Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reader's Diary #543- Maya Angelou: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I had figured that I'd probably not like Maya Angelou's writing. In hindsight, I must have had some sort of snobbery against critics, since they all seem to like it. Like, "Oh yeah? Let's see if she's really all that great."

Turns out, she is. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is beautifully written-- even when she writes about things that aren't beautiful. She's also not as serious as you might think. Yes she deals with race, rape, and religion, but there are some genuinely funny moments as well. She doesn't present herself as perfect, but as a very genuine, down-to-Earth girl. Yet, I don't believe her.

I believe the big facts within the story for sure. But I question the little details and some of her thoughts. I have a difficult time with this and every memoir; believing, or trusting, anyone's childhood memories when they are overly specific. Who remembers their childhood this vividly? Surely much of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is adult Angelou surmising how she must have felt on any given day, surely some of this is a composite of scant memories, passed-down stories, and conjecture.

Whereas I'd normally I'd fault memoirs for that sort of thing, the writing is so wonderful I hardly care. It reads more like a novel, but-- and I know this phrase will probably make you gag- I trust its essence of truth.


Wanda said...

"Who remembers their childhood this vividly?"
Depends on the childhood, I guess.

Not gaging but I am laughing and I do trust that this one is a worthwhile read.

Allison said...

I agree with Wanda, really depends on the childhood. Also, some are just better at remembering? I have a very vivid memory, curse and a blessing.

I haven't read much of her work, but I remember feeling like you did before I picked it up.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Maybe the narrative form is what's throwing me off. My own memories are more episodic than that.

Allison: Not me. Sometimes I can't even remember where I was going with the garlic powder.

Unknown said...

I know what you mean about the essence of truth. I think that's what one can reasonable expect with a memoir, childhood or not. Memory is just too tricky a thing to trust without some sort of documentation. The sort of documentation a good historian or biographer insists on.

I once told my grandmother how frightened I was as a child when a bunch of us got lost in the woods behind the houses across the street from where I lived when I was five and six. I have vivid memories of an angry farmer chasing us off off of his land.

She laughed and said there were no woods there. There was a little "green strip" between the backs of the properties and the street, but no woods. I even went to see for myself and found she was right.

Teddy Rose said...

I'm glad you finally read it John. I thought the writing was incredible back when I read it in college. I would love to revisit it some day. Part of my excitement back then was that she came and spoke at my school. She has such grace.

John Mutford said...

Also reviewed by PeachyTO.

PeachyTO said...

Thanks for the link John.

I understand what you mean by the essence of truth, which I also feel from reading this book.

Memories often morph in the fullness of space and time, this is true, but trauma will often make memories inescapable, wherein you couldn't erase their vividness no matter how hard you try.

Overall I feel there are probably some instances where she's going with her gut, yet her engaging and beautiful prose keep it flowing with that essence of truth.