Fri | Jul 10, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Praisesong for the novelist

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Another literary giant has fallen. One week after the death of Toni Morrison, the novelist Paule Marshall died on August 12 at the age of 90. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Barbadian parents, Marshall lovingly documented the stories of Caribbean migrants who arrived in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. Some came with dreams to make it big and return home. Others were prepared to make a new life in the land of promise.

That was long before these dread days in which irrational fear of newcomers seems to prevail. Marshall’s father entered the US illegally from Cuba. But which American, apart from the indigenous people, is not an illegal immigrant? Those predatory Europeans who arrived in the 16th century brazenly captured so-called virgin territory that had long been inhabited. Their descendants have no legitimate claim on the land. ‘Homeland security’ should have been the watchword of the native people.

In 1585, Ralph Lake attempted to establish the first English colony on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. It failed bigly. A second attempt was made in 1587 to colonise the island. That, too, was a spectacular disaster. The settlement came to be known as the Lost Colony after all the would-be conquerors disappeared. There is little evidence of what happened to them. They were probably massacred by the native people who must have seen their presence as illegal. There is also speculation that the foreigners assimilated into the local population. A fate worse than death!


Paule Marshall crafted a considerable body of work: five novels, four short novels, two collections of short stories, and a memoir. Her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, published in 1959, tells the story of the Boyce family. Selina, a perceptive child, is the central character. Her mother, Silla, like so many ambitious Caribbean immigrants, plans to own a brownstone, named for the exterior colour of townhouses in Brooklyn. Selina’s father, Deighton, has no such aspiration. He dreams of returning to Barbados. Marital conflict is inevitable.

Her parents’ battle about the future of the family inevitably forces Selina to choose between them. She sides with her father. His artistic inclinations are despised by his wife, who sees him as irresponsible. When Deighton inherits land in Barbados, Silla conspires to sell it behind his back for the downpayment on her house. Selina reveals the plot to her father, but it’s too late. The land is already gone. In an act of revenge, Deighton blows the money, robbing his wife of her dream.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is somewhat autobiographical. Selina’s relationship with Deighton mirrors Paule Marshall’s own kinship with her father. In a beautiful account of the literary influences that shaped her writing, Marshall talks about discovering Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem, ‘Little Brown Baby’, which opens with these lines:

“Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes.

Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.”

This is how Marshall describes the impact of Dunbar’s poem: “Although I had a little difficulty at first with the words in dialect, the poem spoke to me as nothing I had read before of the closeness, the special relationship, I had had with my father who, by then, had become an ardent believer in Father Divine and gone to live in Father’s ‘kingdom’ in Harlem. Reading it helped to ease somewhat the tight knot of sorrow and longing I carried around in my chest that refused to go away.”


The Brooklyn Public Library was a place of refuge for Paule Marshall. There she found the greats of English literature. But too few writers, like Dunbar, who spoke to her as a young girl growing up with a sense of “triple invisibility”: black, female and foreign! In her essay, ‘The Making of a Writer: From the Poets In the Kitchen’, Marshall acknowledges the power of the voices of her mother and her friends who, like Dunbar, spoke a language of the heart that shaped her literary sensibility.

This is Marshall’s tribute to these articulate women: “They taught me the first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as a testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.” Playing on workshop, Marshall celebrates the shop of words in which she found the raw materials of her art.

Marshall’s fiction didn’t engage with only the Caribbean diaspora. She established empathy with African-Americans. Her novel, Praisesong For the Widow, tells the story of an upwardly mobile black American couple, Avey and Jerome Johnson, who gradually sever ties with their home culture. After Jerome’s death, Avey experiences a rite of passage in the Caribbean that inspires her to reclaim the nurturing traditions of music, poetry and dance she lost along the way. Paule Marshall’s fiction affirms the lifelines that connect Africans across the diaspora. Give thanks!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and