BY TARAH CHILDES
Maya Angelou is a veritable autobiography machine with over seven titles under her belt, most notable of which remains her 1969 publication, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. The pages in this, her most recent memoir, will be familiar to fans of her past works, but this time, Angelou focuses her lens on her mother, Vivian Baxter, and the hard won, but indestructible bond she slowly formed with her.
Maya was initially daunted by her mother, having only come to live with her at the age of thirteen, after she and her brother were sent away from their grandmother in Arkansas, following a rise in incidences of black lynching. Seeing Vivian for the first time, Maya recalls “a pretty little woman with red lips and high heels” and decided that they couldn’t be related. “That woman who looked like a movie star deserved a better-looking daughter than me,” she writes. However, Vivian’s patience and fierce, if unconventional, love for her daughter, persevered throughout Maya’s difficult teenage years (in which she was raped and impregnated at the age of seventeen). Their relationship solidified into arguably the most solid one of Angelou’s life, and it was characterised by mutual support and reverence for one another.
Angelou recounts how it was her mother who encouraged her to land her first job as the first African-American female streetcar conductor, and remained her constant adviser and friend throughout her various careers and marriages, a few ugly incidences of rape and violence, and triumph in the areas of civil rights and her writing. She credits Vivian for her influencing her own tenacious steeliness and perseverance, remembering the advice she gave her — “Trust your brain to suggest a solution, then have the courage to follow through.”
Readers may find the lack of chronology and apparent contradictions to her other work frustrating, but those familiar with Angelou’s style of writing will know that she has always diverged from the notion of the autobiography as truth, and rather places herself in the area of autobiographical fiction. One may even conclude that the book’s seemingly erratic form, a patchwork quilt of individual stories, even mimics memory itself, a fuzzy thing that is often changeable and largely inconsistent.
Maya Angelou’s style of writing lends itself perfectly to writing about her mother, in a way that is both straightforward and forgiving, imbibing the character of Vivian Baxter with a larger-than-life quality.
Mom & Me & Mom is published by Virago, R220, and has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.