Paule Marshall Visits

Table of Contents

Fall/ Winter 03


Paule Marshall Visits, by Nicole Warren

The second guest of Writers at Rutgers this year was novelist and NYU Professor of Creative Writing Paule Marshall. Ms. Marshall began her visit by attending Professor Daphne Lamothe's class and participating in a lively discussion of her novel, The Fisher King. That evening, she read selections from the novel to an appreciative audience of more than a hundred people, then signed books and chatted with dozens of admirers at the reception following the reading. Her warm smile and friendly manner will be remembered along with her evocative prose.

As the child of Caribbean immigrants, Paule Marshall began to notice the absence of black voices in the countless books she read in the Brooklyn Public Library. Later, in her teens, she realized that the consistent neglect or distortion of her own culture felt like an assault on her sense of self. When she began writing fiction, she had a vested interest in reclaiming the history of blacks living in the Caribbean and the Americas. "History to me is an antidote to the lies," she has said, "and I'm interested in discovering and unearthing what was positive and inspiring about our experience in the hemisphere - our will to survive and overcome."

After years of listening to the neighborhood women talk around the kitchen table, these voices became an inspiration for her writing. Her first novel, the 1959 book Brown Girl, Brownstones, brings together the experiences of several members of the Caribbean community where she grew up. Brown Girl, Brownstones documented the West Indian immigrant experience in the U.S., earning recognition from both the literary community and social scientists. It is now considered a classic of African-American literature.

Ms. Marshall's long career of writing, she says, offers reparation, creating characters and plots that present truthful representations of blacks, and particularly of the women in the community. She always does extensive research to support the historical figures and events in her books, but the difficulty of making the transition from research to creative writing has led to her being, in her words, "a very slow, fussy, and painstaking writer." Her efforts have paid off with five novels and two collections of stories, and her works have received many accolades and awards, including the American Book Award and the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award.

Several of her characters strive to maintain their cultural identities in a society that pressures individuals to assimilate. Rutgers English Professor Abena P.A. Busia is one of the many readers who has been touched by that writing. In introducing the Writers at Rutgers reading, Professor Busia, originally from Ghana, shared the comfort Ms. Marshall's novel Praisesong for the Widow brought her during her first homesick years in the United States. She spoke glowingly of Ms. Marshall's ability to remind readers of the solace and the joy to be found by embracing memories of one's past and heritage, noting that this theme transcends the details of the particular cultures her books so richly describe.

The need to find cultural commonalities is one central theme of her most recent book, The Fisher King. The Fisher King is mostly the story of Sonny, an eight-year-old Parisian boy, who learns about the life of his late grandfather, a jazz musician disowned by his family for his disreputable choice of career. Sonny's arrival in Brooklyn brings out the family and community tensions that had forced his grandfather to leave the U.S., but with the young boy's presence, the family begins to reevaluate their ideas about themselves. At Rutgers, Ms. Marshall read little Sonny's tense but amusing first meeting with his great-grandmother, when she allows him to play a piano for the first time. Then the audience was taken back, forty years earlier, to hear about his grandfather's nightclub debut as a jazz pianist with a talent for "recasting and reinventing" standard tunes through "an outpouring of ideas and feelings informed by his own brand of lyricism yet lit from time to time with flashes of the recognizable melody."

Earlier that day, students in Professor Daphne Lamothe's section of English 220 had heard more about how The Fisher King came to be. Her inspiration was a framed snapshot at her grandmother's house of a cousin she never met. Against family and community pressures, this cousin aspired to be a jazz musician, but he was drafted into the Army during WWII and died soon after. After listening to many family stories and researching jazz culture of the 1940s, Ms. Marshall wrote The Fisher King in memory of her cousin Sonny.

In teaching creative writing at New York University, Ms. Marshall encourages her students to become avid readers, to write every day, and to remember that learning to write is a lifelong process. If her delightful reading and the time she took to visit with fans and aspiring writers at Rutgers are any indication, she must be a wonderful mentor to her students. We're grateful we got the chance to meet her, through Writers at Rutgers.

Related Links
Writers at Rutgers Series

Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color includes a biography, criticism of Marshall's work, a selected bibliography, and links to other sites pertaining to the author.

Rutgers University home page