Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Source: Goodreads
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Originally 1969, I read 1993
291 pages, Memoir

A Lyrical Memoir

A beautiful memoir in which Maya Angelou recounts her experiences growing up in the American South before the Civil Rights Movement, from her earliest years until she has a baby three weeks after graduating from high school at the age of 17. Contains some explicit material about childhood sexual abuse.

Read a sample or buy from Amazon: 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
This book is, first and foremost, a recounting of Maya Angelou's personal experiences growing up as a black woman before the Civil Rights Movement. She details the struggles of the Depression, the religious revivals and (I would say) fanaticism of her grandmother, dealing with being abandoned by her parents for most of her young life, her relationship with her brother, and her experience of sexual abuse by her mother's boyfriend when she was 8 years old. It is a heartbreaking and powerful work, the most emotionally engaging book I have read in a very long time.

Understanding the psychology of a young girl

Besides the brilliant, lyrical writing, Angelo's detailed recounting of her psychological development is, in my opinion, the most important reason to pick up this book. In it, she deals with her own impressions and reactions to them, her sense of loneliness even while having some access to love. Her description of the sexual abuse starts out with the heartbreaking point that she had not had access to physical affection. When her abuser starts out by just holding her, she feels bliss. It is only after that when it begins to become scary.

And then she recounts her slow emotional recovery from the experience of rape. No one talked about it openly, so she felt dirty; but she recovers all the same. She recounts her learning experiences of becoming more and more independent - driving her father back through Mexico at the age of 15, living with a group of street kids for a month in a junkyard, fighting to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco, hiding her pregnancy and finishing school before giving birth to her son. These are the sorts of learning experiences which are both unique and yet speak to the trials and tribulations of growing up. And at the end, her mother reassures her, "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking." This is a great reassurance to people (like me) who have felt very pressured and worried about making the "right" decisions and doing things the "right" way.

Do you know of any other novels that touch you in the same way as this one? Leave a comment below.

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