Genre of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Maya Angelou's work ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'' is still relevant today. Angelou blends the genre of autobiography with literary fiction, creating a piece which connects her life to those of so many African Americans.


Maya Angelou's work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will continue to provide truth for generations to come. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is its defiance of one genre. Angelou's masterful reworking of one genre helps to make her novel a work that connects her life to that of the African American struggle to grow up through racism, abandonment, and other hardships.

Maya Angelou, the author of the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Genre in Literature

There is an enormous amount of books in the world. Today, these books are even more available with online databases. To organize the overwhelming amount of books and help readers find the type of book they might like, there are categories also known as genres. Genres place books in similar groups based on their content. Genres can be general such as fiction or nonfiction, or more specific such as mysteries or historical fiction. Books typically have one genre, but may fit into several genres.

One of the reasons Angelou's novel is so captivating is that it blends two genres that often are not combined: autobiography and literary fiction. Actually, that is how the book got its start! Angelou and her future publisher were talking about the possibility of her writing a book about her youth. When she refused, he said, ''It's just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible.'' There were many reasons for Angelou to tell her story, but the motivating factor for her to write it down in a book format was this challenge.

But how does this affect its genre? Read the following sections to explore each of the genres in this book.

Genre: Autobiography

There are a few necessities for a work to be considered part of the autobiography genre: it must be the telling of a person's life, it must be told from their perspective, and it must be organized chronologically. According to these definitions, this work is definitely an autobiography. To give an example of autobiographical writing, we will look at chapter 12 when Angelou gives the reader the following insight: ''The gamblers in pinstriped suits and their makeup-deep women whispered to me out of blood-red mouths that now I knew as much as they did. I was eight, and grown.'' She retells a moment when a women talked to her and how she felt at the time.

However, autobiographies are also supposed to have an element of truth to them. This work remains true to Angelou's life and the events which take place in her writing took place in her life. Though the major events are accurate, some of the specifics slip into the genre of literary fiction. Angelou adds in dialogue and some of her story is too accurate to believe. For instance, minute details from her childhood like Elder Thomas' teeth landing right at Maya's feet seem to build the story yet be too small of a detail to remember years later.

Genre: Blend of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction is a work of fiction, or storytelling events which did not take place, which involves social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the human condition. Literary fiction is symbolic or thematic with its focus. These stories are often separated from a typical novel, which is much more plot driven. This is one reason why Angelou's novel is atypical.

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