“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”*
While I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (a book, you may remember, I decided to read after coming across another blogger‘s eulogy to Marquez) Maya Angelou died. So, I thought, what better to tackle next than Angelou’s famous memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I was only forty years later than the rest of the world – it was published in 1969 to critical acclaim.
Frankly, I had been avoiding it. I’d written it off as another self-help book, of the ilk that preach: I overcame my pain, you can too. Some people find such books inspiring. These days I find them, well, tiring. I look for something that takes me beyond the self-serving, beyond the all too often unquestioned ethic of striving towards success – whatever that might be – to something that helps me grapple with the business of being.
If reading Marquez was like a slow-slip event then reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was like plunging into the Pacific from the Napier foreshore. The water is best described as “invigorating”. The cold can leave you gasping for breath. From the first page Angelou plunged me in to her life.
The book opens with a Church scene. It’s Easter. Maya is young, three or four maybe, in her Sunday best, a dress of lavender taffeta cut down from a white lady’s cast-off. She has a poem to recite and she stumbles on the second line. Angelou writes : “I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember”. From that sentence I, a mature white woman with short, chunky, ghostly white legs, am there with Maya, the girl. And my legs are long and skinny and black and rubbed with vaseline and I’m struggling to breathe out the shame. A writer who can manage that(!) is a great writer.
The thing about Napier beach is that it’s shingle. And it’s known for rogue waves. The rule is never, ever turn your back on the ocean. One of those waves can bowl you off your feet, drag you over the shingle, fill your togs with grit and scrape away your skin. They can and do kill. Angelou’s account of the rape is like that. Her readers know she survives. At the time it happened Maya could not know the outcome. She describes the rape and it’s aftermath with an unflinching eye which leaves you raw with the horror of it but in doing so she gifts her readers with the truth. It doesn’t surprise me that she wrote this book with a bottle of sherry nearby.
Equally, there were moments when it was as if we had made it out past the breakers together, where it was possible to let the writing buoy me. Such as when I savoured along with Maya the vanilla scented front room of Mrs Flowers. Those crisp tea cakes melted in my mouth, too, as Maya heard for the first time the delight of spoken poetry and took her first steps towards healing.
In the very last scene of the book, Maya at sixteen, is the mother of a three-week old baby. She is terrified of getting it wrong, of somehow doing damage to her baby. Her own mother shows her that she has, without realising it, risen to the job.
In an interview with The Washington Post Angelou said: “I’m really very lucky because those difficulties I’ve had have knocked those blinders off my eyes and given me peripheral vision. I’m a romanticist, but I’m also a realist.” I like that. It’s what I value most highly – a writer with an unflinching gaze. I’ll always pass on the saccharine in favour of reality. But give it to me the way Maya Angelou does. With hope and the love of life undiminished.
Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings? Did it sing to you?