(Published in the Business Standard, June 2, 2014)
In 1970, an interviewer whose collection of oral narratives would transform North America’s sense of history had a long chat with an author whose memories of her own history would transform the lives of thousands across the world.
The recording of that interview between Studs Terkel and Maya Angelou is a treasure; a great storyteller drawn out by one of the greatest listeners of all time. Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, had lived a full life: fry cook, sex worker, dancer, journalist, author of seven landmark autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Not enough Indians of this generation know who she is. Even among Indians who have access to books, there is little awareness of the resonance that the writings of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou in the past, or their contemporaries exploring race and gender divides in modern times, have for us.
The books that might help this generation see India’s caste divides more clearly are often missing from our private and public libraries. The few who find Angelou’s work tend to discover her when they’re studying or working abroad. Many young women stumble across her memoirs of surviving rape and abuse, and her tale of how she broke through the silence that stifled her beautiful, powerful voice, when they’re researching their own, similar experiences.
That absence is a grievous loss, because Angelou stood for much more than a collection of quotable quotes: her life and her writings were inseparable, the way she lived and her memories fuelling the way she wrote, what she saw, and what she became.
In almost every decade, those who aspire to be writers ask themselves a simple question: how should a writer be? Indian history has many answers to this, almost all of them now set aside: be restless and be a wanderer, forsake family and duty; be an exact historian of the epic truths, leaving out none of the ambiguities; listen to the people of your land and reshape their stories on the potter’s wheel of fiction; be engaged in ceaseless questioning; classify everything; be a disrupter who sets fire to the age’s pieties.
In this decade, we believe that a writer should be successful, a celebrity who shuttles between the writing desk and the television studio, in touch with her or his audience, aware of his or her readership, a national treasure on her or his way to acquiring a Padma Shri.
Angelou, despite the honorary degrees and celebrity heaped on her, lived a writing life, planning books up to her last year. She used her own life, and the stories of her mother, her grandmother, the people in the community she had grown up in, to reach out and seek the untold, unwritten, unprized stories of hundreds of others.
Her voice was resonant as a bell, and as intense, when she spoke to Studs Terkel about the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first memoir to insist that the personal lives of African-American women were important, worthy of recording.
“My suggestion,” she said, “is that I think that the free bird doesn’t sing very much. He’s busy finding worms and taking care of his business, marrying and things. The caged bird sings about freedom all the time, all the time, and that song is so rich and so beautiful.”
Terkel had just finished recording the histories of ordinary Americans who had been through the Great Depression, bringing out the “extraordinary depth of memories” of the people whom Richard Rhodes called “the natural novelists” in his review. In his conversation with Angelou, you can hear their mutual understanding that the voices of the ordinary, the overlooked, those invisible because of their race or gender or poverty or the hierarchies that push them to the bottom of the pile, are just as important and just as filled with wisdom as the voices of the privileged and the powerful.
Terkel asks Angelou at one point about what they both see as the stupidity of racism, and she speaks of the wasted potential of those who were only allotted certain jobs and certain ways of being. “Imagine,” she said, “if that intelligence had been able to be used constructively, that is, more constructively for the common good. We would really be a great country.”
Terkel’s oral narratives became the giant, sheltering structure within which you could hear the true voice of a nation every bit as complicated and nightmare-ridden, as criss-crossed by history’s tracer bullets, as India is in this decade. In Working, his gigantic collection of people talking about what they do for a living, you can trace every injustice, every social and racial division, every argument that work turns people into cogs in a machine – and also, in a few flaring moments of illumination, trace the satisfaction in doing a hard day’s work at a decent job. In Angelou’s autobiographies, you can chronicle not only her own hard-won healing, but the wide ripples of change across race, class and gender, and also some of the lasting chasms.
In their separate ways, they wrote truer histories of the United States than most of the official historians. Listeners and storytellers: we could do with more of both kinds, especially at this bend in the river of Indian history.