Friday, July 2, 2010

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This is one of those books that many people read when they get into high school. For me, it was a book I'd always meant to check out, but never truly got the time to. Now, thanks to this massive undertaking I call my Little Book Project, I've found the M.O.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the story of the early life of Marguerite Johnson, better known as Maya to her brother Bailey, or "Sister" to her grandmother, called Momma. Left behind for most of their childhood in Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, they only see glimpses of their well-to-do father (who turns out to be a drunkard) and their high-class mother (rumored to be a whore by some). One day, during a visit to her mother in St. Louis, Maya is raped at the age of eight by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, and chooses to be largely silent from then on. As time goes on, she develops and then breaks free from an inferiority complex, and finds her identity as a woman and a minority.

An interesting anecdote regarding the book: Angelou was challenged to write it by fellow author James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis as an autobiography that is also a work of literature. The result became a complex and amazing story, ending with the unexpected feat of becoming a mother at the age of 17 after an awkward coupling with a boy she barely knows. The themes in this book are incredible- racism, the wonder of books, finding one's identity, motherhood in all of its forms, etc. Angelou's prose sings just like the poetry she so wonderfully writes, creating unforgettable images of life as she saw it back then in Stamps. Of course, the vividness is a part of the reason why it's caused plenty of controversy. Caged Bird has been censored in no fewer than five different school districts in more than five different states, and that's just according to the Marshall University Library system. Apparently, it depicts rape, homosexuality, and other themes in a tasteless manner. From some of the complaints I've read concerning this classic, I picked it up nearly expecting it to be full of filth on each page. Far from it. Angelou makes sure the event of her rape is painful enough for the reader to know it was wrong; however, more often she creates images of beauty and hope that fulfill the reader. Though the event of an unplanned pregnancy at a young age is also a concern, Angelou doesn't even make it seem like it's a bad thing, and that is what a great writer does.

If you haven't ever read this book, I insist you do when you get the first possible chance. Borrow it from a library or pick it up in a bookstore; just read it, because even with all of its rough edges it is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. To know that this woman came from practically nothing to become one of the most influential authors in the literary world is astounding, and shows her true strength. At the risk of sounding cliché... this is a definite must-read.

No comments:

Post a Comment