The above video of Maya Angelou discussing how her childhood rape turned into her love of reading, poetry, and literature has been making the rounds on social media. In it, she states:
“Rape on the body of a young person, more often than not, introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic. Because it means that the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
I am so surprised that this is the first time I have come across this quote! This struck me in so many ways. It recalled my gratuitous amounts of cynicism as a preteen and teenager. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I understood the story – no, I felt the story. I laid my own story on top of hers, and saw the parallels. I never spoke of what happened to me. I became a cynic, I did not believe that there was anything good or beautiful or worthwhile. But art showed me beauty, it allowed me to speak, and it turned my young cynicism into what is now an almost annoying amount of optimism. Through painting I saw the world around me in a myriad of possibilities – from the Surrealism of Dali to the colorful Impressionism of Van Gogh.
I felt my own voice grow as Beatrice wittily bested Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. I learned how to construct my own dreams through the work of visual artists like Maya Deren and Fritz Lang (my tastes skew old).
Throughout this time, I consumed as much art as possible - museums, books, films, music – and I attempted to create art as well. This did not go as well. I can explain why Manet’s brushwork is important, but I could not replicate it myself. Despite 10 years of piano lessons, my untrained younger brother is much better at the instrument than I will ever be. I am not an artist. I’m art-adjacent. And that is OK. In the end, exploring the arts and practicing the arts was never about my technical ability. Through my own arts engagement, I could leave my young cynicism behind, I was able to find my voice, and create my own future. I learned how to see the world in new ways. I understood possibility, hard work, dedication, passion, and creative thinking.
The importance of optimism, imagination, and ambition in building a future cannot be understated. I truly believe that art, which helped me imagine and reimagine my future, culminating with the creation of Sunayra, is an important part of education and engagement for all young people. This is why Sunayra exists – to provide the tools for self-expression, engagement, and creative rethinking in order for young people to process, heal, communicate, and grow. I have been able to do these things for myself through my work with and around the arts. I have found inspiration for action in movies, literature, and paintings. I believe it is possible for war-affected youth in Sri Lanka to replace the cynicism of traumatic lives and histories with the optimism needed to build stable political, economic, social, and personal spaces for themselves and their communities.
Sunayra does not strive for arts engagement to produce artists. We strive for arts engagement to produce passionate, creative, and empowered young people. No young cynics here.