Waiting to Prevail
Her Last Name Begins With An M, But Please Don't Call Her McMillan
I imagine that being a talented, female novelist who writes literary fiction and also happens to be black is like being stuck in a shed with two concrete walls and two glass sides. The concrete walls represent the spectrum from which you and your work will be viewed, with Toni Morrison's lofty award-winning career the north-facing wall and Terry McMillan's lofty commercial success the south-facing one. The left glass side allows you to view your lighter literary counterparts, but whose career compartment looks more spacious and grand than your own, like the East Side apartment that George Jefferson finally moved on up to. Outside the right window stand media and publishing professionals who stare at you like an incomprehensible abstract painting. You, you just want to be judged on your own merit. Where do you belong exactly?
In the media's confusion, they make observations like this: In a review of Kim McLarin's third novel, 2006's Jump at the Sun, a reviewer at USA Today affectionately wrote, "her daring novel has the fire-breathing sass of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale and the soul-searching depth of Toni Morrison's Beloved."
While this quote and its M&M comparisons could make many writers gush with pride, I could have easily proposed that Jump at the Sun has the fire-breathing sass of Kim McLarin's first novel, 1998's Taming It Down. Don't get me wrong, McMillan deserves the Hollywood success she's experienced, and I devoured Waiting to Exhale like it was a prerequisite to womanhood, but comparing McMillan to McLarin is just wrong, like wearing sweat socks with stilettos. Even more sadly, it's not fair to either writer. Alas, the politics of identity.
Or should I say the politics of nonidentity? Interestingly enough I remember reading a post from a white literary blogger who pondered why she didn't read many "black books." And in her realization it dawned on her that she could rattle off tons of white literary authors, but could only name a few black ones. I'd bet that Morrison and McMillan would be on her list, while pages of talent remain invisible.
And this returns us to the paradoxical challenges facing many literary black writers. When two writers like Morrison and McMillan are used as bastions for 95 percent of literary comparisons, these distinctions become void of meaning--what talented black female writer isn't compared to either or both?--and Kim McLarin's name doesn't resonate. Instead, it's chalked up as just another black female writer whose unique literary identity is dismissed.
McMillan has been praised for proving to publishers in the early '90s that black people read and buy books, thanks to Waiting to Exhale's lengthy campout on the New York Times best-seller list. But the McMillan phenomenon also created a categorizing cop-out--an easy way to group other talented black women writers under her umbrella, when in fact many should be basking in the sun of their own artistic abilities. In other words, if I see one more black female writer compared to McMillan, regardless if the writer writes in the same vein as McMillan or not, I will have to find my own paradise where I can get my literary groove back.
After McMillan's success, publishers should have become savvy about promoting contemporary black novelists. Instead, most publishers pursue one of two lesser evils: unsuccessfully market solely to the black community or embark on failed attempts to capture the elusive "universal market." Case in point: The hardcover image for Jump at the Sun features a black woman attempting to soar, which happens to fit the contents inside; the paperback, which was released in July, dons an image of three flowers, an attempt to downplay the book's blackness. You see, publishers assume the majority isn't interested in reading a book that unapologetically features black people, especially when one is front-and-center on the cover. As EPMD would say, "Keep the crossover."
Here's the real tragedy: I only truly became familiar with McLarin's work with the release of her third novel last year. Jump at the Sun was like a pint of ice cream that was equally tasty and nutritious. I even worked with her, helping to manage the novel's release; it has gone on to capture a couple of award nominations.
That meant I, a chocolate bibliophile who prides herself on staying abreast of what's happening in the literary scene, had to work backward through McLarin's oeuvre. Sure, I had heard her name here and there, but not enough to seep into my highly saturated brain. While I was reading God knows who, McLarin was quietly building a career writing about tangled human relationships, like she did in her second novel, 2002's Meeting of the Waters. While I was being a trendy reader, the former Associated Press, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Times journalist was busy writing accessible literary fiction--like 1998's Taming It Down, which explores race in a refreshing manner, humanizes the complex lives of rich characters, and provides a foundation for readers to find threads of commonality. While I was searching for a good book, McLarin was tackling motherhood from an unapologetic stance in Jump at the Sun, exposing the reality that not all women want to be mothers and some struggle with it. While I was inundated with sloppy entertainment veiled as art, McLarin was busy being an artist with an acute sensibility, one who writes her ass off.
I'll take the charge of being idealistic to think that McLarin deserves both commercial and critical success and her own literary identity. Maybe I'm naive to think that after three well-reviewed novels she's earned the right to garner her own literary comparisons. Maybe I'm silly to think that she deserves to exist in an artistic space without walls or glass barriers. Publishers may not know what to do with her, media may still confine her talent, and readers may still sleep on her, but she's busy fulfilling her artistic promise--a promise that in her eyes is, as she once declared on her blog, to do her job as a writer. We should all do our jobs as readers just as diligently.
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