Sapna Kumari

PhD scholar, Department of English, University Of Delhi
(gracesapna.13@gmail.com)

Abstract

Maya Angelou, a feminist, a poet, and a writer of autobiographies, is widely known for her empowering and liberating works. She lived through the times in America when women fought for rights beyond household. They fought for equal right and equal pay, marriage rights etc. She wrote over seven autobiographies which have been often categorised as auto fiction for the sheer quality of its unique combination of factual snippets within the rubric of fiction. Her works have been widely acknowledged as trauma narrative of a woman who simultaneously reflected the trauma of the community which she represented. This paper attempts to discuss and critique trauma narrative not only as an individual space of healing and resistance but also as spaces for collective representation of trauma experiences. The paper tries to draw forth the contours of personal trauma and pain of the writer who at the same time becomes a body of collective representation of trauma and memory. This has been done by analysing the thematic and narrative construct of the same. The paper also seeks to answer some of the questions such as how far does the writer succeed in transforming her trauma to a tool of healing and emancipation? does this experience in any way coincide with the historical narrative and undergo any distortion or metamorphosis? how much does an autobiographical mode of narration impact the channelization of trauma experience? An attempt would be made to construct a response to these questions within the rubric of literary trauma theory and studies as pioneered by the thinkers such as Cathy Caruth and Laurence Kirmayer.

Keywords : memory, anecdotes, collective, experiential, etc.

Maya Angelou, a feminist, a poet, and a writer of autobiographies, is widely known for her empowering and liberating works. She lived through the times in America when women fought for rights beyond household. They fought for equal right and equal pay, marriage rights etc. She wrote over seven autobiographies which have been often categorised as auto fiction for the sheer quality of its unique combination of factual snippets within the rubric of fiction. Her works have been widely acknowledged as trauma narrative of a woman who simultaneously reflected the trauma of the community which she represented. The following paper attempts to discuss and critique trauma narrative not only as an individual space of healing and resistance but also as spaces for collective representation of trauma experiences. The paper tries to draw forth the contours of personal trauma and pain of the writer who at the same time becomes a body of collective representation of trauma and memory. This has been done by analysing the thematic and narrative construct of the same. The paper also seeks to answer some of the questions such as how far does the writer succeed in transforming her trauma to a tool of healing and emancipation? does this experience in any way coincide with the historical narrative and undergo any distortion or metamorphosis? how much does an autobiographical mode of narration impact the channelization of trauma experience? An attempt would be made to construct a response to these questions within the rubric of literary trauma theory and studies as pioneered by the thinkers such as Cathy Caruth andLaurence Kirmayer.

Trauma narrative is often signified by an intergenerational transmission of traumatic experience and memory. This way the homogenous interpretation of heterogeneous representations and experiences of trauma give a universal meaning to such texts. It is this organisation of memory and sharing of trauma in a text which renders a contemporaneity to trauma literature.“Trauma, in my analysis, refers to a person’s emotional response to an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual’s sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society”(Balaev 150).The story of I Know Why the Caged Bird Singshas been set against the backdrop of racial tension and conflict in south in America in 1930s. Maya had suffered sexual assault at the hands of her step dad and in this narrative she brings out the innocent expectations of a child who wants to break away from her space of shame and suffering. She not only emerges as a strong African American woman representing her own experiences but also represents her community with its legacy of historical trauma and pain. Cultural as well as psychological displacement find equal place in her work. She herself acknowledged the fact that she began this book as a way to counter her trauma post the death of her friend. The book is intended to reflect on racism which is also a major theme running through its pages. Thus begins the anecdotes of a child who doesn’t feel equal to her white friends and neighbours. She blames herself for the murder of her molester and becomes quieter. It is here that we find the effects of traumatic upheavals on a child’s life and memory. It has consequences beyond repair. It can be further viewed under the light of the pluralist trauma theory which challenges the unspeakable trope in seeking to understand not only the structural dimensions of trauma that has resulted into several approaches of looking at the dissociative effects of trauma on individual consciousness and memorybut also highlighted the cultural dimensions and trajectoryof trauma with its diversified narrative expression. By moving away from a position that centralizes individual coping mechanism, the pluralistic model suggests that traumatic experience unravels new relationships between experience, language, and knowledge that foregrounds the social and cultural significance of trauma. Trauma studies under this approach emphasizes onthe variability of traumatic representations.

In the work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings we have a black, poor woman digging deeper into her own personal trauma showcasing the larger framework within which her community suffers. The work has been known for its own uniqueness. It easily slips under the garb of fiction to provide delight to the readers wherever required and to generate empathy towards her pain alike. The former has been attained through spontaneity in the language, fluidity in the vocabulary, intended pun, understated humour and the use of wit with irony. Also, the text compels the readers to ponder over a possible self-distancing within this structure where they cannot figure out whether it is the author narrating her own story or is it some fictional character at play representing the predicaments of two entirely different entities. However, both the traumatic experience and the text are at crossroads when presenting a pitiful condition of her community at large. It portrays a larger part of African American existence. It delves deeper into the nuances of the problems faced by her countrymen during her lifetime. CathyCaruth in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History (1996) viewed trauma as an event strong enough to shatter consciousness and prevent direct narrative representation. Caruth writes, “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, that history is precisely the way we were implicated in each other’s traumas,” emphasizing a universalist view of trauma that damages the psyche and evokes a shared response across time (Caruth 24). This indicates the inherent transhistorical and intergenerational nature of trauma that can be transmitted across time. From this standpoint a cultural group’s traumatic experience in any point of time in history or past can be simultaneously a part of the memory or psychic existence of the individual belonging to the contemporary time and community. This merging of individual and collective experiences of trauma furthers the notion of the universal effect of trauma upon identity and memory. Similarly one can deduce that the narrative distancing by Angelou brings the readers closer to her background and empathise easily with her subject. Moreover, the simplicity of diction in the text makes this task more convenient. Angelou has tactfully handled the protagonists who seem to be moving to and fro in the world of  the reality vs. fiction. Angelou employs “a rather personalized autobiographical style,” according to Carol E. Neubauer, in that “she adapts elements from both fiction and fantasy” (Bloom 27). This way the author maintains a slight distance and leave the judgement per se on the readers. She also provides general comments about their situations which sound more like a third person narrator giving statements about life. Maya never shows such urgency to directly appeal to the readers rather she lays all her pain bare and leaves her readers on themselves to ponder over her situation and feel her pain.

Furthermore, we will find that autobiography holds an equally important place in the African American narrative history at large. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the African American authors have gone on to testify to the vitality and endless variety of that irrepressible strain of freedom. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s evocative autobiography about her painful childhood growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, was published in 1970, with the same spirit. The book met with great critical acclaim due to its personal honesty dealing with the distressful issues of rejection, racism, and fear; and yet it is often sprinkled with humour, warmth, and love. This has been the subject of various critical studies. This fusion of the public life and the private and the personal experiences with that of the political was a significant quality of her work. African American women readers were immediately attracted to her work because they recognized themselves on the pages of Angelou’s books. Many went on to memorize the lines of her books while growing up. They identified with the protagonist, “Maya,” who moved uneasily through the world and took refuge in books. They could relate with the self-doubt that was inevitable for girls who had no images of their beauty and worth. Angelou provided them mirror where they could see their own self. She spoke for generations of her readers when she wrote, “if growing up is painful for the southern black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult” (Wall 3). Angelou had the quality of infusing the episodes of her book with themes and tropes that thread through African American literary tradition. Angelou’s narratives have also been criticized for using stylistic techniques and narrative devices which would rather associate themselves with writing fiction rather than autobiographies, resulting in a number of critics classifying “Angelou’s five volumes as autobiographical fiction and not autobiographies” (Lupton 29). Mary Jane Lupton writes that according to Eugenia Collier, “the writing techniques Angelou uses in her autobiographies are the same devices used in writing fiction: vividly conceived characters and careful development of theme, setting, plot, and language” (30). Lupton also contends that “the five volumes [in] Angelou’s series far exceed the standard number of volumes in an autobiography …so that they are in a sub-genre known as ‘serial autobiographies’ ”.As Angelou narrates selected events, she adapts elements from both fiction and fantasy. Although she is clearly working within the genre of autobiography, Angelou freely borrows from these two traditional types of writing. On numerous occasions in her earlier volumes, she has employed what has become a rather personalized autobiographical style, a method which integrates ingredients from diverse modes of writing and gracefully crosses over traditionally static generic lines. Angelou uses fiction when it comes to the anecdotes related to entertainers, politicians and some historical figures. Fictional elements are at complete play on both the conscious as well as unconscious level.

Her autobiographies did more than just to lift the veil on subjects that had been hidden. They showed that the protagonist’s feelings were as important to the narrative as the events it describes. No black woman’s autobiography before Caged Bird had revealed as much of its author’s interior life. She continued to foreground her feelings. These feelings were mixed with memory and art.  If readers imagined they had access to her raw feelings, Angelou insisted on the importance of her craft. “Learning the craft, understanding what language can do, gaining control of the language, enables one to make people weep, make them laugh, even make them go to war,” (Wall 5). What distinguishes, then, Angelou’s autobiographical method from more conventional autobiographical forms is her very denial of closure. The reader of autobiography expects a beginning, a middle, and an end-as occurs in Caged Bird. She or he also expects a central experience, as we indeed are given in the plot sequence of Caged Bird.  But Angelou, by continuing her narrative, denies the form and its history, creating from each ending a new beginning, relocating the centre to some luminous place in a volume yet to be. She stretches the autobiographical canvas mingling it with delightful episodes from her past.Trauma narrative such as Caged Birdrecreates the events in order to bring back the experiential phase so as to recall the trauma and the experiences then take the shape of another subtext for sharing. “In her autobiographies, Angelou consistently cast the South as a site of trauma and hate where she lived literally in silence for five years. However, she would eventually move to Winston- Salem, North Carolina and would reside in the South until her death.” (Tucker 92). Angelou confesses that her travel South became necessary in order, as she says “to face the fear/loathing at its source or it would consume me whole”(93) . In Maya Angelou: The Autobiographical Statement Updated,Selwyn R. Cudjoe rightly points out, “Afro-American liberation must contain both an internal and external dimension; the former must be our exclusive concern. It is this internal probing that characterizes [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] and marks the writing of the contemporary Afro-American woman writer” (94). A sense of displacement and alienation is what she often experienced throughout her early years. She stayed with her grandmother and brother and it here that she gathered her strength amidst multiple experiences of abuse and discomfort.

“Angelou’s autobiographies reveal a vibrant woman who travelled the world and who was dedicated to confronting injustice whether in the United States or abroad, even as she danced and sang, acted and wrote. Simultaneously we see someone stunningly vulnerable who fought off the impact of rape, abandonment, failed marriages, and racial and gendered oppression. Transitioning easily into the role of elder and ancestor to a younger generation of poets and artists, Angelou has served as a constant reminder of the importance of maintaining a connection to one’s roots during the crucial transition into the post-integration era.”

(Tucker 97)

Angelou represents the community of African American which had a long history of ill treatment, slavery and abuse. It is here that her work achieves a form of a collective narrative. The dichotomy of north-south coincides and represents the survival of African American descent in the same. But one may also contend that eventually her work becomes more of an anecdotal account of an individual trauma and less of her community. Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), for example, an autobiographical account of a notorious black man in the pursuit of liberation does more than just give a personal account of violence and fight against racism. Similarly, one of the most well-known autobiographies in African American history, Du Bois’The Souls Of Black Folk (1903), The Autobiography of Malcom X  (1965) are all known for contributing strongly to this genre in history. They have tried to study the social seclusion, the exclusionary actions against the black community in particular but with Angelou it all becomes a double layered account of a woman who is black and is subjected to sexual abuse and that has a traumatic impact over her. It is here that we must credit Angelou for creating such spaces for healing via her narrative which extends beyond the territory of genre and community.

To conclude with, one can reassert that trauma’s effects on identity and memory can be used as an interplay of external and internal forces creating a broader connection between the singular and collective traumatic experience. The processes of memory remain central here in depicting trauma’s impact. Psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer for example argues that the recollection of traumatic events is “governed by social contexts and cultural models for memories, narratives, and life stories. Such cultural models influence what is viewed as salient, how it is interpreted and encoded at the time of registration, and, most important for long term memories that serve autobiographical functions, what is socially possible to speak of and what must remain hidden and unacknowledged” (Kirmayer 191). Examining the cultural context of an individual or collective group’s experience of trauma draws immense attention towards the representations of the experiences out of physical abuse, sexual harassment, war, slavery, colonial oppression, and racism. It is here that Angelou’s autobiography can be firmly situated to not only represent the unspeakable truth of her country’s history but also letting her readers know more about her personal trauma thus documenting arecapitulation of a combined experience .

References :

Balaev, Michelle. “Trends in Literary Trauma Theory”, Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal , June 2008, Vol. 41, No. 2 (June 2008), pp. 149-166 , University of Manitoba Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/44029500

Bloom’s modern critical views. Maya Angelou. New edition. Edited by Harold Bloom. Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Kirmayer, Laurence. “Landscapes of Memory: Trauma, Narrative, and Dissociation.” Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, ed. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, Routledge, 1996, 173–98.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity”. Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, 20th-Century Autobiography (Summer, 1990), pp. 257-276.Published by: African American Review (St. Louis University), DOI: 10.2307/3041707, https://www.js tor.org/stable/3041707

Tucker, Terrence “Healing the (Re)Constructed Self: The South, Ancestors, and Maya Angelou’s “Down in the Delta”,CLA Journal , September/December 2014, Vol. 58, No. 1/2, SPECIAL ISSUE: The Legacies of Maya Angelou (SEPTEMBER/DECEMBER 2014), pp. 91-104 Published by: College Language Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/44326222

Wall, Cheryl A. “Maya Angelou: Toward a Criticism worthy of Its Subject.” CLA Journal, vol. 58, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 1–9. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44326215.

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Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.