Maya Angelou: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: which are the white characters from fiction that you most identify with? And why does the caged bird sing?)
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Maya Angelou, 75, was sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, at the age of four. At eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and as a result chose not to speak for the next six years. She had her only son, Guy, while still a teenager. All this is contained in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She has since written five more autobiographies, detailing her time as a singer, actress, waitress, prostitute and activist, among other things. She is now a highly respected poet, lecturer, author, playwright, civil-rights activist and director. Her latest autobiography, A Song Flung Up To Heaven, covers 1964-68, when she worked alongside both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

How difficult was it to remember the episodes of your childhood detailed in your first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?
Carol Garrett, London

It took me two years to write that book. It was a terrible and wonderful process - rapturous and horrid. In order to remember incidents from childhood, one has to enchant oneself back in time. It may be difficult for some people, but it wasn't difficult for me.

I stopped speaking for six years when I was a child and I think that in those years my brain rearranged itself. As a result, I can remember incidents clearly from my past - what people were wearing, what perfume was in the air and what light was coming in the window.

In your earlier autobiographies, you spoke a lot about how you didn't feel beautiful. How do you see yourself now? And how do you define female beauty?
Clare Dale, by e-mail

At 75, I think I'm doing very, very well. I think true beauty is to be found in the person who takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space that she occupies. It may be found in kindness, courtesy, generosity and courage. I realised that about forty years ago.

Is it true you have a self-designed tour bus? What does it look like? Do you enjoy your time on the road?
Nicola Hanmer, by e-mail

It has a king-sized bed, two bunks for my two drivers and a living-room cabin so that my assistant can sleep there. Plus it has a shower, toilet and stove. It's wonderful being on the road. It's the best way to travel. Airports are impossible for me now. I'm very well known and people often run up and put their babies in my arms. Sometimes I think, "Why didn't you change it first?" And people grab me, poke me in the back and pull my clothes. But in my bus, I can go from one coast to another without getting off.

In your early years, the white people you encountered were mainly fictional - characters in the many books that you read. Which of these characters did you most identify with? Did they help to form your opinion of white people?
Charlotte Jones, Cardiff

Well, I did encounter white people when I was a child in Arkansas. They were brutal, crass and ignorant. The only whites I encountered who were acceptable were the fictional ones. I knew that I could have been a friend to Oliver Twist. I understood him completely. If he'd known me, he would have liked me a lot.

Even some figures in white American history appealed to me. I loved Patrick Henry for saying, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death". I loved that. Obviously, I hope that my books will provoke the same empathy. And I know that they do. There are thousands of young white, Asian and Latino children who are named after me. Thousands. It's a great blessing.

Which period of your life was the most difficult to write about? Why?
Sarah Lewis, Birmingham

It was the period I have just written about in A Song Flung Up to Heaven, because I had to write about Malcolm X and his assassination and Martin Luther King and his assassination. And also about a love affair that came to an end. It was very hard, emotionally. To write about it, I had to be there in my mind and to be there weighed very heavily on me.

You are an inspiration to many, including myself. Which living person most inspires you?
Paul Leal, Bournemouth

There are so many, I dare not say one. I can name a few. One is Andrew Young, the American politician, businessman and clergyman, because he's brave and inclusive. Another is my son, who is a wonderful writer and has endured catastrophic physical challenges. He had multiple injuries after an accident and was paralysed from the neck down, but he walks and talks now. He says it only hurts when he laughs. And also Oprah Winfrey, because fame and success have not made her indifferent to human frailties. She is really a daughter to me.

Why does the caged bird sing?
Julia Stapleton, Norwich

There's a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar called "Sympathy" that was written in the late-19th century. I used lines from the poem for the titles of my first and my last autobiographies. The last verse reads:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his

bosom sore,-

When he beats his bars and he would

be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his

heart's deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven

he flings-

I know why the caged bird sings!

So the caged bird is singing about freedom, how much it is desired and how right he is to be asking for it.

It was recently the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Did you mark the day? Do you think his speech is still relevant today?
Brian Deller, by e-mail

Of course I marked the day. I spoke in a couple of states. The most engaging aspect of celebrating the anniversary is the act of trying to imagine what the world would have been like, had Martin Luther King lived. It certainly wouldn't have been the world we live in now. And of course, the speech is just as relevant today. What he dreamed of has not been achieved, so it must be said over and over again.

Your last autobiography finishes in the late-Sixties. Will you ever write about the last 30 years of your life?
Tom Westwood, London

No. I will not. I will never write about writing - and writing is what I have done for the last 30 years. There could be nothing more boring [for the reader].

Do you have any empathy with those in the Arab world who feel hatred for the West?
Owain Butler, by e-mail

Everybody has a right to protest against what he or she concludes to be unfair or unkind treatment. And if the Arab or the Jew or the Shintoist or anyone else decides that any person has done him - or her - wrong, then he or she should protest. Don't complain. Don't whine. Protest.

So I do empathise. I think they should protest. But I don't know if they are right to feel wronged by the United States. I don't know what part of their condition was brought about by the Americans or by the British, the French, the Germans or any other European nation.

'A Song Flung Up to Heaven' by Maya Angelou is published by Virago, £6.99