Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

cof

“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

Continue reading

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

cof

Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

Continue reading

Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

16584040_224811254656612_2720962078092296192_n

Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

Continue reading

Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

17126992_1864258550529202_1442105367793238016_n

Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

Continue reading

Featured Poem: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

16585681_310892649313014_8592281465209749504_n

(Due to copyright issues, I won’t be posting the poem. But click here to view “Morning Song” in its entirety.)

Sylvia Plath is one of the finest poets the world has ever seen. There is this incredible, almost unnerving frankness and viciousness to her works. She had a way of squeezing every drop out of life at every instance and skillfully capturing passing notions and emotions. She’d weave them into beautiful and oftentimes jarring tapestries of poetry and stark reality. For many readers, myself included, her finely penned confessions/poems possess a magnetic pull. We are drawn into her world just as effectively as we are asked to examine ours.

In Morning Song, Plath captures the burgeoning love of a mother for her newborn. The poem, written shortly after her own child’s birth, speaks of how mother and child start off almost as if they were strangers before inevitably developing a connection that binds them for life.

Note how in the poem, she addresses her child as if she were speaking to another adult. There is no cooing, no profuse proclamations of a life-changing love—nothing to intimate the cosmic connection between them, at least at first.

In the first line, she even likens the child to a “fat gold watch.” Although the watch was set into motion by love, the ticking watch can also be seen as a reminder of a person’s mortality.  To be specific, if not the death of the person, the demise of the self. The third stanza reads:

“I am no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.”

Interesting use of the word effacement, which in medical terms refer to the thinning of the cervix in preparation for the child’s delivery. But attach the word ‘self’ to effacement, and what you have is the deliberate act of taking the background, almost as if allowing the self to fade away, much like how condensation dissipates into thin air. Again, a ticking clock and effacement at the wind’s hand.

Take into consideration that from a purely evolutionary perspective—strictly gene’s eye level—the purpose of gene carriers is to ensure the continuation of their respective genetic lines, i.e. man must “go forth and multiply.”

And while, historically speaking, “securing heirs” was a weight carried by both men and women, there’s no arguing that women were left to shoulder the brunt of that weight. Go back less than a century to Plath’s own time and a large section of society still thought that a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children and rear them. Women were already working then, but the concept of ‘family first’ for women wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was an accepted rule.

Now, Sylvia Plath was a woman with grand literary ambitions and while motherhood was something she welcomed completely, when faced with the newness of the situation, it must have given her a bit of a pause. Motherhood was a jump into the uncertain, which carried with it great joy and tremendous challenges.

On the second stanza, she describes the parents’ reaction to the baby’s arrival—

“Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

In a drafty museum your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”

There it is, the pause. A sense of detachment. Strangers meeting for the first time. And yet, towards the end, the poem changes its tune quite drastically to show a mother’s devotion to her child. Plath speaks of waking to listen to her child’s breathing. She talks of how:

“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.”

Those words transform the persona from a watchful observer to a dedicated and loving mother.

Now, in my humble opinion, what makes Morning Song timeless is how it challenges the traditional idea that all women react the same way to motherhood. While ideally, it would be love at first sight between mother and newborn—that their bond is present and sealed after the final push—it’s not an always case. Sometimes it takes a while for that bond to be established. And that’s okay. Sometimes going through that journey of getting to know and arriving to love their children is just a journey some of the best mothers have had to undertake.

Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

14280654_158324501284860_5945813228339593216_n

Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.