When my favourite writers die, after the initial sadness has subsided, I begin to think of it in terms of gain, not loss.
Yes, they have died; they have left the physical world. They are no more, and yet they aren't.
I read a quote earlier, supposedly by William Hazlitt:
Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.
“This,” I thought, “this is why we write and write and write.”
This is why they remain, even when they are no more.
The words they have written. The lives they have touched. The memories they have created and left behind. The spaces they have occupied.
All these things are in the space within the frame of a closed door—the space through which we are able to see and feel. The way that we know they are still there, even though they are not.
We have not lost at all. I hope that we can stop thinking about it in that way some day.
What we have done instead is gain a chance for rediscovery—an idea I am slowly falling in love with.
In hearing of the passing of our favourite writers, we begin to think about the works that attracted us to them, the works that planted the seed of a lifelong love of literature in us, the works that made us feel ourselves [again], feel whole, like we belong somewhere, with someone; we feel like we matter and we are not alone.
When we think about these works, we share them, we rekindle the candles that burned within us, we are transported back to a moment in time, a moment in which life made sense and meant something more.
Two things tend to happen in the process: we remember what we felt the first time we read said works, and we discover new gems in those works — a rediscovery that is made possible by growth and experience.
Our favourite writers are beautiful to us once more.
The pain we feel is merely our acknowledgement of their eternal physical absence.
“S/He is not going to produce any new material. What a shame!”
Again, once the disappointment lessens, we remember that we still have the words — the durable words.
I felt this way after the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I feel the same now that Maya Angelou has died.
When I heard about her death, in a series of flashbacks, I was once again in the library of my secondary school, looking for books that I could relate to as a young Black girl in a world I wasn't sure I was made for, with a vague sense of a future which involved writing, words, and poetry. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was on the top of the recently returned pile and I picked it up, thinking, “I've heard of this before. Why does the caged bird sing, anyway?” I checked it out and read it.
One word that isn't quite a word: wow.
I am quite obsessive about writers and once I find one whose work opens up something in me that I cannot explain, I begin to follow their life as if their works are Scripture. So it was with Maya Angelou.
The poems – oh, the poems.
Have you ever stood before a mirror, reciting the words of Still I Rise? No?
Try it sometime and you will see.
There I was, a young thing, not quite pretty, not quite refined, saying words I wasn't quite sure about – meaning, that is – feeling new, strong, and important.
Who is this woman and what has she done with me?
I didn't know, then, and I am not so sure, now.
What I do know is that she filled me with a strength and potential for resilience that I did not find elsewhere until I came across Lorraine Hansberry sometime this year.
For me, it was the missing piece of a puzzle somewhere inside.
My family had recently moved to England and that was the first time it occurred to me that people from where I had come from were referred to as Black, and it was the first time I was aware that my manner of speaking was 'funny'. English assessment consisted of Speaking and Listening points, and I had ideas I wasn't afraid to share. Each time I opened my mouth to say something, the girls in my class would laugh and repeat what I said with an exaggerated African accent, the kind you hear on a television show that builds characters on stereotypes of Africans. This went on for quite a while and I became fed up so that I stopped speaking in class, much to the disappointment of my teacher.
It hurt, it broke me, it confused me.
They had names – and still do – for people like me, back then, and the most common was, “Freshie.” I never bothered to look into its origins, but some girls used to say, “Fresh off the boat,” which suggested that 'freshies' swum to England.
All this happened to a thirteen year old in a new country she was still trying to understand – you can imagine that my spirit was pretty broken.
What I found in Maya Angelou was the strength to rise above it – the power to ignore those people and think of myself as someone with a basic level of decency, something they lacked during that time of their lives. What I found was a stool on which to stand and be brave, to claim my funny accent and be happy with who I was.
It gave me life.
It helped me grow up.
It showed me how to dream and gather my dreams together.
It made me.
I even wrote a poem that was inspired by the idea of a caged bird when I was sixteen. It is a horrible poem, but it means something to me because of its inspiration.
And so Maya Angelou has gone, and a door has closed - but not quite - yet I look up and smile, because she helped in the making of me.
I wish nothing short of eternal rest upon her beautiful, resilient soul.
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