Terry McMillan’s writing career has been marked by the refreshing candor and verve expressed in her funny, scandalous and sometimes sweet storytelling about African American women's lives. The Port Huron, Michigan native fell in love with books as a teenager, when she shelved books at the public library and grew up to become a bestselling author many times over. Though she published her first short story in 1976, it was the runaway success of her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, that put her on the literary map.
The story of four sister friends in Phoenix who supported one another through one trifling relationship boasted a first printing of 85,000 copies with paperback rights that started at $700,000. And then, of course, there was the star-studded movie. Not too shabby for a girl who wrote her first book while working as a word processor.
But if the New Yorker’s James Wolcott is right — he called McMillan “the Oprah of black fiction” and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (her less-popular novel and movie) “a sexy handbook of self-realization” — McMillan’s latest novel, Who Asked You? will likely both surprise and satisfy her fans.
Who Asked You? is the multiracial tale of a family and its extended reach in Southern California, drawing on time McMillan spent living there as a teenager. She picked that title, she says, because “people are always voicing their opinions when nobody asked for it. That's my feeling in general. I'm guilty of it, too. I won't lie.
“I try to be more diplomatic,” she adds. “I won't say things unless someone provokes me. If you do something stupid, and you get negative results, I might. But there are millions of people like that out there. Most of them are in your family.”
Betty Jean, the matriarch in McMillan's new book, knows this better than anyone. She cares not just for her husband, Lee David, who has dementia, but also for her grandchildren, Ricky and Luther because their mother, Trinetta, is addicted to drugs. Of Betty Jean’s children, Quentin is the only one who is upstanding, though he only marries blondes and Betty Jean derides him for much of the book for being an Uncle Tom who hates the hood.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of a separate character, a structure that McMillan says is much more organic than it appears. “I knew I wanted to tell a story about a grandparent — in this case, a grandmother put in a position where she had to raise her grandchildren. I wanted her to be the focus of the story. But I also wanted to tell the story of someone who decides to go left and people try to tell them to go right. Or not to go in any direction at all,” McMillan says. “I like characters who play a role in a story but don’t have to necessarily reappear. People move in and out of your life and they have an impact on you, whether it’s temporary or long-term.”
The characters that impact Betty Jean include her white best friend Tammy, who is as gregarious as she is honest; Betty Jean’s two sisters, Arlene and Venetia, and the ornery orderly, Nurse Kim. Each voice is integral to the composite portrait McMillan draws for readers of a community that genuinely cares for its own, like a village. While writing from so many different points of view was challenging, McMillan says she had fun creating characters that both got on her nerves and with whom she could relate. The thrust of the story lies in this unmistakable sense a parent sometimes gets: “'Gee whiz, is this my fault, what happened to these kids? Maybe I should have done things differently,’” as McMillan puts it.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Austin.