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Terry McMillan is an African American novelist whose works often depict the lives of successful contemporary African American women. Her emphasis on love and sexual relationships, her urban, successful characters, and her depictions of realistic friendships between women have garnered her a wide audience beyond the African American community.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Developing a Sense of Black Pride
McMillan was born and raised in Port Huron, Michigan, a blue-collar community north of Detroit. Her parents divorced when she was thirteen, and McMillan’s mother, who worked in an auto factory as well as performing domestic jobs, assumed almost full responsibility for raising the children. when McMillan was sixteen years old, she began a job at the city library in Port Huron, where she discovered books by African American authors; reading these works gave her a sense of black pride and helped her become aware of issues relevant to African American culture.
Becoming a Writer
In 1968 McMillan left her hometown and moved to Los Angeles. She enrolled in Los Angeles City College, where she studied classic texts by black authors. in 1973 she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied journalism and writing and met Ishmael Reed, a well-known author and poet. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in journalism, McMillan moved to New York City, where she studied film at Columbia University. For several years she lived with her lover, a drug-dealer, and endured a three-year drug and alcohol addiction before joining Alcoholics Anonymous and regaining control of her life. In 1979 she earned her M.F.A. from Columbia and participated in the Harlem writers Guild workshop, which was crucial to her development as a writer.
McMillan completed a draft of her first novel, Mama (1987), at the MacDowell Colony, where she stayed for two weeks in 1983. She helped promote Mama herself instead of relying on publishers to organize readings and market the novel. After the publication of Mama, McMillan was offered a position as an instructor at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where she taught from 1987 to 1990.
Becoming a Best-Selling Author
McMillan’s next novel, Disappearing Acts, was published in 1989 and became a national bestseller, with more than one hundred thousand paperback copies sold. She taught at the University of Arizona at Tucson from 1990 until 1992 while she published her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, which also became a bestseller and was adapted in to a feature film in 1995.
McMillan’s fifty-nine-year-old mother died of an asthma attack in 1994, and the following year McMillan’s best friend died of cancer. She was unable to write after the trauma of these two events. Faced with writer’s block, she visited Jamaica to try to overcome her grief; there she met Jonathan Plummer, a twenty-two-year-old resort worker. The two married in 1998. McMillan’s fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), is loosely based on her experience in Jamaica and the beginnings of her relationship with Plummer. A feature film based on this novel was produced in 1998.
McMillan continues to write and has published several novels since How Stella Got Her Groove Back, though these works have not received the attention or praise of her first four novels.
Works in Literary Context
McMillan’s novels explore issues relevant to African Americans in contemporary American society. McMillan is interested especially in African American women, and her female characters struggle with and celebrate motherhood, cope with troubled romantic relationships, look for successful careers, and search for both personal and cultural identity.
The Struggles of African American Women
McMillan’s novel Mama, based largely on her own family background, tells of Mildred Peacock, a woman who divorces her philandering husband to raise their five children on her own. Mildred overcomes alcohol and drug problems, as well as financial difficulties, to succeed. Disappearing Acts and Waiting to Exhale focus on successful African American women trying to develop satisfying love relationships while maintaining their business success. In Disappearing Acts, McMillan relates the difficulties in the relationship between a blue-collar man and a professional woman. Waiting to Exhale takes the form of an ongoing discussion between four friends as they discuss the problems they have in finding and keeping lovers.
Happy Endings for Successful People
McMillan’s novels all have happy endings, and her characters, especially her women characters, triumph over sometimes incredible odds. As McMillan herself said in a 1996 Newsweek interview, ”I don’t write about victims. 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.” Because of this emphasis, McMillan’s novels are noted for inspiring readers to set and achieve goals and to encourage women to defy roles prescribed for them by patriarchal societies.
Works in Critical Context
Critics of McMillan s novels have praised her realistic depiction of contemporary, urban African American women. They point out that her characters language and concerns are handled in a frank and complex manner. Although some critics believe McMillan includes too much profanity in her novels, so much that it sometimes detracts from her story, they also believe that she has pioneered a new area of African American fiction—the urban romance novel.
Mama received quite a bit of critical attention, especially for being the author s first novel. Many reviewers praised the book s realistic portrayal of the struggles of an African American family in the 1960s and 1970s. Although some reviewers pointed out flaws, it was, for the most part, received favorably. Janet Boyarin Blundell writes, ”The book s main weakness is that the author apparently could not decide what to leave out. . . . Although the story has power, it lacks focus and a clear point of view. Blundell goes on to note that McMillan appears unable to decide who her audience is: ”at times she seems to be writing to blacks, at other times to be explaining things to naive white readers.
Waiting to Exhale
McMillan’s third novel, Waiting to Exhale, continued her string of commercially-successful books. Though the book is populated with African American women, reviewers praised the book for having a universal appeal. As Paula C. Barnes writes, ”Although specifically it tells the story of four African-American women, Waiting to Exhale addresses the dilemma of career women who want it all. Edward M. Jackson attributes the book s success to McMillan s portrayal of ”many themes universal to the contemporary America experience. She wrote about the subjects of divorce, single parenting, weight problems among women, health problems of elderly parents, the insensitivity of males, and the tensions of female friendships. The book was also noted for being, as a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, a ”racy, zesty, irreverent and absorbing book with broad mainstream appeal.”
- Adjaye, Joseph K. and Adrianne R. Andrews, eds. Language, Rhythm, and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
- Patrick, Diane. Terry McMillan: The Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.
- Richards, Paulette. Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999.
- Barnes, Paula C. ”A review of Waiting to Exhale.” Belles Lettres (Fall 1992): 56-57.
- Dandridge, Rita B. ”Debunking the Motherhood Myth in Terry McMillan’s Mama.” CLA Journal (1998): 405-416.
- Ellerby, Janet. ”Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family. MELUS (1997): 105-117.
- Harris, Tina M. ”Interrogating the Representation of African American Female Identity in the Films Waiting to Exhale and Set It Off. Popular Culture Review (1999): 43-53.
- 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 (1998): 9-20.
- Jackson, Edward M. ”Images of Black Males in Terry McMillan s Waiting to Exhale. MAWA Review (1993): 20-26. ”Review of Waiting to Exhale. Publishers Weekly(March 23, 1992): 58.
- Whitaker, Charles. ”Exhaling! Terry McMillan Hits Jackpot in Romance and Finance. Ebony (April 2001): 154-157.
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