Reconnecting the Spaces of the African Diaspora

James C. Hall and Heather Hathaway, eds., Conversations with Paule Marshall (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010); 240 pages; ISBN 978-1604737431 (hardcover).

• August 2012

The Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat dedicated her first collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, to Paule Marshall, “the greatest kitchen poet of them all,” acknowledging the older writer’s power as a storyteller and Marshall’s own account of the inspiration she received from the West Indian women who gathered in her mother’s kitchen to talk. In Conversations with Paule Marshall, Hall and Hathaway include an introduction and chronology that give an overview of Marshall’s work from the publication of her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959, to her 2009 memoir, The Triangular Road; in fact, Conversations serves as a useful companion piece to the memoir. The importance of Marshall as a pathfinder and literary role model for a younger generation of black women writers is evident in this book of conversations and interviews that take place over 1970–2009, the last four decades of her extraordinary fifty-year writing career.

Marshall is known for being an extremely private person, and, as the interviews in this collection indicate, for most of her career she avoided promoting her work or even paying attention to its critical reception or commercial success. Yet these interviews reveal a woman very much engaged in the political and cultural life of her times and who also has a strong commitment to her craft and vision as a writer. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, in the Association of Artists for Freedom, along with Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin. We discover not only that Langston Hughes was an important mentor for Marshall at the beginning of her career but that Malcolm X was a confidante who recognized the validity of her role as writer in the struggle for black liberation.

Paule Marshall appeared on the publishing scene long before there was a recognized community of black women writers and what would become known as a tradition of black women’s writing. She began writing at a time when the literary establishment wasn’t sure that there would be a market for her work. After all, who in the 1950s would be interested in a novel about a young black girl growing up in Brooklyn? She was neither a Richard Wright nor a Ralph Ellison nor a James Baldwin. In this sense, Marshall, like her predecessor Gwendolyn Brooks, was indeed a pioneer.

Conversations opens with what appears to be the transcript of a discussion that took place in Hiram Haydn’s creative writing class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, shortly after the publication of The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. (Haydn was Marshall’s editor at Random House when Brown Girl, Brownstones was first published.) Most striking about this “conversation” is the difficulty that Haydn’s students seemed to have in understanding the novel and the underlying tension between Marshall and her interlocutors. A good deal of that tension seems to be about the representation of racial relations in the novel. As a historical document, this recorded conversation does tell us something about reader expectations of the time and is a good indication of the problem of readership and critical reception Marshall had to face. Unfortunately, this first entry is a rough beginning for the reader; it could have used some contextualization by the editors.

The first significant interview in Hall and Hathaway’s volume doesn’t take place until 1977, almost twenty years after Brown Girl, Brownstones, even though by then Marshall had published two novels and a collection of short stories. The interview is conducted by Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, a feminist literary scholar more familiar with Marshall’s work and the concerns of “third world writers” at the time, whose questions lead to much more fruitful exchanges with the author. A 2001 interview by Hall and Hathaway, however, is among the most in-depth and informative entries in the collection. The best interviews, whether by academics or journalists, tell us a good deal about Marshall’s work habits, passions, and commitments. What comes across clearly throughout these interviews is her uncompromising sense of integrity to the vision of what she wanted to achieve in her work and the perfection of her craft.

The interviews offer new insights into Marshall’s motivations as a writer and the important literary figures who have influenced her thinking about writing, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, and George Lamming. Among the recurring themes in these conversations are the centrality of complex female characters in Marshall’s work from early on, her political consciousness, and her desire to connect the African American and Caribbean spaces of the diaspora. The collection as a whole succeeds in helping the reader to construct a narrative of the writer’s life as an artist. The literary interview allows the writer to give voice to her creative vision. It is a pleasure to have Paule Marshall’s voice in print, to see her openness and confidence in what she has accomplished as a writer.

 

Barbara J. Webb is an associate professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, where she teaches Caribbean, African American, and African literature. She is the author of Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant (1992). 

 

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