A Note from the Author:
Thanks for taking the time and attention to read and discuss my works. I hope this guide, like all the reading guides I’ve provided for my novels, is helpful in taking you deeper into the world of Mulberry, Georgia and the folks who inhabit that literary region. I'm working on a new novel that I think you, as readers and fans of UGLY WAYS, will especially appreciate. You'll hear and read more about it in the coming weeks on my website.
Take care. Be blessed.
UGLY WAYS Reader’s Guide
UGLY WAYS is the powerful tale of the three Lovejoy sisters – Betty, Emily and Annie Ruth -- reunited in their hometown of Mulberry, Georgia on the occasion of their mother’s death. The sisters have had a complicated love-hate relationship with the woman who insisted on being called Mudear even though she is as far from a Mother Dear as anyone could get. In life, Mudear, a complicated, self-focused woman, ruled her house and raised her daughters with an iron hand, wise sayings and a distant interest after her “change.” Selfish, manipulative, complex Mudear may be dead, but she is far from gone. As the emotionally scarred Lovejoys prepare for their mother’s funeral, Mudear’s spirit hovers above them, complaining about her daughters “ugly ways” in death as she did in life.
With their totally demoralized father Ernest hovering on the periphery of their lives, Betty, Emily and Annie Ruth get about the business of burial. But before the Lovejoy girls can put Mudear in the ground, they must come to grips with their lives, their choices, their feelings and their future with and without Mudear.
The novel challenges the stereotypical image of the African-American mother as a superwoman of unlimited strength, compassion and wisdom. With humor and wisdom, UGLY WAYS explores the past as it affirms the future. As Mudear the realist says, “When you dead, you done, so let the good times roll.”
DID MUDEAR COME FROM?
Like all my characters, Mudear is a unique individual. Although I hope that she evokes feelings and memories in my readers, she is not based on any one person. She is one of those characters who came to me full blown, fully herself from the start.
Years, decades ago, I had read an introduction to a book of short stories, "Black-Eyed Susans," written about and by black women in which the editor, Mary Helen Washington, wrote that she needed to read stories about all kinds of black women, lax mothers as well as good ones. That comment stuck with me because I, too, believe it's important for a full-range of black folks to be portrayed on the page.
That's where Mudear came from, my thinking about what makes a good mother, what makes a bad mother. How does a woman give all that she must to be a mother without giving up herself. Mudear has resonated with so many people that even sometimes I am surprised. But not really because I know that truth, however it looks and sounds, resonates with the human spirit.
‘GIRLS’ OF UGLY WAYS
While I was on tour promoting my novel UGLY WAYS, a woman about my age came up to me at a bookstore signing with a copy of the novel clutched in her hands. As she handed it to me for signing, she leaned forward and whispered, “I’m Betty. Who are you?”
I proceeded to explain that no one of my characters is me. That each one of the Girls – Betty, Emily and Annie Ruth (I call the Girls because their parents, Poppa and Mudear, call them that.) -- is indeed her own character, and that each one is a fictional character.
“Some of them are like me in some ways,” I explained. “But they are not me.”
I was about to launch into a long discussion of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, when the woman in the bookstore leaned down to me again, put her hand on my arm to stop me, and slowly and with emphasis this time, repeated, “I’m Betty. Who are you?”
What excites me most about the characterizations of the three sisters of UGLY WAYS – Betty, Emily and Annie Ruth – and their stunningly selfish mother Mudear is the sense of recognition they elicit from readers. I know that recognition is rooted in the universality of these characters.
These women represent for me and for many readers – like the one who inquired which one I was – an integral part of a major movement in American literature: capturing real multifaceted contemporary women of color at the center of stories about their own lives. It was essential for me to capture these women in their own lives. It was important for me to capture these women in their own context, in the times in which they live. I believe it is the specificity of their lives that evokes the universal comment and question, “I’m Betty. Who are you?”
In UGLY WAYS, The Girls and Mudear talk not just about sex and finding or eluding a man. They are also just as concerned with the AIDS virus, beautiful clothes, with their own personal achievements and their place in the world, their communities and their family, with freedom and how one person’s freedom affects everyone around her.
Although they seem so at times, these women of UGLY WAYS are not superwomen. Fully realized African-American women’s characters based on history and experience, fact and folklore are prodigious enough. There is no need for embellishment. There is no need to create near-stereotypical matriarchal archetypes. Black mothers in all their variety, vulnerability and passion are complex enough. Look at Mudear.
The Girls are women I see around me all the time in large cities and small towns all over this country: driven, overachieving, sexy African-American women with their share of compassion and neuroses, of loneliness and suffocating attention, of accomplishments and despair.
But it is still so seldom – more than 10 years after UGLY WAYS was published -- that I see these same women in films, on television, on the stage or in the pages of literature. And they deserve and have earned a place in those arenas. Because no matter his or her color or gender or class, I want the reader to come away from UGLY WAYS with the knowledge that we are not just Betty or Emily or Annie Ruth or Mudear. The Girls are all of us.
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