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Critical Essay by John Leland
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.
This section contains 2,097 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)