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Terry McMillan Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Port Huron, Michigan, 1951. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A. 1979; Columbia University, M.F.A. 1979. Career: Visiting professor of creative writing, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1987-90; associate professor of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1990-92; teacher of writer's workshop, Stanford University, Stanford, California; columnist and book reviewer for newspapers, including the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Awards: Award for fiction (New York Foundations for the Arts), 1986; National Book award (Before Columbus Foundation), 1987; Matrix Award for Career Achievement in Books (Women in Communication), 1993. Agent: c/o Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.



Mama. Boston, Houghton, 1987.

Disappearing Acts. New York, Viking, 1989.

Waiting to Exhale. New York, Viking, 1992.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back. New York, Viking, 1996.



Waiting to Exhale (with Ronald Bass). Twentieth-Century Fox, 1995.


Editor, Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. New York, Viking, 1990.

Contributor, Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee. New York, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1991.

Introduction, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X … Including the Screenplay by Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley. New York, Hyperion, 1992.


Critical Studies:

Lauren Hutton and … Terry McMillan (video recording), directed by Luca Babini, Turner Program Services, 1995; Terry McMillan: The Unauthorized Biography by Diane Patrick, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999; Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion by Paulette Richards, Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1999; African American Women Writers by Brenda Wilkinson, New York, J. Wiley, 2000.

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Enormously successful, increasingly over-imitated, Terry McMillan became a literary superstar during the 1990s. Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back cemented her status as the decade's preeminent chronicler of contemporary middle-class African American women's lives. Both books achieved tremendous financial and popular success and were transformed into Hollywood films, demonstrating her appeal with a multitude of audiences. McMillan is not an overnight success, however. Her first novel, Mama, was the culmination of years of preparation. Her training in journalism at UC Berkley in the 1970s no doubt influenced the realism common to her novels; certainly it was during her time there that she began to write creatively, publishing her first short story. Likewise, McMillan's ability to create compelling visual scenes that are so well suited to cinematic treatment has been similarly attributed to her graduate studies in film at Columbia University.

McMillan's first novel, Mama, is the story of Mildred Peacock, who throws out her alcoholic husband and struggles to raise five children alone. The story is a familiar one: a feisty woman attempts to retain her sense of self while struggling for economic survival and negotiating the demands of family. However, McMillan's novel is complicated by the historical specificity of black women's lives. Mama is at once a response to the myth of the black welfare queen that gained significant cultural currency in the 1980s, and the earlier image of a castrating black woman popularized by the now infamous Moynihan Report. The character of Mildred provides a counter-image to these stereotypes: she is complex, dignified, and committed to raising her children to be capable, responsible adults. In asserting Mildred's dedication to her children and their future as inextricable from her personal success, both the book and its protagonist are revealed to have roots in the racial uplift ideology that has historically characterized much of African American women's literature. While the novel occasionally succumbs to the lack of focus common to first novels, one cannot fault its intervention in existing popular representations of black women, or resist the appeal of its energetic protagonist. Not surprisingly, Mama received an award for fiction from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With the publication of Mama McMillan asserted herself as a force with which to be reckoned. In the face of indifference from her publishers, McMillan launched an aggressive one-woman marketing campaign, sending out thousands of letters, primarily to black organizations, colleges, universities, and bookstores, urging them to promote her novel. Her persistence paid off, and with the publication of her second novel, Disappearing Acts, McMillan proved to have an established base of enthusiastic fans.

Disappearing Acts returns to McMillan's thematic imperative of creating counter-narratives to mainstream images of African American women—and men. The novel alternates between the voices of Zora Banks, a music teacher, and Franklin Swift, the construction worker with whom she falls in love. While McMillan has been accused of relying on unsympathetic male characters to prop up her female characters' dilemmas, Franklin is a fully realized three-dimensional individual whose humanity—like Zora's—the reader connects with through extended introspective passages. The alternating narrative results in a novel that is not just a study of two individuals, but is also a consideration of relationships and romance in the modern world. An antidote to the glut of popular novels featuring white women and their quest for love, Disappearing Acts is a consideration of the dynamics of heterosexual relationships for African American men and women. The novel furthermore functions as a corrective to the lack of solidly middle-class African American heroines within this genre, empowering black female readers by allowing them to see their own reality reflected.

Throughout her exploration of the lives of African American middle-class women, McMillan has refused to create characters who are victims, instead preferring to concentrate on women who assert their agency and are willing to tackle adversity with determination and spunk. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, focuses on four such women. It is not the plot that carries this novel, but rather the portrait of female friendships that is so compelling. The relationship between the four women who sustain and nurture each other through heartbreak and loneliness may not be as dramatic as their relationships with men, but it is ultimately more convincing and, the novel suggests, more enduring. With over four million copies sold, the novel clearly struck a chord with American readers who identified with the frustrated desires, betrayals, and personal triumphs experienced by its protagonists.

Embraced by the popular press and the mainstream reading public, McMillan has yet to achieve widespread critical recognition, whether from the literary academy or known African American intellectual women like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. However, the instant success of How Stella Got Her Groove Back attests to the fact that while this kind of recognition may not be forthcoming, it is not really relevant to her fans. Like all of McMillan's fiction to date, the work had as its seed an element of the autobiographical, expanded and reworked via the author's imagination. Like the protagonist, Stella, an emotionally depleted McMillan also took a vacation to Jamaica to recharge and unexpectedly fell in love with a young man nearly half her age. The experience led to her writing an intense stream-of-conscious narrative that charts the ennui and rebirth of one woman. Despite her assertive independence and financial empowerment—she is very wealthy—Stella has lost her sense of self. Through the restorative power of love—and sex—Stella is able to reassert herself and her desires as being more important than the vision of success that she previously embodied. A reversal of her second novel, where McMillan charted how love can make one lose one's self, this novel is nevertheless not so uncritical as to ignore the difficulties posed by its primary relationship and the differences between the characters and their situations in life. This does not mean, however, that the representation of the Caribbean as an imperialist outpost for Western consumption receives sustained consideration, unlike Praisesong for the Widow, by fellow African American author Paule Marshall. While she most definitely critiques white American racism and its impact on her heroines, McMillan also endows her African American heroines with many of white middle-class America's values, asserting their right to hold them without apologizing.

Currently McMillan devotees are awaiting the publication of her much anticipated fifth novel, A Day Late & A Dollar Short, which returns to the themes of family and community through a family headed by a loving mother, and populated by siblings who must work out their own fraught relationships, rivalries, and jealousies. A Day Late & A Dollar Short promises to once again assert McMillan's recurring theme: that personal relationships are the foundation of African American individual and communal success.

Jennifer Harris

Additional topics

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