Paule Marshall is a novelist and essayist whose work explores American-Caribbean cultural connections and conflicts through female protagonists. Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke on April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. The daughter of first-generation West Indian immigrants from Barbados, Marshall was raised in a close-knit West Indian community, a factor that influences and informs all her works. Not only is Marshall’s work infused with the Caribbean (Diaspora) culture but also her fascination with the Caribbean “nation language” is strikingly obvious in all of her writings. Marshall attended Brooklyn College where she earned a first degree in English literature. After graduating in 1953, she worked as a writer and researcher for Our World, an African American magazine, at which time she began working on her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. Since then, Marshall has assumed several professorships at academic institutions, such as Yale, Columbia, Cornell, and Virginia Commonwealth universities, and has won numerous prizes and awards, including in 1992 the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and an American Book Award.
Set in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II, Marshall’s autobiographical novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) depicts the real-life struggles of an Afro-Caribbean immigrant community in search of the American dream. This novel, while it speaks of community and kinship, or lack thereof, is also a coming of age story for the young female protagonist, Selina Boyce, who in addition to becoming embroiled in the struggle for selfhood independent of the Caribbean community, is also enmeshed in an ongoing struggle with her powerful mother, Silla, for autonomy. The brown girl, Selina, stands in stark opposition to white Eurocentric values symbolized by the brownstones that the mother, Silla, and others members of the Barbadian Homeowners Association, on the ride to upward mobility, purchase as a means of not only acquiring wealth but also status. In this novel Marshall questions the relentless pursuit of material possessions and the lack of spirituality and spiritual consciousness. Acknowledging her dual heritage, Afro-Caribbean and African American, Selina makes her own way, returning to her motherland, Barbados, enacting both a physical and spiritual return as a means of bridging the two communities, African American and Afro-Caribbean. This departure for the motherland is a marker of transatlantic connections.
Marshall’s collection of four novellas, Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), which won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, is arguably a “detour” from her other works in which the leading characters are women, distinctively black women. In these short stories, geographically titled Barbados, Brooklyn, British Guiana, and Brazil, the leading characters are all middle-aged men who relentlessly pursue fame and wealth at the expense of love and companionship. In her own words, Marshall undertook this project in order to explore if she could write convincingly about men. In this short story collection, Marshall once again addresses the surrendering of one’s spiritual essence and the inexorable pursuit of material acquisitions, as she demonstrates the devastating effect of this “obsessive pastime” as each man eventually confronts a hollow and meaningless existence in spite of material wealth and/or personal success.
The Bournehills community in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) is marked by its deep-seated sense of community and communal kinship while it refuses to relinquish its ancestral inheritances to modernization/Westernization. In this second novel, as in all of her works, Marshall is engaged with what Kamau Brathwaite calls the literature of recognition (of an African presence). Resisting and renouncing colonial intervention, the Bournehills inhabitants proudly embrace their past, their roots. Honoring their dead hero, Cuffee Ned, the Bournehills inhabitants restage and participate in an annual reenactment of the slave rebellion that Cuffee initiated years ago in Pyre Hill, now famously known as the Pyre Hill Revolt. This return to the past is both spiritual and physical for the main character, Merle Kinbona, who at the novel’s end is embarked on a journey to Africa to reclaim her lost daughter. In the process of reclamation, she will reclaim herself, mending her disparate selves and the community. History and memory are here employed as tools of empowerment.
Marshall’s next novel, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), which was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1984, explores the theme of diasporic continuity and connectivity as the middle-aged African American woman protagonist, Avatara (Avey) Johnson, voyages inadvertently to the off island of Grenada, Carriacou. This novel traces Avey’s spiritual unmooring, her rootlessness, and relinquishment of things ancestral to her return to self and embraces ancestral inheritances as she eventually is able to “call her nation” by invoking the ancestors. Consumed by materialism in White Plains, New York, Avey is able to reclaim herself, under the direction of Mothers, on the chosen island of Carriacou, where homage is paid religiously to the ancestors and African oral traditional practices are proudly practiced and preserved. The Mothers who redirect Avey’s wanderings and stage her rebirth are Marshall’s Mother Poets who have double vision and could see in more ways than one.
Marshall’s collection of essays, Reena and Other Stories (1983), includes the introductory groundbreaking autobiographical essay “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen.” In this essay Marshall chronicles her emergence into a writer which began in her mother’s kitchen, where her mother and other women of the Barbadian community concocted their art—domestic chores as well as political issues—for they themselves were poets in the making. The common, everyday language used by these women poets are the “true” markers of their identity. The spoken word served as a refuge as well as functioned a weapon according them visibility and empowerment.
Daughters (1991) details the spiritual and physical journeys of an African American daughter, Ursa, who after living and working in the United States for several years, upon her mother’s request, returns to the fictitious Caribbean island Triunion to assist her prime minister father with his reelection campaign. Once an ardent historian who flaunted his historical knowledge and ties to the island, the incumbent prime minister, Primus McKenzie, in his quest for reelection, abandons his past oral traditions, surrendering not only his rights but also the community’s right to U.S. imperialist interests. Ursa eventually comes to self-realization as she merges with the ancestress Congo Jane and dedicates her life to community activism. Merging with the ancestress is suggestive of a possible convergence between the two worlds, Triunion and the United States, presently at odds. On the verge of achieving wholeness, Ursa returns not only to her homeland but also to her thesis project in Triunion, rejected earlier in the United States, documenting the lives of slaves in the New World and their resistance to enslavement in the United States.
Marshall returns to the theme of bridging communities and communal relationship in The Fisher King (2000). The concept of binary oppositions, or opposing forces (a common feature in Marshall’s works), that is at the center of the novel highlights the need for synthesis—the need to unite disparate selves. Here again dual heritage, African American and Afro-Caribbean, is celebrated in the young male protagonist Sonny, the Fisher King, who has a pivotal role to play in uniting and preserving family ties (the Holy Grail). Music functions as the threshold of familial ties and is posited as a recipe for healing and reconciliation. In the process of uniting his feuding great-grandmothers, Sonny, the keeper of the Holy Grail, comes to understand and acknowledge their combined heritage, Afro-Caribbean and African American, and by extension his own.
Brathwaite, Kamau; Caribbean Literature
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