Benilde Little mines her own life in a poignant new memoir.
For nearly two decades, Benilde Little has put resilient Black women center stage in her work. Many fans still cheer for Alice Andrews, the driving force behind Good Hair (Simon & Schuster), the novelist’s 1996 debut pageturner, as well as Aisha Branch, who anchored 2005’s Who Does She Think She Is? (Free Press). Both characters were multifaceted, feisty women who felt real. With Welcome to My Breakdown (Atria, $26), her fifth book, the former ESSENCE arts and entertainment editor takes a slight departure from her four novels, with major creative results. Breakdown, Little’s first memoir, gives us the pleasure of meeting Clara, the storyteller’s mom. “My mother was tall, 5 feet 7 inches, and broad-shouldered,” writes Little. “She was passionate and intense and idiosyncratic.”
In lively anecdotes wherever she appears in Breakdown, Clara springs to life and confidently holds it down. Because we know women like her, we instantly feel the author’s despair when her mother dies at age 84. In achingly honest detail, Little charts how losing her mother—her foundation—shattered her world. Just like one of her own heroines, Little does indeed break down. “I’d been holding myself back, taking only shallow breaths,” Little recalls in her memoir. “My surroundings were shiny, impressive—the house, the car, the country club that I never wanted to join and hardly ever went to. I had turned into someone I couldn’t figure out: a bored, lonely suburban wife and mother whose writing career had inexplicably stalled. I had no role models for this life, no road maps to follow. Where were the creative, sensitive women who were making a living while married and raising kids in the suburbs, and who were also Black and proud? I felt lost. I was lost.”
And then Little retraces her journey, taking us back to her tight-knit, closely guarded New Jersey community and life with a formidable mother and supportive father. Before she wrote Good Hair, Little had been a good girl. Taking one sure-footed step after another on the career ladder, she eventually finds love, gets married and has children. Recalling her mother’s will and presence, Little gets herself together, piece by broken piece. “I’ve had to figure out who I am,” Little writes. “How many times was I going to have to do this? Didn’t I do this in my twenties, my thirties and forties? Didn’t I prove myself to myself—as a writer, daughter, mother, woman? The answer, I now know, is, I’m going to have to do this as many times as it takes.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.