Book Talk: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
By Mehr Sohal
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is one of those timeless pieces of literature that most have heard about, if not read. Of course it has been talked about on several occasions over the years, but here am I talking about it again...cause how can one not?
I read this book in the summer of 2020, and I've been wanting to write about it since then. Along with being timeless, Angelou's work is the type you want to "suck out all the marrow (get the Dead Poets Society reference?)" of each word, phrase, and sentence to ensure it doesn't leave your mind.
While the novel can't be classified into one particular genre, it is autobiographical in nature as it follows the life of young Maya, also known as Marguerite, from the ages of three to sixteen. It is astounding that Angelou could write with such detail and precision – enough to fill 309 pages – on a time period that accounts for only around 15% of her entire life. However, while only chronicling a mere thirteen years, they were arguably the most traumatic years in Angelou's life. The thread of trauma started as early as the age of eight, when Maya was molested and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Being too young to even understand what happened to her, this abuse left a scarring impact; especially emotionally. The thread continued on with racism, abandonment, and a negligent father, amongst others.
Continuing on with the trauma that embedded young Maya's life, this novel explores the harrowing impact of it on an innocent child. When at the age of eight Maya is asked in court if she was raped, her response is "no". She feared her family would be disappointed in her, thinking the abuse was her fault, instead of the perpetrator. Her guilt manifests itself to the point where she thinks her words are deadly– "just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die". And so, Maya decides, "I had to stop talking" for the safety of her family and most importantly her brother, Bailey. Oddly, the notion of childhood trauma leading to selective mutism is also explored in God of Small Things in Arundhati Roy.
However, more than trauma, I believe this book is about resilience. Despite everything that life threw at her, the "caged bird" pulled through. Eventually, she develops the strength to talk, and over the years she acquires values of self-sufficiency, courage, and confidence. For instance, as a teenager Maya juggled an unplanned pregnancy, schoolwork, and working at a railway as a conductor gracefully without help from anyone. In fact, she became the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco! In my opinion, the whole novel is emblematic of hope.
I would strongly urge everyone to read this novel, it truly shows that everyone is worthy of and deserves love, happiness, and an important place in this world.
The title of this novel inspired Angelou's 1983 poem 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' that portrays the idea that only the caged can sing of freedom.