Author Alison Mills Newman in Atlanta on March 15. Her autobiographical novel, “Francisco,” is being re-released after decades being out of print. (Sydney A. Foster)

To re-release her 1974 novel, she had to make peace with her younger self

Alison Mills Newman’s innovative ‘Francisco’ is back on shelves, but it almost wasn’t: ‘It was a very tender decision for me’

9 min

Alison Mills Newman can’t remember exactly what she was doing that day in Berkeley, Calif. — it was so long ago, the early 1970s — when her novel got discovered for the first time. She knows she’d been writing in the kitchen but got distracted and left. When she got back, her boyfriend was talking with their friend, the writer Ishmael Reed. Reed had been leafing through the pages Newman had left on the table.

The manuscript drew on her life story so far: As a teen actress, she’d found success at an early age, including roles on “The Leslie Uggams Show” and Diahann Carroll’s pioneering sitcom “Julia.” “I was very detailed, very focused, disciplined,” Mills Newman said. But by her early 20s, she got fed up with Hollywood — with its limited roles, the sexual advances of producers — and abandoned it for New York. There she found an artistic scene that had more space for her varied talents, and for the talent of Black women in general. She wrote poetry, acted in Amiri Baraka’s theater and, as a singer, opened for Ornette Coleman. And, centrally for the eventual manuscript, she went on a trip to Berkeley and fell in love with a filmmaker. The book on the table, published as a novel in 1974, was ultimately named after him: “Francisco.”

In those years, she finally felt free to just live. “There were a lot of child stars from that time who didn’t live to be 30. As a young teenager, it’s a very high frequency to exist on, and especially as an African American young kid, there’s so much expectation,” she said. “During this time I wasn’t really active. I loved being a supporting player, I guess you might put it, in the life of Francisco.” Mills Newman wrote in spare moments — while riding in the passenger’s seat or when she would wake suddenly in the middle of the night — without any conscious goal. “It was my way of connecting to and keeping my art alive.”

“Francisco,” recently reissued by New Directions, told the couple’s story in dreamy episodes, a fragmented monologue. It hopscotched from coast to coast, from bohemia to domesticity. The narration rolled from private thought to intellectual squabbles to excitable, overlapping exchanges between new lovers: “we talked about revolutionists. i hate revolutionists. i’m tired of all that who shot john. they all turn out to be movie stars in this country anyway.” The melody of the prose had a kinship with the warbling, meandering songs Newman was writing at the time.

“I’d never read anything like it,” Reed said in a recent phone conversation. He and two fellow writers, Steve Cannon and Joe Johnson, got together about $1,500 to publish around 1,000 copies, by Reed’s estimate. “Francisco” was the first project of their independent publishing house, devoted to what he called “multicultural literature.”

“Francisco” went out into the world, and then over the years — despite the blurbs from Toni Morrison and William Demby, and notices in Publishers Weekly and the New York Times — it disappeared, going out of print for decades.

“This was a small, eccentric novel from an independent black publisher on the West Coast at a time when literary publishing was centered in New York,” Harryette Mullen, a poet and English professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote in an email exchange. “Decades before the internet, regional divisions were more entrenched and difficult to overcome.”

Jeffrey Yang, an editor at New Directions, learned about “Francisco” in an article written by Mullen. He tried to find a copy but had no luck, which only intensified his curiosity, he said. In March 2021, he wrote to Mills Newman, who mailed him a photocopy. It had a few pages missing, but “I was really floored,” Yang said. “It seemed like a stream of consciousness, but it is very well structured — almost like a really great musician, improvising.” At the time Yang got in touch, Mills Newman said, she was “just living my art-life, which means loving God and loving people.”

When “Francisco” first appeared, “you know, Black novels were pretty conservative,” Reed said. “And when you judge this novel by some of the novels of the past — this is pretty out there. She takes a lot of chances.”

That was true of the book’s content, especially its sexual frankness, as well as its unusual form: “Francisco” is a freely lustful text, rhapsodizing over the allure of the narrator’s new man (a “black adonis in shorts”), from the thoughts in his head to his high-heeled blue shoes.

But the novel also confounded expectations in other ways: “It did not represent a black majority experience, nor did it offer a cathartic spectacle of black abjection under white oppression,” Mullen said. “It centers the experience of a privileged young black woman, but it is not an unwaveringly feminist book, either.” The gender dynamics sat uneasily with some readers — especially the main character’s fierce commitment to her partner’s art while her own pursuits drift in and out of focus.

“The mainstream at that time, I don’t think, was ready for that book,” Mills Newman said, adding with a mischievous smile: “I think the mainstream in a way wasn’t ready for me and Francisco.”

For all the mainstream knew, in the intervening decades, Mills Newman had disappeared. Morrison once told Mills Newman that she had a promising future as a writer, but she didn’t pursue that or really any career — at least not in a deliberate sense. She and Francisco became devout Christians and married. Being a stay-at-home mom to their five children became her main vocation. “It’s treacherous to be raised in America as a Black child,” she said. “You bring these beautiful children into the world, and you know what they’re up against.”

Mills Newman wrote daily, which eventually yielded a second book, “Maggie 3,” also published by Reed. It didn’t fare as well. (“It was all about her Christian experience,” Reed said, “and I think what people like is sin.”) Mills Newman always had some project going — a single to release, a movie to produce — a swirl of activity that continues today: Between spending time with her grandchildren and ministering in prisons, she paints and recently acted in “Cherish the Day,” an anthology TV series produced by Ava DuVernay.

Mills Newman’s excitement at Yang’s interest in her work quickly gave way to ambivalence as he raised the prospect of republishing it. She felt torn about the novel and about it circulating among a newer, possibly larger audience. She struggled with its casual profanity and its portrayal of what she thought of, in retrospect, as “fornication.”

Asked if Mills Newman had wanted to revise the book, Yang said, “Oh, God, yes,” and then continued: “I mean, it’s a masterpiece, how it is. [But] I didn’t want to say to the author, ‘No, you can’t do this.’” But once you started with such edits, he wondered, where would they end?

The two kept exchanging emails. Mills Newman wavered about the project and what form it might take. Maybe she could find some alternative for the f-word, swap out another expletive and just use “mess.” Eventually, she went to Florida and sat on the beach. (“the ocean is an old friend,” she writes in “Francisco.”) She let God talk to her, she said. She thought about Paul before he gave himself to Christ and how Peter, too, had used profanity before he was renewed. She thought of the girl she had been — and that girl’s fight to protect her life, “her wholeness,” from exploitation: “I wanted to respect her, and what it was to be 20, 21. I didn’t want to censor her.” Mills Newman said to herself: Okay.

“It was a very tender decision for me,” she said. “And I hope and pray I made the right decision to let her be.”

She still seems protective of the self who wrote and is portrayed in “Francisco.” She’s concerned, for example, that people may overemphasize the sexual content while missing the other aspects of the couple’s intimacy. She sounds stung by some readers’ descriptions of the narrator as idle and self-sacrificing. The book, she pointed out, records her activities as a producer — seeking out funders, setting up meetings with key players. In conversation, she emphasizes, “I never abandoned myself, and I never abandoned my art.” (She followed up over email: “Never.”)

Audiences first encountering “Francisco” today may find it as elusive as ever. The new material bookending the novel only amplifies its contradictions. A foreword by Saidiya Hartman offers an academic feminist reading of the text as a clash between Black male genius and female muse. (Mills Newman doesn’t identify as a feminist, she wrote over email: “im not sure about isms. im not sure about those identities. i prefer to agree where i agree and disagree where i disagree without labels.”) On the other side, there’s Mills Newman’s disarmingly straightforward postscript, which she added as the only major revision to the book. It reads, in part: “francisco made peace with Yeshua, repented of his sins, befriended humble righteousness and came looking for me requesting marriage.”

The original novel leaves us with the image of the narrator alone: “i mean i woke up at eleven this mornin, after layin round rollin round, tossin and turnin round with this friend of mine. me.” The new final pages seem mostly concerned with telling the reader about what happened to the real-life Francisco — his preaching, his movies, how he changed diapers and cooked fried fish. The book’s last line has become: “We were married till death do you part.”

This newly added act of devotion testifies to a fundamental fact: It’s Mills Newman who has the last word.