When thinking about the next bookclub pick, I just couldn’t narrow it down any further than these two, so I chose both… but narrowly Mom & Me & Mom is my favourite, though it’s a tough call.
Maya Angelou is, to steal an almost-quote from one of her own poems, a PHENOMENAL woman. She wasn’t just a writer (poetry, memoirs, essays), she was a singer, dancer, civil rights activist… but she is perhaps best known for her series of seven autobiographies, of which the above two novels are volumes. The first in the series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells the story of her life up to the age of around 17 and is the book that brought her international acclaim.
Mom & Me & Mom (2013) is the last in the seven-book-series, focussing, unlike the other volumes, on Angelou’s relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, who is an incredibly powerful figure. It revisits many of the same anecdotes she relates in her previous books, with the first part, ‘Mom & Me‘ looking again, like Caged Bird, at Angelou’s early years (pre-17), and documents Angelou’s journey from distrust of her mother and initial resentement to acceptance, love and support – epitomised by Angelou switching from her first name for her mother ‘Lady’, to calling her ‘Mom’ after Baxter assists with the birth of Maya’s son Guy. Angelou chronicles the intense and unshakeable bond between them and Baxter’s vitality, along with their mutual support for each other, and tells the story of Baxter helping her navigate through single motherhood, work issues, a failed marriage, and career ups and downs.
Both books touch on Angelou’s sexual abuse as a child, and also deal with race, racism, womanhood, identity, family and travel.
I love Angelou’s writing for its immediacy and authenticity. There’s a frankness, freshness and honesty in everything she writes, and I think her autobiographies are so powerful because although they tell Angelou’s very personal story, for example growing up and living as a black woman in the American South, she connects those experiences to those of all black women, exploring wider themes of racism, sexism, and isolation.
Click here for Penguin Randomhouse suggestions for book club questions on I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Below are the LitLovers book club question suggestions for Mom & Me & Mom:
1. Maya says her mother was “irrestible.” What makes her so? How would you describe Vivian Baxter? What did you admire most about her? And what did you not admire?
2. How do you view Vivian’s decision to send her children to live with their father at such a young age? Why did it take her so long, even after the divorce, to call her children back to her?
3. Talk about Maya’s resentment of Vivian…and the halting path toward reconciliation that she followed. The Washington Post reviewer believes this process contains some of the best writing in the book. Do you agree…or not?
4. Discuss Maya’s brother Bailey and his easier path into his mother’s orbit. What can explain his later struggles with drugs?
5. What are some of the episodes in Maya’s life that particularly shocked you?
6. Talk about the society in which Maya grew up and the degree to which it was pervaded with racism. How have we changed…or have we?
7. Reviewers talk about the tone of optimism in this book—the fact that Angelou’s prose lacks bitterness. Do you agree? If so, why do you suppose that is? How has she been able to overcome a resentment that many of us would carry with us for years?
8. Mom and Me and Mom is the seventh book in Maya Angelou’s remarkable autobiographical series, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Have you read any other of the books in this series…or any of her books of poetry? If so, how does this book compare with the others? Can you identify elements of poetic writing in the prose style of this work?