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  • Written by Tina Mcelroy Ansa
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Written by Tina Mcelroy AnsaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tina Mcelroy Ansa

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On Sale: November 18, 2009
Pages: 496 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42809-7
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Bestselling author Tina McElroy Ansa is back with another tale from Mulberry, Georgia, the richly drawn fictional town and home of the extraordinary Lena McPherson.  Lena, now forty-five and tired of being "the hand everyone fans with," has grown weary of shouldering the town's problems and wants to find a little love and companionship for herself.  So she and a friend perform a supernatural ritual to conjure up a man for Lena.  She gets one all right: a ghost named Herman who, though dead for one hundred years, is full of life and all man.  His love changes Lena's life forever, satisfying as never before both her physical and spiritual needs.  Filled with the same "humor, grace, and great respect for power of the particular" (The New York Times Book Review) as her previous critically acclaimed novels, Baby of the Family and Ugly Ways, The Hand I Fan With  is yet another memorable and life-affirming tale from one of America's best-loved authors.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Dropping her sweater on the back of a high-back cane rocker, Lena walked to the oversized French doors overlooking the deck, her yard beyond and the river beyond that and threw them open.  Many nights she slept with the alarm system off so she could leave the French doors on that side of the house open and feel the night air and the breeze from the river.

The railings around the edges of the sprawling winding cypress deck that wrapped around the house and a huge nearby oak tree were a mass of tiny white flowers and dark shiny cupped leaves that exuded a heavy exotically sweet smell all the way over to where Lena stood inside the door.  The scent of the jasmine drew her to the door and outside.

She was surprised at the changes out there.  It seemed that in the week since Sister had come through on her way to a year's sabbatical in Sierra Leone and they had been out on the deck, vines and trees and plants on her property had exploded with color, scent and life.  Azalea bushes that were mere shrubbery the week before were now mountains of white and pink and red blossoms.  The weeping willows and weeping mulberry trees had been mere reeds blowing in the March wind.  Now they were all--fifteen of them along the riverbanks--shimmering with the verdant haze of new growth.

Among the willows and mulberry and the azaleas and tangles of wisteria, a powwow of lightning bugs seemed to be assembling.  Lena didn't know when she had seen so many among her woods.

"It's so early in the year, not even early summer, for them to be around," she said as she stood there watching the fairy show the insects were putting on in the woods.

She had to chuckle as her gaze landed on the remnants of the ceremony she and Sister had performed out on the deck--"It's best if it takes place outside," Sister had said--in the light of the new moon.

"Lena, you are a little foolish fool," she said to herself gently.

It had been a ceremony to summon up a man for Lena, a wonderful man, a sexy man, a wise man, a generous-spirited man, a smart man, a funny man, a loyal man, her man.

All week, she had felt a little silly telling James Petersen not to disturb the site, but Sister had warned her not to move any of the elements of the ceremony ("Even if it rains") or the rites would be void or the results turned inside out.  James had silently shook his head, chuckled and said, "Okay."

The half-burned candles; the silver and black snakeskin that was a twenty-five-year-old gift from her brother Edward, who was obsessed with reptiles; the vial of salt; the pictures of saints; the water from Florida.  All the elements were still there.

They had both been a bit tipsy from the home brew Sister had smuggled in from her last trip to Guadeloupe.  "Girl, as long as I have a piece of your hair or one of your fingernail clippings and your picture with me in the bag," she would tell Lena all the time after some trip in which she had safely and easily brought back contraband, "I can get anything I want through any customs in the world.  They just wave me on through."

She had warned Lena, "This stuff is strong, yeah.  This stuff don't play," when she set the tall recycled rum bottle on the deep long picnic table that had once sat in Lena's family's breakfast room.  But they poured themselves a couple of fingers of the smooth strong brew into two crystal goblets.  And while they stood and sampled from the pots of delicious food on the stove, they kept sipping.

"Shoot, Lena, I remember the kind of stuff you used to do down home at school and the dreams and night visions you told me about before we went to see Aunt Delphie in Vieux CarrÚ," Sister had said as she drew bottles rolled in brown paper with red twine twisted around them from a croaker sack in her carry-on bag she had placed on the breakfast room table.  Then she brought out different-colored candles--white for peace, pink for love, red for winning.  "And I know the rituals and stuff.  So I don't see any reason why the two of us together can't call up just about anything we want."

Thinking back on that strange night, Lena muttered to herself, "And we were just high and tipsy and silly enough to think we could do it, too."

They had even smoked a couple of joints Sister had been reckless enough to bring back from Jamaica or some island the month before.

As they moved around Lena's house and deck, giggling and bumping into each other and giggling some more, Lena heard Sister muttering and chanting all kinds of things in preparation for the ritual.

"Shoot," Sister said under her breath, "I just can't go out the country and leave my girl with nobody to watch over and protect her.  Lord, I hope this does some good.  Oshun, Our Mother, help us."

Even as tipsy as they both were, Lena knew that the ritual she recalled hadn't been completely authentic, couldn't have been.  Halfway through the ceremony, Sister admitted she had forgotten the exact words to say and could not read her own writing, so she winged it.  Lena remembered seeing her hesitate over whether to light the pink candle or the white candle first.

Then, she sucked her teeth and pulled a crystal vial from her bag.  She uncorked the top and stuck her index finger in.

"Stick out your tongue," Sister had instructed Lena, and placed a dab of salt on the tip.  She dipped the same finger in the small crystal box and placed a dot of the salt on her own tongue and swallowed.

"That's so we speak the truth in what we ask for and in what we truly want," she explained as she recorked the vial and placed it on the altar they had constructed there on the deck.

"You know, Lena, you need some more lights leading to your altars outside.  With all these trees growing like something in a myth, it seems to be getting darker and darker out here."

Then Sister struck a big wooden kitchen match from the matchbox Lena handed her and lit another pink candle.

"I don't know why we never did this before," Lena said as she walked around the large guest room on the west side of her house where Sister was staying.  The furniture in the room was Nellie's original angular blond guest-bedroom furniture that was all the vogue in the fifties.  It had been in the attic on Forest Avenue for two decades when Nellie had given it to Lena for her guest room.  And now it was back in style.

Sister had just chuckled when she saw Lena's room in its original state.  "Miss Nellie was nothing if not current." She remembered the stylish woman she had first seen standing on the railroad station platform in Mulberry at Easter break her freshman year at Xavier.  Lena's mother had looked fresh from the streets of New York or Paris in her cool, stylish, sleeveless seersucker dress in green and white puckered stripes and her high-heeled leather mules and a straw bag.  Sister had always wanted a mother like Nellie.  Her own mother, a stolid Louisiana bayou woman with all kinds of people in her background, was more a country woman, good, loving, true.  But not a modern, slim, beautiful woman who was comfortable on the streets of the city. Sister's mother didn't even like to come to New Orleans, practically a stone's throw across the river from her country home, because its pace was too fast, its sights too varied.

Even now, with Nellie dead and her own mother still living three doors down from her to be a doting, comfortable grandmother to her own three boys, Sister felt a twinge of guilt over her secret wish to have a mother like Lena's.

But then, Sister had a number of secret wishes.

"Shoot, Lena, even though I really want to call you up a man, I have to keep myself from being so jealous of my students and single folks and you sometimes when I think you can go out and date . . ."

"Date?" Lena asked slyly.

"Or whatever it is you young single people call it now," Sister answered with a smile.  "Whoever you want.  It's not that I want anyone else.  Douglas is a good man and God knows we've been through things together, weathered so much. But sometimes I would gladly give over my eldest child just to be able to smell another man.

"Sometimes I catch a ride with one of my single students just so I can sit in his car a few minutes and smell his smell, a new one, a different one, one that I don't know inside and out.  Shoot, I can tell you right now what Douglas smell like at any given time.  Ask me!!"

"Well," Lena said, "I have smelled my share and I guess yours, too, and knowing, being able to recall one man's scent sounds pretty good to me."

Lena had dated and smelled her share of men.  But it never went anywhere.  For her, it was difficult getting past the first-time attempt at lovemaking.

As long as the relationship remained this side of intimacy, everything was fine.  Lena would sense a stray thought sometimes or an embarrassing moment, but rarely would she feel some man's ugly secret until they were nearly in the throes of passion.  It was only when they touched each other intimately or kissed deeply that the man's thoughts and past came seeping out for Lena to hear and see right there as he inched his hand up the darker skin of her inner thigh.  She would steel her hand right on the buckle of his pants or the flap of his zipper, trying to forge on, to concentrate on the act.

It got to the point that before each date or setup Lena had she would first pray, "Dear Lord, don't let me see so early." But it was always the same.  She would see early enough to stop herself from being able to have a fulfilling sexual encounter.

She had grabbed up her clothes and purse and shoes so many times and rushed for the nearest exit while her date lay on the sofa or the floor or the bed of his place and wonder what the hell just happened.  The same scene had happened so often in her twenties and even into her thirties that she had just finally given up on getting past some kissing and fondling and stroking.  It was finally too frustrating for her.

When a man told her, "Well, Lena, I don't know what I did wrong, but give me another chance," she wanted to yell at him, "Go!  You got diamonds in your back.  You look better going than coming to me!" the way Frank Petersen had said under his breath when Lena's grandmama had flounced out of the house on Forest Avenue when Lena was little because Grandmama claimed she could smell "that stinking wino's nasty cigarette smoke."

Even Frank Petersen finally had stopped making fun of Lena's gentlemen callers because he came to fear that he was somehow impeding her progress as wife and mother.

"Good God from Gulfport, Lena, that Negro sho' got a big head.  If his head was a hog's head, I'd work a whole year for it!" Frank Petersen would say as he came into the house after passing one of Lena's friends on the way out. But a few years before he died, he started keeping his opinions and critiques to himself.  Then he progressed to, "Well, Lena, that one wasn't so bad, was he?"

If Frank Petersen hadn't died of liver failure when he did, Lena was sure he would have eventually started placing ads in the personals for her:

"Rich, good-looking, healthy woman looking for a man!"

If Sister's ceremony to conjure her up a man worked, she wouldn't need an ad.

"When was the last time we did this?" Sister asked as she proudly unwrapped a dried two-prong root and propped it up against the red plaid cloth it had come in.

"Not since college," Lena answered.  And then spying the root.  "Ooo, Adam and Eve root?"

"Uh-huh," Sister said casually.  "I even got an Adam and Eve and the Children root at home.  But I figured we'd just work on you and him for now."

"You sound so sure of yourself, Sister," Lena said.

"Well, girlfriend, I feel that way.  I brought all this medicine with me, and I haven't talked to you about anything like this having to do with you in twenty years.  And here you are agreeing to do the ceremony.  It feels right.

"All you need is to just have your cat scratched," her friend continued.  She said it matter-of-factly, not as a joke or anything lighthearted, just as one solution to the problem.  Lena noted it was the solution of a woman who had been married to the same virile man for twenty-something years.

But Lena took her friend's comment seriously anyway.

She watched Sister continue to take items out of her croaker sack.  They were things that Sister had from a ceremony she had attended at the International Yoruba Festival the year before in Cuba.  Sister was so pleased she had had the presence of mind while there to go to some highly recommended botanicals to purchase herbs and roots and seeds for ritual and for planting.  It felt good helping Lena.  Sister knew how many folks Lena helped, herself included.

On Lena's land, the gardener had planted a number of herbs--skullcap and tilo and valerian.  Other than the mild teas Lena sometimes prepared for her older friends who had problems with their nerves or slices of valerian root she dried for them to place in their pillows, she used most of the plants in flower arrangements.

"Umm," Sister had said, picking up her ancient-looking canvas bag and searching through it again.  "I thought I had a picture of Mary Magdalene in here.  She'd help us with the love thing.  You do want love, too, don't you?"  Sister asked Lena as if she were her hairdresser asking if she wanted her ends clipped with that shampoo.

Lena had chuckled a little grunt and said, "Sure."

"Yeah," Sister agreed, going back to her bag one more time to look for the saint's picture, "that's what you really need, yeah?"

"Uh-huh," Lena said vaguely.  She was trying to remember where she had recently seen a picture of Mary Magdalene in her house.  But after the rum and a couple of tokes on the joint Sister had rolled, Lena was having difficulty recalling anything.

"Bring a Bible while you in there, Lena," Sister had called.

"Okay.  You need any more candles?" Lena had replied.

"Nope, we got enough," Sister had called back.

Lena walked unsteadily back inside to the wall of recessed bookcases in the great room and pulled down a volume, then she paused a moment at the rows of candles--votive, tapers, tall fat scented ones--she kept on the table and sideboard and in the rolltop desk and all around her house that she was always too tired to light at night.

Seeing the candles again now as she walked back into the house through the white French doors of the pool room and continued undressing, she wondered what she could have been thinking, lighting candles and praying out on the deck with Sister.

She and Sister had completed the ceremony that night a week before, but much of the rest of the evening was a blur.

"Calling me up a man, indeed!" she said aloud, and sucked her teeth.

Her temples still throbbed, and she knew a swim would help to clear her head.

Wiggling out of her short champagne silk slip and tap panties and popping open her satin bra, she headed for the deep end of the pool.  She had left the doors to the deck open and was surprised that the scent of the jasmine permeated all the way to the far wall, where it even overwhelmed the fresh clean smell of eucalyptus oil coming from the cedar-lined sauna.  Droppin
Tina Mcelroy Ansa|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Tina Mcelroy Ansa

Tina Mcelroy Ansa - The Hand I Fan With
Tina McElroy Ansa's first novel, Baby of the Family, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times in 1989. Her second novel, Ugly Ways, was published in 1993. She lives with her husband, JonÚe, a filmmaker, on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia.

Author Q&A

Q: What do you think the major appeal of The Hand I Fan With has been?

A: Varnette Honeywood [the artist whose work appears on the cover] said there was a lot of sex in the book, but Lena really needed it. But what struck Varnette as much was the spirituality in the book. It was the first time she had seen a book depict the way black women really celebrate their spirituality and their religion. So many of us practice religion with "a little of this and a little of that," a lot of things we'd be drummed out of our churches for doing.

Q: How do you make eroticism and spirituality compatible?

A: When was the last time you hollered out Jesus' name? (Laughter) That's what I want to do in my work--remind us human beings of our connection to spirit. The spiritual and the erotic are so interwined, but most women don't really have time to sit and think about it. Lena is an example of that; she never has time to sit and think or notice what's going on around her. True eroticism is everything about us, what moves us, what touches our spirits, not just the trappings.

In writing about Lena, I had a chance to examine all of the sensations that give us pleasure--the feel of a silk stocking, the delicious smells of Herman, her lover. When I opened myself up to the world, everything became erotic--the clothes Lena wore, the furniture, the way Herman stands back in his legs, their lovemaking, Lena cooking Herman a meal. It's the eroticism of everyday life.

Q: One of the things that is interesting about the book is that Herman really unlocks that door for Lena, the door to discovering herself and sensual pleasures. Early on, there's the symbolism of the locked room Lena discovers that is Herman's space. Later, there are passages where, through her love for Herman, Lena notices things on her property for the first time.

A: Oh yes, she's got a hundred acres and she doesn't even have time to watch the seasons change! But quite frankly, Lena is like all of us, too busy, too caught up in what we're doing to really see what's right under our noses.

Q: But Lena is rich.

A: Another reader once said to me, "I wonder if people will be able to identify with Lena because she's got so much." But I don't think Lena is so different from the rest of us. We may not recognize it, but we have acquired a lot of stuff, our lives are full of stuff. But where I think women will relate to Lena regardless of her material possessions is that Lena is the hand everybody fans with.

Q: It doesn't matter what you have.

A: It's what everybody expects you to give. Especially with black women, you're expected to give everything you have and you're expected to give it effortlessly . . . not to make demands, not to keep a little something for yourself. That's considered selfish. I was raised that way; it would be unseemly to ask for anything for myself, unseemly to serve myself before being sure everyone else had what they wanted.

Q: Lena is born with a caul over her face. In many cultures (African American, European, Native American, Caribbean), it is believed that a person born with a "veil" is clairvoyant or may have special powers. Yet Lena is divorced from the spiritual side of herself and struggles through Baby of the Family with a sense of always being different and being afraid of that difference. Yet by the end of The Hand I Fan With she learns to make peace with this aspect of her life. What is the significance of the caul in your books?

A: As we move into another century, I think all of our citizens, but particularly black folks, have to claim what's ours. We've got to acknowledge who we are as a people, what and where we came from, what we believe in, what got us to where we are today. We've got to stop jettisoning things that are important--whether it's the blues, what we call superstitions, our folklore, what our mothers wore fifty years ago. This is our stuff, and it's very much time at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium, for us to remember who we are and what we need to carry of ourselves into the next era.

It's also very important to claim our sense of spirituality, our connection to Mother Earth. These are the things that got us through the horrors of the Middle Passage, delivered us to these shores, and got us through slavery and up into freedom. And to just throw these things over our shoulders, to discard them like so much trash, as Lena's mother did with her child's caul, is suicidal.

Q: What else did you consider in writing about Herman and Lena?

A: I think when you write a love story in the nineties you've got to think about the quality of the relationship, but you also think, I don't want the woman being saved by a man--she's a woman in her own right. But then I stopped and thought, Hey, wait a minute--we all need saving right now in this world. We could all use not necessarily a savior in the religious sense of the word, but someone to guide us, to help us along this path called life. So in that sense I really do think that Herman saves Lena rescues her inner life, resurrects her sexual life--but it is something she asked for, something she wanted.

Q: Speaking of the earth, Lena's connection to nature is very powerful. What's your inspiration for writing about nature?

A: I could not have written this book without my garden, without being in my garden. Sometimes it's so beautiful and rich when you've been working it with compost that you just want to take a bite out of it.

But it's not just the gardening that gives me a sense of being connected to the earth, it's also living on an island, a place that not only is lush and green and beautiful but also contains so much of our history.

Q: When Lena and Herman are making love in the field in the "Blackberry" chapter, you see the images of the earth and eroticism and spirituality coming together. It is reminiscent of a passage in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God when Janie is lying on the earth.

A: I wanted The Hand I Fan With to be a paean to Zora Neale Hurston, who, whether we admit it or not, is truly the literary mother of all contemporary black women writers (and many white women writers as well). When I discovered Hurston in college, it changed my life . . . to know that writing could be literature and still sound like colored folks. That was a very powerful experience for me. Hurston freed us up to claim our places as black women writers, whether you agree with her politics or not.

She wrote of a people, of being connected to a place. She always made herself a part of the place where she was--the small towns of Florida, a ritual in Haiti. The Hand I Fan With is a tribute not only to Their Eyes Were Watching God but to everything Hurston embodied--her sense of connectedness to her people and the earth, her love of the southem ways, her sense of being centered.

Q: One of the things you write about in the book that is connected to eroticism is the notion of "the change." In your second novel, Ugly Ways, the change Mudear underwent meant more than menopause, but in Lena's case "the change" is depicted as not the end of Lena's sexual life but an opening up to her other powers.

A: The human race has got to stop kicking and screaming our way through this world. We've got to stop struggling against change. We've got to stop saying, "When I lose those ten pounds or wear that ideal size, then I'll have a man and then I can start having a life." We've got to stop looking for something outside of our experience of the moment to be perfect so we can say, "This is it!" And if Lena's moment is the change of life, then that's the best possible thing that can happen to her. We've got to--and I sure include myself in this-- grasp and enjoy the adventure of life in this moment.

Q: Lena doesn't have children, yet there are wonderful passages about her passing on the wisdom of her life to young people.

A: Lena's relationship with these children was so important for me to capture, and doing so absolutely changed my thinking about my own life. Writing about her relationship with these young people gave me somewhere to put my feelings about children, to express the wish I have that we all act as the village that's raising our young people. Herman tells Lena, "You don't have to have any babies out your own body to be a mother." And the realization of that absolutely saved my life, gave me a whole new perspective on the need we all have to mother these young children and the absolute obligation we have to do that, whether they are "ours" or not.

Q: What is there about Mulberry that allows you to go back again and again and explore so many different lives?

A: I live in a small town on an island off the coast of Georgia that's twelve miles by four miles, and among the things that I discovered when I moved here were the intricacies, the minutiae, the lessons that are present in a small community of any kind. There is something about the intensity of this world that's easier to write about than writing a story set in Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles. That's a different kind of complexity. And for me a small town is a manageable complex universe. You know you can get to know the people. But I've found even when writers write about a big city, they invariably write about a small community--whether it's just a household or the whole of Brooklyn.

Q: What's next?

A: I hope my novels are all connected, part of a whole, with one idea leading to another. So my next novel, You KNOW Better, is about our children, our young people. In it, I explore how are they living now, how they got to this point, and how we can best reclaim and love them.

Author Q&A

A Note from the Author

Dear Reader:

On my way to the airport while promoting my second novel, Ugly Ways, I said to my husband, Jonée, that I knew my next novel would be a passionate, erotic love story, something I had wanted to write since reading my mother's adult contemporary novels as a child. I knew the main character would be Lena McPherson, the eponymous main character from my first novel, Baby of the Family. But, I told him, I di dn't know whom she was going to fall in love with. Jonée gave me this incredulous look and said, "Now, who else would Lena fall in love with but a ghost"?

I had to laugh. Of course, that's who would be Lena's love: a ghost.

(In fact, for a while before I settled on The Hand I Fan With as the title, I called the novel "Lena's Love" for reference purposes.) How perfect, I thought, how appropriate for an American love story at the end of the twentieth century to be as tenuous, as ephemeral, as insubstantial as trying to love a ghost.

Herman--what a perfect name!--began materializing right then for me, almost as he came to Lena. For Lena, Herman was perfect--a ghost, a spirit, a vapor of a man who could do anything earthly and unearthly, become any substance, hone himself into any shape and not even break a sweat. As a ghost, he could be any age, have any experience, have lived as a man and a spirit, and learned a few things in the process.

Herman is indeed a prodigious presence in the novel. But Herman has already been around--alive and dead--some 139 years. He's got his stuff together. It is Lena who is still a pupil, still growing, still learning, still living.

But despite Herman's presence, The Hand I Fan With is and always was Lena's story.

In The Hand I Fan With it was important for me to explore the issue of how one lives as well as how one loves. Not what clothes we wear or what car we drive, but how we live a full life on this planet. How we live a spiritual life in the midst of plenty or in the midst of deprivation. How we reach the balance of duty to others and self-fulfillment. How attachment to things and fixing and doing saps us of the joy of living. How it is possible to be a mother without giving birth or without formal adoption.

For this is a woman's story of giving too much to others without thought for self. It is the story of how many of us women live our lives in a rush of accumulating and sacrificing.

For me, writing a novel is an organic thing. It is a natural process. I wanted the eroticism of Lena and Herman's relationship to grow out of their everyday lives, from the succulence of the vegetables they eat from their garden to the joy of putting their bare feet to the earth. I wanted Lena to rediscover her roots, her culture, her land, her self, her past. And Herman, who was a part of Lena's cultural past, is her loving guide on this journey.

Much of the novel evolved that way: One image, one thought, one revelation grew out of another. I felt at so many times in writing The Hand that I, too, was on a journey of self-realization. I could not write about Lena's inability to say "No" and not catch myself having the same problem. After writing the berry-picking scene in the book, I could not let blackberry season come and go without also marking the occasion.

A mighty flood did indeed sweep through the center of Georgia in the spring of 1994, leaving confusion, destruction and change in its wake. And I knew that Mulberry would have had to be affected by the deluge, too.

In dealing with the traditionally erotic, the sexual element of Lena's new life, I discovered I had to face my own issues of sexuality if I was going to spread Lena's "stuff" all over the page. This was my "stuff," too. My pussy was being put out there for discussion as well, and I figured my voice had better be clear and strong.

One reader said to me after finishing The Hand I Fan With, "I know this sounds strange, but I missed Lena and Herman so much, wondering what they were up to now, out by the river, that I went back and reread parts of the book just to spend some time with them again." I love ripping and running with Lena and Herman myself. They're good people to spend time with.

Some folks tell me they read the novel in one night! I tell them, "Hey, slow down!" If Lena doesn't teach us anything else, she ought to teach us that. Slow down, let it get dark sometime, let's use up some of what we've got first before heading to the store. Slow down and see how you can share some love. Slow down! Or as Herman would say, "Time, baby."

Love and Peace,

Tina McElroy Ansa

Praise

Praise

"Deliciously wise and wonderfully erotic."
--Dallas Morning News

"Superbly crafted...a tour de force."
--Los Angeles Times

"An absolutely delicious love story."
--Washington Post Book World

"Generous-hearted, funny, and engaging."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"Her most richly imagined novel to date."
--Emerge
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Bestselling author Tina McElroy Ansa is back with another tale from Mulberry, Georgia, the richly drawn fictional town and home of the extraordinary Lena McPherson. Lena, now forty-five and tired of being "the hand everyone fans with," has grown weary of shouldering the town's problems and wants to find a little love and companionship for herself. So she and a friend perform a supernatural ritual to conjure up a man for Lena. She gets one all right: a ghost named Herman who, though dead for one hundred years, is full of life and all man. His love changes Lena's life forever, satisfying as never before both her physical and spiritual needs. Filled with the same "humor, grace, and great respect for power of the particular" (The New York Times Book Review) as her previous critically acclaimed novels, Baby of the Family and Ugly Ways, The Hand I Fan With is yet another memorable and life-affirming tale from one of America's best-loved authors.

Discussion Guides

1. Lena McPherson seems to have it all--the latest car, a thriving business, beautiful clothes, community stature--and so many people who depend on her call her "the hand I fan with." Yet Lena's life is strangely empty. What clues to this emptiness does the author give?

2. Although Herman doesn't "appear" to Lena until Chapter 12, he makes his presence felt much earlier in the book. What did you think of some of Lena's unusual experiences in the earlier chapters? Did they prepare you for Herman's arrival?

3. Ansa's novel is filled with vivid writing about nature--the Cleer Flo' of the Ocawatchee River, Lena's extensive property, her horses, etc. How does Lena relate to the beauty around her in the beginning of the novel and by the novel's end?

4. Certain images abound in the novel, those of food, mules, and water (Cleer Flo', Lena's swimming pool, her shower, the goddess Oshun, the storm, etc.). What did the use of these images symbolize for you?

5. The novel also includes many references to music--from old standards to the blues, to pop music of the sixties and seventies, to Salt 'n' Pepa. Did the use of music in the book help you to feel the mood of the action? What else did the music convey?

6. What lessons does Herman teach Lena--as a lover, friend, guide? Do you think Lena would have "gotten it" without Herman?

7. Like many women her age, Lena has made her life's work "doing for others": the young people in downtown Mulberry, elderly women needing a ride to the store. When Lena has Herman in her life, all that changes. How does the author treat Lena's transformation and the townsfolk's reaction? Discuss the place of duty and service in a woman's life, a black woman's life, in everyone's life. Does Lena's service make her a "saint"?

8. The novel is highly erotic and also deeply spiritual. Discuss examples of each of these aspects. What do you think the author was trying to say by juxtaposing and blending the two in the novel?

9. The residents of Mulberry--Cliona from Yamacraw, Chiquita, Gloria, James Petersen--are a colorful group of characters as well as important people in Lena's life. Do they remind you of people in your own life? Does Lena's relationship with them echo familiar experiences?

10. The author uses some very erotic imagery in the novel--Li'l Sis, Lena's honeypot, Lena and Herman making love on tabletops or in a coinfield. What point do you think Ansa is making in these scenes? How did you react as a reader? Do you think Lena's pussy really sings? -

11. Were you surprised when Herman leaves Lena? Had the author left any clues in the book to forewam you? How did you feel when it actually happened? What experiences and revelations does it uncover for you?

12. The novel ends with Lena making a discovery that will change her life. What do you think the author has in mind for Lena?


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