Marshall, Paule 1929-
MARSHALL, Paule 1929-
PERSONAL: Born Valenza Pauline Burke, April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Samuel and Ada (Clement) Burke; married Kenneth E. Marshall, 1950 (divorced, 1963); married Nourry Menard, July 30, 1970; children (first marriage): Evan. Education: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A. (cum laude), 1953; attended Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), 1955.
CAREER: Freelance writer and educator. New York University, currently professor of English, distinguished chair in creative writing. Worked as librarian in New York Public Libraries; Our World magazine, New York City, staff writer, 1953-56; lecturer on creative writing at Yale University, 1970—; Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in Literature and Culture, New York University, 1997—; lecturer on black literature at colleges and universities including Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, Lake Forrest College, and Cornell University. Teacher of creative writing at universities such as Columbia University, University of Iowa, and University of California, Berkeley.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1960; Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1962, for Soul Clap Hands and Sing; Ford Foundation grant, 1964-65; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967-68 and 1977; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1974; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1984, for Praisesong for the Widow; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 1992, for Daughters; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1992; Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award, 2001, for The Fisher King; Dos Passos Prize for Literature.
Brown Girl, Brownstones (novel), Random House, 1959, with an after word by Mary Helen Washington, Feminist Press (Old Westbury, NY), 1981.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (short stories; includes "British Guiana"), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1961.
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969.
Praisesong for the Widow (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
Reena, and Other Stories (includes novella Merle, and short stories "The Valley Between," "Brooklyn," "Barbados," and "To Da-duh, in Memoriam"), with commentary by the author, Feminist Press (Old Westbury, NY), 1983, reprinted as Merle: A Novella and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1985.
Daughters (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1991.
Language Is the Only Homeland: Bajan Poets Abroad (nonfiction), [Bridgetown, Barbados], 1995.
The Fisher King, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals and to anthologies such as Afro-American Writing 2, edited by Richard Long and Eugenia Collier, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1972.
SIDELIGHTS: "My work asks that you become involved, that you think," writer Paule Marshall once commented in the Los Angeles Times. "On the other hand, … I'm first trying to tell a story, because I'm always about telling a good story." In her works, "history and community, shapers of the past and the present, are vital subtexts in the lives of Marshall's characters," wrote Joyce Pettis in the Dictionary ofLiterary Biography. "Just as important," Pettis continued, "Marshall explores the notion of cultural continuity through identification with African heritage and culture as a means of healing the psychic fragmentation that has resulted from colonization and segregation. Her fiction is noted for its artistry—for finely crafted structures, fluid narrative, for language that conveys the nuances of the spoken word, and for characters that are especially complex and rich."
Marshall received her first training in storytelling from her mother, a native of Barbados, and her mother's West Indian friends, all of whom gathered for daily talks in Marshall's home after a hard day of "scrubbing floor." Marshall pays tribute to these "poets in the kitchen" in a New York Times Book Review essay where she describes the women's gatherings as a form of inexpensive therapy and an outlet for their enormous creative energy. She writes: "They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the word shop of the kitchen."
The standard of excellence set by these women has served Marshall well in her career as a writer. Her novels and stories have been lauded for their skillful rendering of West Indian-Afro-American dialogue and colorful Barbadian expressions. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Barbara T. Christian believes that Marshall's works "form a unique contribution to Afro-American literature because they capture in a lyrical, powerful language a culturally distinct and expansive world." This pursuit of excellence makes writing a time-consuming effort, according to Marshall. "One of the reasons it takes me such a long time to get a book done," she explained in the Los Angeles Times, "is that I'm not only struggling with my sense of reality, but I'm also struggling to find the style, the language, the tone that is in keeping with the material. It's in the process of writing that things get illuminated."
Marshall indicates, however, that her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, was written at a faster pace. "I was so caught up in the need to get down on paper before it was lost the whole sense of a special kind of community, what I call Bajan (Barbadian) Brooklyn, because even as a child I sensed there was something special and powerful about it," she stated in the Los Angeles Times. When the novel was published in 1959 it was deemed an impressive literary debut, but because of the novel's frank depiction of a young black girl's search for identity and increasing sexual awareness, Brown Girl, Brownstones was largely ignored by readers. The novel was reprinted in 1981, and is now considered a classic in the female bildungsroman genre, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha.
The story has autobiographical overtones, for it concerns a young black Brooklyn girl, Selina, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants Silla and Deighton. Silla, her ambitious mother, desires most of all to save enough money to purchase the family's rented brownstone. Her father, Deighton, on the other hand, is a charming spendthrift who'd like nothing better than to return to his homeland. When Deighton unexpectedly inherits some island land, he makes plans to return there and build a home. Silla meanwhile schemes to sell his inheritance and fulfill her own dream.
Selina is deeply affected by this material conflict, but "emerges from it self-assured, in spite of her scars," wrote Susan McHenry in Ms. Selina eventually leaves Brooklyn to attend college. Later, realizing her need to become acquainted with her parents' homeland, she resolves to go to Barbados. McHenry observed: "Brown Girl, Brownstones is meticulously crafted and peopled with an array of characters, and the writing combines authority with grace…. Marshall … should be more widely read and celebrated." Carol Field commented in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review: "[Brown Girl, Brownstones]isan unforgettable novel written with pride and anger, with rebellion and tears. Rich in content and in cadences of the King's and 'Bajan' English, it is the work of a highly gifted writer."
Marshall's most widely reviewed work to date is Praisesong for the Widow, winner of the American Book Award. The novel is thematically similar to Brown Girl, Brownstones in that it also involves a black woman's search for identity. This book, though, concerns an affluent widow in her sixties, Avatara (Avey) Johnson, who has lost touch with her West Indian-Afro-American roots. In the process of struggling to make their way in the white-dominated world, Avey and her husband, Jerome (Jay), lost all of the qualities that made them unique. Novelist Anne Tyler remarked 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."
While on her annual luxury cruise through the West Indies, however, Avey has several disturbing dreams about her father's great aunt, whom she visited every summer on a South Carolina island. She remembers the spot on the island where the Ibo slaves, upon landing in America, supposedly took one look around at their new life and walked across the water back to Africa. Avey decides to try to escape the uneasiness by flying back to the security of her home. While in her hotel on Grenada awaiting the next flight to New York, Avey reminisces about the early years of her and Jay's marriage, when they used to dance to jazz records in their living room, and on Sundays listen to gospel music and recite poetry. Gradually, though, in their drive for success they lost "the little private rituals and pleasures, the playfulness and wit of those early years, the host of feelings and passions that had defined them in a special way back then, and the music which had been their nourishment," writes Marshall in the novel.
In the morning, Avey becomes acquainted with a shopkeeper who urges her to accompany him and the other islanders on their annual excursion to Carriacou, the island of their ancestors. Still confused from the past day's events, she agrees. During the island celebration, Avey undergoes a spiritual rebirth and resolves to keep in close contact with the island and its people and to tell others about her experience.
Reviewers question if Avey's resolution is truly enough to compensate for all that she and Jay have lost, if "the changes she envisions in the flush of conversion are commensurate with the awesome message of the resisting Ibos," to use Voice Literary Supplement reviewer Carol Ascher's words. "Her search for roots seems in a way the modern, acceptable equivalent of the straightened hair and white ways she is renouncing," wrote Times Literary Supplement contributor Mary Kathleen Benet, who added: "On the other hand there is not much else she can do, just as there was not much else Jerome Johnson could do. Paule Marshall respects herself enough as a writer to keep from overplaying her hand; her strength is that she raises questions that have no answers."
Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Sharon Dirlam offered this view: "[Avey] has learned to stay her anger and to swallow her grief, making her day of reckoning all the more poignant. She has already missed the chance to apply what she belatedly learns, except for the most important lesson: What matters is today and tomorrow, and, oh yes, yesterday-life, at age thirty, age sixty, the lesson is to live." Jonathan Yardley concluded in the Washington Post Book World: "Praisesong for the Widow … is a work of quiet passion—a book all the more powerful precisely because it is so quiet. It is also a work of exceptional wisdom, maturity and generosity, one in which the palpable humanity of its characters transcends any considerations of race or sex; that Avey Johnson is black and a woman is certainly important, but Paule Marshall understands that what really counts is the universality of her predicament."
Reena, and Other Stories, although a collection of short stories, contains the title story, "Reena" and the novella Merle, adapted from the novel The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. The title is based on a protagonist of the novel. "Reena" is frequently anthologized, particularly in collections of writings by African-American women writers. In her introductory comments to a reissued version of Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories by and about Black Women, Mary Helen Washington refers to its theme of cultural identity and the role of the African-American female. Dr. Washington's commentary and analysis bolster Paule Marshall's accompanying sketch for "Reena." "Reena" is autobiographical and is a continuation of Brown Girl, Brownstones. Marshall describes Reena as like herself "from a West Indian-American background who had attended the free New York City colleges during the forties and fifties. The theme would be our efforts to realize whatever talents we had and to be our own persons in the face of the triple-headed hydra of racism, sexism, and class bias we confronted each day."
Daughters, Marshall's 1991 novel, has been widely acclaimed. According to the author, the novel explores significant personal themes. "Ursa is a young urban woman trying to come to terms with the two worlds that shaped her….Her mother is American, her father West Indian. [I] wanted to write something that was symbolic of the two wings of the black diaspora in this part of the world." Defining the role of the female—upwardly mobile, well-educated—in the black diaspora is the cog around which Daughters turns. In the New York Times Book Review, Susan From berg Schaeffer saw that the key for Ursa is in what she learns from those most important in her life. Ursa learns that "to be human one must be of use. To be of use, men and women must work together—and that the relationship between the sexes is far more complicated than Ursa has ever imagined." Working together involves a struggle—sometimes erupting in conflict between men and women. Ursa discovers by novel's end that she must not evade struggle/conflict toward a common goal. She learns to stop allowing love for another to becloud her judgment, as in the case of ignoring the corruption that her father, Primus, confused with success. Ursa learns that she is "hobbled by love of her father … and so complete is his possession of her that she needs to 'abort' him." Ursa must break free to define herself, continue to be "useful," continue to love all humans, yet not be bogged down by that love and get off course. "Marshall shows us how … women can—and perhaps should—find themselves becoming men's consciences."
Marshall's novel, The Fisher King, published in 2000, is a multigenerational story that serves as a "wonderful rendering of the African diaspora (from Brooklyn to Paris) in its many complexities," observed Adele S. Newson-Horst in World Literature Today. "Set against the backdrop of a triangular relationship, The Fisher King at once celebrates and delineates the nuances of diaspora interactions—a reality perhaps best captured by the musical form of jazz," Newson-Horst observed. In the 1940s, widow Ulene Payne struggles to make a living, but makes whatever sacrifices are necessary to provide classical piano lessons for her talented son, Everett (also known as Sonny-Rett). Her neighbor, Florence McCullum, lives in elegance and has little trouble providing for her daughter, Cherisse, who is blessed with a wonderful singing voice and has great promise as a singer. But Sonny-Rett soon discovers that classical piano is not to his liking, and begins to play in jazz clubs, where his reputation is made and strengthened. Cherisse, too, abandons her formal singing career and accompanies Sonny to his gigs, along with her best friend, Hattie Carmichael. Soon, Sonny-Rett and Cherisse are married, and Hattie becomes manager of their business affairs. Rather than embracing their children's success in the jazz field (which was then considered a scandalous form of music), Ulene and Florence are mortified and bitterly disappointed that Sonny-Rett and Cherisse did not follow the path provided to them. To escape their parents' resentment—as well as deepening racism throughout America—Cherisse, Sonny-Rett, and Hattie move to Paris and sever ties with family and friends in the United States. Each family blames the other for the problem, and a generations-long feud begins to smolder.
At the novel's opening, it is forty years since the trio left for Europe. Sonny-Rett and Cherisse are dead, and Hattie is the parent, friend, and guardian of their grandson, who is also called Sonny. When Sonny-Rett's brother, Edgar, a successful developer, seeks to inaugurate his neighborhood music hall with a concert honoring the memory and music of his brother, he finds Hattie and Sonny in Paris and flies them in for the event. Hattie chafes at returning, but goes for Sonny's sake. Florence and Ulene find a common interest in great-grandson Sonny, who tries in his own way to reunite the fractured families. "Jazz gives the novel its pulse, but finally this is a family drama, and Marshall beautifully evokes the myriad ways that families are torn asunder when love and power intermingle," commented Bill Ott in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that "Marshall writes with verve, clarity, and humor, capturing the cadences of black speech while deftly portraying the complexity of family relationships and the social issues that beset black Americans." Similarly, Maxine E. Thompson, writing on the BookReporter Web site, noted that "the writing itself is subtle and quiet but exciting. Marshall has an ear for dialect, and her plots are well thought out." New York Times reviewer Lori Leibovich remarked that the "prose is full of expert dialogue, mellifluous rhythms, and sharply drawn portraits of Sonny-Rett's loved ones." Newson-Horst called The Fisher King "a national treasure as much as the musical form it employs to tell the story of the diaspora."
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DeLamotte, Eugenia G., Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1998.
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Melchior, Bernhard, "Re/Visioning" the Self away from Home: Autobiographical and Cross-cultural Dimensions in the Works of Paule Marshall, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1998.
Morgan, Janice T., and Colette T. Hall and Carol L. Snyder, editors, Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection, Garland, 1991, pp. 135-147.
Pettis, Joyce Owens, Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction, University Press of Virginia, 1996.
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