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In Kim McLarin’s essays on ‘tough’ subjects, readers see themselves

Kim McLarin signs “Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life.”
Erin Clark / Globe Staff
Kim McLarin signs “Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life.”

Kim McLarin has always been a writer, but the past two decades have seen an evolution in her work — from staff writer with the New York Times and the Associated Press to novelist to memoirist and, most recently, to essayist.

“I deal with some tough and controversial subjects,” said the Milton resident, whose second essay collection, “Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life,” was published in early 2019. “Depression, online dating for black women of a certain age, mass incarceration and its effects on the black family, relationships between black women and white women.”

The common theme is maturity.Growing older is not the same as growing up,” said McLarin, who is 55. “Being a woman is an accomplishment. It means you’ve obtained wisdom and insight, that is your responsibility to try to share with other people.”

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After publishing three novels, “Taming It Down” (1999), “Meeting of the Waters” (2001), and “Jump at the Sun” (2006), McLarin imagined that fiction would always be her milieu. “I believe in the power of fiction,” she said. “Great novels create a more thoughtful, more empathetic, more coherent society. Fiction can teach us great truths.”

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It’s a discussion she frequently has with her students at Emerson College, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing. “People tell me they don’t read fiction because it’s not true. But that’s wrong. Fiction isn’t real. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. There’s far more truth to be found in the words of Toni Morrison or Ernest Hemingway than in reality TV.”

But as she reached middle age, McLarin found herself increasingly drawn to the essay format. “I’m in my fifties. I don’t know whether it’s my age or the time period we’re living in, which feels very fraught and dangerous, but it feels more urgent to write nonfiction right now,” she said.

Over the course of the past year, McLarin has done numerous speaking engagements and frequently faces audiences who are both impressed and surprised by her candor about personal subjects. In her view, however, the fact that the topic of an essay might be divorce or dating or depression does not mean she is revealing any secrets.

“I definitely write from my experience, but I believe the job of the artist is to write through her own experience to a higher universal experience,” she reflected. “Even though I might be writing about online dating, I’m still structuring the narrative to make a larger point. This is a sliver of me, a version of me, but not me.”

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And indeed, McLarin finds that her most successful essays may seem to be more about the reader than the author. An essay she wrote about depression inspired numerous readers to offer their personal appreciation.

“People say to me, ‘Thank you for writing this, because I cannot talk about it myself.’ One woman said she was going to give it to her husband to read, because he didn’t understand her struggle. And that’s why I do it. In the end, it’s not about me. It’s about what it means to be human.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.