Saturday, September 19, 2009

On rereading

Confession: I have never actually read any of Maya Angelou's novels or autobiographies. I have read some of her poetry and it has always impressed me. But for some reason, I have never managed to get to her longer works. However, she is a formidable figure in contemporary literature, so when I came across this interview she did with George Plimpton (an American journalist, writer and editor) I was interested to see what she had to say about her writing. When I got to the part where she talked about why she reread books and how she hopes her readers reread her books, well, I got a little excited.

Maya Angelou is an excellent speaker, and she is able to articulate the reasons for rereading in much more succinct way than I am. Although I think people reread books for all sorts of reasons, the rewards for doing so are nicely put here, making this a nice addition to the dialogue of why readers reread.
Interviewer: So you don't keep a particular audience in mind when you sit down in that hotel room and begin to compose or write. It's yourself.

Angelou: It's myself ... and my reader. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool--and I'm not any of those--to say that I don't write for a reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. There's a phrase in West Africa, in Ghana; it's called "deep talk." For instance, there's a saying: "The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief's bugle, but where to blow it." Now, on the face of it, one understands that. But when you really think about it, it takes you deeper. In West Africa they call it "deep talk." I'd like to think I write "deep talk." When you read me, you should be able to say "Gosh, that's pretty. That's lovely. That's nice. Maybe there's something else? Better read it again." Years ago I read a man named Machado de Assis who wrote a book called Dom Casmro: Epitaph of a Small Winner. Machado de Assis is a South African writer--black mother, Portuguese father--writing in 1865, say. I thought the book was very nice. Then I went back and read the book and said, "Hmm. I didn't realize all that was in that book." Then I read it again, and again, and I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That's when I decided to write. I would write so that the reader says, "That's so nice. Oh boy, that's pretty. Let me read that again." I think that's why Caged Bird is in its twenty-first printing in hardcover and its twenty-ninth printing in paper. All my books are still in print, in hardback as well as paper, because people go back and say, "Let me read that. Did she really say that?"
(Interview excerpt taken from: George Plimpton (ed.), "Maya Angelou," Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Viking, 1992) copywrite 1990 by The Paris Review.)

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