Popular African-American Fiction
Modern Realism and Popular Trends
Women's Issues: Popular Fiction by and for Women
Terry McMillan's blockbuster novel Waiting to Exhale (Viking, 1992) is the fast-paced story of four friends in their mid-thirties, and the men who trouble their otherwise confident and successful lives. The support and friendship among the women in the story hit a nerve with black women in America and marked an upsurge in this type of novel, marketed to middle-aged middle class African American women. In the decade since publication of Waiting to Exhale, McMillan has explored many issues faced by African American women, always expressed in her inimitable humorous style.
Bebe Moore Campbell's book Singing in the Comeback Choir (Putnam, 1998) features Maxine, a successful African American television talk show producer, whose once-famous jazz singer grandmother now needs her attention. Grandmother Lindy Walker is living in the party past, still in her old neighborhood, now run-down and dangerous. The woman who raised Maxine needs help recovering her life -- in the present. To top it off, in addition to the pressures of her demanding work life, Maxine is pregnant and she finds out her husband cheated on her. These are real problems faced by real women in a modern world, and Campbell sets out to solve them with warm humor. Campbell's book, What You Owe Me (Putnam's, 2001), is a complex story of two generations and of a friendship between two women betrayed by greed and mended by hope.
In her wonderfully uplifting style, Pearl Cleage introduces readers to Ava Johnson and her big sister Joyce in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (Avon, 1997), a heartwarming and surprisingly funny novel about new beginnings and the support only sisters can give. Ava returns to her childhood town of Idlewild, Michigan, thinking her life is basically over. She has AIDS. When wild Eddie Johnson, dreads and all, meets her at the airport, she has no idea that hope for her life has just arrived. Her sister Joyce's story of community building and seeking a new life is continued in I Wish I Had a Red Dress (William Morrow, 2001).
Men and Women Together: Popular Fiction by Men for Women and Some Men
Eric Jerome Dickey, who hits readers with fast-paced action, hot sex and violence in male-oriented Thieves' Paradise (Dutton, 2002), shifts to an unnamed female narrator who plans revenge on an unfaithful husband in The Other Woman (Dutton, 2003). Again in Naughty or Nice (Dutton, 2003), Dickey takes the female perspective. The McBroom sisters, Frankie, Livvy and Tommie act as each other's support group when men mess up their lives and the consequences of past mistakes seem insurmountable. Dickey's message is nearly always "do the right thing" and "be honest," but he unquestioningly supports a "have fun doing it" attitude that makes his novels so popular with both men and women. Drive Me Crazy (Dutton), was released in July 2004
In a sequel to his debut novel Good Peoples (2000), Marcus Major picks up the lives of Myles and Marisa Moore in A Family Affair (Dutton, 2004). Now married four years and heavily involved in their extended family, Myles's parents' relationship is on the rocks, and when his father Lenny is caught red-handed talking dirty to his mistress, it looks like the end of the forty-year marriage. To compound matters, Myles's teenage niece Jasmine hooks up with a shady character she met at the mall. Major has a gift for developing believable characters whose daily interactions and problems remind us that real life can be handled with the love and support of a family.
Urban Soaps and "Reality" Romances
God's Gift to Women (Simon & Schuster, 2003) by Michael Baisden introduces the perfect man in the form of an after-hours radio talk show host. Women call in for advice on love and Julian Payne always gives them the right answer. What his listeners don't know is that Julian's own love life is on the rocks because a one-night stand is about to ruin his chances with the perfect woman.
Lolita Files portrays young African American women taking the world by the horns and determinedly getting ahead in life any way they can, often finding out that good values assure real success. Beautiful aspiring actresses like Bettina in Blind Ambitions mistakenly think sexual favors given to powerful men in the business will reap career rewards. More often than not, as her friends Desi and Sharon discover, Hollywood welcomes only an elite few and others must make difficult choices and redirect their ambitions. Files's Tastes Like Chicken (Simon & Schuster), came out in May 2004.
Weaving some repeat characters in and out of his nearly annual new books, the popular E. Lynn Harris brings back Raymond and Basil in his sequel to Any Way the Wind Blows (Doubleday, 2001), A Love of My Own (Doubleday, 2002). More daring than many of his fellow urban romance authors, Harris explores sexual identity on a wider scale than most, placing his characters in unusual circumstances and then watching them squirm. Raymond Tyler, the new boss at McClinton's, has just moved to New York, freshly out of a relationship and in need of solace. Zola, his chief editor, leads a fast-track life and is proud of her ability to juggle work, a lover and an affair with a married boss that keeps her at the top of the media pile. No one is prepared for the profound effect of 9/11 on their emotional lives, and the drama heightens when Ray's former lover Basil Henderson appears, and both Ray and Zola must rethink their priorities.
Offering an insight into the difficulties young professional African American women face in making a good match, Yolanda Joe introduces Terri Mills, a high-powered Chicago attorney who has made a bad choice of lovers. In The Hatwearer's Lesson (Dutton, 2003), Terri's cheating fiancé Derek doesn't get another chance to hurt her, because Terri leaves Chicago to visit her dying grandmother and gets a valuable lesson in relational priorities. The fairytale-like quality of the story is heightened by Grandma Ollie's stories about her own past, and by the happily-ever-after ending, which is a refreshing departure from other more angst-ridden urban tales. Joe's book My Fine Lady (Dutton, 2004), features hip-hop singer Imani, whose individuality must stand in the face of a makeover artist professor who thinks she needs to change.
Glamour and sex are all Tabitha Knight cares about in Omar Tyree's Diary of a Groupie (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Luckily a long string of wealthy hot boyfriends keeps her out of the job market and in the good life. Tabitha keeps a diary in which she records the details of each of her relationships. When an actor is suspected of molesting girls, a private investigator offers Tabitha six figures to seduce the actor and record incriminating information. Thinking she can uses the money to help out her family and friends, and help catch a bad guy, she agrees. Her levelheaded intelligence and sharp wit make Tabitha a compelling character to watch as she grows into her new priorities in life.
Current Themes of Popular Modern African American Fiction
Mixed Race Issues
A more serious treatment of the consequences of biracial relationships, set during the Civil Rights Era, is Danzy Senna's Caucasia (Riverhead Books, 1998). By the time the 1970's roll around, having had their fill of subversive acts and each other, Birdie's parents decide they should part, each taking the daughter most like themselves. Birdie, the light-skinned child, goes with her white mother to start a new life in small town New Hampshire, while beautiful black-skinned Cole goes with their black father. This masterful, sad novel is a powerful commentary on the politics and racist attitudes that ruined so many lives in America.
Mental Health Issues
A riveting description of a family nearly destroyed by a daughter's mental illness catches readers' hearts in A Quiet Storm by Rachel Howzell Hall (Scribner, 2002). The storm in the title is the insidious destruction caused by Rikki's bipolar disorder. Narrated by her sister Stacy, this compelling novel follows the sisters from childhood into adulthood, showing how the younger girl takes on the roles of protector and caretaker for her older sister, helping her to lead a somewhat normal life. At the same time, however, nothing is normal about the mood-swings, the late-night calls, and the suicidal bouts Rikki inflicts on Stacy, nearly ruining her marriage and her sanity.
Grinding poverty forces Jacinta's mother into madness in Lady Moses (HarperFlamingo, 1998) by Lucinda Roy , a complex novel that encompasses most of the elemental themes of African American literature, written in flowing poetic style. Despite her biracial heritage, her father's death, the poverty and sexual abuse she suffers, the birth of a handicapped child and the eventual death of her mother, Jacinta defiantly survives and succeeds as a poet in a new life she carves out for herself.
Religion and Spirituality
The inner secrets of Greater Hope Gospel United Church burst into full hilarious notoriety in Michele Andrea Bowen's Church Folk (Walk Worthy/Warner, 2001). Good-looking pastor Theophilus Simmons renounces his illicit love and opts for marriage to Essie Lee Lane. But just when they settle into pastoral life, Pastor Simmons discovers his elders are involved in a call girl business venture. The sequel, Second Sunday (Walk Worthy/Warner, 2003), spotlights another congregation in trouble when their pastor dies unexpectedly just before the church centennial celebration. With a light tone, Bowen exposes the conniving church members as they jockey their favorite pastoral candidates into position.
In contrast, Tananarive Due brings back some old-world voodoo traditions in her new book, The Good House (Atria Books, 2003), an atmospheric horror novel that leaves readers shivering in delight. With all the trappings of a haunted house, spirit possession and magic spells gone awry, Due nevertheless makes a serious point about ancient traditions and beliefs. Sometimes, the author points out, "superstition" is actually a spiritual reality we know nothing about, and we need to take care not to "dabble."
Mary Monroe again makes the point that the consequences of bad choices and evil deeds visit good people as often as bad in God Still Don't Like Ugly (Kensington, 2003), the sequel to God Don't Like Ugly (Kensington, 2000). Annette Goode's uncle reveals her secret acts of prostitution at a family gathering to celebrate her upcoming nuptials. Her hopes for marital bliss dashed by a shocked groom, she seeks comfort from her childhood friend, the delightful Pee Wee Davis. But since God inevitably punishes sin, what about the murder Annette and her friend Rhoda have kept secret for years?
African American Genre Fiction: Mystery/Suspense, Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy
Mysteries and Suspense
Marti MacAlister, Eleanor Taylor Bland's Chicago detective, investigates gritty urban crime in the ten books of the series that began in 1992 with Dead Time (St. Martin's Press). In her tenth adventure, Windy City Dying (St Martin's Minotaur, 2002), Marti has moved to the suburbs with her husband Ben, looking for a more settled life as a "peace officer." An old enemy stalks Marti, whose investigation into the death of sixteen-year-old Graciela Lara uncovers connections to kids she counseled in the city, and she wonders why she thought the suburbs would be any different.
Christopher Darden and Dick Lochte's Lawless (New American Library, 2002) is the second book starring attorney Mercer Early (The Last Defense, 2002) who here defends a gay cop accused of killing his lover in a case that could blow up into ugly publicity for the LAPD. Fast-paced action and plenty of psychological tension keep you turning pages to the cinematic conclusion.
In Nora Deloach's Mama Cracks a Mask of Innocence (Bantam, 2001), Simone hurries back to Otis, South Carolina from Atlanta when her mother asks for help with a clothing drive, but the two women are set on a killer's trail by the discovery of the much-disliked Brenda Long's murdered body. Even with a mile-long list of suspects, the determined Mama flushes out the guilty killer in a surprising denouement. This is the latest in the Candi and Simone Covington series that began with Mama Solves a Murder (Holloway House, 1994).
Barbara Hambly writes a suspenseful and intriguing series about Benjamin January, a freed slave in New Orleans who makes his living in the 1830's playing the piano, and works as a detective on the side. The eighth and most recent story, is Dead Water. A pro at creating historical atmosphere, Hambly offers a densely plotted crime series featuring an unusual sleuth. The series begins with A Free Man of Color (Bantam, 1997).
Walter Mosley's mystery series about the reluctant private detective Easy Rawlins begins with the series prequel, Gone Fishin' (Black Classic Press, 1997), showing Easy's life in east Texas before he moved to Watts where the remaining stories take place. The first novel set in 1948 Los Angeles is Devil in a Blue Dress (Norton, 1990), detailing the difficulties Rawlins experiences as a returning war veteran, out of a job and willing to take a white man's hundred bucks to search for a beautiful blonde. While not stinting on plot, Mosley's main focus in the series is on racial tensions between blacks and whites, character development, and the changes in economic climate over the years. The eighth installment in the series is a collection of interconnected stories called Six Easy Pieces (Atria, 2003), and in the summer of 2004, Little Brown released a new Easy Rawlins mystery entitled Little Scarlet. Mosley introduced a new series with Fearless Jones (Little Brown, 2001), followed by Fear Itself (Little, Brown, 2003), both set in 1950's LA. Fearless lives up to his name with his nerves of steel as he and his book-selling sidekick, Paris Minton, catapult into an escalating series of disappearances, thefts and murders.
Blanche White is Barbara Neely's amateur detective whose job as a domestic for white families allows her to infiltrate places normally inaccessible to amateur gumshoes. Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin's Press, 1992) introduces Blanche as a reluctant sleuth whose detective work begins when she is accused of murder.
The intrepid and relentless black PI Tamara Hayle refuses to quit when she's dismissed from the case by a missing teenager's family in The Devil Riding by Valerie Wilson Wesley (Putnam's Sons, 2000). Teenage Gabriella may have fallen victim to a devious serial killer in Atlantic City and her dysfunctional family members are hiding something in this suspenseful and captivating sixth addition to the series. The series begins with When Death Comes Stealing (Putnam's, 1994). Dying in the Dark is the latest in the series.
Edge of Midnight by Beverly Jenkins (Harper Torch, 2004) catches Sarita Grayson making a deal with a devil and nearly losing it all when she agrees to deliver valuable diamonds to a notorious gang lord. Captured red-handed by an equally startled government agent named Mykel Chandler, Sarita hopes he will help her escape.
In Francis Ray's Trouble Don't Last Always (St Martin's, 2004; a reprint of The Turning Point), Lilly Crawford flees her abusive husband in Texas, barely stopping to file for divorce first. She finds refuge in Louisiana where she works as a caregiver to Adam, a wealthy handsome neurosurgeon recently blinded in an accident. Lilly is powerfully drawn to Adam, but wonders if his angry frustration will keep them apart.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
An epic alternate history, Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes (Warner, 2003) posits an America in which slaves are white Europeans and the landowners are predominantly of African origin. Set in 1850, the story follows a rich aristocratic African family and a family of Irish slaves who together must forge a life in America.
In Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed (Aspect, 1999), two very powerful alien beings, Doro and Anyanwu, each representing aspects of the human spirit, inhabit host bodies and develop a close bond despite their deep-seated fear of each other. By turns creative and miraculously powerful, these being together form a powerful metaphor for the hope of humanity.
Strange and miraculous things happen in Dragon Star season, and for two broken prisoners only a miracle can save them from the power of the Hellspawn. Dragonstar (Del Rey, 2003), Barbara Hambly's fantastical conclusion to her Dragon trilogy, teems with magical beings and a raging battle that erupts when the lines between good and evil blur. Preceding books are Dragonsbane (Del Rey, 1987, reissue ed.) and Dragonshadow (Del Rey, 2000).
Other African American authors to check for:
Ernest J. Gaines
Adapted from a NoveList Feature Article