Paule Marshall Visits, by Nicole Warren
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
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.
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
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.
at Rutgers Series
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.