RICHMOND -- On a rainy day in this city of Confederate monuments, Paule Marshall is sitting at a polished oak table in her apartment. There's a clear vase of waxy flame anthericum behind her. A Haitian iron sculpture hanging on the exposed-brick wall takes note of her connections to the Caribbean.

She talks, in a warm, husky voice that has the trickle and splash of pouring liquid, of her six books, stories that connect her to her passionate readers, and writings that have made her a respected voice in American letters for 30 years. But none of this has made her a widely known literary star.

Marshall's work frequently gets lost in the sustained accolades given other black writers. When Marshall's books appear, there's boisterous praise -- "one of the best," a master of "the art of storytelling" and "as wise as she is bold" -- and then there's a lull.

She sits at this antique table, anxiously waiting for "Daughters," her first book in eight years, to bring about her rediscovery. Tonight at 7 she will talk about her book at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center.

There's another table in the room, one of memory, the wood kitchen table of her childhood in Brooklyn where her mother and her mother's friends gathered after doing day work for white families. Oh, how they talked, and oh, how she listened. "Soul, in this white man world you got to take you mout' and make a gun!" was one Momily. "I can still hear her saying that. 'I has read Hell by heart and called every generation blessed.' My mother again, when she was having a bad day," says Marshall, throwing back her daintily sculptured head in amusement.

Over the years, Marshall has brought her faithful readers to that table, celebrating the women she calls "The Mother Poets," toiling to give them their literary standing. Their observations salt all of her work; their cares float in and out of her gallery of characters. They are some of the strongest women in black literature. Marshall also writes of a unique black immigrant experience. Her parents and the others who left the Caribbean in the 1920s and settled in New York had to learn to live with blacks who were veterans of the North, as well as black newcomers and white immigrants who had not yet abandoned the city.

Her first novel, "Brown Girl, Brownstones," a coming-of-age tale of a Barbadian American girl in Brooklyn, is now a standard college text and sells 10,000 copies a year.

"If it had been published in 1979, rather than 1959, she would have been Toni Morrison. She explored a black woman's consciousness and broke out of convention. It was too early. She has always been just this side of being a famous, successful writer," says Mary Helen Washington, a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of three works of criticism on black women writers.

"She has been underrepresented in many of the anthologies and not discussed enough in the scholarship," says Marilyn Sanders Mobley, an assistant professor at George Mason University. Mobley teaches Zora Neale Hurston, Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor and Marshall. "I didn't want to buy into what the students often see in the media -- there is only one acceptable black writer at a time."

"Those who read my work, and love it, are sometimes distressed by what they see as the neglect I've suffered at the hands of the literary establishment. Some of them get downright hot about it," Marshall says. She folds her small chestnut-brown hands in her lap, as if she were pulling back from the heat of this talk. But not the sentiment. "I too would like the wider audience. Sometimes I do feel a measure of resentment. But it's momentary. When I chose long ago to be a writer, I also committed myself to staying the course, no matter what."

But she has played a part in her periodic invisibility, by not promoting her work, by taking an average of eight years between books. Also, she points out candidly, she's hard to categorize. "The fact that I'm both African American and West Indian. I've been accused by some as being neither fish nor fowl. I've been at times loudly claimed by both groups and then occasionally as loudly disclaimed," she says. "All of it used to hurt and exasperate me years ago -- and still does to some degree."

Marshall is included in several recent anthologies of writings by women and African Americans. Though the forerunner of the younger novelists of the '70s and '80s, she has found herself a beneficiary of the attention they received. More and more, students are requesting that her work be taught, in part because there are now more women than men in colleges and they are searching for reflections of their own experiences.

"For a long time I felt, 'Listen, I have written this book. That is it, let the publicity department get out and do the job.' That is not how it works. But it is not easy for me; I am a private person," she says. Plus, hawking her wares is something the Mother Poets would frown on. They would definitely have a saying for it. Within Two Cultures Ursa, the protagonist of "Daughters," is listening to her friend, Viney, talk about men:

I'm gonna tell you. "The woods are on fire out here," my granddaddy used to say, "and we need everybody that can tote a bucket of water to come running." He used to say that all the time, talking about the situation of Black Folks in this country, you know, and the need for all of us to stand up and be counted. To be useful. And one day I took a good look at Willis Jenkins and knew he was not one of those Folks. He might be bright, talented, good to look at, great in bed, someone who knew how to talk the talk in order to get over, but he wasn't really useful.

Marshall writes primarily about black women and the twin demands of doing well in America but not forgetting the culture of the Caribbean and Africa. Within that slender cultural framework, she searches for the universal -- "the individual need for self-fulfillment, especially as it relates to women," she says, analyzing her own work. What emerges is "an interior life" for her characters, which has not always been the black characters' lot.

"No more Roxys, Dilseys and Amantha Starrs," she says. Her hands chop the humid air, terminating the views of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.

Packed with history, geography, memory, myth, feelings and the American-Caribbean lexicon, Marshall's work can be dense. "I take full advantage of the latitude the novel offers. I can sprawl all over the place," she says. "Reality works double-time for me. It's the means I use to access -- if I can use that computer term -- another world of greater complexity and historical resonance."

To simplify these layers, Marshall designed a framework that became the poetic and political adhesive for her work. "It would be the triangular route in reverse. My construct would take us from here to the West Indies and across the Middle Passage to Africa," says Marshall. Some take the physical route; others the psychological.

"She is saying that we need to recapture a cultural heritage to use as a survival tool," says Evelyn Hawthorne, an associate professor in Howard University's English department. Marshall doesn't let her readers or characters forget "the colonial history which we have not escaped," adds Hawthorne. "We are still victimized."

"Brown Girl" was the most talked-about novel by a black woman published between Gwendolyn Brooks's "Maud Martha" and Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," but an early brush with the literary powers gave Marshall a distasteful preview of her seesaw relationship with fame. The day she signed her contract with Random House for "Brown Girl," she ran into Bennett Cerf, the publisher. He told her, she has recalled many times, "You know, these books never do very well." A long time ago her fury faded. But there is some sting, the deep fundamental injury to person and psyche, still in her voice and mannerisms. "As far as he was concerned I could never be considered part of the literary establishment ... this little piece of exotica ... as far as letting it into the fold, absolutely not," she says.

The Mother Poets had other words. By the time the book was published, Marshall's own mother had died, but her mother's friends noted the occasion. She closes her eyes and quotes their words from memory: "Adry daughter, well she writes this big book but why she had to tell the truth."

Her next novels were "The Chosen Place, the Timeless People" in 1969 and "Praisesong for the Widow" in 1983. Asked about why so many years pass between books, she says: "I am a fussy writer who will take a week or two to find the right word."

In "Praisesong," Marshall has a successful middle-aged woman searching for her true identity, leaving Brooklyn, going to a Caribbean island and finding her real name, getting focused, pondering spirituality versus materialism. "Avey helped me to deal with becoming middle-aged in a youth-struck America," says Marshall of the character.

Not only does Marshall allow her characters to work out their tribal connections, she lets them vividly explore their sexuality, the action and thoughts of lovemaking.

Frequently, her handling of this subject prompts debate. Some question whether she is too timid given the popularity of pulp literature and television. Others argue that she is just right. "In 'Praisesong' there is a scene where {Avey} is remembering the Saturday night/Sunday morning thing. I hadn't read a scene that was so explicit but at the same time clean. It was uplifting and made the sexual act like it should be," said Gloria Blackwell, who teaches Marshall's work at Clark College in Atlanta.

There was his scandalous talk, and then, when she finally drew him into her, his abrupt, awestruck silence. His stillness. He would lie within her like a man who has suddenly found himself inside a temple of some kind, and hangs back, overcome by the magnificence of the place, and sensing around him the invisible forms of the deities who reside there ...

Marshall laughs when talking about her readers' habit of rereading and rereading that scene. No matter where in a story her fans absorb the characters, Marshall hopes "what emerges is a realistic story."

Now there is "Daughters." The characters had been shadowboxing in her head for years.

What emerged was definitely a phenomenon of the '80s and '90s, the story of the black female executive. She experiences love and rejection. The boyfriend walks, and the girlfriend says, "What was wrong with me back then, can you tell me? I should've known better than to be buying shoes for any man. Any black woman with an ounce of sense knows you're just giving him the wherewithal to walk out on you."

Two characters in "Daughters" wrestle with the decision to have abortions. "On the surface it's what it is. An abortion," says Marshall of her central character's decision to have one. "At another level that opening abortion signals Ursa's main struggle -- how to cut away, to eliminate from inside her the subtle seduction and domination her father has exercised over her life. How is she to achieve true autonomy," says Marshall. Another character, Astral Ford, makes the same choice, a choice Marshall herself made in her twenties. Though she say the details are fictional, Marshall was exploring her own emotions. "I was able to enter her feelings deeply enough so that it permitted me to bring to the surface what had happened in my life," she says.

Ursa, a student at a predominantly white university, meets a college professor, a self-described liberal, who can't understand the validity of her college thesis on black triumphs. Marshall had walked that path, going to school with all the pride and aspirations of her Brooklyn neighborhood and then finding the school counselors thought she was fit only for the commercial, not academic, courses.

But, just as she is blunt in putting down men, Marshall is pulling for a reunion of black men and women.

"In all of this I try to express my hope for reconciliation, cooperation, love and unity between us. And respect for each other," says Marshall firmly. "I would like to see 'Daughters' as a plea for dialogue." Marshall has had two marriages, two divorces. "I just don't have that talent," she says. Inspiration in the Library The first step in her literary education was the Mother Poets.

Work, dreaming and talking were the essentials of their lives. Marshall's parents had emigrated from Barbados; she was born in Brooklyn. And therefore she was trilingual, speaking black English, the Barbadian-Brooklyn patois and the English language taught at Brooklyn public schools. The Mother Poets were all followers of Marcus Garvey and bought shares in the Black Star Line shipping company. "They were willing to support the venture, but they really weren't going," says Marshall. They had an uneasy alliance with America, determined to establish a beachhead but always referring to America as "this man's country," working hard "to buy a piece of old house," but annoyed that they were invisible. Marshall got her first job when she was 12, picking threads in the garment district.

The second course was in school and at the library. Her head filled with Thackeray, Dickens, Zola and Hardy, Marshall was browsing through the Macon Street Branch of the Brooklyn public library when she spotted the name Paul on the book cover. "Same as mine," she thought, and Paul is her preferred pronunciation for her name. The frontispiece almost took her breath away: a portrait of a black man, Paul Laurence Dunbar. He not only opened a world but instilled a confidence.

After attending Brooklyn College, Marshall worked for Our World, a small black magazine, and started writing fiction because she didn't want to sink to the superficiality of the magazine writing. In "The Valley Between," her first story, published in 1954, she used a white character, Cassie, to test some of her themes. Cassie was eager to get on with her college education but had to fight with her husband over whether she should stay home with their child. It was Marshall's own story.

She is cautious when asked about the status of black writers today. "Perhaps we are being treated slightly better," she says, hedging. The interest from publishers is there but not necessarily the push. "There is not only a greater willingness to take a chance with us, and publish our work, but to do a little more by way of promoting it. I suspect the publishing business is going to be forced to change. The country's getting blacker, browner, more yellow. ... There is an increasing number of black readers, especially women. They are eager to see themselves in the work."

To claim her own place and fame, she's been restructuring parts of her life. In 1984, after spending 55 of her 61 years in New York, she moved to Richmond. Her son, now 32 and a naval architect, lives in London. She changed publishers, she changed agents, she accepted more speaking engagements. "I have a sense of having built up a readership," she says.

Armed with the support of Virginia Commonwealth University, where she has taught modern literature since 1984, she has set aside two months to talk about her work. In preparation for the tour, she's been taking vitamins, and last week she started fortifying in another way -- by playing Aretha Franklin's recording of "Amazing Grace." Still, Marshall is not totally comfortable with the unpredictability of conversation. So she spreads some notes she has prepared on her oak table, insurance more than inspiration, to explain how she writes.

"I started with the long, legal pad," she says, smoothing her papers. "Then the typewriter, now the computer. ... When I am there all the other stuff goes to one side. What the public is saying, what the critics are saying or not saying. I concentrate on what my characters are saying. ... All that other stuff is set aside. Even the fame would not help me once I sat down."