Ann Petry's grim novel The Street (1946), the heroine's job as a maid causes her to lose her marriage and home. She longs to get her son away from the bad influences of the tenement and becomes a bookkeeper. White men look upon her as a whore and she kills the black man who assaults her, an illustration, perhaps, of James Baldwin's contention that in black fiction the place where sex ought to have been was filled by violence. The most convincing way black writers of his day could make something happen to make their point was to have a catastrophe. The times and taboos have changed for McMillan's determined women. You can have a catastrophe and move on. Mobility is opportunity.

In Mama, the girl raped at age fourteen in a depressed Michigan town of the 1960s can throw away her hot comb and find sexual fulfillment, Malcolm X, and a community-college education in Los Angeles. She can get away from her mother's life of welfare checks, scrubbing floors, the husband with the brown leather belt, the casual prostitution when there are no jobs or substitute husbands. Even Mama can try to get away from her platinum wig to make a life like her daughter's.

In Disappearing Acts, Zora—her daddy liked to read—is a school teacher who wants to make a career as a singer. She gets an apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone with enough space for a practice room and, fortunately or unfortunately, the builder taking a break on the steps looks like "a black Marlboro man." This novel is largely a dress rehearsal for Waiting to Exhale, with a similar circle of catty but supportive, slightly differentiated black women friends, except in this case the alternating voices are unequal, male and female. The edge is in the female voice and McMillan struggles to keep up the man's side of the story, to fill out his inner life with sports, beer, bitterness, shame, horniness.

In Waiting to Exhale, the black women are professionals whose children are not likely to fall out of the middle class. They are the grandchildren of the insecure migrants that Dorothy West wrote about in The Living Is Easy (1947), a novel of black middle-class life in pre-World War I Boston. McMillan's women repay student loans, send cash back home by Federal Express so widowed mothers can keep the gas on, and tolerate for as long as they can the strain of love for sexy but insolvent black men. They are far from the black neighborhoods of fiction that depended on messages of social consciousness. In Phoenix, they choose white suburbs and schools. The extended black family is contained in long-distance phone calls, and political consciousness consists of being annoyed that Arizona has no Martin Luther King Day.

These women have arrived, are just as Keynesian as any white in recent fiction, and tend to spend their way out of crises. They do not question material reward, because it's all been earned. Doubts about having sold out when they get promotions belong to a pre-Anita Hill era. A condo or a Cherokee is no obstacle to having soul—unless it belongs to a black man. Bernadine despises her husband's Porsche and investments because he's competing with the whites he reads about in Money magazine. She never wanted a Rolex. When an absent but well-off father turns up to explain that he doesn't want to get back together with the family because he's gay, the wife senses immediately that something is wrong, closes her eyes, and discovers the problem: "He sounds white."

There is a similar equating of the black man's success with loss of his essential blackness in Gloria Naylor's schematic novel of black middle-class life, Linden Hills (1985). A black executive who has made it to the oak panels level of General Motors is terrified that he may be falling in love with a black woman. The black colleague from whom he seeks advice is so self-controlled that no toilet paper is visible in his bathroom of French tiles, because he scarcely needs any.

There is nothing satirical about Naylor's tone; so earnest is her fable about black people who drive Stingrays. One black man goes through with a wedding in which his lover acts as best man rather than risk exposure at his law firm or lose prestige among his neighbors. On the other hand, Naylor gives the lesbians in The Women of Brewster Place (1982) the courtesy of being ostracized as sexual outlaws, even though they function in the story as agents of gentrification.

This conceit, the hint of sterility and isolation as the price the black man pays for success, is somewhat retrograde, reminiscent of black nationalist days when Whitey, like God, was always a He, and part of attacking Whitey was to cast aspersions on his manhood. "All white men are trained to be fags," Amiri Baraka said in Home (1960). He meant that materialism was emasculating, that being a part of the system was a form of cowardice. Baraka's swagger was a reformulation of a persistent contradiction in black cultural life: free v. bourgeois, earthy v. assimilated, soul brother v. Uncle Tom. It clearly still has its uses as a denunciation, even though black culture is now big business. Hip and mainstream are no longer mutually exclusive, being successful no longer means compromising blackness. The new generation of "post-soul black culture," very savvy about music, film, television, and books as industries, has dissolved the contradiction in a way that black capitalism, affirmative action, and Buy Black boycotts failed to do.

McMillan allows her women to thrive in this slick new world, where consumption is a form of cultural politics, whereas black men in these books by black women are portrayed as allowing materialism to betray their spiritual heritage. They risk being cut off from their roots until summoned down home to the naturalness of Sweet Beulah Land, much like the tragic mulattoes who used to "pass" in earlier black literature….

These recent novels by McMillan and [Trey] Ellis are not about the black man or the black woman either as alienated or as secure members of a community. They are not even about love. They are concerned with "relationships"—that tired word—and what people put themselves through to find one they wouldn't be ashamed to show off to their best friends. A partner is an acquisition, a form of self-validation. If there has to be a response from black men, then it was written long ago, in, for example, George Wylie Henderson's novel Ollie Miss, published in 1935.

Henderson was a contemporary of Zora Neale Hurston's, and Ollie Miss bears a remarkable similarity to Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in content if not in style. Like Hurston's novel, Ollie Miss depicts a self-contained complex rural black community. Interestingly enough, there is nothing a feminist could fault in Henderson's heroine. Ollie Miss unnerves men because she can plow as steadily as any of them. She is a child of nature, migratory, but not wild. She is ethical, and so far above petty emotion that she is a mystery to the men on the farm where she appears one day looking for work and is resented by women whose husbands have long ago deserted them. Ollie is not monogamous, though she is in love. Her passion for the wayward man, Jule, back in another town, gives her a protective single-mindedness and a disinclination to explain herself to her new neighbors that is almost Bartleby-like. When she is severely wounded outside a revival meeting in a razor attack by one of the jealous women Jule has taken up with, Ollie, though pregnant, decides that a piece of land, having something to work for, is more important than the strong feelings she and Jule had for each other, feelings that had made neither of them happy.

Throughout the novel, the field-workers who fail to win her affection, the women who can't gain her confidence, and the black proprietor of the farm where she is employed all behave toward Ollie as people whose daily lives are made up of the observance of powerful, civilizing customs. A woman who can't leave a man who beats her is pitied as not having "the sense she ought to have been born with." Henderson published a sequel about Ollie's son, and then, like so many other writers who had been a part of the Harlem Renaissance, he faded away.

The Harlem Renaissance faded, and so did the declared purpose of its young writers to celebrate the richness of black vernacular culture. The Depression wiped out the optimism of the 1920s and by the time Richard Wright was at the pinnacle of his career in the 1940s the burdens and hopelessness of life in the ghetto had become the most representative and the most riveting themes of African American literature. The city, the world made by migration, was the setting for this protest literature, and the problem of the ghetto dominated African American fiction as its most valid, meaningful subject until very recently.

The ghetto had become synonymous with black culture to such an extent that even works of sheer entertainment carried a political message merely through the scenery. Louise Meriwether's Daddy Was A Numbers Runner (1969) or Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich (1973) may be reinterpreted to extract something "womanist," but previously these novels by women were fictions about the urban condition, along with everything else, mostly written by men. The urban story was largely the black man's story—the bars, the wounds, the desperate improvisations—and perhaps the black woman's story should be seen as part of a more general reaction against this writing that identified black culture as a problem, and the ghetto as a symbol of the pathological. Celebrating the richness of life in the black community has made a comeback, and especially, ironically, because of Roots, this revival emphasizes survival, continuity, family feeling—the woman's story. The "folk utterance" has become female.

But just as the ghetto as the primary subject became the victim of the complacence of formula, so too "the necessary bread" of the black woman's point of view is being made to do the job of the five loaves and two fishes. Naomi King's O.P.P., a story of deceit among B girls, and Barbara McNeely's Blanche on the Lam, which introduces a black maid as a detective, have nothing in common with Jamaica Kincaid's novels of sensibility apart from the intrinsic interest of being about black women. If anything, Terry McMillan's women flying off to conferences in Las Vegas are closer in temperament to the narcissistic young moguls jetting off to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls. Only McMillan's novel is more accomplished.

Twenty years ago, when June Jordan never failed to rock the house, these black women writers would have been poets. Twenty years ago, the white women who are a large part of the black woman's audience were preoccupied with the bad sport in The Bell Jar and the good sport in Fear of Flying. It has been suggested that the sales figures for books by black women expose them as commodities, "the flavor of the month," but people have a way of turning against the best seller in the way that everyone everywhere hates the nouveau riche. Yet the immense popularity of a very few black women writers obscures the fact that most novels by black women have a very short shelf life—just like most other books in the US. Then, too, black writing has been so widely accepted as serving a political or moral purpose that it is hard to see as real books that do not make an immediate display of having instrumentality.

It also says something about the cultural moment that you can quickly name over a dozen black male film directors, but have to pause to come up with four black women directors. Rap is very much the young black man's province, and Angela Davis has noted that hip hop's narrow interpretation of the legacy of Malcolm X once again posits black macho as the only response to white supremacy. Maybe there is some frustration among black male writers that they seem unable to muster an equal impact at the moment; maybe some discuss the limelight around black women writers as if it were a continuation of the alleged conspiracy between the master and his concubine, but it makes me think of what Otis Redding is supposed to have said when "Respect" became such a hit for Aretha Franklin: "That girl stole my song." As everyone knows, it was a different song when Aretha sang it.

Donnella Canty (review date April 1996)

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SOURCE: "McMillan Arrives," in English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 86-7.

[In the following review, Canty offers high praise for Waiting to Exhale.]

Move over Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, make room for Terry McMillan. McMillan will need a lot of room on the bench of elite, female African American writers if her latest novel, Waiting to Exhale, is any indication of her true talent. In addition to Waiting to Exhale, McMillan has two other novels to her credit; Mama (1987) and Disappearing Acts (1980) were McMillan's first two fictional endeavors. She also edited Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990), a very popular collection of short stories.

Waiting to Exhale quickly established McMillan as a major force among contemporary female fiction writers. The novel lived up to the praises of my colleagues and turned out to be one of the most well written, true-to-life books I had ever read. McMillan's story-telling strategies and precise command of narrative voice were exceptional.

The plot centers around four thirtysomething friends (Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews) who are rediscovering themselves, their lives, and their mates. As if those three major issues are not enough, the four friends also face and deal with political, cultural, social, and economic challenges facing black women. Through their struggle, McMillan depicts the bonds of friendship and relationship in a humorous light by telling each of the twenty-eight chapters from the viewpoints of each friend. The black dialect and voices McMillan uses to tell all of the women's stories draw readers into black culture.

Savannah and Robin are childless and have never been married. Both are attractive professionals climbing the success ladder and in search of the man who can make their imperfect lives complete. Savannah is plagued with a mother who is aging, an apathetic family that has become dependent on her financial support, and a job which does not allow her to express her creative talents. At the same time, Robin is trying to overcome a long-term love affair that ended, leaving her distraught and lonely. After several mistakes with men, Robin decides that she will have a child with or without a husband.

McMillan tells Savannah and Robin's stories in first person which enables the reader to fully comprehend her protagonists' complex, eventful lives. Although the road to happiness is long, curved, and dangerous, these two women ride it smoothly, taking the many bumps as they come.

Bernadine and Gloria are the more experienced and mature of the four women. Gloria is a single parent of a teenage son and owns Oasis, a hair salon/gossip network for black women. She is coping with being alone, deciding whether to tell her son that his father is gay, and relating to her son's interest in white girls. Bernadine, the mother of two girls, wages a divorce battle with a husband who is an executive, as well as a cheat and a liar. When Bernadine finds out about his long-term affair with his young, white bookkeeper, her husband tries to hide his considerable financial assets. Bernadine is forced to consider being alone and working outside the home to maintain the plush lifestyle to which she and the children are accustomed.

The way these two women deal with their situation is simultaneously funny, sad, and realistic. McMillan tells the stories of Bernadine and Gloria in a very revealing third person.

Although McMillan's four main characters are black women, her story is not black or feminist. Waiting to Exhale speaks to most women and to the issues surrounding most women, regardless of race. She portrays women as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.

Waiting to Exhale provides a brief glimpse into the talent and capabilities of Terry McMillan. I am making room on my bookshelf and waiting to inhale her next masterpiece.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 April 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 14, April 1, 1996, p. 52.

[In the following review, the critic offers a tempered assessment of How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

Her readers may be surprised that, after the gritty, tell-it-as-it-is Mama and Waiting to Exhale, McMillan has now written a fairy tale. Her "forty-fucking-two-year-old" heroine, divorcee Stella Payne, possesses a luxurious house and pool in northern California, a lucrative job as a security analyst, a BMW and a truck, a personal trainer and an adorable 11-year-old son—but no steady guy. On a whim, Stella decides to vacation in Jamaica, and she narrates the ensuing events in a revved-up voice, naked of punctuation, that alternates between high-voltage energy and erotic languor. Romance comes to Stella under tropical skies—but there's a problem. Gorgeous, seductive Winston, the chef-trainee with whom she enjoys passionate sex (explicitly detailed), is shockingly young: he's not quite 21. Naturally, Stella wonders if he really loves her; endless soul-searching and a few tepid complications occupy the remainder of the narrative. When Stella loses her job, it's no sweat; she has enough savings to maintain her lifestyle. When fate throws two other gorgeous men her way, she immediately decides they are boring and isn't tempted for a minute. Meanwhile, her intense preoccupation with feminine deodorant sprays and the smell of women's public bathrooms is rather strange, to say the least. McMillan's expletive-strewn narrative accommodates such musings, however, and readers who have been yearning for a Judith Krantz of the black bourgeoisie—albeit one with a dirty mouth and a more ebullient spirit—will be pleased with this fantasy of sexual fulfillment.

Malcolm Jones Jr. (essay date 29 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Successful Sisters: Faux Terry Is Better than No Terry," in Newsweek, Vol. 127, No. 18, April 29, 1996, p. 79.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the popularity and influence of McMillan's fiction on the publishing industry and other African-American writers.]

Like James Michener and his generational epics and Tom Clancy and his techno-thrillers, Terry McMillan created a new literary genre with her upbeat novels about contemporary black women. Then she went those other writers one better: she created an entirely new audience to go with her genre. Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, a Philadelphia literary promoter, claims that for African-American women desperate for something to read, McMillan's "books have replaced dates in the '90s."

Waiting for McMillan to publish another book, readers pleaded with booksellers for anything similar. "I'd say, 'Read Bebe Moore Campbell'," says Clara Villrosa, owner of Denver's Hue-Man Experience bookstore. "They'd come back wanting more. I'd say, 'Read Tina McElroy Ansa, read Connie Briscoe.'" All these writers began publishing after McMillan, and like her they steer clear of writing about racial problems, concentrating instead on the problems of contemporary African-American women. They also send the same messages: "Girlfriend, you are all right," and "Men, hmmmph!" Briscoe's Sisters and Lovers (1994) sold more than 100,000 copies in hardcover and 325,000 in paperback. Her new novel, Big Girls Don't Cry, has 100,000 copies in print. Ansa's Ugly Ways (1993) sold 92,000 hardcover copies. Excited by these figures, the overwhelmingly white American publishing industry is going to ever-greater lengths to tap the black audience. In June, for example, Knopf will publish 150,000 copies of Push, a gritty first novel by black poet Sapphire for which Knopf paid a half-million dollars. Even E. Lynn Harris has more than 152,500 copies of his current best seller, And This Too Shall Pass, in print. Commenting on the unlikely success of a black male who writes about bisexual love affairs, Villarosa says, "When you're a female reader and you want love and a contemporary voice, you don't quibble so much about the other."

In the wake of Waiting to Exhale, publishers began to realize that black readers and white readers are reached in entirely different ways. "That review in The New York Times is not going to sell books," says Lloyd-Sgambati. And forget booking your author on the morning TV talk shows. "At 8 in the morning, most African-Americans aren't watching TV," she says. They're on their way to work. "So radio's a better way of getting the message across." Villarosa works with black sororities and has booked readings in churches. "So much depends on the connection to the community," she says. "The biggest thing with us is word of mouth."

Noting the black community's tradition of "looking to books for wisdom and solace," Will Schwalbe, editorial director at Morrow, argues that anyone who mistakes the sort of books McMillan writes as just beach reading for blacks has undervalued their importance. For these readers, a book "is not a throwaway form of entertainment. It's a vessel of culture," he says. Or as Lloyd-Sgambati observes, a generation ago, "most African-Americans who were reading were probably reading a Bible." Their grandchildren are reading the likes of Terry McMillan. To them, it's gospel.

John Leland (essay date 29 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "How Terry Got Her Groove," in Newsweek, Vol. 127, No. 18, April 29, 1996, pp. 76-9.

[In the following essay, Leland discusses McMillan's literary success, critical reception, and wide popularity.]

It is midmorning. In Terry Mcmillan's home, and the lovebirds are squawking. This is McMillan's modest-size house—the builders are putting the finishing touches on a grand Spanish-style manor around the corner—and the caged birds are able to rock it: four or five of them, brilliant green and red and yellow, splaying shocks of sound and color amid the fierce teal and chartreuse finishings. The lovebird, you might imagine, has a gentle, soothing coo. But you'd be wrong. These things can blow. And beneath their clamor, cutting through it, is the gruff gale force that is Terry McMillan, one of the most robustly embraced authors in America. Into an innocent telephone she growls: "Why do you keep calling?" This would be her son, Solomon, 11, the love of her life.

These have been tumultuous years for McMillan. After the blockbuster success of her 1992 book, Waiting to Exhale, she complained openly of the demands made on her by fans and black groups. At one point, she said she wished she'd never written it. The novel's unflattering portrayals of black men also drew charges of airing dirty laundry in public. At the same time, in the course of a year, she suffered the death of her mother and her best friend. Distraught, she had to shelve a partially completed novel, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," modeled partly on her mother. Today, though, she is on her game. She is wearing bright turquoise and white and royal blue, with a turquoise bandanna setting off her strong cheekbones and stronger brown eyes. These are colors loud enough to keep up their end of the conversation.

It has been a full moment or two since she has uttered a swear word, a dry spell in which she has discussed men, women—well, maybe an earthy participle slipped in there—and, ultimately, duty. "Do you believe I have to sign all these," she says, hunkering down to a stack of 4,000 photographs from the cover of her new book, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which is due April 29. The book, about a 42-year-old woman who goes to Jamaica and falls in steamy, sweaty love with a man half her age, is autobiographical. McMillan's twentysomething boyfriend, Jonathan, whom she met in Jamaica, quietly introduces himself and smiles; we should all have such a book written with us in mind.

Since Waiting to Exhale, her book signings—legendary occasions for soapy catharsis among the mostly African-American women who read McMillan's books—have gotten too big for her actually to sign books. So this time around, fans will get these photos. "But knowing black folks, they'll be like, [dropping into homegirl mode] 'Could I have a stack of these for my other books,' or 'this for my mama,' or 'this is for my sister, girl you know my aunt is in the hospital.'" She could go on, really she could. Because here in this tony bedroom development east of San Francisco, this funky music—this mix of self-satisfaction and an affectionately mocking voice—this is love, Terry McMillan style.

And McMillan is working it. Waiting to Exhale has sold nearly 4 million copies. For last winter's film version, which grossed $66 million, women turned out in large groups for the privilege of yelling "go girl" at the screen while four beautiful, successful black women searched for Mr. Wrong. How Stella Got Her Groove Back has a first printing of 800,000 copies in hardcover, unheard of for an African-American novelist. The film rights are already sold. She told a conference of black writers that she now commands $6 million a book. Her racy, frothy novels of middleclass black life have overthrown the unattractive publishing-industry wisdom that African-Americans don't read. And she has spawned a cottage industry of black pop fiction writers.

She has not always been embraced. Some other successful black women writers have refused to acknowledge her, which she has admitted hurts. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, the critic Albert Murray dismissed her books as "just Jackie Collins stuff." McMillan is characteristically unapolo-getic. "I can imitate Alice [Walker] and Toni [Morrison]. I can imitate f―ing Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Jane Austen. Anybody can." She laughs. McMillan enjoys a hearty, spirited battle with her critics. In the new novel, Stella takes Waiting to Exhale to Jamaica. She finds it pale. "I don't know what all the hoopla is about and why everybody thinks she's such a hot writer because her s― is kind of weak when you get right down to it and …" well, she could go on. But McMillan asserts, "This is my voice. I didn't know if I would be taken seriously because of the tone of my work. All I knew is that I wasn't going to change it."

Her colloquial narratives have the casually cathartic flavor of pop songs, allowing them to reach audiences her more literary peers never will. Clara Villarosa, who owns the largely black Hue-Man Experience bookstore in Denver, describes the McMillan revolution this way: "When you look at the literature of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, a lot of it reported on experiences in rural areas, or back when. Contemporary black fiction, in a black woman's voice, was a total void. These women weren't reading the Toni Morrisons. They'd say, 'Honey, I want it to sound like me.' And when it did, they loved it."

Terry McMillan was born in 1951, in Port Huron, Mich., the first of five children. Her mother raised the children largely by herself; her father, she says, was a bad drunk. "My mother didn't just get beat up," she says. "She fought back. A lot of times she kicked my father's ass." But she says her mother never regretted marrying her father (they divorced when Terry was 13; her father died three years later). "She was of that mind-set of, I have five beautiful kids, that's one thing he did right. I don't share that attitude."

Like a lot of her neighbors, the McMillans struggled; most went through spells without a phone or heat or electricity. "There were a couple winter nights I remember my teeth chattering," she says. "But I don't remember ever feeling poor. I hate that word. We never went hungry." Her mother worked various jobs and lavished her attentions on the kids. "When we got good grades, it was a reflection on her. Even though she only got up to 11th grade, that was her way of saying, 'I'm doing something right.' We didn't have time to fail. She didn't give us that space."

As a child Terry had little interest in literature. The only book in the house was the Bible. But at 16 she got a job for $1.25 an hour, shelving books in the library. There she discovered the Brontes, the biography of Louisa May Alcott—and James Baldwin, an inspiring surprise: she didn't know African-Americans published books. She'd sit on the floor of the travel section, reading and fantasizing. It was her way of escaping Port Huron. When she finally did get out, first to junior college in Los Angeles and later to Berkeley, where she got pivotal encouragement from Ishmael Reed, it was again reading that helped her escape a bind. "As soon as I read Ring Lardner, his voice jumped off the page. What he was writing about was tragic, and I was cracking up. I realized that it was the same sort of thing I was trying to do in my stuff. Ring Lardner said, 'It's OK Terry, to write the way that you talk.' Ring Lardner was the one who freed me up. Langston Hughes didn't hurt."

In the early '80s, unsure of herself, McMillan battled with cocaine and alcohol abuse (she says she hasn't touched either substance since). By the time she wrote Mama (1987), she was a single mother. She remembers editing galleys by night, working as a typist and trying to raise a young baby on her own (she has never married). She promoted the book herself, sending off thousands of letters and reading in every black bookstore that would have her. Through her incendiary readings, she found her audience, many of whom were really discovering fiction for the first time.

Hers is a fresh voice, one belonging to what writer Trey Ellis calls the New Black Aesthetic. Writers before her, she says, "dealt with everything from the perspective of race. A lot of them were appealing to a white audience, hoping they would say, 'OK now we understand you people more. Thanks for sharing.'"

Instead, McMillan writes intimately, sometimes mockingly, about a middleclass black experience in which white America is largely irrelevant. Her best work captures the foibles and rhythms around her in lusty vernacular. Check out, for instance, this resolution from Zora, one of the alternating narrators of Disappearing Acts (1989), McMillan's most probing work: "I've got a history of jumping right into the fire, mistaking desire for love, lust for love, and, the records show, on occasion, a good lay for love … I made up my mind that the next time I'm 'out here'—which just so happens to be right now—it'll have to start with dinner (which won't be me) and at least one or two movies and quite a few hand-holding walks before I slide under the covers and scream out his name like I've known him all my life. Some flowers wouldn't hurt either."

Her lack of racial polemic has earned her a crossover audience, but also heat from some black critics. Elizabeth Nunez, who heads the National Black Writers Conference, worries that McMillan's success signals a cautionary note to black writers: "Hey, if you want to get popular, then stop writing literature that is race-centered. But the truth is that race is central to a black person's experience." At the same time, McMillan has fought with white editors over what constitutes black experience. Houghton Mifflin, which had an option on Disappearing Acts, wanted McMillan to drop the middle-class Zora's narrative voice because, she says, she sounded too much like a white girl. "They weren't acknowledging that we had other experiences. Everything was supposed to be racially motivated. We don't just fall in love and get our hearts broken just like everybody else. No, there's got to be something about being exploited. I'm sorry I did not make Zora barefoot, pregnant, getting her ass locked in the projects. But that's not the story I wanted to tell." She ultimately published with Viking.

But enough about critics. For the Sisterfriends, a reading group in Los Angeles, it doesn't matter what academics say. What matters is that McMillan has a new book coming out. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, written—like her others—in a little less than a month, is McMillan's most breathless book, and her least fully developed. The heroine, a $200,000-a-year systems analyst, is her least accessible. But this prospect does not seem to bother the Sisterfriends. They already have plans to meet at the largest black bookstore in L.A. on the day it's released to buy copies.

The Sisterfriends is one of dozens of "sista circles" formed around books like McMillan's. They are working women: hairdressers, teachers, secretaries, paralegals. "I love Toni Morrison and Alice Walker," said Candence Walker last week, "but they can be difficult to understand. I read [Morrison's] The Bluest Eye twice before it made sense, and then I still think I missed some of it. I never had that problem with Terry." Gladys Johns, holding a finger sandwich, had to laugh. "I admire those [writers], but damn, they depress me. I know we've been victims as black women, but Alice and Toni really stick it to you and I don't want to be reminded of it all the time. Terry talks about problems, but with humor and fun. I laugh through the tears. That's what I need."

These are the women Terry McMillan wants to speak to, and for. She admits that at a screening of Waiting to Exhale, she was yelling at the characters as much as the audience. "I don't write about victims," she says. "They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives. Because all of us are victims to some extent." The stories she tells are, in the end, her own. Critics may never give her the acceptance she wants. But Terry McMillan is not one to hold her breath.

James Wolcott (review date 29 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Terry McMillan," in The New Yorker, Vol. 72, No. 10, April 29, 1996, p. 102.

[In the following review, Wolcott comments briefly on How Stella Got Her Groove Back and McMillan's literary success.]

Waiting to Exhale was for Terry McMillan what Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was for Anne Tyler—a popular breakthrough after years of paying dues. McMillan's previous novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts, had found a niche with readers, but had done nothing to separate her from the pack of other praiseworthies. Then came Waiting to Exhale, a huge best-seller, its liftoff supplied by the jubilant, snappy talk of its female characters—especially when they ragged on men. History and the burden of race didn't give weight to its pages, as they do in much black fiction. Set in Phoenix, Waiting to Exhale exulted in light, open, possibility-filled space.

McMillan's new novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which is coming from Viking this month, is also set in the airbrushed present. There are a lot of long sentences without commas, to convey the anxious rush of its heroine's acceleration through life. Lots of "You go, girl!" backslap, too. McMillan, who took flak for portraying black men as sneaks and sheiks in Waiting to Exhale (a controversy that was reignited when the book became a hit movie), tries to make amends here in the form of Winston, whom Stella meets on a vacation in Jamaica. He is so fine: only twenty-one—half Stella's age—he is responsible, polite, and attentive to a woman's needs, and when he and Stella kiss, those long sentences without commas ascend like goldfish bubbles.

The first printing for the book is a monster one million copies, which makes McMillan the Oprah of black fiction, selling and exemplifying the holy trinity of wish fulfillment: money, fame, and romance. McMillan doesn't write for worrywarts. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, like Waiting to Exhale, is a sexy handbook of self-realization.

Liesl Schillinger (review date 5 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Beneath a Jamaican Moon," in Washington Post Book World, May 5, 1996, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Schillinger commends McMillan's strong female protagonist and portrayal of desublimated female desire in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Schillinger concludes, "women are ready to read about themselves not only as schemers or sufferers, but as the adventurous heroes of their own lives."]

Is a happy woman in charge of her own fate de facto an unsympathetic character—someone people don't want to read about and cannot empathize with? If so, the defenders of serious literature will no doubt join in unison to eject Terry McMillan's rip-roaring new book, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, from the Eden of politically and academically correct approval. Because, in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, no women weep; and Stella, in fact, revels. She revels and even gloats at being a woman, revels in being in solitary possession of her mind, her body, her child, her house, her finances, her beauty, her creativity and finally, of her sexy, strapping young dream lover, whom she finds and triumphantly lashes to her side. If this is unserious literature, it is unserious literature of the most serious kind, perhaps even, in its own way, revolutionary.

Terry McMillan is the only novelist I have ever read, apart from writers of children's books, who makes me glad to be a woman. Children's fiction overflows with examples of authoritative girls who control their worlds, fictional and real; from Laura Ingalls Wilder's own Laura, to C. S. Lewis's Lucy, to E. E. Nesbit's Anthea, Lloyd Alexander's Eilonwy, and of course L. Frank Baum's Dorothy—or, perhaps more remarkable, Baum's Ozma of Oz, who actually chose to be transformed from a boy to a girl to claim the Emerald City throne. But the moment the cloak of girlhood is thrown off, and writers choose to write about grown-up girls, any sense of empowerment, opportunity or strength in the female characters is bestowed only to be smashed sooner or later, as the women run through such hurdles as pleasing men, struggling to find a mate, supporting children and, more often than not, coping with emotional, physical or intellectual bullying of some kind, or paying the wages of their own sentimentalized sin.

I was afraid at first that this impression might have been an absurd exaggeration; but then I looked at my bookshelf of favorite books—books I have read and reread, and care about deeply—and was astonished to find my theory amply confirmed. In the A's to F's alone—Amis (both), Austen, Bronte, Cervantes, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Duras, Eliot, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Forster—I remembered female characters who, however interesting their tales might have been, principally sought male sanction or suffered, one way or another. Further down the alphabet, in Shakespeare and Wharton, Graham Greene, Hemingway, Virgil, and Maugham, I recalled doomed Lady Macbeth and Lily Bart, prostitutes and spurned wives, the weeping women of the Trojan wars, weeping women, in fact everywhere. (In fairness, I submit, Trollope also makes me glad to be a woman; the exception proves the rule. But then, in his time, and even now, he was often dismissed as an unserious writer.) This seems to beg the question: Does serious literature want women to be subject or else abject? McMillan abundantly proves that if it does, it shouldn't.

Fans of McMillan's previous novels, the hugely popular Waiting to Exhale and the more critically esteemed Disappearing Acts and Mama, will recognize McMillan's authentic, unpretentious voice in every page of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It is the voice of the kind of woman all of us know and all of us need: the warm, strong, bossy mother/sister/best friend. Fans and enemies alike will also get their share of the brand names that McMillan uses to signify arrival into this country's upper-middle class: BMW and Calvin Klein, Nordstrom's and Macy's. Having just spent an evening with a friend who crowed ecstatically all night over a new pair of Gucci loafers, which did in fact seem to lend her some special glow, I don't find the product emphasis fatuous or crass. Even Emerson recognized that for a woman, which McMillan indubitably is, "the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow." But readers of this book will find more than wise words and icons of wealth; they will find the rare and perhaps unique example of a courtship in which the woman hunts down her own love object herself—and finds the man willing to be wooed.

At the outset of the book, we learn that Stella, 42, an affluent single mom in San Francisco, has gone a little stale, like champagne that's been uncorked and not tasted for too long. She's content, but she spends more time taking care of business and conducting lengthy Molly Bloom-like internal harangues with herself and external harangues with her sisters than trying to find happiness for herself. So, defying her stagnation, she packs herself off to a luxury resort in Jamaica, where from get-go, every young stud's eyes swing appreciatively in her direction. Sure enough, Stella soon finds the "real thing" in the form of a noble, gentle, fine 20-year-old man, Winston Shakespeare. When McMillan describes Stella's first vision of the boy wonder, you want to howl with laughter at her audacity, and shout, "Go, girl!":

When I look at him I almost have a stroke. He is wearing baggy brown shorts and has to be at least six three or four and he is lean but his shoulders are wide broad and as he walks toward my table all I can think is Lord Lord Lord some young girl is gonna get lucky as I don't know what if she can snag you … when he smiles he shows off a beautiful set of straight white teeth that've been hiding behind and under those succulent young lips.

Name another time you've read a man objectified by a woman in this way, if you can. Stella, of course, turns out to be the lucky girl, and soon finds that she's hooked. Back in California, her sister Vanessa encourages her, while her sister Angela moans in despair at the folly of a May-December romance in which her sister is not May. Vanessa boldly comes to Stella's defense: "Men have been dating younger women for [expletive] centuries and does anybody say anything to them?" she sputters. Women may talk like this to each other, but few of us write like this.

To those who say this could never happen in real life, I offer the evidence of the young dive-master I met last summer in Belize under an apricot moon, whose gallantry and openhearted effusiveness restored my own faith in romance, even if he was no Winston Shakespeare. McMillan's book may be the stuff of fantasies, not reality; but if fantasies could be bought whole, every woman in the country would be lining up to buy them from Terry McMillan. And maybe then other writers would dare to write them, too. And, maybe this is happening right now—and fiction at last is about to understand that women are ready to read about themselves not only as schemers or sufferers, but as the adventurous heroes of their own lives.

John Skow (review date 6 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Some Groove," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 19, May 6, 1996, pp. 77-8.

[In the following review, Skow discusses McMillan's literary success and the wide popularity of her fiction.]

News flash: Terry McMillan's big-bucks new novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy that barely qualifies as beach literature. Heroine Stella Payne is a beautiful, single, "forty-bleeping-two-year-old" black investment analyst who, though sexy and rich, hasn't had a date in months. Tired of waiting for a black prince to materialize in a paid-for Lexus, she flies to Jamaica on vacation, meets Winston Shakespeare, a tall, golden-brown, bashful 20-year-old assistant cook at a resort hotel, falls in love, and brings him back home as a live-in souvenir.

Correction to news flash: Stella isn't fantasy after all. Author McMillan, 44, single, renowned for griping raucously about no-account African-American men in her bestselling 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale, flew to Jamaica on vacation last June and fell in love with tall, golden-brown, bashful, 20-ish resort hotel employee Jonathan Plummer. They now live together, happily ever after, in McMillan's big house in Danville, California. "I don't anticipate us being together for the rest of my life," says the reflexively blunt author, "but right now it works and it's good for him and it works for me and I don't care what anybody thinks … Men have done this bleep for years. Nobody ever says anything about them and they marry chicks young enough to be their daughters."

McMillan may be—in fact, no question, she is—a better story than her latest book. As the first wildly successful black pop novelist, she is, as they say, looking good, an attractive woman of about 5 ft. 7 in., taking her ease in an oversize white sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers after a morning photo shoot. For the moment, turbulence is below the surface, but as McMillan's longtime agent Molly Friedrich says, "You don't meet Terry, you experience Terry. She's truly a force of nature."

The former writing teacher (Stanford, University of Wyoming) is also a force of corporate profit. Her first two novels were modest successes; her third was Waiting to Exhale, which swept the nation's bedrooms, beaches, hair salons, reading groups and rush-hour subway trains, selling almost 700,000 hard copies in the process and 3 million more in paperback. Numbers like these would have drawn any publisher's attention, of course. The fact that an African-American author was writing about vivid characters with whom many black women could identify had the added effect of proving to booksellers that there is a sizable, previously ignored market for semisoapy black fiction—just as the $67 million gross for last year's film version of Exhale proved there is a sizable market for semisoapy black movies.

All of which has set the table for McMillan's staggering $6 million boodle from Stella (that's the figure she divulged at a black writers' conference in Brooklyn, New York, in March). Viking is printing 800,000 hard copies of the book. Book-of-the-Month Club bought the novel two years ago, as one of its main selections, sight unseen, before it was even written. The movie rights for Stella have also been sold, for an undisclosed seven-figure bundle.

Given all that, her toys are not particularly gaudy. She owns a black BMW, a silver Mercedes and a navy blue Toyota Land Cruiser. A pool, of course. And she just moved into a larger and fancier house with, among other refinements, egg-plant-colored leather tiles on the office floor. All perfectly normal for a medium-to-big shot in the entertainment industry, and she grumbles when reporters mention that she, or her characters, live high. "What's their point?" she asks. "All these white people write about people in their books having money. What is the problem with us having a little bit? Why are they so bleeping surprised? What is the big bleeping deal?"

Considering the edge of anger that cuts through her conversation—she can get steamed in several directions within the same five minutes—it may be surprising that McMillan writes only glancingly about racial and feminist issues. Stella, in the new novel, is shocked at the bitter poverty in remote parts of Jamaica. And she does advise her sister that the way to stop black kids from gang-banging is to make them listen to The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the third grade. But it's the roiling currents among family, friends and lovers that McMillan is most comfortable writing about.

For the moment, however, the temporarily semiserene author has put aside her caricatures of black men, who in Exhale were lampooned as triflers who were generally around at bedtime, ooh Baby, but not a good bet for breakfast and a bleeping certainty to be bleeping gone when there were bills to be paid and kids to be reared. She gets along well, she says, though at a distance, with her 11-year-old son Solomon's father, whom she never married (and who sued her unsuccessfully for an unflattering characterization in her second novel, Disappearing Acts). She grew up as the eldest of five children in a troubled, hardscrabble household in Port Huron, Michigan. Her father was alcoholic and abusive, and her mother Madeline, working as a maid and in an auto factory, raised the kids mostly on her own. Madeline is the recognizable main character in McMillan's first novel, Mama; it's not hard to guess that she was an important source of her daughter's grit and directness.

There is no denying that McMillan's success has changed the industry by proving that there are eager buyers—lots of blacks, lots of whites—for African-American pop fiction, and not just high-end literary novels like the work of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, who have had best sellers, but also glossy page turners that owe a thing or two to Jacqueline Susann. Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based trade magazine that focuses on black consumers, credits McMillan with "dragging the industry kicking and screaming into what has become a very lucrative situation." The numbers: between 1990 and 1993 the amount of money African Americans spent on books increased 48% (while book buying by whites increased only 10%). Among the beneficiaries are a number of successful, recently published writers, including Connie Briscoe, whose Big Girls Don't Cry (HarperCollins) is a somewhat earnest black-businesswoman-makes-good fable, and E. Lynn Harris, author of And This Too Shall Pass (Doubleday), the story of a gorgeously muscled N.F.L. quarterback coming to terms with his homosexuality.

As for McMillan, the most self-revelatory writer in the world—this week, anyway—she grouses that "nobody would dream of asking Toni Morrison who she is sleeping with." Later, her Jamaican friend Plummer, a slim, amiable fellow who studies hotel management at Diablo Valley College, pokes his head into her cluttered office. He admits that he is "flattered" to be the model for Stella's Winston Shakespeare, though "I don't really read books." "But he will," says McMillan, "or else he's moving." Laughter all around.

It's a dubious sort of good luck that the publication of her slightest and fluffiest novel has brought McMillan her greatest reward. The new book starring "Winston" burbles along cheerfully but lacks the satirical bite of Waiting to Exhale. There isn't much to the story, which amounts to woman meets boy, gets boy, with no second act, so the author will have to crank up some misery if she carries out her plans to write the screenplay. You can't have a movie without conflict.

How critics will ultimately judge McMillan is a good question. Will she turn out to be, like Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz, just one more queen of the steamy, scented stuff that the publishing industry calls "commercial"? It's possible. But so far McMillan has not written formula glop. And most of the time her chapters, though they can rank nearly as high as Steele's and Krantz's in breathy descriptions of dressing, undressing and furniture, have a brassy realism that saves them from the trash bin. And even though peace has broken out in the author's life, with the usual corrosive effects on a satirical viewpoint, the reader suspects that there are more battle communiques to be written in the ancient and always up-to-date war between the women and the men.

Stella, in Stella, picks up a copy of Exhale, reads 50 or 60 pages and drops it with the offhand comment that "I don't know what all the hoopla is about and why everybody thinks she's such a hot writer. Hell, I could write the same stuff she writes." Sure, Stella; in your dreams. Which are what pop novels, even largely autobiographical ones, are all about.

Richard Bernstein (review date 15 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Black, Affluent and Looking for More," in The New York Times, May 15, 1996, p. C17.

[In the following review, Bernstein offers a generally positive assessment of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but states that "the issues for Stella are luxuriously banal."]

Terry McMillan's new novel is like one of those television sitcoms in which a somewhat unconventional family faces the somewhat unconventional plight of one of its members. In this episode, the family member is Stella Payne, an affluent, divorced 42-year-old investment analyst who, trying to put a little excitement back into her life, goes on vacation to Jamaica. There she meets a handsome, gentle, very charming Jamaican and falls in love with him. The problem, which Stella wrestles with for the rest of the novel, is that the man, named Winston Shakespeare, is half Stella's age.

The television people have names for some of the main sitcom genres. There is the dead-mother comedy, for example, in which a father raises the children in the absence of his deceased wife. How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a single-mother comedy. Like the better sitcoms, it has a cast of likable, truculent characters, funny lines, smart repartee and a warm and fuzzy ending. It is a good deal more raunchy than anything that would be allowed on television. It is not deeper or more searching than the average sitcom, no more dramatically powerful than a backyard barbecue, but it is an irreverent, mischievous, diverting novel that at times will make you laugh out loud.

Ms. McMillan's previous book, the wildly successful Waiting to Exhale, made into a movie, was warmly welcomed as an expression of middle-class black female identity. The 'hood—the world depicted by Clockers, Menace 2 Society or Tupac Shakur—was only part of the larger black pageant, Ms. McMillan was reminding us. The larger picture also included middle-class black women with educations, careers and sensibilities who wage a special kind of struggle over the missing ingredients of the affluent life.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back extends Ms. McMillan's excavation of this literary vein. Stella is the owner of a BMW and an expensive house in the San Francisco suburbs; she is a soft touch for her son's requests for money to buy the latest rap CD's; her younger sister is married to a litigator and among her suitors is a judge. But Stella is a rare member of her extended family to experience life at the level of bourgeois anomie. Many others remain in the 'hood. From time to time a relative calls her collect from prison.

Stella's concerns and her consciousness are standard American-suburban, overlaid by the cultural and psychological cues emanating from the experience of being black in America. Her racial awareness is keen and casual at the same time, her reflections often cursory and soon forgotten. When she gets to Jamaica she refuses to go to the nude beach because "I wouldn't want to give white men the pleasure of seeing my black body, considering they used to rape us when we were slaves." She notices, too, when she gets out of the minivan that has taken her from Montego Bay airport to her hotel in Negril, that none of the white people give the driver a tip. She does—$20. "This is like a black thang: You take care of me, I'll take care of you," she explains.

"I basically like most white people as long as they don't act like Nazis or come across like they're superior or richer or classier or smarter," Stella declares, giving expression not to some element in her personal experience but to her awareness of historical oppression. But Stella's main concerns are the stuff of what the movie people call crossover, the transracial interest Ms. McMillan's books inspire. They stem not from being black but from being a woman and from dealing with and needing men.

The issues for Stella are luxuriously banal. Even though she makes more than $200,000 a year, works with a personal trainer who "makes Cindy Crawford look like a zero," and has a man she can call on for "purely maintenance-oriented sex," she is bored and vaguely discontented. "Right now I'm tired of thinking about how uneventful my life has been lately, and I wish I knew what I could do to put the fizz back into it," she declares. Her 11-year-old son, Quincy, has gone off on vacation with his father, which is what enables Stella to take off for Jamaica and to puzzle out her uncommon romantic dilemma.

"What I do know deep down although I keep it secretly secret," she says, "is that I am terrified at the thought of losing myself again whole-heartedly to any man because it is so scary peeling off that protective sealant that's been guarding my heart and letting somebody go inside and walk around lie down look around and see all those red flags especially when right next to your heart is your soul." Stella is far too self-absorbed to be entirely admirable, but she is sassy and bright and her spasms of surliness stem from the vulnerability she tries hard to hide rather than any streak of real meanness.

Her spiky interior thoughts and the spirited, affectionately caustic dialogue she maintains with the rest of the world save her story from triteness, though not always. ("I mean how can we grow if we think we've already arrived at the end?" Stella asks herself near the end of her journey.) Fortunately, Ms. McMillan's ear is generally rather finely tuned. The secondary characters—especially Stella's two sisters and her precocious, empathetic son—are sharply realized.

Ms. McMillan's book, in short, is pretty smooth sailing, rather like Stella's life. Nothing catches very deeply. Quincy is untroubled by his mother's love affair with a near adolescent. Stella's $200,000-a-year job causes her no difficulty (not even when she loses it). Nobody in this book is much interested in anything except sex, love and new acquisitions. It's the American dream realized, Ms. McMillan demonstrating that the black realization of it can be just as slick and anemic as the white.

Terry McMillan with Evette Porter (interview date 21 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "My Novel, Myself," in Village Voice, May 21, 1996, pp. 41-2.

[In the following interview, McMillan discusses her critical reception and autobiographical aspects of her fiction, particularly in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

The thing to remember about Terry McMillan is that she's very much a diva, and not just by reputation. With her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, she actually looks the part, even if she seems somewhat younger than her 44 years and is smaller than I'd expected. Her voice is deep, mature, and sounds slightly edgy as she explains she's just finished doing 19 interviews. She became a phenomenon after the success of Waiting To Exhale, both as a book and a movie, and earned a $6 million advance for her latest novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It's a breathless tale of a middle-aged woman who falls for a 20-year-old while vacationing in Jamaica, and much has been written about the similarities between the novel and McMillan's real life—which includes a young Jamaican boyfriend she met on the island last summer.

"How long is this gonna take?" she says, after giving me the once-over. I'd heard about her abrasiveness, but when I say an hour, she says okay, and politely ushers me into her hotel suite.

Not long after we sit down, Jonathan Plummer, the "souvenir" Time magazine says McMillan brought back from her trip last year, pokes his head out from the adjoining room. For all the speculation about Plummer being the love interest in McMillan's latest novel, he bears little resemblance to Stella's tropical boy toy. Lanky, slightly stooped, and self-effacing, he's dressed more like a B-boy than a sexy rent-a-dread from Negril. He seems a little uncomfortable with all the attention, but McMillan assures me he's getting used to it. After the brief introduction, he retreats to the other room.

This seems like as good an opening as any to start talking about the personal issues in McMillan's work.

[Porter:] People assume your work is autobiographical, that Terry McMillan is Stella, I say, Is she?

[McMillan:] "Stella isn't a reinvention of myself. She's only part of my persona. I can't believe people actually think my life is like that. What I give [my characters] are my concerns, which for the most part are grounded in reality."

Are you the person that you see written about?

"Pretty much, with the exception of Time magazine. [The writer] had a chip on his shoulder from the first line."

More has been written about you than about your work.

"Thank you. That was my point."

Why?

"I think the film may have had something to do with it, and I understand that. But especially with Stella, everybody wants to know how much of it is real. How much of it is true. If I said, 'all of it,' what does that mean? People spend a lot of time trying to draw similarities between my life and my work. I've gotten it with every book. 'Which character is you in Waiting To Exhale, girl?' Do you think if I was Robin [the sexually promiscuous character], that I would admit it? I mean come on—dingbat that she was. I don't think so!"

Sure, but some of the characters in your novels bear a strong resemblance to you, so maybe that has something to do with it?

"Probably. But in Waiting To Exhale, out of all the things those women went through, only two of those experiences came close to what I've been through. And even those were lies. But the bottom line is, as a writer I understand or I'm trying to understand what makes people tick. I try to make the characters believable, realistic. I think when people meet me, they're more comfortable assuming that I'm one of these characters because then it makes me not this icon, this larger-than-life figure. I think that's one of the reasons fans do it. On the other hand, I think this guy from Time was trying to show that I hadn't written a novel at all—you know what I'm saying. That it was simply a reenactment of my life, which I really resent. Because he wasn't there. You know."

For all the media's winking about excessive self-disclosure, McMillan has yet to write about some of the more difficult things in her life—the deaths in recent years of one of her closest friends and her mother. Even as Exhale was rising to the top of the charts, she was abandoning A Day Late and a Dollar Short, a tale about a mother and daughter. McMillan's new novel, written in just a month, marked an end to her writer's block.

Was writing Stella therapeutic?

"Of course. Definitely. Cathartic."

In a way that A Day Late and a Dollar Short was not?

"No, no. You can't compare the two. I don't do that."

Because it was about your mother, right?

"No! No! Nope. Not about my mother. It's about a woman who's in her fifties who in some ways has a part of my mother's persona, but she's not my mother. I had my mother in mind. I just wanted to explore that and I thought about some of the things my mother had said to me and my sisters over the years and that's how it started. But once I lost my mother, it was too close—the idea of writing about a mother who is a little bit too intrusive and invasive in her adult children's lives, I couldn't go there emotionally. I didn't want to.

"Stella was different. I embraced that. I hadn't intended to write it. It dictated to me that it wanted to be written and I just sort of paid attention. I hadn't written in almost two years. So when it started coming out, I just gave in to it. I just sort of succumbed, surrendered. And I was not going to stop. I didn't really think it was a novel I was writing. At first it was a poem. Then a little short story. Jonathan was the one who encouraged me. Didn't you, Jonathan?" she yells in the direction of the other room.

[Plummer:] "Yeah, I guess so," he mutters back.

[McMillan:] "What do you mean you guess so?" she says, in a way that seems to demand a stronger reply.

"You did!"

Jonathan emerges from the other room, briefly interrupting the interview.

"I said to Jonathan, you'll see some things in here that you can kind of recognize, but it's not going to be everything that happened between you and me, is it now?" she says, glancing in his direction.

Were you apprehensive about getting involved with someone much younger than you?

"Yeah! Yeah! Wait, let me say goodbye to Jonathan…."

She trails off to walk him to the door. There's a brief exchange between the two—a shared joke—and the kind of physical intimacy one usually sees in young couples. Surprisingly, the somewhat brash McMillan seems uncharacteristically girlish, almost giggly and coy, with Plummer. After he leaves, she settles back into the chair.

So what about being involved with a much younger man?

"I think as women we almost inherently question anything that makes us happy. I don't think I thought about it very long. But if you had told me a year ago that I'd be going out with someone in their twenties, I would have laughed in your face. I would've said, 'I don't go out with children.' Really. I'd never even thought about it."

Part of the attraction, she admits, is that Plummer didn't know who she was. "He'd never even heard of my book, which was great," she chuckles. "Plus I didn't really give a shit at the time, to be honest. Because I wasn't really thinking that way. All I was thinking was what a good-looking young man he was and one day somebody was going to be verrry happy. I don't think it's so much robbing the cradle, it's more like the way interracial couples were years ago."

So far, she's got no regrets. "Life is really short, too short. My girlfriend wasn't even 50 and my mother was 59 when she died. I was thinking, shit, if I blink, I'll be 59. And I don't want to be one of these 'wish I coulda, woulda, shoulda.' Right now it's been almost a year with Jonathan. And it's been a good year. And if it's over next month, I'll be heartbroken. But the bottom line is it's been a good year, a damn good year. That's why I wrote the book, so I wouldn't forget it."

In interviews and even in your novels, you've become somewhat notorious for

"Being so profane?" McMillan asks, slightly bemused. "Oh, I can be when you piss me off. When I was being interviewed by the reporter from Time, she was being really probing. I said to her, 'If I were Toni Morrison, would you be asking me these fucking questions? Do you ask Anne Tyler who she was sleeping with before she wrote her last book?' I don't think so. 'Do you ask Danielle Steele?' No!

"I was upset because when they interview white writers, they don't ask them what kind of car they drive, or what kind of house they live in. What has that got to do with my work? If I were white they wouldn't ask me these fuckin' questions. And sure enough that's what that muthafucker put in the article. See, now I'm swearing, because they made me mad.

"There are going to be people out there that are going to review the book for what it is. And of course, there are people who are going to review me. There's a backlash to success, especially if you're black and female—black and/ or female.

"You know my mama used to say, 'Always have a thick skin, because people are gonna talk about you if you do, and talk about you if you don't. So fuck 'em.'

"If I'd stopped and thought about the fact that I am writing this novel and people are going to find out that I have this young boyfriend and they're going to think that all this stuff is real, I wouldn't have been able to write anything. But I didn't stop long enough to worry about it. All I thought about was my story, and telling it, and feeling it. And that's how I write. And that's why I write."

Sarah Ferguson (review date 2 June 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1996, p. 21.

[In the following review, Ferguson summarizes the "uncomplicated" message of How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

Divorced at 42, with an 11-year-old son and a lucrative job in investment banking, Stella Payne splits her time between a "funky little California castle" outside San Francisco and a cabin at Lake Tahoe. She's got four computers in her office, a personal trainer, a pool and two steam rooms—but make no mistake, it's lonely at the top. "Once you get past the 200,000-a-year mark you are constantly being appraised and as a result always trying to prove your worth," the buppie heroine complains in her infectiously intimate you-go!-girl run-on style. "It's too hectic up here and the race is always on. It's always rush hour but I haven't figured out when to put on my blinker because it's safe to change lanes and I'm also not sure which exit I should take to get off this track altogether." What Stella needs is a little loving. And so, after the inevitable shopping spree (nightgowns, sexy bras and panties, six or seven bathing suits for a nine-day trip), our new best girlfriend heads to an adults-only resort in Jamaica and straight into the arms of a sweet-smelling "maple-syrup-colored" local hunk—who happens to be all of 20 years old. Terry McMillan's first novel since her 1992 best seller, Waiting to Exhale, is a guilty-pleasure sex-and-shopping fantasy of the first order, sprinkled with asides on rap music and feminine hygiene and featuring a message as uncomplicated as a glass of fresh-squeezed papaya juice: If aging men can rev their engines with pretty young trophy wives, why can't middle-aged women treat themselves to dreamy, dishy boy toys?

Janet Mason Ellerby (essay date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: "Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family," in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 105-17.

[In the following essay, Ellerby examines McMillan's depiction of the African-American family in Mama, Disappearing Acts, and Waiting to Exhale. In contrast to other mainstream white, middle-class models, Ellerby asserts that "McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right."]

In Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, Mildred's husband is holding fiercely to his notion of being the "man of the house" within the nuclear family:

Crook … found his thick brown leather belt…. Then he made her drop her coat next to it, then her cream knit dress, and then her girdle. When all she had on was her brassiere and panties, he shoved her into the bedroom where she crawled to a corner of the bed. Crook kicked the door shut and the kids cracked theirs. Then they heard their mama screaming and their daddy hollering and the whap of the belt as he struck her.

"Didn't I tell you you was getting too grown?" Whap. "Don't you know your place yet girl?" Whap.

I juxtapose this disturbing scenario with the following from Jean Bethke Elshtain's Power Trips and Other Journeys in which she writes of society's need for the re-instatement of conventional nuclear family values:

Familial authority … is … part of the constitutive background required for the survival and flourishing of democracy. Family relations could not exist without family authority, and these relations remain the best way we know anything about to create human beings with a developed capacity to give ethical allegiance to the background presumptions and principles of democratic society.

This is not from a Pat Roberson supporter. Elshtain, who explicitly identifies herself as a feminist, makes a case for "the family"—a specific household arrangement of mother, father, and children. She is talking about traditional, mainstream family values—firm, unchanging entities—as the means to secure democracy. Ironically, her stance puts her in the camp of the socially conservative right, those who cheered George Bush when he maintained that we need a nation closer to The Waltons, who applauded Dan Quayle's condemnation of Murphy Brown as a single parent, and who want the Legal Defense Fund abolished because it helps poor women get divorces.

McMillan, however, resists following the script written by mainstream American discourse that imposes the cultural ideals of White patriarchal domesticity across the borders of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. In her first three novels, Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and Waiting to Exhale (1992), this hegemonic discourse is reconfigured, and her families look nothing like the Waltons. Despite Bush's endorsement, the Waltons represent a damaging American myth, one that idealizes the patriarchal family as the necessary configuration for emotional security and psychological health, the sine qua non for a smoothly functioning, moral democracy. As this myth denies racial, ethnic, and class diversity, it encourages debilitating feelings of guilt, betrayal, and rage, since both minority and mainstream American families often cannot or refuse to conform to the myth's prescriptive ideological values.

The monolithic family values the Waltons represented in the 1970s were reinscribed in the 1980s by the Cosbys, another idealized, intact family with professional parents whose first priority was always their well-dressed, Waltonized children. McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right. However, such values are an historical arrangement, a construct that is neither "natural, biological, or 'functional' in a timeless way," nor, indeed, descriptive of the majority of families in this country. McMillan's fiction promotes alternatives to the dominant by reconfiguring family arrangements—what they are and what they might become. Her work is important because it depicts Black family life outside the norms idealized by the White middle class. Furthermore, she refuses to define the Black family as a pathological unit that can do nothing more than sustain the conditions of its oppression. Her novels inscribe a counter-narrative to the popular oversimplification of Black family life.

In a clear feminist gesture, McMillan's contemporary African American families allocate to men a different space than the patriarchal center. In fact, her fiction appears to be affirming African American patterns of kinship groups based on mutual aid and community participation. The women in her novels rediscover their own sustaining power in kinship bonds which have historically served African Americans well in surviving the physical and psychic atrocities of slavery, as well as the hardships of Reconstruction. In Mama, for example, a woman must rely on centuries old, "jack-of-all-trades" survival strategies as she struggles to raise five children. Then, in Disappearing Acts, a young woman with the apparent necessary ingredients for a happy family learns how these desiderata can be eroded by racism and sexism. Finally, in Waiting to Exhale, McMillan depicts four single women struggling to create a sense of kinship for themselves without husbands. Each novel demonstrates the incapacity of patriarchy to meet the needs of contemporary African American women and the power and security of the kinship groups they form. Taken in sequence, the novels move from portraying isolated, disempowered women to depicting a supportive, empowering community that uses the most dynamic part of the African American tradition of kinship to flourish.

In the sociological literature on the African American family, the diminution of the male as patriarch as a result of slavery's systematic demasculinization was widely accepted. Consequently, the slave woman became the center of the family; hence the hypothesis of the Black matriarchy. However, in Black Families at the Crossroads (1993), Robert Staples and Leanor Boulin Johnson refute this assumption. A matriarchy is a system of government ruled by women, but the authors argue that African American women under slavery had no privileges or power, only the dual challenge of labor and motherhood. Staples and Boulin Johnson argue that what has been mislabeled a "matriarchy" was, in fact, a "two-pronged burden."

Through a detailed study of families freed before the Civil War, E. Franklin Frazier concludes that these families "have been the chief bearers of the first economic and cultural gains of the race," and it is their descendants that are "still found today in conspicuous places in the Negro world." However, the restrictions placed upon the growth and development of those pronounced free by Emancipation were amplified by the stifling conditions of poverty and illiteracy. That slavery and Jim Crow left its mark on African American families is unquestionable. Recently, however, the classic assumption that slavery created the basis for the instability of marriage and an inversion of traditional gender roles within the African American family has been impressively challenged.

Indeed, it was only after Emancipation that strong roles for African American women began to emerge. During the late nineteenth century, freed Black men found it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to obtain jobs, but this was not so for Black women. By 1880, approximately three times as many Black women as White women were in the labor force. And before 1925, 75% of African American families were intact. However, with the migration from the rural South to the Northern cities came the rise of female headed households. Again, this position as head of household is not synonymous with empowerment for African American women. As their families became vulnerable to the traumatizing experiences of urbanization, Black women lost the support of the extended family and the small community. In addition, their roles continued to be molded by racial bias, which forced most into domestic work for White families. According to Bureau of Census reports from 1992, African American women were the poorest of all gender/race groups, increasingly forced to fend for themselves. As of 1991, only 30 percent of adult African American females were married and living with a spouse.

Furthermore, although White feminists have had some success challenging male domination, Black women have often found themselves the victims of male powerlessness that causes "black men [to) … vent their own frustrations on their women." This projection has been vividly represented in fiction by African American writers: in Ann Pelry's The Street, in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, in Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and now in McMillan's fiction. Although many African American feminists have promoted the goals of racial equality, the care and nurturing of children, and the strengthening of the African American family, McMillan's project seems to be somewhat different: she not only calls for a strengthening of the African American family but also urges a reconfiguration of that system.

Even in seemingly healthy family arrangements, most women inhabit conflicting subject positions, One desires autonomy, "defining [herself] and the values by which [she] live[s],… moving into a world in which [she] acts and chooses,… free to shape [her] future." Another is erotic, desiring the affection, companionship, and emotional commitment embodied in the romantic tradition. McMillan's novels allow us to see these subject positions in conflict. Her readers find her depiction of the ways women struggle with these conflicts entertaining and redeeming. In an interview, McMillan explains that women are reading Waiting to Exhale "because they identify—because they want to say, 'I was there, I'm not there anymore,' or 'I'm still there.'… They thank me because they are finally reading about what's happening to them now." McMillan is enacting what Louis Montrose describes as "narrating culture in action, culture as lived in the performances and narratives of individual and collective human actors." Her characters are unique women situated in specific histories, cultures, and classes who are partially dominated by and liberated from the domestic ideology of their time and place. And, as "collective human actors," her characters allow readers to identify with the serious complexity of the patriarchal model that continues to influence gender identity and to limit women's autonomy. As part of the African American literary canon, McMillan's novels situate the African American family as a site of struggle, and as Stephanie Coontz maintains, African Americans "are on the cutting edge of a number of changes in our society."

While many African American women are faced with poverty, others are making great professional strides. McMillan's fiction captures this evolving dynamic by looking at both very poor and upwardly mobile, ambitious Black women. She delineates new options for family arrangements to accommodate both women who divorce and women who choose to create families without husbands. She wants to unmask the consistently reified belief that "the most glorious destiny of a woman is reciprocal love with a man" and interrogate "the longing for a unique, synthesizing, romantic connection (with a man) which should result in monogamous bonding and the institution of marriage." In addition, her narratives refute what Patricia Hill Collins calls the "image of 'happy slave,' whether the white-male-created 'matriarch' or the Black-male-perpetuated 'superstrong Black mother.'"

Many women no longer find themselves completely vulnerable to traditional family values. Yet, in much fiction by and about women, the family remains dominant, and plots still move to resolve or efface domestic conflict and impose harmony. McMillan's narratives disrupt such ideological plots by creating narrative spaces where Black families are in crisis, where conflict is not always resolved, where the fissures of contemporary existence are not denied, and, finally, where self-reliance abides with nurturing interdependence.

These themes surface clearly in Mama. The protagonist, Mildred, can only realize her eroticism by way of reckless impetuosity. Although her lack of discretion allows her temporary sexual gratification, it also brings with it the loss of power and autonomy. Mildred learns and relearns that sexual intimacy consistently leaves her vulnerable to emotional and physical abuse.

In the opening quote, Mildred is being beaten because she has challenged her husband's masculine subject position. After, she musters the courage to live without him and lays claim to all that is truly hers, saying to herself:

This is my house … I've worked too damn hard for you to be hurting me all these years…. Like I'm your property…. I pay all the bills around here, even this house note. I'm the one who scrubbed white folks' floors … to buy it…. These ain't your damn kids. They mine. Maybe they got your blood, but they mine.

For Mildred, motherhood is a given; she has no regrets about having had five children. However, part of McMillan's project is to dismantle the stereotype of the resilient African American single mother who can cope with whatever troubles and sorrows life serves her. In fact, Mildred's endurance often sinks "below sea level." Life on her own is so difficult that she continues to put her faith in the mythical family paradigm that includes a steadfast, loving husband who will support his wife and children. She tells her oldest daughter Freda, "A good husband. Some healthy babies. Peace of mind. Them is the thangs you try to get out of life"; however, Mildred's illusions do not have McMillan's endorsement.

Instead, McMillan complicates matters by adding Mildred's erotic desires to the domestic mix. Mildred is not promiscuous, but she wants to have "some fun," and she does attract men. Although her children object, she becomes so erotically aroused by the new men in her life that for awhile "she [can't] remember her children, by name or by face, and in her heart, she [doesn't] have any." But her affairs end as abruptly as they begin, and not without emotional costs to herself and her children. At one point, she pledges to never again "open up her heart so eagerly and generously," but, driven by impossible bills, she turns tricks, hosts poker parties, remarries, divorces, and moves from house to house, from state to state. The constant is her efforts to maintain some form of family stability and financial security by replacing the "man of the house," but each new partnership ends in a disappointing betrayal. Through Mildred, McMillan shows just how tenaciously women will hold on to the ideological promise of rescue by the "right" man; Mildred is a disturbing example of the enduring power of the hegemonic.

Inevitably disappointed, Mildred alone must make a family for her children. However, her ability to do so is conflicted and limited; she can neither give nor receive affection from her children. Ironically, she becomes a patriarch herself, handing out orders and making hostile threats. McMillan does nothing to glamorize single motherhood or to explore the opportunity that a matriarchy might offer; in fact, she undermines the lingering master narrative that the absent father can be effectively replaced by the strong, enduring, loving Black matriarch.

On her forty-eighth birthday, Mildred, struggling with alcoholism, starts drinking in the morning. Her sister-in-law, Curly, brings her a gift—an old picture of Crook, now dead, Curly and Mildred, pregnant with Freda. On the back Curly has written "We always was family. Remember us that way." But Curly's attempt to recreate the family fails. In fact, the picture depresses Mildred so much that she drinks until she passes out. Still, McMillan wants to end on a positive note. Freda, also battling alcoholism, returns home; she has stopped drinking completely; Mildred decides to attend community college. The novel concludes as Mildred does something she has never been able to do before—she tells her daughter she loves her, and they embrace "as if they hugged each other for the past and for the future." A healthy relationship between mother and daughter is a stronger base from which Mildred and Freda can move in positive directions. Given the social constraints of their culture, this image of family is the best McMillan can realistically provide. The embrace is a start, one in which the patriarchal center has been erased, but the authoritarian matriarch is not inscribed as an ironic mirror. Instead Mildred and Freda represent one reconfiguration of family: one parent and one child finding emotional surcease and connection in one another.

In her next attempt to reconfigure family, McMillan gives us Zora Banks of Disappearing Acts. Unlike Mildred, Zora has financial autonomy. She is a teacher and talented singer who describes herself as "a strong, smart, sexy, good-hearted black woman." However, like Mildred, she has had experience with the destabilizing effects of heterosexual desire: "I've got a history of jumping right into the fire, mistaking desire for love, lust for love, and, the records show, on occasion, a good lay for love. But those days are over." However, Zora still locates her opportunities for happiness within a monogamous heterosexual relationship. She admits, "As corny as it may sound—considering this is the eighties and everything—there's nothing better than feeling loved and needed." She is cautious but still under hegemony's sway.

Gayle Rubin argues that to attain a female identity that will conform to the patriarchal family paradigm requires a process of repression and restraint, "based largely on pain and humiliation." The culmination of this process is the "domestication of women"; women learn to live with their oppression. Jane Flax maintains, "The family is the source of women's oppression because under patriarchal domination it is the agency in and through which women and men are engendered—replicating men who dominate, women who submit." That Rubin's and Flax's observations are applicable to Black women is made manifest by Zora's story, which also serves to realistically represent Staples's and Boulin Johnson's argument that many Black men believe, as do many White men, that women who can provide parity in the family threaten masculinity.

When Zora meets Franklin, we witness the impossibility of equality within the traditional family, because authority is automatically given to the male. Franklin, a handsome, intelligent Black man, works sporadically as a construction worker and drinks heavily. Zora's resolution to maintain her equanimity when faced again with sexual desire is quickly overturned, and her subservience is quickly established: Franklin automatically assumes the position of power in the relationship. Zora allows herself to adopt again an emotionally risky subject position within the discourse of domesticity. In spite of her steady job, her artistic talent, her education, and her middle class family ties, she has less capacity to determine the outcome of their relationship than Franklin, who possesses none of these advantages. When she says to him, "This is dangerous, you know," it is Zora who is in danger.

McMillan is unwilling to glamorize their day to day romance; instead, she pinpoints all the outside elements that bring conflict into their home. Franklin is often unemployed because of racism and his own drinking. He should be in the less dominant position, because he can contribute very little to their economic livelihood; however, it becomes Zora's responsibility not only to unobtrusively support him financially, but also to prop up his brittle ego. Her autonomy is threatened further by pregnancy. Franklin insists she have the baby, perhaps to bolster his faltering male ego. Because he knows that Zora wants to maintain rather than transgress conventional family values, he promises to get a divorce so they can marry. Again McMillan demonstrates the tenacious pull of the dominant ideology that delineates a sequence beginning with love and followed by marriage and children.

Their son's birth does nothing to bring the couple under the protective umbrella of the nuclear family. Franklin, in fact, is jealous of the infant. Deprived of most socially acceptable ways to feel "in charge" of himself and his family, Franklin resorts to the only kind of strength he still has—physical force. He rapes Zora. When she begs him to stop because he is hurting her, he shouts at her, "I want it to hurt." When he is finished, he orders her to stay in the bed, saying, "I want you to sleep in it, so you'll know you slept with a real man all night."

Alone again, Zora comes to realize the damaging subject position she has consistently inhabited when in love. She asks herself:

How many times have I let myself deflate and crumble inside their hearts, dived into their dreams and made them my own? How many times have I disappeared into the seams of their worlds …? And what am I going to do with this ton of love in my heart?… And what about the passion that's freezing in my bones right now? What am I supposed to do with it?

Through Zora, McMillan demonstrates how female erotic desire and desire for family lead strong women to vulnerable dependency. Because McMillan has a vision, she cannot conclude the novel by conforming to a generic plot formula of re-united bliss and forgiveness. Franklin does eventually return; he is faring better, but states bluntly that he is not back to stay. Zora tells him that she is leaving New York with the baby. When she suggests that he come and get them when he is divorced, he refrains from telling her that, in fact, he is now divorced. We must assume that Franklin is withholding this information in order to block any immediate attempt to re-establish the relationship; his ambivalence about a long term commitment to Zora and their child is significant. As the novel ends, they are settling down to a game of Scrabble and a night of sex, but McMillan lets us see no further into the future. What is clear is that both are better able to cope with the vexing problems of their lives not as a family unit, but on their own. Rather than conferring sustenance and security, the attempt to create a conventional domestic arrangement diminished Franklin and disempowered Zora. Zora and her child are returning to her hometown and family life with her father. There is potential for a new familial configuration here, one in which Franklin, as husband and father, is not integral or necessary.

In Waiting to Exhale, McMillan continues her reconfiguration project, again tackling the problems of families in crisis and the frustrations of single women striving for autonomy concurrent with meaningful heterosexual relationships. The title comes from one character's remarks about what it feels like to wait for all that she has been taught to desire and expect—marriage, security, intimacy, children. She has been holding her breath for years, waiting; her life has been a preparation for her real destination—creating a family. In this novel, McMillan's raunchy and bitter language strikes a resonant chord that echoes the sentiment of thousands of women today. Here she meshes fiction with "culture in action" in order to make specific the point suggested in the two preceding novels; a husband is not an obligatory ingredient when constructing a family.

Rather than call for a strengthening of the African American family based on the patriarchal, mainstream model, or on a matriarchal model, McMillan makes a bold move, reconfiguring the family on a model that hearkens back to early African American kinship patterns, where obligations extended beyond the nuclear family. Many of today's African American leaders see not only self-reliance but also kinship obligation as the critical components for the social organization of Black people. Waiting to Exhale revolves around four women all of whom are struggling emotionally, though not financially, as single women who find their lives frustratingly lonely and incomplete. One character, Robin, had been unwilling to revise her image of the family she believed she deserved:

We would have a houseful of kids…. I would be a model mother. We would have an occasional fight, but we would always make up. And instead of drying up, our love would grow. We would be one hundred percent faithful to each other. People would envy us, wish they had what we had, and they'd ask us forty years later how we managed to beat the odds and still be so happy.

But she has had to relinquish this ideal; bluntly she admits, "I was this stupid for a long time."

The women embark on various ventures to find a "real life" with a loving man. For example, they go out dancing together, but only one of them, Bernadine, has a good time and only because she meets a man. The others, Savannah, Robin, and Gloria, feeling dejected and unattractive, go home alone. As Gloria turns out her light, she wonders, "Why are we all out there by ourselves? Are we just going to have to learn how to live the rest of our lives alone?" In the context of the personal lives of single, heterosexual women in contemporary culture, Gloria asks the most compelling question in the novel. McMillan does not appear to want to answer with a resounding "Yes." "Alone" for her does not appear to be a completely satisfying option; but "together" clearly needs redefinition.

After two unredeeming affairs, Savannah answers the question for herself; she is, in fact, going to learn how to live alone in her own home with a sense of contentment because, she insists, "I can't afford to do this shit anymore. It costs too much. And besides, being lonely has never made me feel this damn bad." Her relationships with her extended family and her friends provide her with the emotional sustenance continually denied her in relationships with men.

Bernadine begins an affair with a married man, James, that does seem to hold a promise of some kind of future for the two of them—partly because James's wife dies after a long illness and partly because he can say to her, "I'm not interested in … starting something I can't finish. I play for keeps." This kind of informal verbal commitment is rare for a male character in McMillan's novels, but it is also quite clear that Bernadine will not be defined again, as she was in her first marriage, as dependent and inferior.

Gloria, struggling with being overweight and overworked, suffers a heart attack. She almost has to die before Marvin, the widower across the street, decides he will become a part of her life and blurts out to her doctor a false, unasked for claim that he is her husband. Marvin and James, the only two men who want to establish long-term connections, do so after they have watched someone either die or almost die. McMillan seems to be suggesting that it takes the most dire circumstances for men to make genuine commitments.

At the novel's close, Robin, pregnant by a married man, decides to keep the baby who will, she believes, give her something that no man has yet been able to provide—family. She says: "I'll finally have somebody I can love as hard as I want to. Somebody who needs me." And she remarks that it will be to her girlfriends that she will turn for support and advice. McMillan is creating four different possibilities for what it is to be family in the present social configuration. The Cosby family is nowhere to be found, nor is the long-suffering but enduring African American mother. Although two of the women have found romance, these men are not husbands. Gloria and Bernadine are excited about the prospect of erotic intimacy, without sacrificing of their autonomy. Hillary Radner observes that while the novel works against the romantic paradigm, it "does not exclude heterosexual exchange as a moment of feminine pleasure…. The hero is no longer all powerful, but in his place; he generates only one relationship among many in a community in which the feminine dominates." McMillan draws vivid portraits of women who are successful at liberating themselves from the desire for the patriarchal family, replacing that delusional construct with African American patterns of communal interdependence.

Politicians tell us that in families without fathers, children are at a greater risk of dropping out of school or joining a gang, being physically ill and mentally fragile. McMillan gives us narratives that can help us counter the bleak univocality of such predictions. Unlike Petry's The Street, written in 1946, in which Lutie must desert her son Bub because their poverty, loneliness, and desperation have led her to commit murder, in McMillan's fiction, children are offered the possibility of moving in positive directions. In Mama, Freda has pulled through the despair of alcoholism; in Disappearing Acts, Zora is seeking a better, more stable home in which to raise her son; in Waiting to Exhale, Gloria's adolescent son has joined the "Up With People" brigade, and Bernadine and Robin are better able to care for their children within the kinship system they have established. McMillan is suggesting that there are ways to create supportive, secure and intimate families even though men do leave. In Waiting to Exhale, it is clear that these women are going to be one another's family, a family based on loyalty, trust, and enduring concern, that is more resilient than their heterosexual relationships.

In order to create a collective resistance to the hegemony of dominant family values, women need to maintain a vigilant awareness of the seductiveness of this norm as it speaks to their own desires and fears. In her fiction, McMillan jettisons conventional domestic ideology. In so doing, she clears ground for reconfigured African American families that allow for the complexity of female desire. She also challenges the ideological centrality of heterosexual romance, while still celebrating loving trust, respect, commitment and connection. Her narratives affirm; her characters offer possibility.

McMillan has been disconcertingly diminished by those who should know better. Prize-winning African American women writers and others have dismissed McMillan's novels as pulp fiction. Radner remarks, "Too self-conscious to be considered 'trash,' [Waiting to Exhale] nonetheless constitutes a 'good read' that cannot be dismissed as the symptom of masculine domination, since the novel constitutes a strident diatribe against traditional gender norms." Perhaps McMillan does not write with the same polished facility as Walker, Morrison, and Naylor, nor does she have the historical range of some of her contemporaries, but it is only critical blindness that prevents readers from seeing that McMillan's work is squarely within the African American canon. It is time for a serious critical re-assessment of McMillan's work within African American scholarship. Alone neither of the three novels considered here can stand as a literary master work; taken together, however, the novels are a significant contribution to understanding the evolving African American family.

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Terry McMillan Long Fiction Analysis