Monday, 17 August 2020

Yaa Gyasi, Anne Tyler and Maya Angelou

Not a lot of sewing got done this week!  :-(  I've run out of money to buy fabric or patterns unfortunately.  However I have worn these trousers at every opportunity - the beige twill ones, not the see-through cotton ones (phew!) - and I'm still thrilled with them.  

I have been reading though...

Home Going, by Yaa Gyasi.

The best thing about this book, I thought, was the sense of ancestry.  It’s the only book with a family tree in the front where I actually bothered to look at the family tree – repeatedly, with every new chapter; it was mesmerizing.  That might be just because I find family history appealing – it grounds people, gives them solidity – but also, it seems particularly poignant in relation to the dislocated, undocumented lives of those who suffered under the slave trade. To the characters in the book, the family tree is known on the African side and, unknown – or only partially-known – on the American side.  It’s hard to avoid thinking that, had they known it, their lives would have been better in some way – less lonely maybe.

Another interesting aspect of the book was the way it ties the slave trade, or certain parts of it, to the activities of particular African tribal groups.  There is a bit where a girl (his future wife) refuses to shake James’s hand, saying that she will not shake the hand of a slaver (p.96).  He is irritated, thinking that she herself must be either of the Asante, who captured slaves, or the Fante, who traded slaves to the British – either way, hardly above reproach.  Later on, in something that sounds like a moral, one of the characters says ‘Evil begets evil.  It grows.  It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.’ (p.242)  Of course, the Africans who sold slaves to the British has little idea of their fate, or the scope of what was to follow.

Whilst I found this interesting,  it was also one of the difficult aspects of the book – particularly in the beginning.  You have the unavoidable figure of the brutal, mercenary British slave trader – and that’s bad enough.  However, on the other side of the fence lies a community in which a jealous relative who hates you and has your father’s ear can sell you to strangers.  Somehow, for the young Effia and Esi, there didn’t seem to be much light in their future.

I thought Gyasi was a good storyteller: I found all her characters believeable.  I have read some reviews which suggest that she slips into stereotype at some points, but – perhaps I’m just not familiar with those stereotypes – this wasn’t a problem for me.  However, I thought her strength was stories rather than scenery.  There was little description of beautiful Africa; only the barest of descriptions of the plantations in America.  Notably, there are very few dates.  There is a reference at the beginning to the late eighteenth century, but beyond that it’s all rather woolly and imprecise.

The transatlantic crossing, the ships, the fear of water, are recurring themes in Gyasi’s story, but that crossing is another thing she avoids discussing directly.  Perhaps some things are too big to describe.  She does write about the women’s dungeon at the Cape Coast Castle and I’m not entirely sure it comes off.  Writing about such things is a tricky business: on the one hand, they must be made manifest and remembered; on the other, there is a risk of minimizing something by imagining it insufficiently.  I have never read any other attempt to describe the British confinement of slaves in Africa.  The nearest thing would be Primo Levi’s account of life in a Nazi concentration camp (which I did find terribly evocative).

At any rate, going back to Gyasi’s storytelling, and the absence of hope, the counterpoint to this was – again – the family tree; the reminder that life did go on, and if people didn’t make it through, their children still could.  There’s a terrible bit in the story of Kojo where his wife – who has all the ‘legitimate’ paperwork to prove her freedom – is kidnapped, presumably sent back to slavery in the South, abruptly disappearing from his life and those of their seven children.  She is pregnant at the time, and the next American chapter is about H, that child she was carrying.  Little more is said about his mother – the woman who was kidnapped – but despite her disappearance, she is a vital link in the family history.

Also of course, another thing to balance the absence of hope is the devotion and the love in a lot of the relationships here.  I’d hesitate to apply a fluffy word like ‘romantic’ to those relationships formed in desperate circumstances, but still, Gyasi’s view of heterosexual relationships is uncynical.

The ending was, not unsatisfactory, but it didn’t really have a lot of weight to it (the weight was in the process perhaps, not in the ending - so it's no spoiler to say what happens in the final pages).  The descendants of the two sisters at the beginning of the book unknowingly ‘find each other’ in America.  They travel to Ghana together, face their fears together, and then she gives him the stone necklace that has been passed down through seven generations of her family…  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I didn’t’ really understand this part.  If she’d known who he was, then maybe, but as far as I’m aware their familial link remained unknown to them.

Anyway.  I enjoyed the book.  It did not have the charm or lyricism of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but the storytelling carried it through.  The structure seemed experimental but, I thought, effective, and affecting.

Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler

I love Anne Tyler’s books and this was no exception – although the ending did give me a bit of a ‘what?’ moment, albeit not for implausibility.  This is a book about a woman with a big family, who becomes dissatisfied with her life, and – in a rather oddly accidental way – walks away from it all.  The book isn’t about the ‘mystery’ of her disappearance, as the blurb on the back makes it sound: she’s discovered fairly quickly.  Rather, the question is why she left and whether, in fact, she will actually choose to go back, as her family seem to expect.

This reminded me of all the things I enjoyed about other books of Tyler’s that I’ve read – although the setup is dramatic, in many ways the book is not.  It’s not a thriller of a book; it’s not fast-paced.  On the contrary, it’s contemplative.  There always seems to be a lot of breathing room in her books.  The heroines don’t spring into action or rush to make sudden decisions; they coast, they leave space for other people, they let things materialize ‘naturally’.  When I was younger, I think I would have found this terribly frustrating, but I don’t now.  I suppose Tyler’s protagonists have people depending on them; she writes very family-centred books, so strong, selfish individual decisions are often abandoned in the interests of family unity.  Having said that, they’re not completely selfless stories: the fact that, in this book, Tyler’s protagonist walks away in the first place, suggests that she has qualms about her family life.  The walking away I suppose, gives her a chance to explore that, and discover her own strengths beyond her family, to find out what kind of person she is without the prism of her family through which to see herself.

I like the fact that Tyler suggests romantic possibilities, then discards them.  It should be disappointing perhaps – if you’re looking for a ‘happily ever after’, as I probably was as a younger reader – but actually, the decisions are always quite practical.  In this story, as I said, I was initially slightly incredulous at the ending – but actually, the heroine turns her back on a rather vague, tenuous romantic connection – and a slightly more meaningful motherly relationship with a teenage boy (who has his own mother who loves him) – for her own children and long-held family bonds.  Presumably, she keeps the friends she made, during her ‘escapade’, and the sense of independence she gained from it.

I tend to find thrillers and potboilers overwhelming; the finer details almost always escape me.  There’s generally too many people, too much happening.  Tylers’s books are absorbing in the same way, but without that exhausting feeling.  I don’t share her apparent love for noisy, disorganized family life, but I appreciate her examination of it, and the way her characters often seem to take tentative, but ultimately abortive, steps away from it for a while, before finally deciding that family is what life is all about.

Mom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou.

I read the first five volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, then skipped the sixth and moved onto this, the seventh, because I was fascinated by her relationship with her mother (although I probably will go back and read the sixth: presumably that’s the one where she marries Germaine Greer’s ex). 

I really enjoyed her other books.  She struck me as… prickly and pugnacious, but honest and vibrant and funny and very, very talented.  The number of different jobs she worked – not just worked but aced – was phenomenal. 

In some ways though, the first volume of Angelou’s autobiography was a bit like Jeanette Winterton’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit: it’s slightly covert.  When she was very young, Angelou and her brother were sent to live with her father’s mother in Arkansas, where they stayed until they were in their teens.  In the middle of this, they go briefly back to California to stay with their mother, and Angelou is raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who is then murdered – then back they go to Arkansas, traumatised, to the safety of her grandmother (and, conversely, to the danger of the segregated American South).  All of this must surely have given her quite ambiguous feelings about her mother, but – as I remember it, at least – this doesn’t really come out in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  There, she speaks about her mother carefully, precisely, respectfully.  Mom & Me & Mom isn’t disrespectful, but it feels like a book that could only have been written after her mother died – when Angelou had the freedom to address awkward questions like, how did her mother explain sending her children away for years?  And, as she grew up, did Angelou never feel just the tiniest little bit angry at her mother for having blithely left her baby daughter in the care of a man who went on to abuse her?

But while there are some aspects of Vivian Baxter’s relationship with her children that I can’t imagine how they ever got over, she still comes across as an amazing woman.  Many of the bits I remember most vividly from Angelou’s autobiography concern her mother.  This book covers some of the same ground, but only briefly – I highly recommend you read the other volumes if you’re interested.

One of those vividly-remembered scenes is where Angelou meets her mother in a hotel in Fresno, where the colour bar has just been lifted, and ‘white hotels’ are now open to black people.  Angelou is terrified and sweating.  Her mother swans in in her fur coat and stilettoes (not usually a fan of fur coats – or stilettoes – but they certainly created the right impression here); she orders a drink in the bar, unconcernedly announces that they have reservations, collects their room keys, directs the bell boy to their luggage, tips him…  They shut the door of their room and she gently admonishes Angelou for showing her fear – people, like dogs, can smell fear.  She opens her handbag to show Angelou the gun she was carrying  the whole time.

There’s another scene which made me laugh, where Angelou is a teenager, and she reads The Well of Loneliness and starts to worry about her body and her sexuality and ‘oh my God, am I a lesbian?’  She goes into her mother’s bedroom one morning and broaches the topic and her mother starts to look leaden-faced and asks her if she has crabs.  Then, as Angelou continues her stuttering explanation, her mother's face suddenly clears and she tells her to bring her a beer and the medical dictionary.  At that point, Angelou knows everything’s alright because, if it had been serious, her mother would have been drinking scotch and water.  Her mother makes her read aloud from the book, then answers her questions.  (She was a registered nurse, as well as a licenced property realtor, owner of various drinking and gambling joints, and later in life, a merchant seaman.)  She seems to have been so very relaxed about sex – from such early awkward questions, to Angelou’s teenage pregnancy, to the time when Angelou dances in a strip club (‘Rita the Dancing Senorita’) and the two of them spent time trying to sew as many sequins as possible onto a g-string.

Anyway, I’m going off topic – that again, is a scene from another book, and only briefly mentioned here. 

Right at the end of the book, Angelou writes, ‘you were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult’ (p.195), which seems a fitting tribute – albeit with the proviso that she was at her best as a mother of a young woman.  Angelou’s brother, Bailey, loved his mother, but was never quite able to get over been abandoned at a young age – and, as Angelou put it, her mother ‘thought that since his father had not accepted the chance to teach, to guide his manhood, she would do it.  She didn’t consider that as a woman she could not possibly be a man, that as a mother she was unable to be a father.’ (p.184)

But Mom & Me & Mom – although as I said, I think it is better read as part of the set of her autobiographical books – is a wonderful book about a really strong, multi-talented, trailblazer of a woman. 

No comments: