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Maya Angelou and me: adapting her memoirs brought me eye to eye with an icon

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She lived a sensational life – but it was her assumption of her equality that made Maya Angelou radical, as I rediscovered when turning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings into radio drama

I’ve been adapting novels and plays for radio for well over a decade. And I’ve adapted wonderful work: Beloved, The Darker Face of the Earth, Small Island, The Color Purple. But adapting the work of Maya Angelou for BBC Radio 4 was the first time I dramatised a memoir. I am used to ferreting out the intentions of the writer between the lines of a play and among the events in a novel. With Maya Angelou’s memoirs, she was right there in front of me, looking me in the eye. It is a bold adapter who wouldn’t feel intimidated. It would also be a foolish one who didn’t grab the opportunity to bring her words to the ear.

The intimacy of radio meant that having Maya’s words spoken by a narrated version of herself was a given. Without the distraction of visuals, life in the deep south during Jim Crow, the characters hustling on the streets of postwar San Francisco, a teenaged Maya driving over the Mexican border having never driven before, and her life as an expat in Ghana can all be imagined and savoured. But there were decisions to be made about which moments would take to being dramatised, which ones should be reported, and which should not be included in this adaptation. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to make these omissions.

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