I came across the 1969 autobiography of Maya Angelou. 'I know why the caged bird sings' brings out a peculiar trait -- Maya Angelou's ability to see her own life events with a mix of deep honesty and humor. This book is about injustice & abuse, but it is presented through the eyes of a little girl who is unable to pinpoint the negativity in her circumstances. Although this acceptance of injustice and abuse is infuriating to the reader, I think the appeal lies in the fact that the author could preserve that feeling through adulthood, just for the sake of expression.
Perhaps the most refreshing element of this book is that it takes you to Stamps, Arkansas. Somewhat reminiscent of 'To Kill a Mocking Bird', it takes you through the beauty of the southern life. The slow pace of life, color segregation, religiosity and food. Some incidents are hilarious and they really make you want to time travel back into those days. Angelou's elaborate descriptions of their Sunday meals definitely made me hungry. Also refreshing is their collective imagination of 'what happens in California'. This is a recurring theme in a lot of American books. There is California on one hand and then there's everything else. Maya and her brother's travels to the West also bring the same sense of adventure and anticipation expressed by so many other American authors.
The most moving and poetic part of this book is the time when little Marguerite (Maya) is subjected to sexual abuse and rape by her mother's boyfriend. Here, she writes as an eight year old, who is shocked by the act but irrationally attracted to the perpetrator. Her feelings of shame and self-hate are compounded by the religious upbringing she received in Arkansas. And it is difficult to detach yourself from the helplessness which her character feels during that time. It is also easy to understand how sometimes the victims of such crimes blame themselves for what happened to them.
Although not explicitly written, this book also shows Maya's struggles to come to terms with 'beauty' and attractiveness, which later became her strength and the strength of so many women who follow her poetry. As with many other women who have been celebrated for being "unconventionally" beautiful, Maya too goes through the repetitive questioning of her own worth. I think that this is one of the most important parts of becoming a woman of strength. The kind of confidence that slowly emerges from self doubt seems to become independent of the questions that gave birth to it. Perhaps that is how great writers are born. Angelou is definitely one of them. This book is a testimony to that.