Paule Marshall: Iconic Caribbean writer of the people
“My very first lessons in the art of telling stories took place in the kitchen.
My mother and three or four of her friends told stories with effortless art
and technique. They were natural-born storytellers in the oral tradition.”
– Paule Marshall
She is the greatest contemporary Feminist writer of the Caribbean. A peer of Toni Morrison, her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, a classic and the foremost work of its kind to examine the life of first-generation immigrants from Barbados in New York, was published in 1959, 29 years before Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eyes. All of Marshall’s work is either set on an island or explores the duality of Caribbean and American identity and the rootedness of home.
Given Marshall’s age, pre-TV and social media, it is only natural that her primary example of writing, as the above quote indicates, would come from the oral tradition of her Caribbean mother and her friends. But Marshall has to be situated within a larger cultural context. She was born and came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, perhaps still considered one of the greatest literary periods for black arts. She knew and toured with Langston Hughes. She might have met the Jamaican Claude McKay, even Zora Neale Hurston. Although living in Brooklyn, she was not isolated. She deliberately ventured beyond the West Indian community in which her mother tried to confine her.
She attended Hunter College (my alma mater), although only for a year, but considered a haven for the arts and a place where women were nurtured. She would have known Audre Lorde, her junior by five years but another great Caribbean activist and writer. She would have known or heard of our own Marcus Garvey, considered an intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance. His organisation, the United Negro Improvement Association, was the largest of that era, with membership by West Indians and African Americans from every state in the United States, and throughout the Caribbean as well as Latin America and Europe. It is within this larger historical context that the theme and content of Paule Marshall’s work have to be examined as these people and times profoundly shaped the writer she became.
Perhaps because her focus always centred on the liberation of West Indian people and reconnecting them to their roots, her work did not achieve the critical and international recognition it justly deserved. For example, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Paule Marshall’s tour de force, has Avey Johnson literally jumping ship, a cruise, and ending up in Carriacou, where she is reunited with her ancestral past through the ‘Big Drums’ that initiate her in the Juba dance, bringing her full circle to the past that she had been painstakingly trying to erase, ensconced as she had become in the very wealthy life she and her deceased husband had achieved through great sacrifice. Praisesong is as Caribbean as it can get and evokes the inextricable link between memory, history, place, and our identity. I deem Praisesong for the Widow the best novel written in the ’80s, yet it only garnered the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award.
Soft-spoken, elegant, and never rushed, Marshall was very much a Caribbean woman. She was clear about her enterprise – what she was doing and whom she was writing these stories for, the next generation – so they would know, as she states so aptly, “A person can run for years, but sooner or later, he has to take a stand in the place which, for better or worse, he calls home and do what he can to change things there.” Selina Boyce, the protagonist of Brown Girl, Brownstones, when at the end of the novel, she takes off and tosses her silver West Indian bangle, she is both affirming her autonomy and saying that she is going to seek, not her mother or father, Silla or Deighton’s Barbados but the island of heritage that she must know through her own eyes in order to be her own person.
Brown Girl, Brownstones is the first novel by a Caribbean writer that I taught when I began as a lecturer at San Francisco State University in the 1980s. A decade later, I met Marshall when she was a resident writer at the University of California, where I was then teaching, and asked about her name. She openly confessed that she was told that she would never get published as ‘Valenza Pauline Burke’, her birth name, and that she needed a name more masculine and white.
Given that Marshall was only a year older than Morrison, I think it is fair to surmise that they both knew, given the overt white patriarchal supremacy that reigned in the publishing world, that given their race and sex, in order to get in through the doors, their identity needed to be somewhat ambiguous.
In 1992, then 63 years old, Marshall was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Marshall penned four novels, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Daughters (1991), and The Fisher King (2001). She also authored five short story collections and her final gift to us, her memoir, Triangular Road (2009).
If you are not familiar with Marshall, this great Caribbean writer, then I urge you to purchase and read her works because her question to all of us remains vital: What are we prepared to do to make the changes Jamaica and the Caribbean need? What are we writing or painting or legislating that someone will be able to look back on in 60 years and say, ‘this is our legacy’?
Brown Girl, Brownstones is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago when it was published because Marshall took her time and invested truth and vision into this work, as well as her other writings, so that we Caribbean people would have a blueprint on which to add.
- Professor Opal Palmer Adisa is the university director for the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI Regional HQ, Mona.