Novelist, journalist, essayist, and short-story writer Tina McElroy Ansa was born in Macon on November 18, 1949. Macon and its historic African American Pleasant Hill district serve as a model for the fictional town of Mulberry, the setting of her first four novels.
After graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1971, Ansa began work as editor and writer for the Atlanta Constitution and later the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. Since 1982 she has been a freelance writer with work appearing in magazines, newspapers, short-story collections, and nonfiction anthologies. She also contributed the essays “Postcards from Georgia” to the television series CBS News Sunday Morning and has taught writing workshops at Spelman, Brunswick College (later College of Coastal Georgia), and Emory University. In 1978 she married Jonée Ansa and moved to St. Simons Island.
Ansa’s profound sense of place, strong characters, lively communities, and vivid images appeal to a variety of readers. Sharply contrasting the realistic particulars, however, are ghosts that play crucial roles in her stories. They provide charmed, informative, and often healing inner lives for characters otherwise caught up with ties to family, community, and material possessions. Baby of the Family (1989) revolves around a child, Lena McPherson, born with a caul, the membrane that surrounds a fetus and sometimes covers a baby’s head at birth. A nurse recognizes the sign, according to folklore, of a child with extraordinary spiritual powers, including the ability to see ghosts. The unfolding of this gift is traumatic, and Lena learns to keep her visions private. As she grows up, a series of spirits, including an enslaved woman named Rachel and her grandmother who dies during the story, teach Lena about love and the search for self.
In Ansa’s second novel, Ugly Ways (1993), three sisters return to Mulberry for their mother’s funeral. She had withdrawn from the family when the children were young, leaving them to fend for themselves physically and emotionally. As they reminisce, the mother’s ghost defends herself against their resentments. She makes clear that her decision to live for herself has led her daughters to develop self-sufficiency and, in turn, a sense of their own isolation.
Ansa’s third novel, The Hand I Fan With (1996), again concerns Lena McPherson, now forty-five, a successful café owner with a “dark copper-colored 450 SLK Mercedes,” fashionable wardrobe, and other valuable possessions. She is nevertheless agitated, unsatisfied, and lonely because her ability to read minds makes romance difficult and also because her success entails relentless obligations. She conjures a ghost, Herman, who becomes the love of her life but soon withdraws as a physical presence. Through the experience, however, Lena learns to forgive others as well as herself and to take pleasure rather than anger from her dealings with the world.
You Know Better (2002), Ansa’s fourth novel, follows three generations of the Pines women, focusing in particular on children’s issues in the twenty-first century.
Critical reaction to Ansa’s writings has been favorable. Baby of the Family was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and also won the Georgia Authors Series Award. Ugly Ways was named “best fiction” by the African American Blackboard List in 1994 and 1995, and The Hand I Fan With also won the Georgia Authors Series Award, making Ansa the only two-time winner of the award. In 2005 Ansa received the Stanley W. Lindberg Award (named for longtime Georgia Review editor Stanley Lindberg), which honors a lifetime of significant contributions to Georgia’s literary culture.