One of the wonderful things about reading is that though you may finish a book, that does not necessitate it being finished with you. You come to recognise the times when they dig their paper hooks into your skin, come to be so familiar with it that you know even before the first page has slipped into you – you feel yourself tightening and expanding, contracting as you read it.
I have just finished the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and it is, without a doubt, one of those books.
It is an effortless read, a languorous swim in calm waters. I cannot, in this short space, convey just how incredible a feat that is – to take a life this rich, this complicated, and synthesise it so well. To tackle subject matters like rape, race, segregation, poverty, and not once waver into melodrama, yet never flinch from the hardships faced by a woman of colour growing up in the South in the 30s. The prose is, in a word, sturdy. One has the distinct sense of the writing being unyielding, filled with every bit as much resolution as Maya herself.
Her voice is warm and deep, or so it seemed to me. It is inviting, yet removed. Intimate, yet distant. If I was to have any complaint about this book it is that, if anything, Angelou writes with too much clarity. She is too serene – an eagle flying over the troubled browns and greens of her childhood, the peaks of her adolescence. Chaos is tamed, and while you bless the narrator for the rendered perfection of hindsight, you wish you had more of a chance to live in the moment, to feel the heat of the emotion, the tension of an ugly encounter, or wild joy of a liberty taken or indulged.
This is, however, as she was. Maya was, from the outset it seems, ever the flaneur – the watcher of the crowds, observing but always a little distant from the real action, so much so that even pregnancy is a thing that happens to her. She is as much surprised by it as we are, and it passes in a blur, in a barely ruffled wing-feather as she ghosts over her own landscapes. It is, however, true to life as far as my own experiences go. Everything pales in remembrance, can take on the simplicity of a cinematic scene casually narrated, and even the most traumatic experiences can seem like blips – no matter that, at the time, they had the likeness of eternity.
Here now are the last few lines that struck deeply:
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity…
The bright hours when the young rebelled against the descending sun had to give way to twenty-four-hour periods called ‘days’ that were named as well as numbered. (pg. 291)
I doubt anyone should require my own recommendation to read so celebrated a writer and poet, but let me add my voice to the chorus, however feeble, and suggest most emphatically that you read her work.
You will not be disappointed. It simply isn’t possible.