Marshall, Paule 1929–
Paule Marshall 1929–
Novelist, essayist, educator
In her autobiographical essay, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” novelist Paule Marshall describes the aesthetic roots of her fiction. “The group of women around the table long ago. They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art, “she recalls. “Theytrained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as a testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.” This “legacy of language and culture” forms the matrix of Marshall’s major works of fiction, for, as Barbara Christian observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, her novels “present a black woman’s search for personhood within the context of a specific black community rather than in reaction to a hostile white society. As such, they acknowledge the existence of a rich black culture.”
Marshall’s positioning of her characters within the context of their culture led critics to see her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, as a pivotal work in twentieth-century black American women’s literary history. The 1959 novel formed a bridge between the novels of earlier writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and writers who emerged in the seventies, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. But, more than an interesting historical link between two generations of writers, the novels Marshall has written over a 30-year period deserve careful examination as powerful narratives on the complexity of the power of black women.
Marshall was bom Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, at the start of the Depression. Her parents, Ada and Samuel Burke, had immigrated to New York from Barbados, West Indies, only ten years earlier. When Marshall was nine years old, she paid an extended visit to Barbados, capturing her impressions of her cultural roots in a series of poems and, later, in such autobiographical short stories as “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” and her novel, Daughters.
“To Da-duh, in Memoriam” is considered one of Marshall’s most acclaimed short stories. Written in 1966, it clearly conveys her experiences on that first trip to Barbados. As Eugenia Collier explained in Black Women Writers, “We see a little girl discovering that her New York world is not her only world, that her roots in Barbados, which she is visiting for the first time, also define her and influence her in a way which she cannot see clearly and
Born Valenza Pauline Burke, April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Samuel and Ada (Clement) Burke; married Kenneth E. Marshall, 1957 (divorced, 1963); married Nourry Menard, 1970; children: (first marriage) Eran-Kelth. Education: Attended Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), 1948 and 1955; Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A. (cum laude), 1953.
Researcher and staff writer, Our World magazine; first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, published, 1959; lecturer on creative writing, Yale University, 1970—; lecturer on black literature at colleges and universities, including Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, lake Forrest College, and Cornell University.
Member: Phi Beta Kappa, Association of Artists for Freedom.
Awards: Guggenheim fellow, I960; Rosenthal Foundation award. National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1962, for Soul Clap Hands and Sing ; Ford Foundation grant, 1964-65; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1967-68; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, 1984, for Praisesong for the Widow.
Addresses: Home —407 Central Park West, New York, NY 10025.
also cannot escape.” Marshall uses contrasts between the little girl’s two worids as a way to image the child’s growing experience. For instance, Da-duh reveals her secret pine tree, which the girl contrasts to the Empire State Building. Both structures function as meaningful symbols of the two worlds the little girl now experiences and learns to integrate.
Dorothy Denniston noted in Callaloo that Marshall’s “artistic vision evolves in a clear progression as she moves, through her creations, from an American to an African-American/African-Caribbean and, finally, a Pan-African sensibility. Indeed, the chronological order of her publications suggests an underlying design to follow the ’middle passage’ in reverse. That is, she examines the experience of blacks not in transit from Africa to the New World, but from the New World toward Africa…. Throughout her fiction, Marshall is preoccupied with black cultural history, and she insists that African peoples take a ’journey back’ through time to understand the political, social, and economic structures upon which contemporary societies are based.”
Brown Girl, Brownstones sets the stage for Marshall’s preoccupation with the “journey back.” The novel is set in the Brooklyn Bajun community of Marshall’s own childhood, among immigrants like her parents and their friends who work hard, often cleaning houses, scrimping, and saving their money to “buy house” as a way to become fully adjusted to their adopted country. But the roots of the culture they create and perpetuate in the United States are firmly rooted in the Caribbean rituals and traditions that they left behind. The title of the novel represents the major conflict: “Brownstones” signifies the overriding desire of the community of her parents’ generation to assimilate into the white culture, while the “Brown Girl” is the young woman protagonist, Selena Boyce, who learns one of life’s first lessons, the integration of the self and community.
Selena’s parents represent two opposite responses to life in the New World. Her mother, Silla, is industrious, works hard in the Barbadian Association of her community, and yearns to own the brownstone that is the ultimate fulfillment of her dreams for herself and her family. In contrast, Selena’s father, Deighton, dreams of the tropical paradise of his youth. He stands outside the tightly-knit family and community group and is eventually alienated forever.
Selena learns many lessons throughout the course of the novel, among them her face-to-face confrontation with racism at the home of one of her white high school friends. At the novel’s conclusion, she understands what Collier believed to be one of the novel’s most important messages: “She is one with all the Black people of her world.” With this understanding, she can now leave her community and begin her travels, which will bring self-knowledge of another kind. Collier remarked that the novel’s final scene, which depicts Selena wandering through her neighborhood for the last time, allows the young woman to sense “physically the presence of all the people whose selves were a part of the creation of her self. She leaves something of her self behind and takes something of the place forever with her.”
Marshall was 30 years old when she finished writing Brown Girl, Brownstones. She had been attending Hunter College, married her first husband, Kenneth Marshall, and was a journalist for Our World, a small black periodical. She wrote the book during the evenings when she returned home from work. Marshall considered writing her first novel her “most exhilarating writing experience,” according to Collier, and understood herself as now “having to be a writer of fiction.”
The novel received positive reviews: Carol Field described it in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review as “unforgettable” and the “work of a highly gifted writer.” However, the book did not sell well. Christian believed it was because “publishing houses, journals, the literary establishment [were unable to see] the Bildungsroman of a black woman as havig as much human and literary value as, say, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers or James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Marshall’s travels to the Caribbean and South America as a journalist for Ou r World provided the setting for her next significant work, a collection of novellas called Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Taking its title from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” the collection is divided into four novellas: “Barbados,” “Brooklyn,” “British Guiana,” and “Brazil.” Each of the settings allows Marshall to examine “the complexities of race, nationality, and gender relationships,” noted Christian, “and in so doing traces the complexity of black cultures as they reshape themselves from North to South America.” Christian described the West Indies setting “as the pivotal landscape [Marshall] would use in her [future] work.”
Marshall published Soul Clap Hands and Sing in 1961. During this decade she divorced her first husband, noting, according to Essence contributor Alexis De Veaux, that he objected to her hiring a baby-sitter so that she could go and write in a friend’s apartment every day—even though he was proud of her writing. Christian believed that Marshall’s persistence in writing, “despite strains on her familial relationships… indicates her strong determination to be her own woman and to do what she needed to do.”
While raising her son, Marshall spent the 1960s writing three important short stories, 1962’s “Reena,” “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” published two years later, and “Some Get Wasted,” which she published in 1968. In addition, she drafted her second novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, which was published in 1969. Support from a Rosenthal Foundation award, a Ford Foundation grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship enabled Marshall to spend a good bit of time on her writing during the decade.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People was originally entitled “Ceremonies in the Guest House.” The work focuses on “one of the most pervasive problems of the contemporary world, neocolonialism, and about the reverberation of past actions in the present,” according to Christian. “It carefully explores the ways in which people’s relationships are critical to historical process,” the interaction between society and human choices.
Merle Kinbona, the novel’s protagonist, is considered one of Marshall’s most beloved characters. Having left her native Boumehills—a fictional Caribbean island—to study in London, marry an African, and bear a child, she gives up everything to return to Boumehills. In confronting her community’s history, Merle is able to make sense of her own personal history. The New York Times Book Review called The Chosen Place, The Timeless People “one of the four or five most impressive novels ever written by a black American.”
During the 1970s, MarshaD married Nourry Menard, a Haitian businessman, and alternated her time between the United States and the Caribbean. She has referred to her second marriage as “open and innovative.” Because of the scarcity of grants and fellowships during the 1970s, Marshall began teaching at various universities in the United States, including Columbia and Yale. She didn’t publish another novel in the seventies, but her earlier work began to generate interest in the academic community, causing the Feminist Press to reissue Brown Girl in 1981, release a paperback version of The Chosen Place in 1982, and publish her anthology Reena, and Other Short Stories in 1983.
Praisesong for the Widow, winner of the 1984 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, has been called Marshall’s “most widely reviewed work.” Like Brown Girl, Brownstones, Praisesong charts a black woman’s search for self-identity. The main character, Avatar “Avey” Johnson, has achieved the American dream, but as Anne Tyler commented in the New York Times Book Review, “secure in her middle class life, her civil service job, her house full of crystal and silver, Avey has become sealed away from her true self.”
On a luxury cruise through the West Indies, however, Avey’s dreams recall a long-forgotten childhood memory and she journeys back to the island of her ancestors where she “undergoes a spiritual rebirth.” Christian viewed the journey back in “response to the call of her elders” as “an antidote, as a source of healing for the disease of materialism so rampant in this modem world.”
Marshall told interviewer Sylvia Baer in the Women’s Review of Books that the emotional center of her 1991 novel Daughters is a father-daughter relationship that resembles the relationship she had with her own father. “The father figure in Daughters is physically different from my father, or the work he does, or the places he lives. Yet in terms of his relationship with his daughter, that whole emotional nexus reflects feelings and emotions that I have had.” In Daughters, the central character, Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, has a traditional Marshall beginning—living in New York City, far removed from her childhood on the Caribbean island of Triunion, absorbed in typical American middle-class problems: education, career, a love affair. She dreads returning to Triunion for an obligatory visit, but does, and her visit, like that of so many of Marshall’s characters who “journey back,” disrupts the very fiber of her life and spirit.
Daughters derives its name from the four women who revolve around the powerful father-figure known as P.M. (Primus Mackenzie): Estelle Harrison, his wife and Ursa’s mother; Celestine, P.M. and Ursa’s Creole “nanny”; Astral Ford, his long-time mistress and manager of his resort; and Ursa herself. Sherley Anne Williams pointed out in Belles Lettres that the names of the four women “have to do with the heavens.” This is intentional, she believed, because the father, Primus, is the “’polestar’ around whom they all gravitate—the lover and father so large that his shoulders, in their eyes, blot out the sun.”
Many significant themes resound throughout the novel, including Marshall’s use of an abortion as a symbol of the need to “cut away those dependencies that can be so crippling.” Also, the theme of “daughters” itself is crucial, as it is in all of Marshall’s works. As Marshall told Baer, “The characters are all daughters who are in some way connected with the other, back to the slave woman who figures as a symbol in the novel.” The statues of slave woman Congo Jane and her lover, Will Cudjoe, are among Ursa’s earliest memories. Their recurrence throughout the novel links the immediate history of Ursa, her father, and the other women who nurture him back to a larger history of shared struggle and resistance.
Ultimately, the novel questions and probes the roles that black men and women play in each other’s lives. Marshall’s message is clear, claimed Carol Ascher in Women ’s Review of Books: “Although Daughters promises to be about the connections between generations of females, it strikes one more strongly as being about the variety of ties between African American men and women—between lovers, husband and wife, and even father and daughter.” When Ursa shows her best friend Viney the statues of Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe, she speaks the message that Marshall wishes to convey, the necessity to remember a time “when black men and women had it together, were together, stood together.” Susan Fromberg Schaeffer added in the New York Times Book Review that the moral imperative of the novel is “that to be human, one must be of use.”
“I realize that it is fashionable now to dismiss the traditional novel as something of an anachronism,” Marshall explained to De Veaux in Essence, “but to me it is still a vital form. Not only does it allow for the kind of full-blown, richly detailed writing that I love (I want the reader to see the people and places about which I am writing), but it permits me to operate on many levels and to explore both the inner state of my characters as well as the worlds beyond them.” Christian believed “it is this aesthetic that permeates the work of Paule Marshall…. At the heart of her work is the love of people, their speech, gestures, and thought which she expresses in her skillful and often tender characterizations. Underlying her aesthetic is a faith in the ability of human beings to transcend themselves, to change their condition, that is at the core of much Afro-American literature. Paule Marshall’s contribution to that tradition is not only her ability to render complex women characters within the context of equally complex societies but also her creation of worlds in which the necessity of actively confronting one’s personal and historical past is the foundation for a genuine revolutionary process.”
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Random House, 1959, The Feminist Press, 1981.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (novellas), Atheneum, 1961.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Harcourt, 1969.
Reena, and Other Short Stories, The Feminist Press, 1983, reprinted as Merle: A Novella, and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1985.
Praisesong for the Widow, Putnam, 1983.
Daughters, Atheneum, 1991.
Contributor to numerous periodicals and to anthologies, including The Woman That I Am: The Literature and Culture of Contemporary Women of Color, edited by D. Soyini Madison, St. Martin’s, 1994.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 2nd edition, 1994.
Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, Macmillan, 1972.
Busia, Abena P. A., “What Is Your Nation?: Reconnecting Africa and Her Diaspora through Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 196–211.
Byerman, Keith E., “Gender, Culture, and Identity in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones,” in Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction: An Essay Collection, edited by Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall, Garland, 1991, pp. 135–47.
Christian, Barbara, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976, Greenwood, 1980.
Christian, Barbara, “Paule Marshall,” in African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith, Scribner’s, 1991, pp. 289–304.
Christian, Barbara, “Paule Marshall: A Literary Biography (1982),” in Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 103–117.
Christian, Barbara, “Ritualistic Process and the Structure of Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983),” in Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 149–158.
Christian, Barbara, “Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women’s Fiction,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 233–248.
Collier, Eugenia, “The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 295–315.
Denniston, Dorothy, “Paule Marshall,” in Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, edited by Paul Lauter and others, Heath, 1990, pp. 1969–71.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Gale, 1984.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn, “Paule Marshall’s Witness to History,” in Claiming the Heritage: African American Women Novelists and History, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, pp. 68–89.
McCluskey, John, Jr., “And Called Every Generation Blessed: Theme, Setting, and Ritual in the Works of Paule Marshall,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 316–334.
Russell, Sandi, Render Me My Song: African American Women Writers From Slavery to the Present, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Spillers, Hortense J., “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 151–175.
Willis, Susan, “Describing Arcs of Recovery: Paule Marshall’s Relationship to Afro-American Culture,” in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 53–82.
Belles Lettres, winter 1991–92, pp. 2–4.
Black World, August 1974, pp. 10–18.
Callaloo, spring/summer 1983, pp. 31–45, 57–67, 74–84.
CLA Journal, September 1972, pp. 49–71.
Essence, May 1979, p. 70; May 1980, pp. 123–34.
Journal of Black Studies, December 1970, pp. 225–38.
Negro American Literature Forum, fall 1975, pp. 67–76.
New American Literature Forum, fall 1975, pp. 67–70.
New Letters, autumn 1973, pp. 116–31.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 16, 1959, p. 5.
New York Post, December 6, 1969.
New York Times Book Review, October 1, 1961; November 30, 1969, p. 24; January 9, 1983, p. 3; February 20, 1983, p. 7; October 27, 1991, p. 3.
Novel: A Forum on Fiction, winter 1974, pp. 159–67.
Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, summer/winter 1982, pp. 57–67.
Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review, winter 1986, pp. 119–29.
Tribune Books (Chicago), October 6, 1991, p. 3.
Village Voice, October 8, 1970, pp. 6–8.
Women’s Review of Books, July 1991, pp. 24–25; November 1991, p. 7.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
"Marshall, Paule 1929–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/marshall-paule-1929
"Marshall, Paule 1929–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/marshall-paule-1929
Nationality: American. Born: Paule Burke, Brooklyn, New York, 9 April 1929. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A. (cum laude) 1953 (Phi Beta Kappa); Hunter College, New York, 1955. Family: Married 1) Kenneth E. Marshall in 1950 (divorced 1963), one son; 2) Nourry Menard in 1970. Career: Librarian, New York Public Library; staff writer, Our World, New York, 1953-56; taught creative writing at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, Columbia University, New York, University of Iowa, Iowa City, and University of California, Berkeley, 1984. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1961; Rosenthal award, 1962; Ford grant, for drama, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1977; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1974; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1984. Address: Virginia Commonwealth University, 910 West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. 23284-9004.
Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York, Random House, 1959; London, W.H. Allen, 1960.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1969; London, Longman, 1970.
Praisesong for the Widow. New York, Putnam, and London, Virago Press, 1983.
Daughters. New York, Atheneum, 1991; London, Serpent's Tail, 1992.
The Fisher King. New York, Scribner, 2000.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing. New York, Atheneum, 1961; London, W.H. Allen, 1962.
Reena and Other Stories. Old Westbury, New York, Feminist Press, 1983; as Merle and Other Stories, London, Virago Press, 1985.
Uncollected Short Stories
"To Da-duh, in Memoriam," in Afro-American Writing 2, edited by Richard Long and Eugenia Collier. New York, New York University Press, 1972.
Language Is the Only Homeland: Bajan Poets Abroad. Bridgetown, Central Bank of Barbados, 1995.*
Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994; The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender by Dorothy Hamer Denniston, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1995; Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall by Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998; "Re/Visioning" the Self Away from Home: Autobiographical and Cross-cultural Dimensions in the Works of Paule Marshall by Bernhard Melchior, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and New York, P. Lang, 1998; Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall by Heather Hathaway, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999.* * *
In "From the Poets in the Kitchen," her contribution to "The Making of a Writer" series in the New York Times Book Review (9 January 1983), Paule Marshall declares the sources of her art to be the expressive talk she heard as a young girl among her mother's friends as they sat around a table in the basement kitchen of her Brooklyn brownstone home. For these immigrants from Barbados, language was therapy for the tribulations they endured as invisible citizens of a new land—invisible because black, female, and foreign. But talk was more than that, too, for the West Indian dialect, syntactically unique and metaphorically inventive, sustained these women whom Marshall characterizes, in the words of James Weldon Johnson's famous poem, as "unknown bards" in the nurturing culture of home while in exile. In their native everyday speech Marshall's forebears, mothers, and kin in Marshall's mind and imagination, affirmed themselves in the world through spontaneously creative use of the idiom, which bears in its forms and sound the conception of life, the philosophy, that embodies an Afro-Caribbean heritage. Finding the means for later generations to emulate the kitchen poets she knew in her childhood is the burden of Marshall's fiction.
Marshall's "unknown bards" of reminiscence experienced their place in an affirmative culture naturally, because after all one hardly needs to reflect upon the significance involved in the intimate possession of language, but the protagonists of her fiction must struggle with necessities that either sever their connection to an affirmative culture or encourage them to find identity in the values of individualism. Her first published story, "The Valley Between" (1954), relates the contest between a wife's wish to return to school to prepare for a career and her husband's resentment of the apparent departure from a conventional woman's role. The conflict encodes Marshall's own experience in an early marriage while also restricting its significance through the fact that the fictional characters are white. Brown Girl, Brownstones, her first novel, can also be read as partly autobiographical, but in this case the author's story is inserted into a typified set of circumstances. The book traces the maturation of young Selina Boyce beyond a loving father, whose incapacity for the get-ahead life of New York City issues in romantic dreams of a big-paying job or self-sufficiency on two acres of inherited land home in Barbados, and beyond, as well, the equally deadening illusions of her mother who sacrifices her being to the successful Bajan's goal of property ownership. Selina's autonomy is welcome, except that Marshall's pleasing rendition of Barbados English and folk-say, definitely a version of the kitchen talk of the instinctive poets she knew in her childhood, makes it clear that Selina's necessary sacrifice of community tragically likens her to the mass of other rootless Americans.
Each of the four stories in Soul Clap Hands and Sing, Marshall's second published volume of fiction, shows the ways individual animation is replaced in modern life by a protective but deadening routine. Whether in "Barbados," "Brooklyn," "British Guiana," or "Brazil" an aged man discovers that in seeking ease he has in fact lost the surety of selfhood. Yet, despite these protagonists it is not entirely correct to present the accomplishment of Soul Clap Hands and Sing as solely the tales of wasted men, since in the construction of the plot for each narrative Marshall sets up a relationship with a woman more vital than the man to develop the point of the Yeatsian epigraph, that the older man has become "a paltry thing." Thus the geographic breadth given to the condition of modern rootlessness by the range of settings is accompanied in each story by evidence of Marshall's continuing interest in the distinctive roles women can assume in society. A later story, "Reena" (1962), returns the theme of the unique concerns of female identity to the center of the narrative, where it remains for all of Marshall's later work. "Reena" investigates the matrimonial and political choices made by an educated black woman, using the occasion of a wake for Reena's aunt as opportunity to frame the matter of self-definition within consideration of the continuities and differences between two generations of women. "Reena" together with "To Da-duh, in Memoriam," the story of a nine-year-old girl exchanging boasts about the size and energy of New York City for an introduction to the flora and fauna of Barbados from her grandmother, establish the focus for Marshall's mature fiction: the importance of lineage in the lives of women on the cusp of historical change.
Her first major novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, reveals that focus to be profoundly political as well as intensely personal. The book records the encounter of an American research team with the "backward" people inhabiting Bournehills, the wasted corner of an island resembling perhaps Barbados but signifying the entire Caribbean. Marshall sympathetically portrays both aliens and natives in terms of the motives of guilt and frustration by which they characterize their own lives. As Merle Kinbona, a woman of Bournehills whose residence in England included schooling in painfully exploitive relationships along with professional training, assumes predominance in the narrative personal drama is translated into general social meaning. A native of the island despite her "modernization," Merle shares the timelessness of the people to whom the experience of slavery and particularly the momentary success of the rebellion of Cuffee Ned remain palpably present. On a level as deep as culture and as unavailable to measurement as the subconscious, they know that technological change is nothing compared to the redemption presaged in Cuffee's rebellion, and in their integrity they will settle for nothing less. The politics of the novel are conservative in a way that is unknown in parliaments or organized parties. This conservative politics grows from knowledge that the configurations of character and the complex relationships of love or resentment gain their shape from historical cultures.
With Praisesong for the Widow Marshall tentatively completes the exploration of black women's relationship to their history. Having begun with Selina Boyce, a young adult intent on gaining personal independence before all else, and then continuing with the narrative of Merle Kinbona, who seeks a viable cause beyond herself in middle age, Marshall carries her study forward with Avey Johnson, the sixty-four-year-old widow who leaves her friends on a cruise ship for reasons she cannot articulate though they are as compelling as a subconscious drive. Juxtaposing memory of the past with present setting, the narrative recalls Avey's relationship to her great aunt who brought alive the tale of slaves who had left Ibo Landing, South Carolina, to walk home across the sea to Africa, and traces the course of Avey's marriage to Jay, who with respectability assumed the proper name of Jerome and the distant manner of a man mistaking status for integrity. Avey understood the value of middle-class security, but the loss of joy and spontaneity subsequent to its attainment has left her bereft in age. The sense of loss originates as an individual's trouble, its remedy lies in regaining a sense of collectivity; therefore, the later sections of the novel are structured around the symbolic rituals of a journey to Carriacou and the ceremonies of the blacks who annually return to the island to "beg pardon" of their ancestors and to dance the "nation dances" that survive from their African origins. By these means Praisesong for the Widow leads Avey through her crisis of integrity so that she can re-experience the connection to collective history she once felt as a child, reclaim her original name of Avatara (for which Avey is the diminutive), and join the movements of traditional dance that link her in body and spirit to her heritage.
Unquestionably more deliberate in its aesthetic form than the talk of the West Indian women in her childhood kitchen, Paule Marshall's stories share qualities with that speech while also distinguishing itself as markedly literary. Full of rich detail, the best of her writing brings character and incident alive in the vivid manner of popular tale telling. Informed, however, by a reflexivity that is absent from the creations of "unknown bards," the tales Marshall makes into novels reach beyond simulation of folk art, beyond the surface realism, nostalgia, or elementary denunciations of modernization that would constitute the easy and simple responses to historical transformation of traditional culture. Instead Marshall makes complex literature of the proposition that every woman needs to gain the power to speak the language of her elder kinswomen.
—John M. Reilly
"Marshall, Paule." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/marshall-paule
"Marshall, Paule." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/marshall-paule