BOOK REVIEW / Cutting through the darkness towards a new life: Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now - Maya Angelou: Virago, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
IN 1903 Mrs Annie Johnson of Arkansas became a single mother of two sons. Black and illiterate, she refused to leave her babies and to follow the obvious route to domestic labour; instead, she 'decided to step off the road and cut me a new path'. She made and sold hot meat pies to workers at the local cotton gin, and her business was so successful that her tiny stall grew into a large store selling everything from cheese to leather soles for worn-out shoes.

Annie's story is central to Maya Angelou's new collection of reminiscences and words of wisdom, for she too has forged a new life for herself - by writing, rather than by cooking. She was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was only eight years old and, although mute for the next five years, she decided to tell the world about it in her moving autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is Maya herself who shines through this and her four subsequent volumes of autobiography: her courage, grace, kindness and exuberant love of life, her ability to forgive and see the good in all of us are the virtues which she dispenses like a preacher in this slim volume of parables and sermons.

She writes with alarming clarity about style and the art of living well, about how the coarseness of modern comedy is not funny, and about the importance of language based on mutual respect if our children are to grow up respecting others. But the deep personal reminiscences are the most interesting, for she is able to reveal herself at her most vulnerable with poetic charm. She tells of how, at 16, she lay sobbing on her bed because she had been fired from her job, until her mother convinced her that she was worth more than the job. She describes how lonely and unloved she felt after well-wishers in a bar congratulated her on being the New York Post's 'person of the week' - and then left her to drink by herself.

Perhaps most movingly of all, she tells how a voice teacher made her read from Lessons of Truth, published by the Unity School of Christianity, which ended with the words 'God loves me'. He made her read the sentence seven times before she began to believe that there might be some truth in it, that she was worth loving and she began to cry. 'I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I'm a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.'

Maya Angelou's writing has served as an inspiration to many women, showing that it is possible to soar to great heights out of the deepest abyss. That's why her preaching is palatable. From anyone else, it would seem, in these cynical times, both pretentious and patronising.

Maya Angelou will be at the Hay Festival on Saturday 21 May, at 8.10pm, discussing her work with Mavis Nicholson

(Photograph omitted)

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