Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn as Valenza Pauline Burke, one of three children of Samuel and Ada Burke, immigrants from the island of Barbados. Her father, whom she dearly loved, was unskilled but dreamed of a better life. Eventually, he left the family to join the “kingdom” of black religious leader Father Divine in Harlem. Her mother worked as a domestic servant. Marshall credits her early interest in language and stories to “the poets in the kitchen,” her mother’s Barbadian friends who gathered in the basement kitchen of her brownstone house after work to have a cup of tea or cocoa and discuss their lives.
At the age of nine, Marshall visited Barbados, where she first met her maternal grandmother, an impressive ancestral figure who appears in many of Marshall’s works. Her story “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” (1967) is a nearly autobiographical account of this visit. Inspired by the beauty of the islands, she began to write poetry, and on her return began a period of intense reading. By accident, she discovered the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American author whose work she had ever read, and this experience gave her the courage to think of becoming a writer.
In 1950, Marshall married Kenneth E. Marshall. Three years later, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, from Brooklyn College. Her first published story, “The Valley Between” (1954), reflects her own struggle as a wife and mother with her desire for education and a writing career. Marshall worked in New York public libraries and from 1953 to 1956 was the only woman staff writer for Our World magazine, traveling on assignment to Brazil and the West Indies.
While doing postgraduate work at Hunter College in 1955, Marshall began her autobiographical novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), completing it in Barbados. A television adaptation of the novel was presented on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) the following year. At first, the book was treated as a book for juveniles and was largely ignored. Since its reissue by the Feminist Press in 1981, however, it has been considered a classic female Bildungsroman.
A Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1960 allowed Marshall to complete and publish a collection of four novellas, Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961). This book marked a significant shift in her work: Each novella is written from a male character’s perception and bears a political subtext.
In the 1960’s, black women writers remained largely unread. Marshall, divorced in 1963, determined to support herself and her son, Evan-Keith, by writing rather than by teaching, and she was thus dependent on grants. In the eight years it took to complete her ambitious second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), she received the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1962) and grants from the Ford Foundation (1964) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1967).
In 1970, Marshall entered an “open and innovative marriage” with Nourry Menard, a relationship that allowed her more freedom to write. A journey to West Africa in 1977 gave her a broader perspective and strengthened her awareness of African influences in her own life. Three years later, she traveled to East Africa, where she was welcomed as a native daughter.
Marshall became more widely known in the 1980’s. A collection of earlier work, Reena, and Other Stories, appeared in 1983 and was republished in 1985 as Merle: A Novella and Other Stories. The book includes her autobiographical essay “From the Poets in the Kitchen” (1983), initially published in The New York Times Book Review , and the...
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novellaMerle. Adapted and rewritten from The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Merle further defines Marshall’s favorite and most fascinating character, the charismatic West Indian Merle Kinbona.
A third novel, Praisesong for the Widow, was also published in 1983. Set in the islands of Grenada and Carriacou, it won the Before Columbus American Book Award the following year. In 1991, Daughters appeared, a novel that draws strong parallels between the lives of women, past and present, in New York and the West Indies. The Fisher King (2000), Marshall’s fifth novel, focuses on a small boy’s restoration of two families that have been estranged for years because of prejudice and misunderstanding.
In addition to her writing career, Marshall has taught at a number of colleges, including Yale University, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She holds the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at New York University. Among her many honors are the John Dos Passos Award for Literature, the American Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship.