Terry McMillan Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Why are some of the older women in Terry McMillan’s novels described as matriarchs?

What does McMillan suggest are the major flaws of black men? Which male characters in her fiction have the characteristics that make or would make them good husbands?

How does sibling rivalry function in McMillan’s novels?

McMillan is often praised for her use of humor. How do her characters use humor to deal with their disappointments?

How does McMillan show friendship between women as a liberating force in their lives?

Why do you think McMillan’s works are so popular with women readers? With African American women?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although she dabbled in poetry in her earliest attempts at writing, Terry McMillan’s first publication was a short story, “The End,” published in Yardbird Reader in 1976. Another short story, “Ma’Dear,” originally published in Callaloo, is included in Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, which McMillan edited in 1990. McMillan has also collaborated on screenplays based on her novels, and in 2006 she published a collection of tips for high school students, It’s OK If You’re Clueless: And Twenty-three More Tips for the College Bound. She has also written articles for periodicals such as Ebony magazine.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Terry McMillan has achieved considerable commercial success with her novels, three of which have been adapted into films that were received favorably. The film version of her novel Waiting to Exhale, which sold nearly four million copies and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for months, was released in 1995; McMillan collaborated with Ronald Bass on the screenplay. The film adaptation of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, also written by McMillan and Bass, was released in 1998, and the adaptation of Disappearing Acts was made for cable television network HBO in 2000.

In an early literary effort, McMillan won the first Essence magazine college writing contest in 1974. In 1986 she received a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship and the Doubleday/Columbia University Literary Fellowship. She was a three-time fellow at the Yaddo Artist Colony and the MacDowell Colony. Her book Mama received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1987. In 2008, the Essence Literary Awards presented McMillan with its Lifetime Achievement Award for “her contributions to contemporary African American literature.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dandridge, Rita B. “Debunking the Motherhood Myth in Terry McMillan’s Mama.” CLA Journal 41, no. 4 (1998): 405-416. Argues that McMillan’s debut novel exposes problematic assumptions in a Eurocentric myth of motherhood.

Ellerby, Janet Mason. “Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family.” MELUS 22, no. 2 (1997): 105-117. Explores the way in which McMillan deposes her male characters from the “patriarchal center” in Mama, Disappearing Acts, and Waiting to Exhale.

Harris, Tina M., and Patricia S. Hill.“‘Waiting to Exhale’ or ‘Breath(ing) Again’: A Search for Identity, Empowerment, and Love in the 1990’s.” Women and Language 21, no. 2 (1998): 9-20. Analyzes McMillan’s representation of the tensions between socially prescribed gender roles and individual experience.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990.

Hernton, Calvin C. The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Patrick, Diane. Terry McMillan: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A rather flimsy biography that nonetheless presents the basic facts of McMillan’s life.

Richards, Paulette. Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Focuses on Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, analyzing McMillan’s narrative techniques as rooted in African American oral literature and music and providing literary and cultural context.