Rating: 4 stars
Synopsis: ‘Memoir’ seems far too simple a word to describe I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou, a writer and civil rights activist (among numerous other careers) recounts her childhood experiences growing up first with her grandmother in the poor, isolated small-town Stamps and later with her mother in the lively glamour of San Francisco. However, she also relates these experiences to much wider issues from oppression to women’s sexuality. Someone asked me what the book is about and I found it so hard to summarise – it is a kaleidoscope of social exploration, perception, complex relationships, powerful moments and wisdom.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was my first experience of reading a memoir and I had my doubts… after all, don’t we read fiction to escape from real life? However, I was immediately engrossed by the combination of Maya Angelou’s compelling voice and the incredible variety and depth of her experiences. Her story comes close to covering the entire spectrum of human emotion; it leads readers through the horrifying, funny then achingly sad in a relatively short space of time.
Its almost lyrical style means the memoir reads almost like fiction and I had to keep reminding myself of its reality. In fact, Maya Angelou is credited with redefining the boundaries of autobiography, intending to ‘write an autobiography as literature.’
There is a thoughtful beauty in her writing, with so many words of wisdom that I had dozens of highlights on my Kindle and found it very difficult to pick just one favourite quote! However, I think the true poignancy of this memoir lies as much in the words she does not use.
she would not sit beside a draft dodger who was a Negro as well. She added that the least he could do was fight for his country the way her son was fighting on Iwo Jima. The story said that the man pulled his body away from the window to show an armless sleeve. He said quietly and with great dignity, “Then ask your son to look around for my arm, which I left over there.
It is understood that powerful moments such as this need no further commentary. Instead, they are allowed to speak for themselves.
Also, the approach taken to portraying the complex relationships in the book is very much one of interwoven moments rather than a monologue. No attempt is made to simplify or explain these relationships; to do so would be to reduce them, and detract from the way in which the memoir explores the true nature of human connections. I was particularly fascinated by Maya’s relationship with her mother and grandmother, as well as the influence these two starkly different women had on her life.
Something about the book, other than its genre, felt strange and different when I first started reading it. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but then I realised that I have not read a book from a child’s perspective for a very long time (since Room by Emma Donoghue). I always enjoy the immediacy of reading from children’s viewpoints, so focused on present experience, but I found young Maya’s unique, intensely observant view of the world especially captivating.
However, I also relished watching her child’s perspective mature throughout the book as she ages. With the progress of the story, Maya begins to challenge, as well as observe, the nature of our world. I felt privileged to read about the experiences of such an extraordinary woman, who has had a truly extraordinary life.
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.
Read if: you want to try some non-fiction starting with a compelling, moving and perceptive memoir.
Cover image courtesy of Goodreads.
Have you read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Do you have any other recommendations for memoirs that you have enjoyed? Please do let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!