Paule Burke Marshall

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Paule Burke Marshall

Paule Burke Marshall (born 1929) was an American author whose works reflected her Bajan background and twin themes of the need to confront the past and the need to change the present.

Paule Marshall was born April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York, to Samuel and Ada Burke, who had immigrated separately from Barbados after World War I. At 18 her mother paid her passage with money inherited from an older brother. This money, called "Panama money," was the legacy of a man who had died, like thousands of other West Indian migrant laborers, digging the Panama Canal.

Marshall grew up in a bicultural environment rich with the language and folklore of Barbados. Her parents admired Franklin Roosevelt but were far more enthusiastic about Marcus Garvey. Marshall did not visit Barbados until she was nine years old, but island culture was made real to her by the lively conversations of her mother's friends around the kitchen table. Their metaphoric, often ironic language inspired her own attempts to find a narrative voice and to seek a literary career.

Marshall attended Brooklyn College and graduated cum laude in 1953. She pursued a job in the publishing world of New York but was unable to find a job with a major company. She began working for Our World, a small African-American magazine, as the food and fashion editor. While working there between 1953 and 1956, she began writing her first and best known work, Brown Girl, Brownstones. She married Kenneth E. Marshall in 1957 and soon afterwards completed her novel (1959).

The novel Brown Girl, Brownstones chronicled the coming of age of Selina Boyce, a first generation American whose Bajan parents fight each other for her allegiance and love. The mother, Silla, was a hard-working, cruelly honest woman who singlemindedly pursued her vision of the American Dream but feels thwarted by her husband, Deighton, whose Walter Mitty fantasies of instant success alternate with dreams of returning home. Selina rejected her mother's seemingly heartless materialism even as she subconsciously admired her strength. She was very much her father's daughter but had regrets about his passive and delusional approach to life. Although much of the drama of the novel was fueled by the struggle between Silla and Deighton, Selina's personality and identity were shaped by other feminine forces. One such was Miss Thompson, a hairdresser from the South, who educated her about love, sacrifice, and the history of African people in America. In Brown Girl, Brownstones Selina also experienced her first love affair and confronted American racism. A gem of a novel which explored the intersections of race, class, and culture, Brown Girl, Brownstones has been rediscovered by scholars in African-American, Caribbean, and feminist criticisms.

Marshall's second book-length publication was Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), a collection of four short stories entitled "Barbados," "Brooklyn," "British Guiana," and "Brazil." This collection was completed after the birth of her only child, Eran-Keith, and without the approval of her husband, who doubted she could fulfill the duties of wife, mother and creative writer. Each story focused on an elderly man—a Bajan who returns home after years in America, a radical Jewish professor, a middle-class Guyanese, and a retired comedian in Brazil—who recognized his life has been spent in the pursuit of goals which leave him empty and unloved as death approaches. Marshall contended the confrontation with "the past, both in personal and historical terms," was a key theme in all of her works. An equally important idea was "the necessity of reversing the present order."

These two themes served as key elements in Marshall's subsequent works. The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) explored the attempts of Merle Kinbona to come to grips with the many contradictions of her own life after she returns to Bournehills, a fictional West Indian island. In the plot Western values confronted the African peasant past, white meets black, and Africans of the Western Hemisphere meet Africans of the homeland. In Praisesong for the Widow (1983) Avey Johnson, a widow whose middle-class existence has been disrupted by the death of her husband and reoccurring dreams about her childhood, discovered the significance of her African past and the need for self-identification on a cruise in the Caribbean. In the novel Marshall made use of the famous folk story "Iboes' Landing," which told of a group of African slaves who walk into the ocean to return to Africa. Marshall's childhood identification with Africa through the Marcus Garvey movement was intensified after visits in 1977 and 1980 to Africa. Here she was welcomed by the people of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda as a long-lost daughter returning home. In 1983 Marshall's published short stories were collected in a book entitled Reena and Other Stories. Her novel Daughters, published in 1991, was a story of an African-American female executive.

Marshall supplemented her income from writing and grants with teaching positions. She served as a writer-in-residence at Oxford University, Columbia, Cornell, Washington State, Lake Forest University, and lowa. Divorced from her first husband in 1963, she married Nourry Menard in 1970 and spent time living in both New York and the West Indies. Marshall was the recipient of a Guggenheim award (1960), a Rosenthal award from the National Institute for Arts and Letters (1962), a Ford Foundation grant (1964-1965), and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1967-1968). In 1984 Praisesong for the Widow was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award. Other works included Early Short Fiction of Paule Marshall, Callaloo, Spring 1984, and The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructing History, Culture and Gender, University of Tennessee Press, October 1995.

Since 1991, besides writing, Marshall has held several conferences and become a well-known keynote speaker. The Institute for African American Affairs at New York University was the host for Marshall's keynote address at NYU in March, 1996. She read passages for The North Country American Conversation: A Community Alliance, a series based at St. Lawrence University which aimed to further discussions of how Americans feel about their ethnic identities and about being Americans.

In 1990, she was an honoree of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and in 1992, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Marshall has taught at several universities, and in 1997 was a Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at New York University.

Further Reading

For more biographical information on Paule Marshall see Marshall, "Black Immigrant Women in Brown Girl, Brownstones" in Female Immigrants to the United States (1981). For critical analysis, see Leela Kapai, "Dominant Themes and Techniques in Paule Marshall's Fiction," in CLA Journal (September 1972); Mari Evans, Black Women Writers (1950-1980) (1984); Hortense Spillers, "Chosen Place, Timeless People…" in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction and Literary Tradition (1985). □