In Brown Girl, Brownstones, what is the purpose of Marshall switching between Barbadian and American lifestyles?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Marshall is quite deliberate in switching between Barbadian and American lifestyles in the narrative offered in Brown Girl, Brownstones.  Being able to switch from one lens to another represents the level of choice and self- definition that Selina experiences in "this man's country," as her mother puts it.  Part of Selina's narrative is that she is the child of both worlds.  The past of Barbados has as much weight on her self- identity as the weight of an America devoid of memory.  The Barbadian experience carries a certain burden of externally dictated self- definition in terms of what Selina must deal with as a woman.  However, the vision of America offered is one where individuals are able to define their own identity.  The collision between her past and her present/ future is where Marshall proves to be effective in switching between past Barbadian and first- generational American lifestyles.  The shift is representative of what Selina herself experience as a part of living in the modern world as a woman of color and as one who struggles with the weight of the past and the weightlessness of being in America.

On a personal level, the shifting of lifestyles between Barbados and America also enables Marshall to fully illuminate Selina's struggle.  The Barbadian aspect of her being is reflective of her mother's hold on her, while the American construction of self is one where Selina is able to assert her own voice in the face of such external definition.  Marshall writes that this hold on Selina is essential in her coming of age: "For always the mother’s voice was a net flung wide, ensnaring all within its reach."  The "ensnaring" and expansive reach of Selina's mother helps to highlight the bitterness and joy that is intrinsic to the formation of Selina's identity in the modern setting.  Coming to terms with this is one of the most important elements in Selina's narrative:

Everybody used to call me Deighton’s Selina but they were wrong. Because you see I’m truly your child. Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman? I used to love hearing that. And that’s what I want. I want it!

Silla’s pained eyes searched her adamant face, and after a long time a wistfulness softened her mouth. It was as if she somehow glimpsed in Selina the girl she had always been.

It is within this construction of self, one where the mother's vision of conventional expectation for her daughter merges with the spirit of freedom and independence that has been passed down from mother to daughter.  The generational pull of one's past and one's present is highlighted in Marshall's shift between Barbadian and American lifestyles, a cultural way of exploring the inner dynamic that drives Selina's narrative.  It is a collision that is present even in the mere description of the novel's setting:  "But despite the ruin, spring stirred and, undaunted, arrayed the trees, hung its mist curtain high, and despite the wine- stench, sweetened the air."  The "stench" that embodies what is collides with the sweetness represented in what might or could be.  It is this dynamic that underscores the shifting from Barbadian to American lifestyles, but also one that highlights one of the most intense conflicts in the narrative.

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