Sunday, March 1, 2009
By Paule Marshall
Basic. 165 pp. $23
Paule Marshall is a singularly accomplished novelist, soon to turn 80 years old, whose work is not as well-known as it deserves to be, in particular her first novel, "Brown Girl, Brownstones" (1959), and her major work, "Praisesong for the Widow" (1983). Born in Barbados, where natives call themselves Bajans, she grew up in Brooklyn. Her life, she says, has been "divided in three," hence the title of her engaging and unusual memoir:
"There was Brooklyn, U.S.A., and specifically the tight, little, ingrown immigrant world of Bajan Brooklyn that I had fled. Then, once I started writing, the Caribbean and its conga line of islands had been home for any number of years. While all the time, lying in wait across the Atlantic, in a direct line almost with tiny wallflower Barbados, had been the Gulf of Guinea and the colossus of ancestral Africa, the greater portion of my tripartite self that I had yet to discover, yet to know."
"Triangular Road" consists of four chapters, one in three parts, and is the account, told from the vantage point of nearly eight decades, of how a writer discovered and learned her vocation, and of the influences -- most notably place, family, race and history -- that shaped it. The opening chapter, "Homage to Mr. Hughes," is the thoroughly charming story of an overseas trip that Marshall took in 1965, under State Department aegis, with "the poet laureate of black America," Langston Hughes. She was in her mid-30s, Hughes about three decades older, an avuncular, generous man who talked freely with her about literature, life and "black American culture and history." Small wonder that, as she says, "Decades have passed since his death in 1967 and I still miss him." For her he was "a loving taskmaster, mentor, teacher, griot, literary sponsor and treasured elder friend." It is entirely appropriate that she opens this account of her writing life with an affectionate tribute to him.
The real heart of "Triangular Road," though, is in the second chapter, about the James River, and the three-part third, about the Caribbean. Marshall had gone to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in the late 1970s as a writer in residence and then had been hired for a full-time, tenured position. On Labor Day 1998, she and a friend ventured down to the banks of the James River, an occasion that gave Marshall the opportunity to muse about Richmond as "the principal port of entry for Africans brought to the New World in the eighteenth century," and about the James as "safe passage to the ships from the Atlantic, with their chattel cargo." The history and legacy of slavery are persistent themes in her fiction, and on this Labor Day she reflected about the "work done gratis" by slaves, work neither recognized nor honored in the great national holiday.
In the next chapter, which takes up well over half the book, Marshall describes her native Barbados, which, "circa 1600 [was] as important a holding pen and transshipment point as Richmond, Virginia, would become, circa 1820." Her mother, Adriana Clement, had migrated to New York while still a teenager, and there had met Sam Burke, "a fella from home, at her brother's place in Brooklyn." Sam loved "all things Spanish" and when the author was born insisted on naming her "Valenza, after Valencia, . . . although I was called by my middle name, Pauline. (A name I promptly changed to Paule with a silent 'e' the moment I reached my majority at age thirteen.)"
The family lived a rollercoaster existence, but all went down after Sam became captivated by the demagogic charlatan Father Divine, announced that he had been chosen "to help administer a branch of the kingdom being established in Philadelphia" and disappeared for good, leaving Paule "furious with the father I continued helplessly to love." Yet she knew that she wanted to write, she got herself into Hunter College, and she began "writing a novel on the sly, my first, and soon even progressed with it to the point of considering possible publishing houses, starting with the best known among them." She was given a small advance by Random House and began working with a celebrated editor there:
"Using Hiram Haydn's notes and suggestions, as well as my own instincts, I began eliminating what I soon came to see were the excesses burdening the narrative, impeding its pace. All that highly decorative prose that called attention to itself! Style overwhelming rather than serving the story! Worst was the surfeit of details! Three or more qualifiers to describe an object when one alone would do! Long hours were spent painstakingly cutting away the fat. Some days the revising felt like a wrestling match that had unfairly pitted me, a rank amateur, against an opponent, my sumo-sized manuscript, that was far superior in weight, strength and skill. It was somehow up to me, the underdog, the weakling, to pin the behemoth to the mat and strip it of every superfluous word."
Pin and strip it she did. When the book appeared, it was praised and honored, and set her on a career of teaching and writing that has taken her to many places here and abroad, including a first trip to Africa in 1977. She made a second three years later and is now, she says, "in the throes of writing about that limited and frustrating East African experience. Then it'll be back to my primary love: the novel, the short story." But though fiction may have pride of place in her heart, "Triangular Road" reveals a strong gift for self-scrutiny made all the more revealing by quiet humor and what appears to be complete honesty. Paule Marshall has lived a full life, has accomplished much, and we can only hope to have more from her as she heads, confidently and enthusiastically, into her ninth decade.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.