Return With True-to-life Fiction
Six African American women novelists hit bookstores,
bringing mental illness, midlife crises and love into the
Paula L. Woods, Special to The Times, July 9, 2005
Coming off the Rodney G. King-inspired uprising of 1992,
L.A. was, for a time, a pretty dismal place. But for African
Americans, a bright spot emerged on, of all places, the
local bestseller list of July 5 that year, where three
novels written by black women jostled for position Terry
McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" landed the top spot, Alice
Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" hit No. 6 and Toni
Morrison's "Jazz" No. 8.
It would not be the last time multiple titles from black
women (or men) graced national bestseller lists in a single
week, but given the timing and circumstances, it was
arguably the sweetest. Now, more than a decade later,
history might just repeat itself. By next week, six
contemporary African American women novelists will have new
titles in stores this year: L.A.-based Bebe Moore Campbell,
whose "72 Hour Hold" was published last week, Pearl Cleage,
Valerie Wilson Wesley, Benilde Little, Connie Briscoe and
McMillan, whose sixth novel, "The Interruption of
Everything," is due Tuesday.
it's too soon to assign any meaning to this confluence of
releases, to declare a sea change in the current state of
black-themed publishing or even to put it all down to
coincidence, the timing does offer the opportunity for the
authors to consider their own successes, their readership
and the state of writing on African American interests.
McMillan, more than anyone, is aware that the success of her
book made black contemporary novelists the flavor du jour
for some time with the New York publishing establishment.
Although the current titles all have distinct voices,
touching on such varied topics as mental illness, AIDS and
midlife crises, McMillan has had concerns over the years
that the industry's ongoing race to acquire the next
"Waiting to Exhale" could cause a backlash.
"Publishers are no different than movie studios they'll
try to cash in on whatever the latest trends are," she says.
Of the novels released shortly after "Waiting to Exhale's"
triumph, McMillan says, "No way could all of those books be
successful, and the writers were the ones blamed. It's
unfortunate because a lot of young writers tried to emulate
the four-girlfriends formula without bringing anything
unique to their stories."
McMillan doesn't think black readers were that naive,
ensuring that publishers' strategies would fail over the
long run. They "ended up saturating the market with the same
Calvin Reid, news editor at the industry journal Publishers
Weekly, points out that the market is still saturated but
with a little more variety now. "For a while there, it was
the 'sister-girl' novel, about various classes of black
women, what they had to do to get a man and how all men were
dogs. That was a real staple," he says.
Now, 13 years later, that market has changed. There are more
voices and choices in black novels than there were in 1992,
though African American titles have not kept pace with the
growth in general fiction overall, according to a May report
from New Jersey-based R.R. Bowker, a database service for
The company found that the proportion of novels being
released in the United States with African American themes
has declined from 1992. That year, 2.9% of 7,357 adult
fiction titles published had stories considered of interest
to African Americans; by 2004, preliminary data show that
percentage dropping to 1.8% of the more than 25,000 titles
released, says Andrew Grabois, senior director of publisher
relations at the firm.
what looks like a full landscape [this summer], a lot of
black writers have been weeded out," says
"I know several who have lost their contracts and are
struggling. Publishing has changed; it's a brutal business."
agrees to a certain extent. "Publishers are dissatisfied in
general with the numbers that at another time would've
seemed acceptable. The author that sells 20,000, 30,000
copies at another time would've seemed terrific, but now
publishers aren't impressed. If one author is not being
published, it's because publishers have turned to another
author. Publishers are looking harder at urban fiction.
We're seeing more quality titles, and you'll see that
various publishing imprints focus directly on books for the
Indeed, Campbell and others who spoke with The Times remain
upbeat about the appearance of so many African American
fiction choices this year, citing wide-based reader support,
aggressive author-driven marketing and the lingering
afterglow of the achievements of McMillan and others as
important success factors.
Cleage is quick to acknowledge the commercial space
McMillan's work created for black writers but emphasizes
each has a voice of her own. "We are not Terry's clones. We
are her peers, her community. Her work made it possible for
us to identify our primary black, female audience as one who
could support the work of an author who reflected their
For Cleage, that means combining relationships, humor,
suspense and serious social and political concerns in the
four novels she's published. In "Babylon Sisters," released
in the spring, she also addresses the issue of family
secrets and the damage they can do to parents and children.
Balancing so many elements is what Cleage believes makes her
work defy convenient genre labels like "women's fiction" or
"I don't describe my work in genre terms other than to say
that my female main characters are usually trying to do
three things: tell the truth, figure out how to fall in love
and stay there, and save the world and the [black] race."
Cleage an established playwright whose first novel, "What
Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day," was an Oprah Book Club
selection remains clear about her objectives as a
novelist. "I want my books to be
complicated and funny and
serious and hopeful all at the same time. I think that is
the most accurate reflection of what I have experienced in
In turn, McMillan remains one of the biggest and most
hopeful supporters of her colleagues, jotting down the
titles of books admired by others to add to her own "to
read" list and to recommend to audiences at signings and
a thriving group of African American writers who can write
circles around me, and I'm grateful to be alive and able to
read their work," she says. "There have been a lot of young
writers out here hoping to cash in on the market, but it was
obvious who they were they come and go but the best
writers are not [always] on the
Wilson Wesley, executive editor of Essence for much of the
'90s, was inspired by the magazine's mission to empower
black women when she began to write fiction. "The female
characters in my books are usually independent and often
self-employed or in the process of becoming so. They are
always in the process of self-discovery."
She has penned five children's books, seven Tamara Hayle
mysteries and now her third contemporary novel, released
this spring, "Playing My Mother's Blues," which addresses
the effect of a woman's passions on her daughters, the price
they pay for her mistake and, ultimately, making peace
within a broken family.
She has also
just finished a stint as artist-in-residence in the fiction
department of Chicago's Columbia College, an experience that
allowed her to give something back and dig deeper into her
own craft. "As I've helped young writers develop and refine
their writing process, I've been forced to look critically
at my own," she says. "I've learned as much as I've taught."
assignments at Essence also inform Benilde Little's latest
novel. "I found out how big the 'daddy hunger' issue is for
black women. I grew up with my dad in the house, so I took
it for granted even though I knew people in my neighborhood
and other places who didn't have their dads. I'd meet or
read about all these really together women, at least on the
surface, and their [sense of incompleteness] was generally
due to lack of a daddy presence."
She used that as an issue for the protagonist of her second
novel, "The Itch," and it figures into her examination of
class, love, marriage and healing in "Who Does She Think She
Is?" which published in May and which Publishers Weekly
praised for its "balance between heartfelt intergenerational
saga and sexy love story."
Although the characters who populate Little's fiction might
be considered "black elite," they can't hold a candle to the
wealthy denizens of the gated community of Silver Lake, a
fictional African American enclave in Prince George's
County, Md., and the location for "Can't Get Enough," a
spring release and the second in Connie Briscoe's PG County
series. Cited by the Boston Globe for its "satirical
'Desperate Housewives'-style edge," the novel speaks to
readers hankering for a juicy, escapist read.
"Sometimes it's fun to see people who seem to have
everything going for them mess up their lives," Briscoe
says. "I guess it kinds of makes up for the fact that they
have so much more than the rest of us do."
Briscoe, who broke onto the publishing scene two years after
"Waiting to Exhale," freely admits the debt she feels to
McMillan. "Once McMillan opened the floodgates, the stories
came pouring in. There were many stories to be told and many
ways to tell them because they hadn't been told up to that
point." And Briscoe has done her share, writing novels about
rich divas out to make mischief, young women seeking
self-fulfillment, civil rights era family dramas and a
multigenerational historical novel inspired by the life of
her great-great-grandmother, a freed slave.
Campbell too covers a variety of terrain in her five novels,
which have been set in the segregated South, sections of
Philadelphia and View Park, the Los Angeles neighborhood she
has called home since 1986. And while her novels have won
accolades (including New York Times bestseller status, an
NAACP Image Award, a Los Angeles Times 2001 Best Novel
citation), it is her latest, "72 Hour Hold," that may be
Campbell's most significant personally and, perhaps,
professionally. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
called it a "powerful story," saying Campbell's writing had
"compelling depth and detail." The novel concerns, in part,
a mother's struggle to help her teenage daughter, who has
"I have a mentally ill family member who suffers from
bipolar disorder," Campbell says. "In the black community,
mental illness is shoved in the closet. I did that for a
while. The thing about allowing stigma to rule your life is
that nothing ever improves. Once I stopped being ashamed, I
was able to get help for my loved one and myself."
Campbell's own experiences lend a sense of urgency to Keri's
and Trina's journey through the mental health and legal
systems that seem indifferent to the teenager's plight,
while she also shows how family members' denial can
sometimes exacerbate the problem. "Mental illness is such an
unlovely illness," she says. "If it were diabetes, people
would be supportive, but not so with mental illness. They
question and judge the person with the illness and their
family: 'What went on in that household?' "
As Campbell sets out on a book tour that will take her to 18
cities over the next few months, she is grateful for the
opportunity to spotlight important issues through her
fiction while simultaneously entertaining her readers.
daughter of a social worker. Social issues have always
resonated with me. I integrate the issues and the romance to
give my books an even flow of entertainment and reality. I
want people to come away uplifted and moved. Life throws
these issues at us all the time."
And those issues are not limited to a black audience.
"My core audience is black women," Campbell says, echoing
the assessment of others interviewed, "but I have a
following among black men and people of all races and both
genders. I don't write for a color; I write out of who I am
and what I'm about."
Which is how
McMillan approaches her fiction, choosing relationships as
the window into the struggles of women searching for
something better in life. "How we interact and relate to
others contributes in part and sometimes much more than
that to helping us shape and form our sense of values, our
moral fiber, our self-image, what we respect and cherish and
even how we love," she says.
"I want to understand some of the harmful and negative
things we do to each other so it might subliminally aid in
our healing, or at least offer some hope."