My hero: Maya Angelou by her publisher Lennie Goodings
The late author's UK editor remembers a funny, gracious, kind, demanding, delightful and wise human being – and writer of one of the world's great autobiographies
by Lenni Goodings
The Guardian, Thursday 29 May 2014
Maya Angelou and Lennie Goodings at Maya's 70th birthday party
Maya Angelou was one of the world's most important writers and activists. She lived and chronicled an extraordinary life: rising from poverty, violence and racism, she became a renowned author, poet, playwright, civil rights' activist – working with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – and memoirist. She wrote and performed a poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", for President Clinton on his inauguration; she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and was honoured by more than 70 universities throughout the world.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
by Dr Maya Angelou
I last saw her at the beginning of this month in her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and though she obviously wasn't entirely well, she was very much her larger-than-life self: funny, gracious, kind, demanding, delightful and wise. Our conversation ranged over Michelle and Barack Obama, for whom she held huge respect; her "daughter" Oprah; her son and grandchildren, and my family. She talked about James Baldwin and Malcolm X, and we ate pancakes and then, later, wonderful spare ribs. We laughed and we drank. At the time I thought how blessed I am, and now I know I was.
Her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Almost like a novel, it takes the reader into a time and place – 1930s Stamps, Arkansas, the segregated southern US town where her grandmother ran the general store – that is never to be forgotten. It was first published in America by Random House in 1969. Angelou said that Bob Loomis (who was her editor in America for 40 years) asked her many times to write her life story – she was convinced he was put up to it by "Jimmy" Baldwin – and she demurred until finally he said: "Well, it's hard to write a good autobiography." "I will start tomorrow," came her answer.
It was hugely acclaimed in America, but when it was shown to British publishers in the 1970s, according to Maya, they said that British people wouldn't care about a young black girl growing up in the American south in the 1930s. So no British edition appeared. In the mid 1980s Ursula Owen, then editorial director of Virago, visited Random House US, where the rights director suggested she have a look. Owen knew immediately it was for us.
I was the publicity director at the time and, soon after, a seriously crazily typed letter from Jessica Mitford arrived for me. She was going to make it her business to tell the world about her great friend and this book! We wondered how these two women had become friends – and we later discovered that they were devoted to each other. Jessica, claimed Maya, came once to her rescue to face down the Ku Klux Klan, saying she was Maya's mother. I copied parts of her letter to send to all the press and the response was immediate.
Then Maya came to London. Well, that is just too tame a description. In our tiny office, 6ft Maya sang and danced and laughed her way into our lives. She recited her poem "Phenomenal Woman" in our office. We were astonished and thrilled – and very much awed.
So it was that 15 years after the first US publication, we published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in a Virago paperback. Maya appeared onAfternoon Plus. It was a heartfelt, bold interview, and Maya talked about the part in her book where she is raped at eight and how she became mute until literature coaxed her back into speaking. The TV switchboards were jammed; the reviews and features that followed were stunning. Maya beamed straight into British hearts.
I don't think we quite knew what we had. Our first print run was around 8,000 paperbacks and was sold out before publication. We printed another cautious 8,000. Today, the Virago edition of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has sold more than 600,000 copies, and it's still selling year on year, month on month. It's on courses, reading lists and remains, to my mind, one of the world's great autobiographies. We went on to publish all Maya's works: six more volumes of autobiography, her poetry, essays and cookbooks.
She brought us bestsellers but, more than that, she brought us a reminder that the human need for dignity and recognition is a gift easily given to one another, but frighteningly easy to withhold. Maya's fierce belief was that each of us has a deep worth – a simple yet profound fact. She was an indomitable force, famed for her spirit and style, courage and laughter.
In 2009 she wrote: "My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things …" She was a wonderful teacher: "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them … Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like … Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity."