[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Angelou continues to astound in The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume in her series of six autobiographies. Skipping forward eagerly in time, Heart is set over the course of roughly five years and picks up a few years after its predecessor Singin' and Swingin' and Getting' Merry Like Christmas.

As with the other books in the series there is only the loosest sense of a plot. However what gives the novel coherence is Angelou's observations on motherhood and her continual struggle to take care of her son, Guy, even as he develops into a strong, independent young man. Angelou notes that in the world at large she, as a black woman in the sixties, has little authority and worries that her son will absorb that message and gradually lose respect for her. As part of her effort to reclaim some authority she finds herself becoming involved in the civil rights movement, working for Martin Luther King jr's organization, the SCLC, and marrying a South African freedom fighter who is enamoured of her passion for activism and yet wants to turn her into a subservient wife. 

While this book finds Angelou mostly abandoning the theatrical world for the political one, there is still no end to the charming anecdotes of stars and other notable personalities that Angelou encountered throughout her life. Billie Holiday, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Martin Luther King jr are a few names mentioned, along with Pulitzer prize winner John Oliver Killens who is the first to encourage Angelou to write. With Killens as her mentor, Angelou joined the now legendary Harlem Writers Guild and in The Heart of a Woman records her first weak attempts at writing and her joy at her first publication in a no-name journal in Cuba. At last, four volumes in, we are able to witness Angelou's first steps on a road that will take her to literary stardom. 
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is a compulsively good read. Like Angelou's previous two biographies it's not very long, but the enthusiasm with which Angelou relates her experiences makes it seem even shorter. While her other biographies deal with childhood and her early steps towards independence, Angelou emerges here as a full-fledged adult become more confident with herself and the world around her.

The book covers two major themes, the first being Angelou's beginnings in show business. After her first marriage fails (the courtship, marriage and its dissolution are covered in a brisk few pages) Angelou takes a job as a dancer in a strip club. Her dances catch the attention of some white night club singers who help her begin a career as a nightclub singer which becomes a launching pad for her career as an actress and dancer. At last the Marguerite Johnson of the two previous memoirs transforms into Maya Angelou. A role in the renowned opera Porgy and Bess opens the world up to Angelou literally as well as metaphorically as the opera's tour allows her to visit Europe and parts of North Africa.

Wound inseparably into the narrative is Angelou's observations about what it is like to operate as a strong-minded independent black woman in America in the fifties. Segregation meant that her previous experiences with white people had been infrequent and hostile, but as she begins to travel in different circles her experiences with white people become more frequent and complex. Her family reacts badly when she marries a white man. Her white friends still have the power to unexpectedly wound her with a thoughtless comment and Angelou feels that power imbalance keenly. Her tour across Europe is also incredibly revealing to Angelou as she and the members of her company are often the first black people that people have seen in real life. The questions and stares give way to both painful moments and beautiful ones all of which Angelou recollects with grace and good humour.
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Maya Angelou is best known for her first autobiography, the groundbreaking I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which chronicles her early childhood before breaking off abruptly when she's seventeen. Gather Together in My Name picks up a short while after her last book broke off and chronicles Maya's early forays into adulthood. 

I enjoyed Gather Together in My Name a great deal more than its predecessor. The work has received criticism for its looser structure; Marguerite stumbles in and out of jobs with regularity and falls in and out of love with men at the drop of the hat. This doesn't provide for a great, over-arching narrative, but then life seldom does, and this chaotic period of Maya Angelou's life (from about 17 to 19) seems to demand a less formal structure. 

Angelou was purportedly hesitant to write about this period in her life and after reading the book it's easy to see why. Already a young mother at this point in her life, Angelou also spent this time period making forays into prostitution, both as prostitute and pimp, while remaining stunningly naive about the world around her and her own actions. Some of the most powerful moments of the book can be found in these passages; Angelou is at her best when she is speaking from the voice of teenage Marguerite, outlining her own beliefs and showing the reader how a headstrong girl who believed she was jaded and world-weary was repeatedly fooled by her own naiveté. However, Angelou was writing this at a point in her life where she was no longer a naive spirited girl, but a savvy woman and the voice of that woman occasionally emerges, to the book's detriment. In an early scene Marguerite goes to the home of a lesbian couple simply to show how laissez-faire and grown up she is. As the two begin to kiss in front of her Marguerite is overcome with revulsion and disgust, which Angelou promptly excuses as the bias and hatred of an ignorant girl repeating the prejudices of the world around her. The authorial intrusion is a rare mis-step in a work that is fearless in its refusal to apologize for its narrator. 
[identity profile] emma-in-oz.livejournal.com
Cathy Freeman, Born to Run: My Story (2007)

I picked this up at the library because it was a prominently displayed book by an Aboriginal author in the children's section. I've picked up quite a few that way - I believe the librarians must deliberately highlight them, which is nice.

This autobiography won the West Australian Young Readers Book Award in 2008. It's aimed at primary school students and would, I imagine, be quite accessible for any sporty kid.

For the benefit of non-Australians, Cathy Freeman is an Olympic winning runner and the person who lit the Olympic torch in 2000. Naturally what she talks about is her training, her racing and her life. She seems to have been incredibly happy all her life with a wonderful Mum, great step-Dad and inspirational coaches. I vaguely remember some kind of hoo-ha at the Olympics because she did a victory lap with both Aboriginal and Australian flags but that is not really touched on, as her focus is on how she achieved her goals.
[identity profile] emma-in-oz.livejournal.com
Sally Morgan, My Place (1987)

This is the one work of Aboriginal writing that every leftish bookshelf holds. It must be the only consistent seller from the marginal Fremantle Arts Centre Press. I’ve seen it in multiple editions - illustrated, edited down for children, split into multiple volumes.

There’s a reason for this - it’s incredibly well written. It isn’t just that her life story is fascinating, though it is. As she says, Aboriginal voices haven’t been heard much in Australian history. It’s also so beautifully paced, with startlingly clear imagery.

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