Terry McMillan (born 1951), an African American novelist and short story writer, profiled in her works the urban experiences of African American women and men.
The oldest of five children, Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, a predominately white, working-class, factory city. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitarium during most of McMillan's childhood, was a blue-collar worker. He also suffered from alcoholism and was physically abusive to his wife. They divorced when McMillan was 13. Her mother, in order to support the family, held various jobs as a domestic, an auto worker, and a pickle factory employee.
To assist her mother with family finances, McMillan, at age 16, got a job as a page reshelving books in a local library. There, she discovered the world of the imagination. She became an avid reader, and enjoyed the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Mann. Reading the works of these great writers led McMillan to believe that the literary world was a white one. Upon seeing a book by James Baldwin, she was astonished to learn that black people also wrote books.
When she was 17, McMillan left Port Huron and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a secretary and took a class in African American literature at Los Angeles City College. This course introduced her to the works of such writers as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and especially to Ann Petry, whose novel The Street, with its frank and naturalistic documentation of a black woman living in a brutal urban environment, would greatly influence McMillan's early fiction.
A Writer Is Born
It was during this period of her life while she was in California that McMillan started to write. A love poem—the result of a failed relationship—was her first attempt at writing. As she stated in an interview: "That is how it started. It kept going and it started turning into this other stuff, started turning into sentences."
McMillan continued her interest in writing and her education by moving to northern California, where she studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley she took a workshop with novelist and critic Ishmael Reed. Reed was excited by McMillan's writing and encouraged her. He published "The End" (1976), her first short story, in Yardbird Reader.
After she graduated with a B.S. degree from Berkeley, McMillan left California and moved to New York City. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and went to artists' colonies such as Yaddo, in upstate New York, and MacDowell, in New Hampshire. At MacDowell she finished the first draft of what would become Mama, her first novel.
Art Based on Life Experienes
Highly autobiographical in tone, Mama (1987) explores the grim and humorous realities of an urban African American family. Set in Point Haven, Michigan, and in Los Angeles, the novel revolves around the lives of Mildred Peacock and her five children. As Mama unfolds, two of Mildred's children endure violent and gruesome experiences. Her oldest daughter, Freda, is sexually abused at 14 and her only son, Money, becomes a drug addict who is eventually incarcerated. Despite the harrowing state of affairs that assault the Peacock household, Mildred tenaciously and comically fights the forces in her orbit that would prevent her from raising her family.
In its harsh examination of the urban landscape, the novel echoes Petry's The Street. However, Mama is no mere imitation of Petry's work but an original work of fiction in its own right. Although critics felt the text lacked the lyrical and metaphorical narrative focus of the novels written by other contemporary African American women writers, and some objected to McMillan's sociological commentary and uneven narrative, McMillan's work was generally greeted with praise. The reviewers hailed the novel as unique. As the critic Michael Awkward remarked: "Mama stands boldly outside of the mainstream of contemporary African American women's fiction. Unlike the tradition's most representative texts, Mama offers no journeys back to blackness, no empowering black female communities, no sustained condemnation of American materialism or male hegemony. What it does provide, in its largely episodic depictions of the travails of Mildred and her family, is a moving, often hilarious and insightful exploration of a slice of urban life that is rarely seen in contemporary African American women's fiction."
Bold, Realistic Characters Emerged
Disappearing Acts (1989), her next novel, charts the volatile love affair between Zora Banks, a junior high school music teacher and aspiring singer, and Franklin Swift, a high school dropout and frequently unemployed carpenter and construction worker. Told in the alternating first person narrative voices of Zora and Franklin and set in the urban milieu of Brooklyn, the novel paints a compelling and realistic portrait of their relationship, as well as the complexities of class and gender that obstruct their happiness together. Although McMillan anchors her story and her characters in a contemporary world, Disappearing Acts resonates, as Thulani Davis observed, with "classic folklore characters," Zora being "the wily black woman of yore, [a] smart-talking Eve" and Franklin being "a savvy urban John Henry."
While some reviewers applauded McMillan's deft creation of the psychologically complex character of Franklin and extolled her for not letting her narrative collapse into another contemporary Black discourse of victim and victimizer, many critics cited the novel's earthy vernacular as a major distraction. "The language that I use is accurate," McMillan later defended in an interview. "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!"
Waiting To Exhale (1992), McMillan's third novel, chronicles the lives of Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah, four educated African American women living in Phoenix, Arizona who have an ongoing discussion about their problems in finding and keeping lovers. Structurally, the text is filtered through the lenses of shifting first and third person narrative voices and, as the heroines voyage through a highly materialistic world in search of love, the novel shows McMillan's sharp eye for social criticism.
Attained Fame, Fortune, and Critical Acclaim
Waiting To Exhale was greeted with tremendous critical and commercial success. By the end of 1996, more than 700,000 copies of the hard cover and three million copies of the paperback had been sold. The film version, which grossed $67 million in its first year, also proved there was a largely untapped African American female audience eager for pop movies and novels. Critics acclaimed the work as yet further evidence of McMillan's bold and provocative writing talent. Like her two previous novels, this text essentially eschews ideological concerns of race—a dominant thread found throughout traditional African American literature—and posits the intricate nuances of African American relationships as its primary focus.
In an anthology that she edited, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (1990), McMillan wrote:
There is indeed a new generation of African American writers emergin…. We are capturing and making permanent and indelible, reactions to, and impressions of, our most intimate observations, dreams, and nightmares, experiences and feelings about what it felt like for 'us' to be African Americans from the seventies until now—the nineties.
The popularity of Exhale was a prelude to even greater commercial success with her next novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which was selected by Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its main selections. The novel had a first printing of 800,000 copies, an unprecedented number for an African American female author, and film rights were sold immediately for an undisclosed seven-figure amount. Again, Mcmillan based the storyline on her own experience, this time focusing on a middle-aged woman who falls for a 20-year-old while vacationing in Jamaica. As Evette Porter pointed out in an interview with McMillan that appeared in the Village Voice, there are many similarities between the novel and its author, including a young Jamaican boyfriend she met on the island. Some critics regarded Stella as largely autobiographical light weight fluff without McMillan's customary satirical bite. Others warned against letting real-life similarities blur the novel's larger message about exercising personal freedom in the way one chooses to live.
There was no question in the late 1990s that the former writing professor at Stanford and the University of Wyoming had established herself as a major novelist and pioneer in a new genre of fiction—the African American urban romance novel.
Further Reading on Terry McMillan
Critical commentary of McMillan's works is provided in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 50 (1988) and Volume 61 (1990). Also worth reading are articles in Callaloo (Summer 1988); Esquire (July 1988); Village Voice (May 8, 1990 and May 21, 1996); Essence (February 1990, October 1992, and June 1996); Time (May 6, 1996); and Ebony (July 1996).