In secondary school, my friends and I secretly passed around her books.
In 1990s America, educated, successful black women were not exactly common in fiction. But because Terry McMillan’s novels never ran away from sensuality and the complex dynamics of love, divorce and marriage, we weren’t supposed to be reading them.
Still, Disappearing Acts (1989), Waiting To Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) made their way into our backpacks before we saw them made into movies. We loved reading these books because we wanted courage and exciting adventures like Stella. We wanted strength and perseverance like Bernadine in Exhale.
In her new book, I Almost Forgot About You, we meet Georgia Young, a 54-year-old optometrist. McMillan crafted this character to teach us the art of reinvention, introspection and never giving up on yourself.
She’s been touring the country spreading the book’s message: The party ain’t over when your 30s end.
Speaking to her is almost like talking to your favourite auntie. And Auntie Terry is a proud 64-year-old, vibrant and fun and willing to share what she’s learned.
“There are so many women, and men, who have thrown in the towel,” Terry tells me. “They are in their late 40s or 50s and maybe a little past that, and they have reached a plateau in their careers or love lives. They have almost flat-lined. They are bored with their chosen profession, maybe they are divorced or have never been married. This is my way of saying you still have time to slide into home.”
Georgia Young runs her own practice in San Francisco’s Bay Area. But it’s not her passion. She loves interior design and rehabbing furniture. She’s twice divorced and holding a grudge. Her children are grown. She wants to sell her practice and her big house and travel. But she’s scared.
“First and foremost is admitting you are unhappy,” McMillan says. “It’s hard to do because it means you have to do something about it rather than accept it. Otherwise you are a passive contributor to your own inertia or angst.”
So Georgia not only starts making plans to rediscover herself, she puts herself in check. How have her bitterness and fear played into her unhappiness? And from there, she goes on a journey of forgiving her exes and taking accountability for some of her own choices.
“Going through a very contentious divorce, I learned forgiveness is liberating,” Terry says. “I was angry for three years. That’s a long time to be apoplectic. People get comfortable with anger. It becomes a safety net. You don’t think about forgiveness because you are so wrapped up in your anger because your heart has been bruised and stomped on.
“After a while it becomes a way of life, and it permeates all other facets of your life and the people around you. The only person you are hurting is yourself. It’s important to let go of that anger and forgive so you can live.”
Healthy friendships play a part in holding that mirror to your face and telling you the truth. Georgia and her friends are in constant and brash conversation to keep one another honest.
“It’s a given with women: We see ourselves as sisters, not just friends. We don’t BS each other. We are very honest. We get angry with each other. Sometimes we don’t speak for months, but usually, almost 90% of the time, what made us mad was the truth.
Friendship was the star of my favourite McMillan creation, Waiting To Exhale, both the book and movie. The 2010 sequel, Getting To Happy, found the women in their 50s and still diving into love’s layers. Rumours of an Exhale television show are currently circulating online.
McMillan says there is interest but nothing she can confirm. Hollywood counts out women over 40 as if love, sexuality and adventure must dissipate with age. But she believes these are stories that need to be told not just in books but on the big screen, too. For that reason, she said she’d trade all her other films to have I Almost Forgot About You made into a movie.
“Sometimes Hollywood thinks that everything that happens to you only happens when you are young,” she says. “The message is your youth is the most important part of your life. I am just sick of it. They make it seem as if our lives are not as intriguing, sexual or fascinating, and I really resent it. Life isn’t over at 40. It’s not all downhill at 55.”
We forget a lot of things as we focus on yesteryear, but we can’t get lost in the Hollywood hype. We must remember to live. – The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service