Life and Work
Diane McKinney-Whetstone was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When asked if her family influenced her decision to become a writer, she says, “My father was a state senator for two terms, so his world was politics. Writing fiction seemed like frivolity to him.… My mother always told me I was a good writer, but she looked on writing as a means to an end, never a fulltime job.” While her parents weren’t enthusiastic about her career choice, her sisters have been more supportive (“Mothers Who Write”).
McKinney-Whetstone received a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. After graduation, she worked at the Philadelphia City Council and with the Forest Service. These government jobs involved some writing, but McKinney-Whetstone wasn’t completely satisfied with her career: “my professional writing involved public affairs and public relations, as well as ‘translating’ scientific reports into lay terms audiences could understand. I realized this wasn’t the type of writing I was burning to do” (“Mothers Who Write”). Once she decided to focus on creative writing, she attended writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania and the Rittenhouse Writer’s Workshops before finishing her first novel.
Currently, McKinney-Whetstone teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She also writes for the Philadelphia Magazine, Essence, and the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. She says she chose to settle with her family in Philadelphia because “I lived out of the city for awhile and spent a lot of time in the car. After I moved back into Philly I realized that I missed the way the city forces you into spaces with strangers, on busses and els for example when you can watch people for the length of the ride, see what happens to their face when they laugh or frown, the pattern of wrinkles. I walk a lot more now and hear snatches of conversation; the rhythms and inflections of human speech are fascinating. You miss that in a car.” These experiences serve as inspiration for her writing (“An Interview”).
Diane McKinney-Whetstone has written four novels, and she has also contributed to several periodicals and anthologies. Her first novel, Tumbling, takes place in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s and tells the story of Herbie and his wife, Noon. Despite disagreements and an affair, their relationship survives. Tempest Rising, her second novel, is also set in Philadelphia, but the setting shifts to the 1960s. The main characters—Bliss, Victoria, and Shern— are sisters who must cope with their father’s death and a new foster family. McKinney-Whetstone’s most recent novel, Leaving Cecil Street, portrays a neighborhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s. As Joe and Louise attempt to fix their marriage, their seventeen year old daughter Shay helps her best friend Neet deal with an unwanted pregnancy and her mother Alberta’s strict religious beliefs.
Like McKinney-Whetstone’s other novels, Blues Dancing is set in Philadelphia. The novel is structured so that a story in the present day serves as a framework for flashbacks to a story twenty years ago. In the present, Verdi is a forty year old woman. She is the principal at a school for children with special needs and is living with Rowe, a history professor twenty years her senior. Rowe is protective and controlling of Verdi: he checks the odometer before she leaves the house and refers to her as his “pet” (12). He also limits the time Verdi spends with her cousin Kitt, a nurse and massage therapist, because he believes she is beneath them.
In the past, Verdi enrolls as a student at a university in Philadelphia. Kitt worries that Verdi, the daughter of an affluent preacher in Atlanta, is too naïve for the city. Despite her immaturity, Verdi succeeds in college and falls in love with Johnson, a Philadelphia native. While their relationship begins blissfully, it ends in despair as both become addicted to heroin. Johnson leaves Verdi in the care of her doting professor Rowe, who, with the help of his wife Penda, helps Verdi overcome her addiction. Eventually, Rowe leaves his wife to live with Verdi. These two stories, one in the present and one in the past, come together when Johnson returns to Philadelphia, and Verdi must choose between her former lover and Rowe.
One of the themes that emerges in this novel is the issue of race. As a Black student at a largely white university, Verdi feels “isolated and strange all day with her white hall mates, in small but significant ways” (18). She learns about the emasculation of male slaves in her history class, and she experiences the disparity between white and Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Verdi deals with these issues by becoming involved with the Black Student League and by meeting Johnson, who promotes unity and the “defragmentation of our voices” (20).
Johnson, too, must cope with racial inequality. While he appreciates his opportunity to attend the university as a scholarship student, he resents being treated differently than the white students. Verdi fears he has internalized this discrimination, making him “see a lesser image of himself,” as if “he was less than them, less bright, less capable, less industrious, less honest, less clean, less worthy” (175). When Johnson becomes addicted to heroin, Rowe tells him he is ruining the chances for other Black scholarship students. Johnson responds, “white boys get strung out too, … nobody makes a proclamation that no more white boys can be admitted into the university because some of them dib and dabble in drugs” (209). Eventually, Johnson fights against this racial inequality by creating a program to help disadvantaged young men find success.
In addition to the issue of race, the theme of reason versus emotion appears in the novel. Characters such as Rowe and Hortense, Verdi’s mother who has a clear-cut vision, rely wholly on intellect and reason. On the other hand, Posie, Kitt’s mother and Hortense’s twin sister, is more instinctive and sensitive. Her connection with her emotions even gives her a seductive power over men.
Still, these extremes have consequences. Rowe and Hortense’s strict reason creates problems in their love relationships, and Posie’s excessive passion results in loneliness. Instead of favoring one over the other, reason or emotion, the novel advocates a balance. Verdi, who realizes she must learn to be self sufficient before depending on someone new to protect her, and Kitt, who allows herself to find love as well as focusing on her family and her career, both achieve this balance with happy results.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- Tumbling. New York: William Morrow, 1996; New York: Scribner, 1997; London: Black Swan, 1997.
- Tempest Rising: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 1998; New York: Quill, 1999.
- Blues Dancing: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 1999; New York: Perennial, 2000.
- Leaving Cecil Street. New York: William Morrow, 2004; Waterville, ME: Thorndike, 2004.
- “Moon Penitent.” The Bluelight Corner: Black Women Writing on Passion, Sex, and Romantic Love. Ed. Rosemarie Robotham. New York: Three Rivers, 1999.
- “Box.” Mending the World: Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers. Ed. Rosemarie Robotham and Maya Angelou. New York: BasicCivitas, 2003.
Selected Essays and Reviews
- “Thicker than Water.” Essence 30.1 (May 1999): 140.
- “Sweet Stillness.” Essence 32.1 (May 2001): 153.
- “The Nature of Love.” Essence 34.6 (Oct. 2003): 206.
- “Riding the Train with Mommy.” Essence 35.1 (May 2004): 156.
- Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Grant
- Pew Fellowships in the Arts Grant
- Citation from Athenaeum of Philadelphia for outstanding work of fiction by a Philadelphian author for Tumbling, 1996
- Citation from Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for Tumbling, 1996
- Zora Neale Hurston Society Award for Creative Contribution to Literature, 1997
- Go on Girl! Book Club Author of the Year Award, 1998
- Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Leaving Cecil Street, 2004
- Go On Girl! Book Club Author of the Year Award, 2005
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Davis, Anthony C. “Pipe Dreams.” Black Book Review 9.5 (31 Oct. 2002): 34.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 4 Dec. 2004. <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Funderburg, Lise. “Philadelphia Story.” New York Times Book Review 9 June 1996: 7.22.
- Ganim, John M. “Cities of Words: Recent Studies on Urbanism and Literature.” Modern Language Quarterly 63.3 (Sept. 2002): 365-82.
- Steinberg, Sybil S. Rev. of Blues Dancing. Publishers Weekly 246.38 (20 Sept. 1999): 69.
- —. Rev. of Tempest Rising. Publishers Weekly 245.1 (5 Jan. 1998): 59.
- —. Rev. of Tumbling. Publishers Weekly 243.15 (8 Apr. 1996): 55.
- Willet, Daun Marie. “Tumbling: The Stuff of Dreams.” BMA: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review 3.1 (Fall 1997): 24-27.
- Zaleski, Jeff. Rev. of Leaving Cecil Street. Publishers Weekly 251.12 (22 Mar. 2004): 62.
- Interview with Diane McKinney-Whetstone. BackList. 2005. 31 Dec. 2006.
- “Black History Month Author Roundtable.” Authors on the Web.com. 2003. 4 Dec. 2004.
- “An Interview with Diane McKinney-Whetstone.” HarperCollins.com. 2003. Harper Collins Publishers. 4 Dec. 2004.
- “Mothers Who Write: Dianne McKinney-Whetstone.” Oct. 2000. Writers Write. 2002. Writers Write, Inc. 4 Dec. 2004. <http://www.writerwrite.com/journal/oct00/whetstone.htm>.