Terry McMillan talks about the power of family ties and her new novel, Who Asked You? with Jane Ciabattari.
Terry McMillan has nearly a quarter of a million Twitter followers, and a devoted fan base for her novels, which feature indelible portrayals of women navigating through life’s tumult with irreverence and grit.
Mama, her first novel, paid homage to her hard-working mother, who raised five children in Port Huron, Michigan. As the novel opens Mildred Peacock, 27, is about to kick her husband out: “If it weren’t for their five kids, she’d have left him a long time ago.” Mama brought instant literary attention to McMillan, who was at the time a single mother being nurtured by the Harlem Writers Guild while working as a word processor for a legal firm in Rockefeller Center. Mama won Doubleday New Voices in Fiction and American Book awards, and went into its second printing before publication date, based on McMillan’s tireless efforts. (When her publisher wouldn’t support a book tour, she did it herself, in a manner that would be called social networking today.)
McMillan moved out West from New York to teach, first to Laramie, then to Tucson. Her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, propelled her onto bestseller lists and she settled into writing full time, creating resonant characters from Waiting to Exhale’s Savannah (“I worry about if and when I'll ever find the right man, if I'll ever be able to exhale.”) to Marilyn Grimes in The Interruption of Everything (“For a long time I have felt like I inadvertently got my master’s in How to Take Care of Everybody Except Yourself and then a Ph.D. in How to Pretend Like You Don’t Mind. But I do mind").
Her new novel, her eighth, is as witty and direct as her earlier work, with a strong infusion of serious issues—drug addiction, incarceration, racism, divorce and infidelity.
McMillan takes the title, Who Asked You?, personally. “As the oldest of five, I have a tendency to be opinionated and somewhat judgmental,” she said by phone from her home in Pasadena. “Especially since our mama has been gone, and she’s been gone twenty years. Sometimes no one wants to hear what I have to say. Over the years I’ve tried to stop myself and learn to be tactful.”
In the novel, she said, “I want to play off the idea sometimes people who have the most to say about other people’s behavior don’t take that much time to look at their own. The best way to show that is in a family.”
She set out to tell the story of Betty Jean, a grandmother forced to raise her two young grandsons at a point in her life when she expects to have time for herself.
“I have to give it to grandmothers,” McMillan said. “On the Super Bowl you see these gigantic guys saying, “I want to give a shout-out to my grandma.’ Grandmothers were the ones who raised them. For years I’ve heard them say that. Not just the black ones.”
Her research made it clear why grandmothers end up caring for their grandchildren. “It’s usually single mothers. It’s usually drugs. In the time frame I was writing about [the 1990s], it was crack. A lot of these women don’t want to abandon their kids. That’s what addiction is about. You get lost—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. Somebody else owns you.”
Betty Jean’s 27-year-old-daughter Trinetta brings over her young sons for the weekend. She never comes back. To write about Trinetta’s drug use accurately, McMillan went online. ““I couldn’t believe how many people show you how to smoke crack on YouTube,” she said. “The first one I clicked on was a white kid, about 21. I just sat there, mesmerized. Then I clicked on another one. It was a couple showing how they smoke crack and how they change after they smoke it… So pretty much that was how I got the details for the scene when Trinetta is in the bathroom smoking crack.”
Who Asked You? is an intricately plotted yet seamless novel told from 15 distinct points of view, with Betty Jean the dominant narrator. The story created the structure, McMillan said. “I wanted to be able to show the impact of other people’s opinions and feelings and reactions on things that are happening, especially when they are a part of it. I like my characters to be able to tell their own stories. That way you can see a character’s flaws and weaknesses. Up front, it’s a hardship story. That couldn’t be all of it. I wanted Betty Jean not to be educated. She lives in the ghetto. I wanted her to have educated sisters. I wanted their perspective.”
We see Betty Jean through the eyes of her sisters Arlene, a bossy sort who has a master’s from Pepperdine, and Venetia, who got an MBA, married a rich man and became a stay-at-home mom. We also hear from her best friend Tammy, who is white (“Betty Jean trusted Tammy more than she did her own sisters,” McMillan said), her husband Lee David, who was struck with dementia after working for UPS for 39 years, and his nurse, Nurse Kim.
There are chapters narrated by Betty Jean’s three children (Trinetta, Dexter, who is in prison for a carjacking he says he didn’t commit, and Quentin, a chiropractor who lives in Oregon and, Betty Jean says, “hates the ghetto”) and by her grandsons Luther and Ricky. “I wanted to know what it feels like to be abandoned,” McMillan said.
The novel moves from the 1990s to 2009, encompassing Hurricane Katrina and the election of President Barack Obama.
“Once I saw how the story was evolving, I knew that I wanted the children to grow up,” McMillan said. “I wanted to know how they were going to turn out. That meant the time frame of the story would include the Obama election. The influence reached from Dexter and all these black men in prison, celebrating (prison is a horrible place to be when the first black president is elected), to Betty Jean and her grandsons feeling pride. Everybody was thinking about it. I didn’t want to preach or over-reach, but the bottom line is, it was a big deal. I wanted to show how these folks’ lives were affected.”
In Who Asked You? she also shows how forgiveness trumps bickering in this far-flung family. As sister Venetia puts it, “I have prayed for all of us to come to our senses even though I know it’s an ongoing process. We’re not getting any younger and family is family.”