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Month: December 2022

Maya Angelou on Desert Island Disks

TL;DR: Listen to this, and if you haven’t already, read this.

Two years ago I read Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The economy of words and effortless storytelling made it an instant favourite. A book that has brewed in the back of my head since, and one I look forward to reading a second time.

Last week, while at the gym, I was browsing podcasts and found that BBC’s Desert Island Disks had reposted an old interview from their archives from 1988, featuring Maya Angelou.

I was amazed to discover that the real Angelou was totally at odds with how I had pictured her. Her memoir deals with some serious issues, from rape to the racism she endured growing up in the American south. I had pictured her as flinty-eyed and stoic and maybe — understandably — a bit joyless. It was a real treat to hear her real voice: like warm butter, full of mischief. The indestructible kind of person who laughs easily and speaks with humility.

It really hit me how little I know the writers of my favourite books, even the ones who are still alive. They might have adopted any mask for the sake of their work, and I might never know.

Side quest: In this interview Angelou also talks about her mother Vivian, who sounds like a beast of a human being. Angelou speaks about an occasion when, already a hotel owner, surgical nurse and real estate broker, her mother joined the navy:

They told me they wouldn’t let black women in their union. You know what I said? ‘You wanna bet?’ I’ll put my foot in that door up to my hip!

Apparently Angelou finally did write a biography about her mother in 2013, in the last volume of her memoirs, Me and Mom and Me. One for my reading list.