Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014: One Summer

“What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings." Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, among many other things. The summer before my second year of university, I sat in a cafe on the first floor of Hodges Figgis, a Dublin city bookshop mentioned in Joyce's Ulysses, and I read every volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. I began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and I read them out of order until I had finished them all. I don't know how long it took - I am a fast reader and her writing is fluent, so probably not as long as I think it did.

But I remember it as a whole summer. I hadn't been able to find a job, so I left the house every day and read books and did work for the college English Lit society, of which I was a committee member for the first and only time. I was in love with books, with writing, with the passion you get when a group of young writers come together and learn from each other how to be human beings as well as how to be better writers. Some of the writers in that group were giants - I dreamed of being the Dorothy Parker to their Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I dream of it still, sometimes.

It was a warm summer. I read Maya Angelou's memoirs and drank tea. I watched the green leaves of the giant tree that grows outside Hodges Figgis. I took photographs of Dublin. I compiled a guidebook for book-loving students moving to Dublin for the first time (I found an old copy of it recently. It wasn't as bad as I had come to remember). Sometimes when I got tired of the cafe in Hodges Figgis, I crossed the road to Waterstones and wrote in the cafe there. I wasn't working on novels then - I was writing about my life, such as it was. I was preoccupied by a schoolfriend who had died the previous March, by the lessons I could (or couldn't) take from her life and her passing. And into this strange, intemperate Irish summer stepped Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, memoirist, bus conductor, sex worker, waitress and nightclub singer. 

Walt Whitman, maybe the most American of all poets, wrote "I am large, I contain multitudes." One of the architects of the white male American canon, I don't think he could have imagined Angelou, but was ever anyone larger than she? Did anyone contain more?

The cafe in Hodges Figgis is long gone. Waterstones across the road is gone. I am no longer in college, no longer a young writer who thinks she can be successful if she buys the right sunglasses (God, I was a nightmare. The others were so kind to me). Maya Angelou is gone, too. Hodges Figgis is still there. I pass it on my way to work in the mornings, may it stand for ever, God bless it - and so is the tree I used to stare at. Its leaves still blow when the wind picks up, and this autumn they will fall, and the rest of us will walk underneath it, dare to love, and build bridges.


1 comment:

  1. A wonderful tribute to her.

    I saw the news about her first thing when I got in today, and felt a deep sadness. At the same time, her work will long endure.


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