Terry McMillan | Critical Review by John Skow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Terry McMillan.
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Critical Review by Charles R. Larson

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."

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This section contains 1,082 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Janet Mason Ellerby