When I was a student at college I read "I know why the caged bird sings," the work that made Maya Angelou, who passed away a few days ago, famous. Already then she was such a revered figure in American literature that her pondus overshadowed my experience of whatever she wrote. Before setting eyes on the first page I already knew that Maya had been sexually abused as a child and that she was an Afro-American woman who had grown up in a racist, segregated America. Everyone knew because these were the things that everyone wanted to remember. While I could sympathize with her story, I couldn't connect to it, not at a deeper level.
Maya wrote the book when she was 40 and perhaps it took passing that age to be able to get under the surface of what Maya in fact did during the two years that it took her to write this work. By then I had myself gone through a painful phase of discovery and reflection about the past. The presence of anger in my heart often bothered me. It wasn't beautiful, calm and empathetic. It seemed ugly and selfish. But what I learned from Maya, the story of her writing process and the result, was that giving recognition to one's anger is important. Writing, singing, dancing and painting it is vital to each of us and to our society, because it is the way to prevent anger from turning to bitterness, and to turn it into a positive contribution. This doesn't mean to hide it, transform it or get rid of it by some other means, but to respect it by expressing it.
The part of her story that everyone else seemed to like to talk about, was the fact that Maya went silent for a long time after being abused as a child. This part of her story always intrigued me, even in my less appreciative college days. Literature unblocked this silence, and what is literature driven by, if not by anger?