I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Publisher: Random House
Source: Wasatch County Library
First things first: this is not your ordinary autobiography. In fact, the term “autobiography” doesn’t even cross your mind as you’re reading. You won’t find any dates, quotes, or pictures. Rather, you’ll read superlatively written accounts of notable scenes from Angelou’s childhood.
If I had to pick an adjective to describe this piece, I’d say reflective. Which makes me think about an essay I read in a college creative writing class. This mature writer argued that young people didn’t have the experience, or rather the distance from experiences, to convincingly write reflectively. I’ve always wondered about the validity of that argument. What do you think?
Summary in a Sentence
Maya Angelou shares defining experiences, lessons learnt, and relationships from her childhood spent in Stamps, Arkansas with her grandmother (“Momma”) and beloved brother Bailey and later in St. Louis and California with her biological parents.
Just So You Know
Angelou isn’t shy about difficult topics such as rape, profanity, crime, sexual orientation, racial prejudice, promiscuity, or alcohol but her method of presenting them is rather tame. I feel like a mature teen could read this book.
A few examples . . . The most disturbing scene depicts young Maya being raped by her mother’s boyfriend; the main focus of the passage is the girl’s pain and confusion. Also, as a coming of age story this book addresses Angelou’s curiosity about her changing body.
What a Writer can learn
Angelou is a talented story-teller who writes about a life (which is at times mundane) in a way that’s worth reading. It makes me wonder what she could do with my life. Reading this can help aspiring writers see that any story could become a masterpiece with the proper skills and creativity. As always, Angelou’s language is beautiful, poetic, profound, and fresh.
Also, she wins at least honorable mention, if not top 3, for one of the most intriguing, lovely titles I’ve encountered.
Read This If. . .
If you’re interested in African-American culture and more specifically African-American women writers like I am then you’ll love this one! As she tells about her upbringing in the South, Angelou reveals many underlying values of her culture and what life is like as a teenage African-American girl. She’s aware of how she’s perceived and how she (and others) defines “her people,” for instance. Similar books include Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mama Day, The Women of Brewster Place, and Paradise (all the above are favorites of mine).
A Few More Thoughts
I applaud the spot where Angelou choose to end her story; her childhood ended when she became a mother. However, I think the writing in the last chapter was the poorest section of the book. It felt like she was out of time or energy and just rushed to finish it by a deadline.
The bulk of the book contains stimulating writing. There are so many striking phrases and ideas but here are some of the most memorable:
“I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.”
“Their remarks and responses were like a Ping-Pong game with each volley clearing the net and flying back to the opposition. The sense of what they were saying became lost, and only the exercise remained.”
“[San Francisco] became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness.”