A classic coming-of-age story
In this, the celebrated, bestselling first volume of her autobiography, Maya Angelou beautifully evokes her childhood with her grandmother in the American South of the 1930s.
She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother’s lover. As a black woman, Maya Angelou has known discrimination and extreme poverty, but also hope and joy, celebration and achievement; loving the world, she also knows its cruelty.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (AMAZON)
Dr Maya Angelou was one of the world’s most important writers and activists. Born 4 April 1928, she lived and chronicled an extraordinary life: rising from poverty, violence and racism, she became a renowned author, poet, playwright, civil rights’ activist – working with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – and memoirist. She wrote and performed a poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, for President Clinton on his inauguration; she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and was honoured by more than seventy universities throughout the world.
She first thrilled the world with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This was followed by six volumes of autobiography, the seventh and final volume, Mom & Me & Mom, published in 2013. She wrote three collections of essays; many volumes of poetry, including His Day is Done, a tribute to Nelson Mandela; and two cookbooks. She had a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University of North Carolina. Dr Angelou died on 28 May 2014.
We decided to read this in honour of Maya Angelou’s life, after she passed away. Despite being a relatively short book; we found quite a few different aspects to discuss, far too many to include here – I’ll try to make sure that I get the highlights here!
For many of us, this was a re-read. We agreed that this is a book best discovered during your adolescence. While it remains a tremendously crafted book; it didn’t quite have the same impact on us as adults. This is one of those rare works which allows articulation of some of the really negative aspects of growing up.
We all felt that it was powerfully written, even as some of us found certain topics and chapters deeply upsetting. The matter of My’s rape for example was repeatedly referred too; obviously because it had such a profound impact on the characters within the story. The responses to it read so realistically – it provoked an equally powerful response.
We found My to be a fascinating character. She is passionate, determined, focused and angry. She notes herself that her anger was seen as disproportionate by others within her community but she used it effectively to motivate herself despite adversity.
In the main we agreed that this was not a challenging read, language wise. Only one of us found it tough to get through; though they suspected that they are just not natural biography readers. For a few minutes we chatted about other authors such as Enid Blyton; Carolyn Keene and L.J. Smith.
We found it interesting that this is a fictionalised history, even more so as a few of us had read or were reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for another book club. That book is structurally very similar to this one. Both are coming of age stories, both demonstrate the effects of poverty, deprivation, sexism and racism. Both protagonists are let down by their fathers and come from families with determined women. Both find solace and hope through education and literature.
However, they cover different time frames and cultures. Perhaps the most important similarity is that both read as though they could be ‘true’; that these are real histories recorded by Betty Smith and Maya Angelou and attributed to one character rather than many.
The central themes of identity and racism seemed to hold particular relevance to the current conversations that are taking place across the globe and especially in the US. Naturally we had to chat about current affairs for a little while.
We discussed Mary and the taking away of her name as a method of dehumanising people. The relationship throughout this are well drawn, though we were particularly taken with that of the siblings. Their reactions to one another, their bond and their grief to being abandoned by both parents felt very realistic. Painfully so actually. I felt that there was an absence of female friendship, though others either didn’t agree or hadn’t noticed it. We did agree that this is a family story; which is probably why the emphasis is on family members rather than friendships.
This was also a notable book club because it marks the first LBC 3 Reads where we DIDN’T mention Benedict Cumberbatch; seemingly swapping our allegiance to Tom Hiddleston. I imagine the former will be gutted and that latter delighted to know it.
Oh and by pure coincidence, Cafe 164 had on a spotify playlist on that provided the perfect soundtrack to our conversation; coffee and cake. Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield (I think!).
Trailer for the 1979 film, co-written by Maya Angelou