In May of 1992, books by three African American women soared onto the New York Times bestseller list. They were Toni Morrison's Jazz, Alice Walker's Possession of the Secret Joy and Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan. Of the three, Jazz perhaps aroused the greatest excitement, following as it did upon the heels of Beloved, Morrison's mythic tale of slave history, for which she earned a Pulitzer and not long after a Nobel Prize. Since the publication of her Pulitzer-winning The Color Purple (1982), Walker, like Morrison, can count herself among that handful of African American writers whose popularity transcends race. Walker's and Morrison's books regularly edge their way into courses of contemporary American literature-one measure of their academic and mainstream acceptance.
Waiting to Exhale signals McMillan's second climb to the top of the charts. In 1989 Disappearing Acts skyrocketed her out of virtual obscurity into the consciousness of African American women. It is doubtful, however, that her stories, which explore the romantic fortunes of black women, and which frequently employ a brash, sexually charged urban vernacular, will crop up on course lists any time soon. Still, the ascension of her work commands its own particular significance.
Scholars have gradually come to acknowledge a lofty tradition of serious African American fiction anchored in the Harlem Renaissance. The black cultural awakening, which was based in New York in the 1920s and '30s, spawned such venerable talents as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and actuated the muses of later writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and many others. While "serious" black authors have continued to receive publishing support, their peers in the realm of popular fiction have, until recently, remained largely ignored. But the success of McMillan's Waiting To Exhale identified a community of black women seeking writers of accessible, entertaining stories about women like themselves.
McMillan's astonishing earnings proved the economic benefits of catering to this audience. To date, Waiting to Exhale has sold more than 700,000 hardback copies and more than three million in paperback. In addition, she sold the film rights to the book for a whopping 2.6 million dollars. The movie version, for which she collaborated on the screenplay and acted as executive producer, grossed box office profits of 67,000,000.
Most importantly, the McMillan phenomenon has translated into increased demand for books about black relationships. Writers like Bebe Moore Campbell (Your Blues ain't like Mine) and Connie Briscoe (Sisters & Lovers) have discovered mainstream publishers eager to trumpet their stories, as well as those of a number of other black writers. Some houses have gone so far as to establish new imprints for the sole purpose of satisfying the reading tastes of middle-class black women. And in Canada, bookstores like our sedate Smithbooks occasionally erect elaborate displays of books by African American and Black Canadian authors, even when black history month has come and gone.
Celebrating the synchronous achievements of McMillan, Walker, and Morrison served to herald their literary heritage. But it also tended, for a time, to mask distinctions between the various calibres of their work. In fact, critics still haven't quite decided where to place McMillan on the sliding literary scale. Though her novels clearly lack the rich imagery and complex themes unearthed in the works of her more illustrious sisters, she consistently avoids the formulaic plotting of popular romance and she captivates readers with her uncanny evocation of human emotion. Her novels do more than modify conventional romance to accommodate black characters. They probe an almost primal longing for solace and profound intimacy that if transposed into music would be recognized as the blues.
The music that North Americans call the blues evolved out of the work songs of African American slaves in the ante-bellum South. After manumission, the lyrics adapted to reflect the social and economic realities of contemporary times. In fact, times had not altogether changed. While blacks possessed a de jure freedom, white plantation owners retained power over the African work force. Released from the responsibility of caring for blacks as chattels, they extracted more labour at even less cost. And many owners refused to deal honestly with the black sharecroppers who worked their land. These unsatisfactory-and quite gruelling-conditions sent thousands of black men north to cities like Chicago in search of better lives. Black women, too, looked to migration north as a way out of the drudgery of their existence. As well, it allowed them an escape from the close surveillance of their parents and the church.
In the North, the large numbers of unattached, unchaperoned men and women inevitably led to the formation of turbulent, often short-lived liaisons, which perhaps, just as inevitably, became the chief subject of their blues: those modernized versions of the old work tunes. Blueswomen including Ida Cox and the inimitable Bessie Smith sang of abusive, unfaithful, unreliable men whom they nevertheless adored. Songs like "Georgia Hound Blues" and "Freight Train Blues" considered whether a woman should reconcile to her man's bad ways, start cheating her own self, or simply leave town to start life anew.
While highly autobiographical, the lyrics also emphasized the blues as a shared experience: a personal communication between the musician and her audience. As Ralph Ellison writes in his collection of essays Shadow & Act, "The blues artist speaks directly of and to those who have suffered the pain and assures them that someone understands."
In keeping with their ardent themes, many blues tunes sported lyrics thick with double-entendre: suggestive phrases that left little to the imagination. In response, the conservative black churches and newspapers of the era condemned these musicians, describing them as purveyors of the "devil's music".
In recent times, McMillan, too, has suffered the censure of certain elements of the African American community who disapprove of her lusty, urban style. In fact, she does no more than mimic the lexicon of a number of early blues singers. Her heroines employ a vernacular characteristic of a black northern urban population that rebelliously plies the language they don't quite accept as their own. Paradoxically, McMillan's use of a low diction is one of the qualities that actually elevates her writing beyond the category of popular fiction.
Of her four novels, Waiting to Exhale most wonderfully transfers the blues narrative onto the page. The novel centres upon the life of Savannah Jackson, a thirty-six-year-old single woman who moves from Denver to Phoenix, to accept a publicity position with a television station. Savannah also has an ulterior motive for migration: she hopes that her new-found home will offer up a good man. Her life intertwines with that of three other women who similarly are seeking lasting love. The four provide one another with sisterly support.
The heroine of McMillan's latest book, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, is also a single woman. The forty-two-year-old Stella Payne lives in California, where she works as a financial analyst and raises an eleven-year-old son. When we meet her, she appears to have hit an emotional nadir. She is still grieving over the fairly recent deaths from illness of both her mother and her best friend. And although her two sisters, Angela and Vanessa, offer affection and act as sounding-boards, Stella pines for a deep and satisfying love. As luck would have it, she travels to Jamaica, where she meets and falls in love with a man named Winston Shakespeare. Less fortunate, at least as far as Stella is concerned, is Winston's age, which turns out to be just about half of her own.
As in traditional blues, Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back feature single women at personal crossroads. But of the two novels, only Waiting to Exhale fully exploits blues conventions. It highlights the tortured affair, illustrates the way in which setting facilitates the blues narrative, and illuminates the empathetic communal experience at the heart of the genre.
Though How Stella Got Her Groove Back manifests the timbre and sensibility of the blues, its alteration of the form's essential characteristics distorts the overall effect. The novel proves that the deceptively simple composition of the literary blues brooks little interference. Indeed, it shows just how easily the blues can turn from a cathartic statement into an extended whine.
Both novels update the racially and economically embattled blues protagonist with her modern, solvent bourgeois counterpart. In Waiting to Exhale, Savannah is financially secure enough to relinquish her profitable work as a telephone operator and accept a more modestly paying job, which nevertheless offers greater creative scope. Savannah's companions also enjoy lives of comparative economic ease. Her hairdresser friend Gloria, for example, owns a beauty salon.
Money presents even less of a problem in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Stella's six-figure salary provides abundantly for herself and her son. Even after her company lays her off, she knows she can survive handily on personal savings and on the returns of wise investments.
McMillan depicts financially sound women, partly to affirm the existence of a thriving, generally unacknowledged black middle class. But she is also making her own personal blues statement: Even contemporary, self-sufficient women, she insists, require emotional and sexual fulfilment.
Even so, Stella's incessant grumbling over a lack of romance appears woefully adolescent, as do her later perpetual ruminations about Winston's age. McMillan would have us believe that a woman in the high-powered world of finance spends so much time pondering the viability of an affair that she barely has a moment to check the Dow Jones. On the contrary, it seems much more probable that an intellectually and financially comfortable woman would exhibit less neediness than the traditional, oppressed blues heroine, for whom passion was the only consolation.
Conventional blues protagonists entertain thoughts of relocation in order to improve their emotional or pecuniary lots. Waiting to Exhale cleverly reveals how a change in setting works together with a change of vocation to advance the story's plot. Savannah's move to Phoenix, for instance, not only furthers her career goals, it also serves to dramatize her psychological growth.
In How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the heroine also propels her work life in a totally different direction. After she loses her job, Stella begins to focus upon her natural talent: the crafting of unique pieces of furniture and jewelry. But in contrast to Waiting to Exhale, her choice does little to buttress the blues narrative. For one thing, Stella's new career does not entail the change of locale that generally symbolizes a new beginning. Instead, she designs her structural and wearable art from her California home.
The setting in this novel swings back and forth between California and Jamaica: a pendulous motion that parallels Stella's own vacillation about whether or not to maintain an affair with Winston. Interestingly, the blues narrative appears to work best with an early move to a single principal setting against which the heroine's emotions can play.
From the start of the novel, Stella presents herself as an bold iconoclast-more youthful than most people her age. But her fear of entering into an unorthodox relationship reveals her true concern with social propriety. Yet Winston, at twenty-one, shows greater kindness and maturity than any man Stella has ever known. Her dilemma, then, negates the very premise of the blues. For such tales contemplate whether a woman should dissolve a destructive relationship, not whether she should commit herself to a good one. If anything the novel illustrates the impossibility of singing the blues about men who do you right.
Waiting to Exhale soars because its plots and subplots symbolically portray the themes of love and betrayal so integral to the blues. Despite their best intentions, Savannah and her friends repeatedly find themselves involved with dishonest, disloyal, juvenile men. For Savannah, the promise of a long-distance relationship founders as her new lover fails to return her phone calls. After twelve years, and two children, Bernadine's husband leaves her for his young bookkeeper. Savannah, Bernadine, Gloria, and Robin share with one another their pain and disillusionment-an act that proves both cathartic and resurrecting. Even though the high drama surrounds the women's search for suitable mates, it is the celebration of female communion and camaraderie that energizes the novel.
Stella, on the other hand, opens with our protagonist attempting to recover from the loss of her own supportive coterie, which has all but disappeared with the premature deaths of her mother and her best friend. Oddly, after only a few early references, Stella barely gives the pair a passing mention. The two significant women remaining in Stella's life, her sisters Angela and Vanessa, are rendered superficially, with McMillan allotting the aggravating Angela the role of good angel and the audacious Vanessa the role of the bad. Other women enter the story only sporadically. Thus, the empathetic circle so crucial to the blues is altogether absent from the story.
Much of the impact of the blues statement derives from the power and poignancy of its autobiographical quality. In this, How Stella Got Her Groove Back stays true to the form. Not only does the heroine narrate her own story, McMillan herself willingly concedes that the salient facts of the novel actually occurred. She did lose her mother and best friend in short order, and she did travel to Jamaica and fall deeply in love with a much younger man. She wrote Stella after inviting Jonathan Plummer (the Winston character) to California to move in with herself and her son, Solomon. Thus, How Stella Got Her Groove Back was written during one of the most contented periods of McMillan's life. It would be safe to assume that under such pleasant circumstances she found it difficult to sing the blues.
In contrast, Waiting to Exhale appeared sometime after McMillan's break-up with the father of her son, who subsequently sued her (unsuccessfully) for what he claimed was her negative depiction of him in Disappearing Acts. Waiting to Exhale contains an energy and intensity that is perhaps partly attributable to the strain she experienced at the time. McMillan certainly wouldn't be the first artist to produce her best work while under stress.
It would seem, consequently, that domestic bliss threatens to drown out McMillan's blues. If her good fortune endures, she may well wind up having to find a brand new song.
Donna Nurse is a critic who lives in Toronto.