Autobiography and fiction? What's up with that?
First, some background. Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on a dare from her editor, Robert Loomis. He said it would be impossible to write an autobiography that was also literature. Impossible, we say. Well, she took that bet, and two years later I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was born.
The novel follows all the rules of autobiography: it's a story about Angelou's life, organized chronologically, and written in the first person. Ta-da! Oh, and like many autobiographies, this one is also a coming-of-age story. It tells the story of young Maya growing up as she struggles to find her identity. Pretty standard coming-of-age right there.
One other thing about autobiographies: they're supposed to be true. And the outline of Caged Bird is definitely true to Angelou's life. Angelou was raised by her grandmother in Stamps, she was raped at eight years old, and she had have a baby at sixteen. But what about the specifics? Did Elder Thomas' teeth really land right at Maya's feet? Really?
Angelou bends the rules of autobiography when she writes Caged Bird. And she has the help of a little friend we like to call literary fiction. Lit fic (we just came up with that) is a work of fiction that's more concerned with the big picture than with the specifics of plot.
In this case, Angelou molded her story so that it was not just about her, but all African Americans. Maya is both a young Angelou and "a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America" (source). Angelou makes her life into something that teaches the reader not just about her, but also about the South and the African American experience in general.
Take that, genre distinctions.