When Trinetta drops off her two young boys with her mother, Betty Jean, and then does a disappearing act, questions and criticism ensues. And inevitably, the response, "Who asked you?"
Terry McMillan's eighth novel, set in Los Angeles during what she describes as a more racially-tolerant time, looks at "the burdens and blessings of family" from the point of view of 15 different characters themselves.
McMillan sat for a chat with The Huffington Post to discuss her latest work and the way in which it tackles some of the hot button issues facing the black community today.
Given all that has transpired in terms of race relations in America over the last few months, a novel that tackles the issue head on seems pretty timely. How have current events played into your development of this story?
I finished it back in January, before a lot of the things were going on, especially Trayvon. Somewhere the book is being referred to [in terms of] what it says about race, [but] the manner in which I approach it is not as pointed. It doesn’t mean that I’m trying to shy away from the issue itself, but instead of making it clear, I let my characters say what they need to say about it.
I deal with interracial marriage, biracial children, prisons, why prisons are somewhat overpopulated by African-American men and men of color, but I let the character who happens to be in prison, [for example], make this case.
You hit on some issues in the black family and the black community as a whole that have really plagued both for a long time. Why do you think it’s important to keep telling those stories? Do you think it perpetuates the negativity or does it help to move the conversation forward in some way?
It’s not about pushing them to the foreground, because they don’t go away. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have someone in their family in prison or on drugs; that doesn’t have interracial marriage in their family; that isn’t poor; that isn’t suffering from something. As a novelist, you have an opportunity to focus on and bring attention to something that a character might be going through that you happen to find realistic and plausible. That’s what I chose to do. I don’t like to preach. I don’t believe in writing in a didactic manner. I wanted to tell a story about a number of characters, all of whose lives are affecting the other. And in some cases, are being catapulted into situations where race has something to do with it. And in some, cases bad choices and being victimized [has something to do with it].
For the most part, a lot of us are already very cognizant of what’s been going on. It’s not like you forget. When you have part of the Voting Rights Act struck down, when you have all of these republican governors doing everything they can against women, to make voting as hard as they possibly can … it’s really scary.
How did this story come about?
Initially, I wanted to tell two stories. I have been concerned over the years about a lot of grandparents who end up raising their grandchildren; I just empathize with them. I didn’t want to just tell a sad story. You know it’s a burden for them to take on what is called a second shift, but I also wanted to tell a story about what happens when a mother is forced to do this ... and what happens when people around her have something to say about it.
Sometimes you have to know when to keep your mouth shut. Some people always have answers to everybody else’s problems, but not theirs. Hence the title, ‘Who Asked You?’
I also wanted to know what it's like being a child. I have a 7-year-old [in the book], he’s almost 8; I wanted to know what it feels like to have your mom be a crackhead, and you know it, and you are abandoned and forced to live with your grandmother. What does it feel like?
I was also interested in how much responsibility a parent feels for how their adult children turn out. That was a big one for me. How much influence can you have and what happens when they go their own way?
In order to understand that, I had to try to tell the story from, as it turned out, 15 different characters' points of view. But my main character, [Betty Jean], is in every chapter.
Betty Jean is described as a “trademark McMillan matriarch.” How do you define that? Is she comparable to anyone in your previous work?
I don’t think of my characters as being trademark McMillan characters. Most of my female characters are strong black women who, to some extent, are being tested. I don’t write about passive characters. I don’t care if they’re victims, they may be victimized, but they’re not going down for the count; they’re going to fight whatever it is that’s working against them. They may not go about it the way we would, but they’re going to get from one point to another, even if they don’t solve all of the problems that they’re facing. Most of my characters are being tested. All of us in real life are being tested, so I just zero in on a few … to see how far they’re going to go to pass at least one test, if they can.
But it’s not about passing a test or succeeding, per se. It’s basically learning how to understand who they are, what their shortcomings are and going forward in spite of them. To me, that’s a big deal.
You describe the female characters as strong black women, and I’m curious how you see the men, who seem to have many layers of issues. Are there any standouts?
I try to write about people with realistic problems in realistic settings. It’s as simple as that. I try to be honest, but I don’t degrade black men. I don’t write about them as if they’re these pathetic creatures. I treat them as honestly as I do my female characters. I love black men and I wouldn’t do that to them.
You talked about the role of interracial relationships in your work. How do we see that play out in this story?
One of my main character’s best friends happens to be white, but this story also takes place in Los Angeles in 2000 and ... back then there were parts of L.A. where you had whites, blacks, Koreans, living in the same neighborhood. The racism that we see now, it wasn’t quite as persistent. I was happy to learn that and also to be able to write about white-black friendship and interracial marriage.
I have a white character who is a pistol. I love her. She also has children who are mixed race and she talks about what problems she had back in the 90s being around a lot of black women in particular who couldn’t stand her. They thought she was stealing their black men.
I wanted to write from a white woman’s point of view -- she didn’t feel like that’s what she was doing. Not at all.
...Times have changed. I’ve got so many mixed couples in my family. I’m just so past it. I just think that God intended us to be all mixed up.
The bottom line is I don’t even think it’s as much about tolerance as it is about being open-minded.
You must get comparisons between your work a lot. Do you feel a certain pressure for your newest book to be as successful as the last? How do you think this one compares?
Just like if you have a house full of kids, you don’t think of the last one you had in terms of how it’s going to measure up to the other ones. I don’t look at my books that way. I take the characters' lives and the situations that I put them in, very seriously. I have a reputation for writing in first person, because I like my characters to speak for themselves. When I do that ... I can give them flaws and they can contradict themselves and that makes them a little bit more believable. I empathize with them, I become them, so I’m not thinking as I’m telling the story. I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t know where the story is going. All I know is that I’m going to go on this journey with them. Some of the choices they make, I wouldn’t make if you paid me. But I have to follow them.
It’s not until I finish and realize, "Uh oh, I have to send this to my editor, my publisher," that’s when I think, “What did I do? What did I say? Did I offend anybody?” But by then, it’s too late.
"Who Asked You?" hits shelves September 17, 2013.