In 1929, Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York. She visited Barbados, her parents’ birthplace, for the first time at the age of nine. Marshall graduated from Brooklyn College in 1953 and graduate school at Hunter College in 1955. Early in her life, Marshall wrote a series of poems reflecting impressions of Barbados. Later, she turned to fiction. She has published short stories and articles in various magazines. She is best known for her novels and collections of short stories: Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Reena and Other Short Stories (1983), and Daughters (1991). Marshall has lectured on black literature at universities and colleges such as Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University. She holds a distinguished chair in creative writing at New York University.
Works & Themes
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall’s first novel, tells the story of Selina Boyce, a girl growing up in a small black immigrant community. Selina is caught between her mother, who wants to conform to the ideals of her new home and make the American dream come true, and her father, who longs to go back to Barbados. The dominant themes in the novel – travel, migration, psychic fracture and striving for wholeness – are important structuring elements in her later works as well. (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity)
Soul Clap Hands and Sing, whose title is taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” is comprised of four novellas, each taking place in different locations but depicting an aging man of African descent. Hardened by their compliance to the Western ideal to accumulate wealth, these men feel the need to develop meaningful human relationships and reach out to young women. Still caught up in their selfish motives, these men must face their individual failures for having waited too long as well as the tragedy of loneliness. While, as Joyce Pettis points out, “women’s capacity for renewal is not elaborately articulated in this early work, the recognition is crucial, for it foreshadows their potential for exhaustive developments in later texts,” such as The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, and Daughters (15). In these works, childbearing stands for the hope to heal the West Indian psyche of the fractures it has suffered from the traumatic experience of the colonial past and white supremacy (See Frantz Fanon, Colonial Education, Gender and Nation). Conversely, the inability to conceive and the unwillingness to bear children will be a symbol of the inability to remedy those fractures.
In The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Marshall brings these ideas together in the character of Merle Kimbona, daughter of one of the last sugar cane plantation owners and a servant. As an educated woman who lived in England but returned to her homeland, the fictitious island of Bourne located in the West Indies, Merle stands as a symbol for the troubled consciousness of the West Indian psyche. Having been seduced and abused by the perverted ideals of British white supremacy epitomized in the character of an upper class English lady, which ultimately leads to the end of her marriage with her African husband, Merle is left alone with her shame and the conviction that she has lost her quest for her true identity. Thus it is a bitter and cynical Merle who meets the novel’s other main character, Jewish American anthropologist Saul Amron, coming to Bournehills to conduct a preliminary survey that aims to better the life of the inhabitants in a way that takes their culture into account. The subdued romantic affair between Merle and Saul results in the cancellation of Saul’s project, the suicide of his wife, and Merle’s decision to move to Africa to find her husband and daughter. Simple oppositions, deployed in an ideologically burdened manner (e.g. the one between a problematic America and an unproblematic Africa or the one between “perverted,” futile female homosexuality and Merle’s ability to conceive a child with her African husband) point to a problematic idealism in the novel’s message. Nevertheless, Marshall’s extraordinary talent in depicting complex, intriguing characters undermines this idealism and creates a brilliant epic of the West Indian condition.
Reena and Other Stories is a collection of Marshall’s short fiction but it also contains the important essay “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen.” In this piece, Marshall expresses her gratitude to her mother and other Barbadian women for having taught her the power of the word as an instrument of communication as well as survival.
Praisesong for the Widow is in many ways the closing point of Marshall’s explorations concerning the fractured West Indian psyche. The main characters, Avatara and Jerome Johnson evoke Silla and Deighton Boyce, the parents of Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones. Similar to the couple in the earlier novel, Avatara and Jerome are caught up in pursuing capitalist comforts. Like Silla, Jerome dies without ever realizing that there may be a different way of survival. Unlike Silla, Avatara discovers a possibility to reconnect with the cultures of African descent when traveling to a Caribbean island (See Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic). Here, the remains of African cultures are preserved in legends, dances, myths, and rituals. The novel suggests that, in Pettis’s words, “the divisiveness of Eurocentric cosmology can be countered through sensitivity to and acceptance of one’s cultural origins. The result is a self that is whole and moored” (16-17).
In Daughters, Marshall is no longer invested in depicting such cultural and psychic reintegration although the familiar motives of travel and the symbolic significance of childbearing reappear. The heroine, Ursa McKenzie, daughter of an African American woman and a native politician of a fictitious Caribbean island, Triunion, lives in Brooklyn. The conflicts in her life are structured by the social implications of racism and gendered relations. The idealism of the earlier novels only appear in Ursa’s long planned thesis topic: the demonstration of egalitarian gender roles of the people of African descent under slavery. The Triunian legend of slave freedom fighters and lovers Congo Jane and Will Codjoe portrays an equal relationship unmatched by any of the couples in the novel. While Ursa chooses not to bear children and her friend Viney is willing to be a mother only through artificial insemination and chooses to stay celibate, these motives no longer suggest the denial to discover and accept one’s cultural heritage. Ursa is quite capable of leading a productive, if not utterly satisfactory, life in New York; the source of her main conflict is her relationship with her father, the politician who has lost his initial zeal to help his people and has become a puppet in the hands of imperialist businessmen. (See African American Studies and Postcolonialism)
The recurring themes of travel, psychic reintegration, and gender relations in a patriarchal, postcolonial, capitalist, and white supremacist world render Marshall’s oeuvre a consistent body of writings exploring the possibilities and stakes of claiming a culture of African origin. As Dorothy L. Denniston writes, “Marshall offers no easy solutions in her fiction, but she does suggest models for change and possibility. Because she develops those possibilities through the characterization of black women, she celebrates female agency and empowerment. Indeed, black women become representative of the larger black struggle for individual autonomy and communal wholeness” (88).
Rosenthal Award for the National Institute of Arts and Letters for Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961)
Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Praisesong for the Widow (1984)
John Dos Pasos Award for Literature (1989)
MacArthur Fellowship (1992)
Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1959.
—. Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1961.
—. The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. New York: Vintage, 1969.
—. Reena and Other Stories. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1983.
—. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Plume, 1983.
—. Daughters. New York: Plume, 1991.
—. The Fisher King. New York: Scribner, 2001.
—. Triangular Road. New York: Basica Civitas Books, 2009.
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- Pettis, Joyce. Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
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- Rush, Theressa Gunnels, Carol Fairbanks, and Esther Spring Arata. Black American Writers Past And Present: A Biographical And BibliographicalDictionary. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
- Dance, Daryl Cumber, “An Interview with Paule Marshall.” The Southern Review 28 (Winter 1992).
- Pettis, Joyce, “A MELUS Interview: Paule Marshall.” MELUS 17 (Winter 1991/2).
Author: Eszter Timar, Spring 2000
Last edited: May 2017