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Who, what and why - A discussion on the purpose of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, In Arabian Nights and A Moveable Feast
Hablaba de este ensayo académico para mi asignatura de Lifewriting en el texto más importante que jamás haya escrito, La autobiografía no es de valientes: (https://www.los52golpes.com/2018/p-g-lopez-ilich/18/la-autobiografia-no-es-de-valientes). Obtuve un sobresaliente en este ensayo que creo os puede ser muy interesante, que se centra en los procesos que empujaron a Maya Angelou, Tahir Shah y Ernest Hemingway a escribir lo que escribieron.
Through a close study of these three memoirs by Angelou, Shah and Hemingway, we will attempt to shed light on the creative processes behind them. This will lead us to discuss the author’s purpose for their work, closely linked to an exploration of their life-stories, personalities and feelings. Therefore, we will inevitably tackle complex universal issues of truth, self and human nature.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, was the first of Maya Angelou’s memoirs, and tells the story of her life until she gave birth at the age of sixteen. Born in a low-class, southern African-American family, hers is a story of the struggle against displacement, oppression and lack of identity. She declared that “it was dangerous for me to become silent” (visionaryproject 2010, 1:15-21), so she wrote, sang, and danced. Themes of racism, sexism and classism run through all her works, and flourish prominently in her first autobiography. From this we can already draw the conclusion that the purpose of her book was clearly political. This also explains the title’s metaphor, borrowed from a line of Sympathy, poem by the African-American Paul Laurence Dunbar (1922, p.102). This is why Angelou dedicated her memoir to “all the strong black birds of promise, who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs” (1984). I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings belongs to the long-standing African-American tradition of creative action against oppression, and is usually compared to Hurston’s memoir Dust Tracks On The Road, published in 1942. Indeed, “autobiography is one of the ways that black Americans have asserted their right to live and grow” (Butterfield in Anderson 2011, p.106). One must wonder then, to what extent African-Americans wrote out of an emotional need rather than a political one. Fortunately, feminists like Angelou have taught us that the personal is political, and hence, when we say that the author’s work is politically-driven we are implying this includes a personal side to it as well.
Some questions arise from this, namely the alleged primacy of politics as well as the consideration of writing as either a means or as an end. The autobiography as an emotional need would render it an end in itself, whereas aiding the struggle for liberation would render the memoir a means for it. Perhaps this is why Hurston refused to be “the pet of the white world” (Smith 1993, p.125) by focusing her autobiography on the individuality, rather than racial and gender issues, not allowing herself to become a victim (Anderson 2011, p.105). On the other hand, Angelou challenges this conception by showing that you can tackle racism and sexism without becoming a victim. In her poem Me and my work she wrote: “Yet the only thing I really don’t need / is strangers’ sympathy”, and critics agree, saying she wrote neither as a defence nor as an apology (Hilton 2002). Hurston was afraid that speaking against racism would be playing the white’s game, and Angelou, conscious of this, lured the white readership into a game she turned not against them, but against oppression.
The effectiveness and appeal of Angelou’s prose lies in her simple vocabulary and structure, contrasting with the powerful emotionality that the text shows: “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared” (1984, p.192). Tackling the several oppressive ‘–isms’, the author does not make us listen to preachy lectures. Angelou takes our hand and invites us to read her life’s own review, apparently free of any of her comments. An example of this is the scene where the family hides Uncle Willie in the vegetable bin to protect him from the KKK (1984, pp. 18-9), written in a journalistic manner, as Angelou’s comments are absent. It serves, then, as a way of making the white readership think and eventually revise their racism. This makes us consider not only the impossibility of the existence of objectiveness in life-writing, but also how it has been used as a narrative device. In this case, objectiveness just works as the placebo that allows Angelou’s subjective political statements to slip into you inadvertently.
Nonetheless, it seems the author was not too comfortable exposing herself, and almost presents the artistic path as forced on her: in her poem My guilt she writes that her guilt is making music with tears, her crime being alive to tell, and her sin not screaming loud (1988, p.42). She places herself in opposition to the dead Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, and let us hint almost a regret for being still alive, not having screamed loud enough to reach martyrdom. In the poem Caged bird, it seems Angelou has had her feet tied and wings clipped, and sang for freedom (1986, pp.72-3) because it was the only thing she could do.
Therefore, coming back to the question of the primacy of the political (writing as a means) over the personal (writing as an end), Angelou shows this is not incongruent: expressing yourself is both an end in itself as well as a means for the political purpose of the book, showing, then, that it is the thirst for freedom what drives Angelou’s creative process.
She showed a wide awareness of the audience by suiting her work both to her political aims and her readership, and Shah’s In Arabian Nights also reveals an effective handling of the audience. Published in 2007, the memoir is focused on the author’s and his family’s experience living in Morocco, with a special emphasis in Shah’s personal quest to find the story in his heart. The purported purpose of the book is stated in its subtitle, which acts as a hook for the reader: “In search of Morocco through its stories and storytellers”. Shah, as a successful writer and journalist, took the task of revealing the ‘true’ Morocco to his already-established Western readership, oblivious to the ‘real’ Arab world.
The reader finds out late in the book how In Arabian Nights was first conceived: “You must write a book to show the West there’s more to the other world than Al-Qaeda and suicide bombers” (p.400). However, this has to be contested: the memoir should be better understood as responding to Shah’s personal motives, rather than to showing the West the ‘true’ Morocco.
In an interview, Shah stated he came to Morocco to homage his father and teach his children “that the world is not a tiny apartment in London” (BBC TV 2008, 2:44-3:04). His father, Idries Shah, was a world-renowned Sufi scholar who published over thirty books. His figure is recurrent In Arabian Nights and always appears taking the role of a caring and teaching father (i.e. pp.229-231). It seems Shah sees himself with an obligation both to live up to society’s expectations, being Idries’ son, as well as to his father’s own. When Shah was a child, Idries told him about the Berber idea that we all have a story inside our heart (p.58), and so he starts the journey to find it decades later. The book, however, was marketed as a quest for the ‘real’ Morocco, not an account of Shah’s personal quest to find the tale in his heart.
It is interesting how the author uses many psychology-related images throughout In Arabian Nights: “To the Arab mind, the self is an obstacle” (p.148). Psychology, however, is much more than a motif in the book: it is the prime reason In Arabian Nights was written. We have already discussed Tahir’s relationship with Idries, who became the patriarch of the Shah family, leaving a strong legacy and remaining as a powerful figure and symbol in Tahir’s life. It is pertinent, then, to mention Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex, and how In Arabian Nights can be analysed in the light of this theory. As Shah realises he cannot defeat the oppressive city of London, symbol of the father, he turns to fulfil his task of becoming a man by surpassing his father. Tahir can’t get rid of Idries’ influence on him, and this is implied in In Arabian nights. The memoir is, then, an account of Tahir’s failed quest of ‘killing’ his father. Rather than rebelling to it/him, he surrenders to Idries by moving to Morocco and finding the story in his heart, and writing to the world encouraging to do the latter. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather were possessors of the “baton of storytelling”, and expected Shah to continue passing it on (Shah 2008, pp.158-9), task he fulfils accordingly.
However, Shah is much more of a Westerner than he presents himself to be. He definitely succeeded in showing the Arab world is not like al-Qaeda, but he did not help in revealing the ‘true’ Morocco. This is proof of the Western exercise of Orientalism, considering the Other (namely Morocco, or India, or China) as exotic, mystical, a jewel waiting to be discovered and worn. It is Adela Quested’s, from A Passage To India, desire to see the real India (Forster 1978, p.19). Shah shows at some points a de-Orientalised conception of Morocco, an example being the focus on friendship and honour as opposed to the traditional image of treacherous, uncivilised barbarians (p.61). However, the book perfectly fits within the Orientalist conception of ineffable Morocco, and most of what Tahir wants to teach to his Western readers is along these lines: “To understand [Morocco], you must try not to think” (p.105). In fact, the idea of a personal story, the main focus of In Arabian Nights, is not even Arab; it is Berber, or, better said, imazighen, meaning ‘free men’ (Brett, n.d.). The conception of a story in our heart is traditional of Morocco’s native settlers, who were subjugated by Arab invaders and named Berbers, a term deriving from ‘barbarian’. Arguably, then, In Arabian Nights has an imazighen focus as equally important as the Arab never explained by Shah, implying again, that, unconsciously, he was more concerned with his personal quest than with respectfully portraying Morocco to the West.
The success for In Arabian Night’s owes partly to neatly fitting within the Orientalist psyche, but it is also achieved through Shah’s effective narrative choices. Cliff-hangers are abundant, the best example being the telling of a story interrupted three times (pp.314-322). Sub-plots, such as Dar Khalifa’s jinns, are another crucial element of the memoir that hook the reader. Coupled with the huge number of characters and the main thread pushing the story forward, this makes In Arabian Nights feel like a fiction best-seller, therefore indicating the blurry demarcation that separates fiction from life-writing.
As Shah, Hemingway also showed a mastery of audience awareness and marketing skills, and A Moveable Feast is no exception to that. Published posthumously in 1964, it was finished a year before Hemingway committed suicide. He never stated the purpose of his memoir, most possibly a conscious decision which we will try to explain. Hemingway’s austere style, famous for the simple vocabulary and lack of speech tags, assures an easy read per se. His narrative voice, characterised by a lack of emotions, is a clear example of what has been labelled as a macho style of writing. This aspect of Hemingway’s work has been stressed both by critics and by himself for years, but the issue is much more nuanced that it appears to be.
Proust declared that the writing self is different from the social self of the author (Lee 2008, p. 27), and Hemingway is a convenient example to further explore this idea. Hemingway scholars have repeatedly stressed his many facets, selves, pictures (Baker 1972, pp.xiv-xviii). Ott stated he “established his reputation by the manufacturing of different images” (2017, 3:07-12; my italics). Sanderson pointed out his self-portrayal as macho, in his life and works, was not only conscious but carried out on purpose (in Donaldson 1996, p.170). That would mean, then, that A Moveable Feast was part of Hemingway’s agenda. He rejected the idea of biographies being written about him, and argued that they would be redundant given he was a writer (Lee 1983, p. 119). However, the reason he opposed biographies about him was also an exercise of his agenda of macho self-portrayal. In fact, A Moveable Feast was just a mere staging for Hemingway to brag about his masculinity. One of the best examples of this is the conversation he holds with the man in the café (pp.52-26). He never mentions his name, but Hemingway cares to show his own manly attitude and opinions: “Hang yourself. Only don’t talk about it. You could never write” (p.54).
Hemingway denied his manly passions were simulated (Sanderson in Donaldson 1996, p. 183), and indeed contemporary criticism show he was truthful. That said, the same critics point out that Hemingway turned to masculinity and everything related to it both as a “defensive response to what he saw as a general takeover by women” (Sanderson in Donaldson 1996, p.182) as well as a technique of self-promotion. A Moveable Feast can then be seen as one of Hemingway’s final attempts to assert his macho image. However, knowing this, one must inquire how truthful Hemingway was to himself, which leads to questions on the idea of a ‘true’ self, hence touching on the issue of human nature.
Spilka 1990 focuses on the idea that the author was never a ‘true’ macho, arguing that deep inside him he did not agree with his attitudes, beliefs and activities. For example, A Moveable Feast has been hailed for its romantic depiction of Paris, which gives us a hint of Hemingway’s repression of emotions: “But Paris was a very old city and we were very young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty” (2004, p.34). Linked with this are the Cézanne-influenced descriptions (i.e. the book’s opening paragraph), showing an acute observation of the world, implying indeed a masculine attitude to writing, but not a completely femininity-free writing. Therefore, the macho would then be just one more of Hemingway’s self-portrayed images, an image in deep conflict with his inner self. In an interview, he declared that “Once written, you have to stand by it. You may have said it to see whether you believed it or not” (Plimpton 1958, p. 10), which implies that his writing might have been more of a personal tool to assert his own masculinity, rather than one to show it off, supporting therefore my previous arguments.
Leading on from this, Hemingway is famous for his narrative ‘iceberg’ theory, where he explains that everything that can be omitted from the story should be so (Plimpton 1958, p.26). If we apply this to A Moveable Feast, which according to him hides “secrets” and “may be regarded as fiction”, we might take this as a subtle pointer for this inner conflict with masculinity: “There is always a chance that [this] book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact” (p.vii). This is a close rephrasing of his reply to the question of why he wrote, saying that he was able to create “a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive” (Plimpton 1958, p.30). If we are to take the truth is that Hemingway was a macho, then the truer truth is that he suffered an inner conflict with his masculinity.
However, it would be wishful thinking to state that his several statements above were a subtle confession for his issue with masculinity, as those declarations probably were much more general and related to many other aspects of his life. For example, one unforgettable “secret” never mentioned in A Moveable Feast was that he went to Paris following the advice of Sherwood Anderson, who gave Hemingway the opportunity to meet all these successful writers by writing them a recommendation letter for him (Flanagan 1955, p. 510). That said, from what is explored above we can reach the conclusion that A Moveable Feast was not a homage both to Paris and to Hemingway’s artistic influences, but the execution of his agenda of masculine self-portrayal.
In conclusion, through a critical analysis of these three memoirs and the purpose of writing them we have shed light on the authors’ inner world and creative processes. In the three cases it seems that, regardless of the topic, nature and public purpose, writing is a self-centred activity. This, however, poses several questions: Is life-writing redundant? Is there such thing as selfless writing? Which is the ‘truer’ of the authors’ selves: the writing or the non-writing? Are these even different?
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