James C. Hall and Heather Hathaway, editors: Conversations with Paule Marshall (University Press of Mississippi, PB 2019- first published in HC 2010)

“Once a great wrong has been done, it never dies. People speak the words of peace, but their hearts do not forgive. Generations perform ceremonies of reconciliation but there is no end.”  From the Tiv of West Africa – Paule Marshall’s epigraph for her 1969 novel The Chosen Place, the Timeless People.

With eight books in fifty years: Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Reena and Other Stories (1983), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Daughters (1991), The Fisher King (2000) and Triangular Road: A Memoir (2009), Paule Marshall (1929-2019) was a long distance runner, and the first on a strong list of African American women novelists and short story writers* from 1959 into the 1980s.

The poets in the kitchen.  Three individually published pieces – two short stories (To Da-duh: In Memoriam and Reena, see below) and the essay The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen, first published in The New York Review of Books in 1983, a text that Paule Marshall returns to again and again in Conversations with Paule Marshall  – had an impact on many readers almost like her “full-blown” works.

Caribbean immigrants to “Bajan Brooklyn”, Marshall’s mother and her friends, the “poets of the kitchen,” were gifted storytellers. Coming home from work as domestics, they would talk about their lives and politics – Marcus Garvey from “the islands” being one of their heroes – in a language rich in metaphors and idioms, bending ”the King’s English” to their own needs and purposes.

They taught me my first lessons in narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence,” Marshall says. “This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them.

Only “loosely autobiographical,” Paule Marshall’s first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959),    is about a brown girl growing up in Brooklyn with a mother almost obsessed with the wish “to buy property,” a brownstone, as a sign of having made it in “this man country.”

Marshall’s mother did not live to see Brown Girl, Brownstones in print, but her Bajan Brooklyn friends liked her “big book” even as they complained: “But why that wuthless girl have to tell the truth?” – Marshall being highly critical of their too ready acceptance of American materialism.

Paule Marshall’s publishers at Random House saw the novel’s literary value, but not much sales potential, so they did not push the book. It was only with the Feminist Press reissue in 1981 that the book became the well-read literary classic we know it as today.

But rave reviews had other benefits, like the getting of various grants and fellowships allowing her to concentrate on her writings, the most prestigious being perhaps a 1992 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Award.” Teaching at Yale and other universities also helped.

Paule Marshall’s “easygoing kind of relationship” with Malcom X may surprise some of her readers, but Marshall was politically active in the 1960s even beyond the writing of fiction.

The four thematically linked novellas in Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961) was a result of a trip to Brazil and the Caribbean as a reporter and feature writer for the short-lived Our World magazine, all four about men approaching old age looking back at lives they now see as somehow misspent. Nick Aaron Ford (1904-1982), pioneering literary critic and teacher, included both Brooklyn and Barbados – the two poles of Paule Marshall’s world – in his anthology Black Insights: Significant Literature by Black Americans, 1760 to the Present (1971).   

Da-duh, Merle, and Reena.  The short story To Da-duh: In Memoriam (New World Magazine, 1967), based on a visit to her maternal grandmother on the island of Barbados, is at the same time the most autobiographical of Paule Marshall’s short stories and “straight out of my imagination,” Marshall being only nine at the time.

Early one morning, the strong willed and spirited Da-duh takes the child out to show her the tallest royal palmtree on her grounds, saying: “All right, now, tell me if you’ve got anything this tall in that place you’re from.” Only to be told of the Empire State Building in New York and a world of skyscrapers and technology that Da-duh cannot comprehend, that her grandchild is a part of, and that she knows will kill her (and destroy her world). At the end of the story, it does.

(The battling great-grandmothers, one from the South, one from the West Indies, in Marshall’s last novel, The Fisher King (2000), set in a Harlem in the process of being gentrified, somewhat shorter than her “full-blown” novels, reminds you of Paule Marshall’s statement in one of the interviews: “Da-duh appears in one form or another in most of my short stories and in all of my novels.”)

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), set on a fictive Caribbean island, could maybe be said to play out on a large canvas some of the themes from To Da-duh: In Memoriam, the “great wrong(s)” of the epigraph being the African slave trade and slavery, colonialism and the novel’s world of neo-colonialism, with Merle Kinbona – one of the most complex and compelling of Marshall’s many memorable figures – set as a unifying center of a large cast of people and events. 

Years in research, some of the ideologues of the Black Power/Black Arts Movement did not like the book, objecting to the book’s interracial love affair between Merle and the Jewish – that is to say white – Saul. “It was vilified!” says Paule Marshall.

Marshall sees it as a strongly political, third-world novel, and Merle as embodying the aspirations of the have-nots of the world. “I am always primarily a storyteller, but a storyteller who is always telling about the social, the political, the racial, because they are my reality.

Oddly enough, none of the interviews deal with Reena (Harper’s Magazine, 1962), about the life of a young black woman struggling after graduating from college to find meaningful work in the face of the racism, sexism, and class bias of the 1950s New York. Memorable is a scene where Reena realizes only in coming down in the elevator from a job-interview, that they had said no – not yes.

It is reprinted in Reena and Other Stories (1983) with From the Poets in the Kitchen, To Da-duh: In Memoriam and other fictions, and with a new novella, Merle, lifted from The Chosen Place, the Timeless People and expanded upon. Read it, but you will still have to read the novel!

Ibo Landing and rituals of survival.  Praisesong for the Widow (1983), follows the middle aged affluent widow Avey Johnson, who on a cruise to the West Indies leaves ship to go to the island of Carriacou to take part in an annual ritual of celebration of the ancestors – searching for her ‘ancient properties’, to quote Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby – , began with the folktale about enslaved Africans who arriving at the Sea Islands’ Ibo Landing, taking a look and foreseeing their life in slavery, turned around and walked right back across the waters to Africa (in other versions they flew home).

(African American Julie Dash paid homage to Marshall and Praisesong for the Widow in her own take on the Ibo Landing-tale with her 1991 independent film, Daughters of the Dust.)

Daughters (1991), about a young woman seeking to sever the patriarchal ties that bind her to her father, again set within the larger context of Caribbean neo-colonialism, suggested to Marshall by an epigraph for an Alvin Ailey dance: “Little girl of all the daughters, you ain’t no more slave, you’s a woman now,” is dealt with at some length in her conversation with Daryl Cumber Dance.

Her memoir, Triangular Road (2009), based on a series of lectures at Harvard in 2005, ties it up, connecting Paule Marshall’s world of Brooklyn and Barbados with that of the colossus – Africa.

THE CONVERSATIONS with Alexis De Veaux, Daryl Cumber Dance, and the editors, James C. Hall and Heather Hathaway, may be the most informative, even as each of the 15 conversations add their own bits and pieces to a fuller picture of Paule Marshall and her work, influenced by the likes of Langston Hughes, the “poet laureate” of black America, Gwendolyn Brooks (Maud Martha, 1953), the Ralph Ellison of Shadow and Act (essays, 1964), and the novelist Thomas Mann.

In Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America (1980) by African American anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney (1928-1998) a woman tells the author/interviewer: “I know you must have sense enough to know that you can’t make me tell you anything I want to keep to myself.”

Described as a private person, if always cordial and patient with interviewers, with Triangular Road, The Poets in the Kitchen and these interviews (and a number of still uncollected essays and interviews), maybe Paule Marshall has told us all that she wants us to know about herself – if not about her important works of fiction celebrating what Gwaltney calls “core” black life and culture across the African diaspora.

UFI // 15 August 2019

*Paule Marshall (1929-2019, debut 1959), Kristin Hunter Lattany (1931-2008, d. 64), Alice Walker (1944-, d. 70, poetry 68), Toni Morrison (1931-2019, d. 70) – the first and only African American to win, in 1993, a Nobel Prize in literature –, Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995, d. 72), Gayl Jones (1949-, d. 75), Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006, d. 76), Ntozake Shange (1948-2018, d. 82, drama 75/76), Gloria Naylor (1950-2016, d. 82), and Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999, d. 86, poetry 75), are at the top ten of my own list of the women fiction writers of the era.   

With the passing within a week of each other of Toni Morrison on August 5 and Paule Marshall on August 12 – as I was reading these interviews – only Walker (15 years Marshall’s junior) and Jones (20 years younger) are still with us.