This is the year for reading more diversely. A new friend of mine kindly lent me a copy of a book she highly recommended. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while now, patiently waiting its turn, and finally I decided the time was right.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou is a memoir of the author’s life from when she was little more than a toddler to when she was 17 years old. Set through the 1930s and 40s in the USA, Maya and her older brother Bailey are sent to live with their Southern grandmother in the state of Arkansas after their parents’ divorce. An awkward and sensitive child, Maya slowly grows accustomed to her grandmother’s strict ways and begins to fall in love with literature. Her grandmother is the owner of a general store and Maya’s family is shielded from the worst effects of the Depression. However, despite living in the black side of town, Maya is not totally shielded from the effects of the South’s persisting racism. When her father arrives out of the blue one day to take her and her brother back to California, Maya is forced to trade the security of living with her grandmother with the looming threat of racism for the relative freedom of life with her mother with far less protection from other kinds of danger.
It’s pretty easy to see why this is such an acclaimed book. Angelou is a beautiful writer and it’s hardly surprising that she’s also a renowned poet as well. I had to really re-examine my own stereotypes reading this book. A lot of African-American fiction and non-fiction that I have read previously is about poor, uneducated and marginalised black women and Maya is none of those things. In fact, for the most part, she’s just an ordinary girl with a relatively well-off family and a good education who has a couple of extraordinary things happen to her. There were some very interesting vignettes speckled throughout this book, however I have to admit I didn’t like it quite as much as I wanted to. Despite being a beautiful writer, and even taking into account the autobiographical format, this book felt like it was lacking a cohesive narrative. The handful of incredibly vivid events seemed as though they were linked together with a lot of mundane beige.
A historically and socially important work, Angelou’s memoir is richly and earnestly told. Some parts shine brighter than others but a worthy piece of African-American literature nonetheless.