Traumatic Childhood Experience in The Kite Runner and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Renowned therapist, Zoe Reyes, presents the argument that ‘Childhood experiences lay the groundwork for what will be our general attachment style throughout our lives, how we bond with another person, as well as how we respond emotionally when that person is separated from us.’  In both Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, the respective protagonists, Amir and Maya, experience different perspectives of trauma in childhood, with Amir observing the rape of his friend and servant, while Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The idea that childhood experiences lay the groundwork for the dynamic in key relationships later in life rings true in both circumstances, as each traumatic event has far-reaching consequences both in a personal sense for each character, and in terms of how they interact within key relationships as they transition from childhood to adulthood. However, both respective writers, Khaled Hosseini and Maya Angelou, position the respective protagonists as people who have been influenced not just by these events, but by various other features of their lives, including parental influence and the impact of society on their moral compass and outlook on life.

Both Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ are voiced by the adult versions of the respective protagonists, Amir and Maya. They also commence at a chronological end point which foreshadows future events of the characters. Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ opens with a moment that ultimately changed the protagonist, Amir’s, life indefinitely, ‘I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a mud wall, peeking into the alley… I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years’.  The confessional and cathartic tone of Amir’s narrative voice places emphasis on how this event impacted him. The vivid imagery used by Hosseini suggests that Amir’s eyes have never shifted from this moment and the memory has had a profound effect on Amir’s life. Furthermore, the temporal shifts used throughout the novel, primarily in the first chapters indicates how no matter how much time passes, his mind keeps returning to this one moment as being the one which most defines the trajectory of his character development. This purging of emotions also presents how this childhood event has developed him as a character and envisages how it has changed the dynamics of relationships in his life. Comment by Clodagh MCERLEAN: Quote highlighted for word count

Similarly, Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ commences with a memory from childhood, ‘I ran down the yard and let it go. I ran peeing and crying… growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.’  Maya Angelou’s writes her autobiography in a lyrical, retrospective way as she recounts her childhood. The first-person narrative allows Maya Angelou to covey her memories with raw emotion to the reader. Angelou also incorporates her adult opinion throughout the novel as she explains how she was aware of her disadvantage in life, which in itself, this knowledge corrupted her innocence and may have disrupted the dynamic in key relationships throughout her life.

Analyse, compare and contrast the metaphorical language used in each quotation. Include contextual detail to drive your argument forward – bring textual analysis, argument and context together more directly in response to the key terms. Both protagonists experience separation from their parental figures at a young age. For Amir, it is through the death of his mother and emotional detachment of his father. For Maya, it is the divorce of her parents and the abrupt moving to and from Stamps as a result of their divorce.

Khaled Hosseini’s construction of the character of Amir focuses on his complex relationship with Baba (his father), which has stemmed from what Amir perceives to be Baba’s hostile attitude towards him, as he describes to the reader how ‘I also felt like Baba hated me a little… I had killed his wife, his beautiful princess…’  The elevated characterisation of Amir’s mother and tone used suggests that Amir is made feel responsible for the death of his mother. The sharp contrast of the regal language used to describe Amir’s mother and the forceful vocabulary choice, ‘hated’ and ‘killing’ illuminates the sense of guilt and responsibility that Amir has resided with this whole time. This signifies the importance of a parent in forming character and that the loss of Amir’s mother in his childhood created an impact on the dynamic of the relationship between him and Baba.

Furthermore, Baba’s resentment of Amir has created a lack of understanding between father and son, as he acidly says ‘Why don’t you go read one of those books of yours?’ . Baba’s sharp and condescending tone shows the disappointment that Baba feels towards Amir for having an interest in literature rather than football, which in turn has led to Amir’s isolation, ‘…sit by the door…knees drawn to my chest…listening to their laughter…’ (Hosseini, 2011, p. 5). Hosseini’s use of emotive imagery depicts a barrier both literally and metaphorically between them. This barrier is a product of Baba’s lack of understanding towards Amir and unwillingness to try and understand him. This crystallising the dynamic that has been created as a consequence of Baba’s resentment towards Amir, which Amir believes is the case because he feels responsible for his mother dying during childbirth. Therefore, childhood events, such as his mother’s death, has influenced the dynamic in this father/son relationship. Contextual detail needed here

In comparison, Maya also has a complex relationship with her biological parents but not in the same sense as Amir. The complexity of Maya’s relationship derives from her parents’ divorce as she was physical separated from them. This contrasts Amir’s relationship with Baba as although there is a metaphorical/physical barrier between them, Amir still lives with his father and has occasional contact with him.

Maya Angelou was denied an intimate and enduring relationship with her biological parents as they ‘decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage and Father shipped us home to his mother.’ The sharp use of language and almost humorous tone used to describe the initial move to stamps, introduces the feelings of abandonment and the deterioration of the relationship between Maya and her parents, that was generated by the separation of her parents. The dismissive language used to describe the separation, which is rather monumental in a child’s life, reflects how Maya and Bailey felt they were treated by their parents. The years that Maya was growing up was the time of ‘the Great Depression’. Around this time (1930-1940), millions of black children were part of a movement known as ‘The Great Migration’. This involved the children being sent back and forth between their parent’s northern cities and relatives southern towns when the parents could no longer fund their children’s lives. Furthermore, as a result of the move, Maya and her brother Bailey’s relationship grew stronger as they had to depend on each other, ‘Bailey was the greatest person in my world… my pretty Black brother was my kingdom come.’  Maya Angelou’s religious allusion and superlative language used to describe Bailey places emphasis on how much they mean to each other and how as a result of moving to Stamps, away from their parents, the pair have become each other’s source of hope and comfort due to this traumatic position they have been forced into. Therefore, it can be said that the childhood experience of her parent’s separation and move to Stamps created a shift in the dynamic of relationships in Maya’s life both positively (Bailey) and negatively (Parents).

The major conflict of both Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is the traumatic retelling of a childhood rape. The contrasting element between the novels, is the perspective of the respective protagonists- Maya, the victim of the rape by her mother’s then boyfriend and Amir, the observer of the rape of his loyal friend and servant, Hassan, by a neighborhood Pashtun extremist. In both texts there is a build-up of events that allude to the climax of the novels. Much greater development of this is needed.

In Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, Amir explains how Assef got his nickname, Assef ‘the Ear Eater,’ when another child, ‘fought Assef over a kite and ended up fishing for his right ear from a muddy gutter.’ The characterisation of Assef confirms that he is a dangerous character and can be considered the antagonist of the novel. Hassan was initially verbally abused by Assef, ‘Hey, Flat-Nose…They dirty our blood…Your Hazara made a big mistake today, Amir.’  This character interaction and the reporting of Assef’s nickname foreshadows the traumatic experience, the rape of Hassan. Moreover, the possessive pronoun ‘Your’ and dehumanising language ‘Hazara’ that describes Hassan reflects the social ideas of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. This is that Hazaras are viewed as the inferior ethnic group that are submissive to the superior Pashtun group. The social differences between these two social classes created an unspoken impact on how Hassan and Amir’s relationship was viewed by Pashtun extremists such as Assef, as they did not approve of the unity between the two groups. This social conflict disrupted the childhood innocence of Amir and Hassan’s relationship, as until reminded or put in public the pair did not care that they were of opposing social groups. It was this reminder that also create a shift in dynamic of their relationship as Amir tended to conform to the beliefs of superiority in order to justify his actions.

In contrast, Maya from ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was sexually abused by Mr Freeman prior to her rape, ‘awoke to a pressure…it was his ‘thing’ on my leg…pulled me to him and put his hand between my legs…What had we done?’ The simplistic language Angelou uses to describe this traumatic experience highlights her innocence and naivety surrounding the situation as she struggles to comprehend what happened. The use of the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ suggests how Maya feels that she is also to blame even thought she was attacked.

Mr Freeman was the boyfriend of Vivian, Maya’s mother, at the time and lived with the family. Immediately after he abused Maya, he manipulated her into staying silent about what had happened, ‘If you tell anybody…I’ll have to kill Bailey…an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand.’  The use of militant language emphasises Maya’s naivety and how confusing the situation must be for eight-year-old Maya which consequently corrupted her innocence. Furthermore, the threat of Bailey’s safety looms over Maya, ‘no chance I could ask Bailey…stunned me…the first secret I had ever kept from Bailey…felt lonelier than ever.’  I think these quotations are too abridged – they lose the sense of what is being said to some degree. The narrative voice being of Maya Angelou herself, adds raw emotion to the language and it is evident that a result of Maya’s sexual abuse is the distancing of herself from Bailey in order to protect him. Consequently, it can be deduced that childhood experiences, such as sexual abuse, does corrupt their innocence and have the greatest impact on key relationship in their lives, in the case Maya with Bailey. Contextual detail is needed in every paragraph. Much more sustained comparison and contrast is needed. Connect textual analysis, argument and context more thoroughly here.

Both victims of the respective traumatic events in Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ were deemed the powerless person in society. In Khaled Hosseini’s, ‘The Kite Runner’ Hassan was the victim of a rape in the winter of 1975, which deeply impacted Hassan, ‘Because that was the winter Hassan stopped smiling.’ There is an almost guilty tone present that suggests Amir had regrets of the action or rather inaction that he took regarding the rape of Hassan. The sibilance used ‘stopped smiling’ draws the reader’s attention to the negativity associated with this particular winter. The shift in narrative voice and the foreshadowing of the events of chapter seven highlights how Amir is looking back on these events through an adult lens and tries to make sense of the trauma he witnessed in childhood. The inclusion of this statement also conveys the tone of guilt as he felt the need to include and express that he feels somewhat responsible for as to why he stopped smiling. Hence, with Amir’s lack of action and inability to stand up for Hassan, along with the social conflict of the era between the Pashtun and Hazara groups, it makes it clear how the traumatic events of his childhood clouds Amir’s judgement which ultimately corrupts his innocence and impacts the dynamic in Hassan and Amir’s relationship. Similarly, in Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ Maya’s life is transformed after she moves to her mother’s home in St Louis in 1935, ‘my seven-year-old world humpty-dumptied, never to be put back together again… driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil.’  The narrative voice shifts to adult Maya as she reports this section of her life, however the nursery rhym

The biblical allusion also foreshadows the traumatic events to come, and paired with this narrative voice, indicates that the traumatic childhood experiences of chapter eleven had a profound and lasting impact on Maya and corrupted her innocence which created a shift in dynamic in the key relationship in her life. Look again at sentence structure and length here. Maybe consider the nursery rhyme allusion – humpty-dumptied? Reminder to the reader of Maya’s age and innocence. This point is good but the paragraph needs much more development.

Zoe Reyes, LMFT,  also refers to how the exposure of a complex trauma can inflict crucial damage to a child’s emotional development. This relates to the story of Amir and Maya as the horrific traumas that they encountered as children corrupted their innocence, forced a sense of maturity upon them and ultimately created a shift in the dynamic in key relationships in their lives. This is good but needs much more development.

The events of chapter seven in Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ is a turning point for the dynamic of key relationships in Amir’s life. There was always a power imbalance in the relationship between Amir and Hassan prior to the events of chapter seven, ‘If I asked, really asked, he wouldn’t deny me. Hassan never denied me anything.’  The italicised language used emphasises that Amir takes advantage of Hassan’s vulnerability and uses his knowledge of belonging to the superior social class to manipulate Hassan. Despite Amir’s mistreatment of him, Hassan remains blindly loyal to Amir, ‘for you a thousand times over.’ This motif crystallises the dynamic of their relationship and how Hassan stays persistently loyal to Amir, regardless of what trouble it may bring. This needs much more development. Contextual detail is needed to further the argument much more. Much more detailed comparison and contrast is needed. Hassan’s loyalty sharply contrasts Amir’s selfishness as he only cares about his own needs and feelings. This is evident in the events of chapter seven as Amir narrates from his own perspective with his thoughts and feelings gaining priority, ‘he kept his promise…ran that kite for me…my key to Baba’s heart…felt paralyzed… I almost said something. Almost. I just watched paralyzed…paralyzed.’ Don’t abridge the quotation too much. The symbolism of the kite reflects the friendship between Amir and Hassan. How? Analyse the language technique in more detail. In this case, the metaphor translates to their friendship being the price that had to be paid for Amir to win Baba’s heart. The staccato language illuminates how Amir allows fear to overcome him and how this state of paralysis from this childhood experience, has haunted Amir throughout his life. More development needed here. Context must be included in every paragraph.

Amir’s selfishness also translates to Amir’s inaction during the rape of Hassan when Amir chooses to run and tries to justify his thinking, ‘I stopped watching…I ran… I actually aspired to cowardice… real reason I was running… Assef was right…Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba’. The biblical allusion of the lamb alludes to a Muslim tradition of ‘Eid-e-Quorban’ where they sacrifice a sheep to remind them how the prophet Ibrahim almost sacrificed his own son from God.  This reflects how Amir, although unknowingly, sacrifices his brother for Baba’s affection. The italicised language emphasises adult Amir’s disappointment in himself as he reverted to generational thinking of Hassan being ‘just a Hazara.’ The dehumanisation of Hassan emphasises that Amir’s innocence has become corrupted by societal conflict between the Pashtuns and the Hazaras, which has ingrained the idea that Pashtuns (Amir) are untouchable and that Hazaras (Hassan) are worthless . Amir’s decision to stop watching was because he could not bear to watch anymore, but he doesn’t think about Hassan in the situation – instead, he runs. Furthermore, Amir continues to prove his disloyalty to Hassan as he chooses to ignore that he witnessed the rape and any signs of it, describing how ‘I pretended I hadn’t heard…pretended I hadn’t seen…tiny drops that fell from between his legs and stained the snow black.’ This graphic imagery confronts the reader and puts emphasis on how his own emotions take priority in Amir’s life and what is most comfortable for him. This conforms to the generational thinking of 1970s Afghanistan as Pashtuns were viewed as superior and viewed Hazaras as people who ‘pollute our homeland’ and ‘dirty our blood’. Therefore, it can be said that although the traumatic childhood event in Amir’s life (rape of Hassan) did corrupt his innocence, it did not create a shift in dynamic. This is because prior to the rape of Hassan, the dynamic in their relationship had already be established and the events only magnified and heightened it. Good point but develop this further and pull together all assessment objectives to directly relate back to the key terms.

In contrast to Amir’s voyeuristic perspective, Maya herself was a victim of rape by someone in the position of power, in a way which parallels the experiences of Hassan. However, in Maya’s case, race and social class had no bearing on the attack.

Contrasting Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ account of a childhood rape is written in the perspective of Maya herself. Maya, who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, describes the incident through an adult lens, ‘And then. / Then there was pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.’  The simplistic language used adds an immediacy to how traumatic the experience was for Maya. Consider the metaphorical language – analyse in detail. Maya describes the harsh reality of the traumatic experience as, ‘The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can and the mind of the violator cannot.’ The figurative language along with the balanced clauses reinforce that this is Maya telling her story after she has had a long time to process it. The powerful biblical metaphor crystallises how Maya was in the powerless position and that although she was not a victim of a racial rape, she was in a position of vulnerability due to her innocence and desire to protect her brother. Furthermore, her religious upbringing that taught her to not ‘let anyone see her pocketbook’ put her at a disadvantage as she was unaware of what was happening to her. Maya felt a need to include Mr Freeman’s weak apology and attempts to normalise what happened, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, Rite. I didn’t mean it. But don’t you tell…go to the library and just act natural.’ The inclusion of this character interaction alludes to a sense of guilt that Maya felt for Mr Freeman as she focuses on his emotional response not hers, demonstrating her innocence. Moreover, it is clear that this event took its toll on Maya both physically and mentally, ‘hips seemed to be coming out their sockets. I couldn’t sit long on the hard seats in the library (they had been constructed for children) …’  The uncomfortable language and the parenthesis used to frame the interjection made by Maya’s adult voice about the chairs being for children suggests that she feels that she can no longer be deemed a child due to the sexual abuse she has received. This then illuminates that this traumatic experience has corrupted the innocence of Maya immediately and has imprinted a lasting image into Maya’s life as she references that certain object were made for children, implying that she no longer considered herself a child due to the loss of her innocence. It can therefore be established that Maya’s traumatic childhood experience did corrupt her innocence and shift the dynamic in key relationships in her life, especially her relationship with her brother Bailey. Good point – more development is needed as to how you have come to this conclusion. Contextual detail is needed.

In conclusion, both respective protagonists from Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ experienced traumatic childhood experiences which did corrupt their innocence and created several shifts in the dynamic of key relationships in their lives. However, it was because of these experiences that both respective protagonists were able to create new relationships and experience things which left them with hope.


  1. Angelou, M., 2007. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. s.l.:Virago Press.
  2. Hosseini, K., 2011. The Kite Runner. s.l.:Bloomsbury Publishing.
  3. Anon., n.d. Great Migration. History.com Editors, 2018. Great Migration. 20th September.
  4. Hucal, S., 2016. Afghanistan: Who are the Hazaras?. Al Jjazeera, June.
  5. McKernan, B., 2017. Eid al-Adha 2017: When is it? Everything you need to know about the Muslim holiday. The Independent, August.
  6. Reyes, Z., 2018. How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships. Psychcentral.com, July. pg. 14


Read more