I have never read a single book by Maya Angelou (apparently pronounced AHN-zhe-lo, thank you, New York Times), and I feel ashamed. I felt similar shame when I realized I hadn’t read anything by Gabriel García Márquez back on April 17.
Anyone who considers herself an avid reader has holes in her literary experience. You can’t read all the things, as much as you would like. Stuff just doesn’t resonate (I can’t do Shakespeare, I’m sorry), or interest you (not gonna happen, Dickens), or they’re just too hard to read (I have serious difficulty making it through anything with period speak or southern dialogue).
It turns out, some of the especially gaping holes in my reading repertoire are put in the spotlight when a beloved author dies. I rush to Goodreads and add the novels and memoirs and stories to my to-read list. And now I’m dying to read “A Hundred Years of Solitude” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Embarrassingly, I have read a few pages of “Caged Bird” — the infamous rape scene. When I was in high school, my school district banned the bookfrom our library. Naturally, my bestie snagged a copy and flipped through until she found The Scene (why can you always find the “questionable” scenes by simply flipping through a book? I used to do that to my mom’s Danielle Steel books, ahem). She called me up and told me about it, and she told me it wasn’t that bad, and we wondered why an entire book would be banned for a scene that’s not even that risque.
The next time I went to her house, we shut her bedroom door and she handed me the book to read, the page of the rape scene marked so I could flip straight to it. I don’t remember what I thought as I read it, just that I was expecting “worse.”
As a teen, I thought bad scenes (not as in “poorly written,” but “when bad things happen”) were marked by the use of naughty words. I expected cursing, perhaps, or something written so explicitly that even a girl with my lily white innocence would immediately GET IT. I expected, I suppose, the opposite of that old journalistic mantra, “show, don’t tell.” I expected to be told.
Today, I do not remember the words Angelou chose, but I suspect when I read the entire book, this time, that scene will resonate more. I will GET IT, because the showing will be more powerful than the telling.
As an addendum I learned today that a year or two after I graduated, my school district lifted the ban on the book–all because the work of one of my favorite friends. He decided he wanted to get the book unbanned, and he learned what he had to do. His words:
It was simple: To introduce a book into curriculum after removal is a very small procedure requiring a member of the community to propose it, and then the English department head and, I believe, the principal to approve it. When I proposed it, I was told not to make a big fuss about it and let it fly under the radar. Next year, (an English teacher) taught it in multicultural lit again.
As a former journalist, an always writer, and a forever reader, this is probably the coolest thing anyone I’ve ever met has done.
A question for all those Angelou fans out there–and all those Márquez fans: Which work is your favorite?