Week 3, Book 3: Gather Together In My Name
Gather Together In My Name by Maya Angelou
4 stars out of 5 on Goodreads
Posting a day late, but I had very lazy Saturday followed by a night out!
Unlike the previous two books I have read this year, this one is not a work of fiction. It’s the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series. The first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is probably much more well-known. I read Caged Bird in high school, so the memory of that book is a few years distant now. (It still seems so odd to think of high school as something that happened two+ years ago. Hell, I turn twenty this year which is just baffling! But I digress.)
Over the winter holidays I was back in my hometown staying with my parents for a few weeks and just before I left in early January I decided to pay the local used bookstore a visit. My original purpose was to find a used copy of The Silmarillion, but as I mention in last week’s post I was unsuccessful in that. I did manage to acquire, however, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and The Crown, along with this book, Gather.
Now, I’ll freely admit it: until I had to read Caged Bird in high school, I had never heard of Maya Angelou before in my life. Even now, I really don’t know all that much about her – although I did finally take the initiative to go read her Wikipedia page. Her fame and importance seems to stem from her series of autobiographical books, with Angelou being one of the first African-American women to tell her story in such a way. She also has had what seems to be a certain prominence and importance in the civil rights movement and so forth.
I hate reducing books down to “themes”. It reminds me far too much of high school English class. But the ‘themes’ in Caged Bird are often talked about as being family, identity, and racism. Those same themes carry over into Gather.
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This is a Black woman telling her life’s story. Surely anyone’s life story would be said to consist of a ‘theme’ of identity. Or perhaps that wouldn’t be of relevance to the Standard White Man (i.e. Cis, straight, able-bodied, Christian…). But it certainly is to anyone else. And the same goes for family: I fail to see how anyone’s life could avoid dealing with, as a ‘theme’, family. Whether you have one or not, if you are going to tell a faithful, honest recounting of your life (which for all intents and purposes Maya Angelou’s seems to be), there is going to be something to do with family.
But the ‘theme’ of racism… this is what really bothers me about speaking of ‘themes’, especially in regards to an autobiographical work. To call something a theme implies that it is a topic that could have been left out, or dealt with differently. To call the racism that, as a Black woman, she often has cause to refer to in the book a ‘theme’ is possibly a fallacy. She couldn’t have left out the references to, problems of, and interactions with racism any more than she could have changed her skin colour. It was a part of her everyday life.
True, because of the almost fictionalized way in which she wrote the book, Angelou could place emphasis on different events, different parts of her life. But. Perhaps I’m just talking out of my ass. It happens.
Anyway! The book itself. I can’t say whether I enjoyed it more or less than Caged Bird. I had gone into Caged Bird actively disinterested and been startled into enjoying it immensely. So reading Gather I already had some idea of what to expect, and I was predisposed to like it.
The prose is neat and elegant, and the book itself makes for a very smooth read. Though it doesn’t deal with easy subjects, it made for fascinating light reading over the past week. But then, I’ve been reading a lot of academic journals, too! I was very impressed that Angelou managed to give the book a definite start and finish, and that she wrote it in such a way that it reads like fiction while retaining a certain blunt honesty that one would not be quite so likely to find in fiction.
As with Caged Bird, Angelou definitely doesn’t shy away from tough or potentially controversial or taboo subjects. She treats with them, instead, face-on and with a certain… well, to steal a bit from the reviews dotting the back cover of my copy, with a certain dignity. Gather is, I feel, a more mature book than Caged Bird, in some ways, though its hard to say if that’s because Angelou’s own self in it is older, Angelou wrote it when she was older, or because I’m older, myself.
I’d recommend the book to basically everyone but especially writers – it isn’t the least bit tedious and there is something very enlightening to be found in the exploration of another human’s psyche and past as they understand it, and especially one such exploration written so very well. Not to mention, being such a personal book, it allows for a deeper insight into the lives of Black women and Black people in the time periods and places covered than any White person, newspaper article, or statistics report could ever provide. So any White person who fancies themselves an anti-racist ally would do well to read it. And then, of course, there is the fact that it is a wonderful, engaging story!
I haven’t started Week 4’s book yet, though I have picked up the Nov/Dec 2011 copy of Science Fiction & Fantasy the magazine-type thing that is full of short stories, novellas, and book reviews and the like. I’m just reading it in snatches on the bus and before class – it’s going to be my back-up book, I think! But I hope to read, for this week, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. It is technically a reread but it has been over 5 years, per my rules! I loved it then, and have often thought about it since, so I’m looking forward to it!
Fair winds and far horizons,