Monday, October 7, 2013

Telling It Like It Is

So, if a white author wrote a book where in the very first chapter, a black character is cooking fried chicken, complaining about living in a bad neighborhood, and thinking about her granddaughter named "Noxema" who was taken from her daughter by social services, what are the chances that you would read the second chapter?  I'm guessing slim to none.  In fact, I would bet that the author would find herself on the Today Show trying to defend the "research" supporting her offensive characterization.  But in Who Asked You, where the first chapter includes just that character, the author doing the writing is the best selling African American author, Terry McMillan, who is known for telling relatable stories.  Personally, I was still a little put off by the stereotype, and wondered if McMillan still knows how "it is" for people not optioning their books for movie deals.  But I kept reading.

I'm not new to Terry McMillan.  I think that I read Waiting to Exhale first, like most of America did.  It must have been then that I learned that McMillan had grown up in my husband's hometown of Port Huron, Michigan, and that an earlier book, Mama, was set there.  While Mama does not portray Port Huron in such a way that would encourage endorsement by the Port Huron Chamber of Commerce, I read it anxiously, and passed it on to my mom.  McMillan's descriptions were so precise that I was pretty sure that if we followed the roads that she named and turned where she said, we could drive to all of the settings in the book, even though the characters were supposedly living in "Point Haven" instead of Port Huron.  My mom and I gave it a try, and while we couldn't find all of the locations, some directions were spot on.  When we turned on to my husband's grandmother's street, Strawberry Lane, where the mother in the novel cleaned houses, I think that my mom was a little disappointed to see ranches with walk out basements instead of the mansions McMillan described.  But despite the exaggerations, the descriptions were so true that I've always wondered if McMillan's own mom really did clean houses there, and if I may have known one of her employers. 

This tendency to stick closely to the truth of her own life is a McMillan signature. Whether or not her (now ex) husband was the inspiration for a character in How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a hot topic that resulted in litigation.  So this is why I was so surprised that McMillan seemed to be using racist stereotypes in Who Asked You.  I should have known better.

Who Asked You is primarily the story of Betty Jean.  She is living in what she calls a "ghetto", working as a maid in a hotel, and trying to take care of her husband who is bed ridden with something like dementia.  She has three adult children, one who feels he is too good for his community and has left, one who is addicted to drugs, and one who is in prison.  Early in the story, her daughter with the drug addiction asks Betty Jean to watch her two sons for the day, and never comes back. Suddenly Betty Jean is stretched in yet another direction, as she finds herself raising the young boys.  The story is told through the voices and perspectives of Betty Jean, her children, her grandchildren, her sisters, her neighbor, and a few other characters. 

Betty Jean could be a one dimensional stereotype, but she is not.  She is part of a family.  There is something about the family relationship that makes people feel free to express hurtful opinions and to say mean things that they really do think, but that they would never say to strangers. Through the story, Betty's family members grow and change, forcing each other to open their minds.  McMillan's message is clear:  Don't judge.  Even if you know you are right, and think that your family members would benefit from your opinions, be supportive.  You might think that you know your siblings or kids better than they know themselves, but you will never really know what they are going through, or what they don't want you to know.

At first I also thought it was a little hooky that the story started with 9/11 and ended with Obama's election.  Those events are huge in American history, but it seems like 9/11 especially is becoming an overused device for authors.  But again, this worked.  Thinking back, the entire country went through the changes that Betty's family faced during those years.  We all learned.  We all opened our minds.  The "great recession" came and hit us all, and we learned a lot about judging and being judged.  I'd like to think that we are better people now than we were before.  Who Asked You had such a positive ending that it made the journey of the book worthwhile.  It's an ending that I would like to believe in, even if it might be a little too good to be true.

I read Who Asked You at the request of Angela Messina of Viking/Penguin Publicity.  No promises were made, and no payments were received.

Next Up:  I am so late on getting my September Industry Requested Review out, that I'm going to rush right into the IRR for October.  So, my next book will be Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield.

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French.  This is a good one!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...