Literary Legacies

Emma Hanson tells us the value of engaging with other people’s legacies, especially through the autobiographies of writers like Maya Angelou and Damian Barr. For Issue #20 ‘Legacy’.

Legacies are typically passed down from people you know – your mum, your grandad, your neighbour, your great aunt Edith. They tell you of experiences they have had, lessons they have learned along the way, and give you advice on how to make the best of your own life. Or your family’s legacy could be a passion or talent for something. Maybe everyone in your family is a writer, or an artist, or shares a passion for a particular pasta sauce. 

Legacies can also be anonymous. Autobiographies, non-fiction books, and novels are a way of passing on knowledge, passions, or experiences to people all around the world. Literary legacies allow the idea of legacy to expand. You can learn and inherit the ideas of people who you will never meet, or who lived before your time. While your great aunt Edith might pass down a passion for fur coats, the greatest writers from across the world can expose you to places and people you have never encountered before. 

When I think of ‘legacy’ and autobiography, the first book which comes to mind is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is a book that has stayed with me partly due to the beautiful lyricism with which she writes, but also the resilience which she captures through her writing. Angelou paved the way for a new type of memoir in which African-American women could reclaim their narratives and shift themselves into the position of main character. By passing on her lived experiences, Angelou creates a legacy for African-American women to refocus their sense of self, and to thrive despite their circumstances. But Angelou’s literary legacy can also be relevant for people of other ethnicities and genders. Even though white women, black men, or non-binary people may not have had the same experiences as Angelou, we can learn something by exposing ourselves to the lives of others. She writes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that ‘anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse’. Whilst this quotation is written within the context of her lived experiences as an African-American woman, it has a wider legacy. It teaches other people of the struggle and courage of the African-American community. We can simultaneously foster this resilience in our own lives; her legacy teaches us about experiences other than our own, and lives on in the lives of those who read it. 

Last year I read Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me. It felt necessary to include this autobiography when writing about literary legacies, as Barr writes from another completely different perspective; he captures his harrowing childhood growing up poor and gay in Thatcher’s Britain. I think this book stuck with me as a legacy because it struck me how different life looked only a generation ago. Despite the objectively appalling situation he recalls in his autobiography, Barr writes with a clarity and eloquence that captures the small moments of joy he seeks out for himself. He writes about his friendship with his close friend Mark, his first moment in a nightclub where he meets openly gay men and realises that he is not alone, and he reveals his real-life happy ending as a thirty three year old living in Brighton with his partner. Barr’s story is an inspiring legacy about hope, individuality and being true to yourself. Like Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, we can find inspiration and encouragement from listening to people talk about their experiences. 

These are only two of the many autobiographies, novels and non-fiction books which I have been inspired by. I chose these two, as they represent my own journey with literary legacies; Angelou’s was the first legacy which stuck with me, while Barr’s writing was a recent discovery. While legacies can be a wonderful personal thing passed between your own family and friends, the wider possibilities of literary legacies feel endlessly exciting. Steep yourself in narratives of people whom you don’t know, who lived in a different time and place to you, and who can therefore broaden your perspective of the world. We write stories to understand ourselves and read stories to understand others, and we are the only animal on earth who do this. I think there is a huge power and potential in this. While your great aunt’s passion for fur coats is nice, maybe the resilience of Maya Angelou, the humour and positivity of Damien Barr, and the wonderful qualities of all sorts of remarkable people can become your own customisable legacy. 

Art by Eliot Lambert.

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