Paule Marshall's slow, steady ascent as a writer

February 24, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

PAULE MARSHALL doesn't claim to be fashionable. In fact, few of the adjectives one might ascribe to a popular writer of the '90s seem to apply to her.

She is an admittedly slow writer, publishing a novel about once every decade. She's also a very private person, never having felt comfortable with the publishing world's penchant for thrusting authors into high-profile positions.

While neither pace nor privacy has precluded her recognition as a major American writer in literary circles, she never seemed to attract a large popular audience to match the critical acclaim of her work.

It was only with the publication last fall of "Daughters" -- her fourth novel -- by Atheneum that she felt compelled to hit the publicity circuit for the first time.

"One of the heartening things about this book is that the publishers are behind it 100 percent," Ms. Marshall said. "That's the first time it's happened to me in a big way. So I was willing to go out on the road and do my share to cooperate," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Richmond, Va.

Ms. Marshall will be guest of honor at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's 1992 Black History Luncheon at the Village of Cross Keys Thursday. She will read from "Daughters" and discuss how the novel came about.

"Daughters" is the story of Ursa Mackenzie, a young professional black woman making a life for herself in New York while still tied to her past on the fictitious Caribbean island of Triunion. It explores a young woman's long and difficult struggle to achieve autonomy, a theme Ms. Marshall says is central to all her works because it is so critical to every woman's life.

"Most of the women in my fiction are always struggling to find work that is individually satisfying and important and always questioning the demands of society and family," she said. "They often have to make their way through an obstacle course of racism, sexism and harassment to do it."

Ms. Marshall is the daughter of Barbados immigrants who met, married and raised a family in New York City, and she attributes much of the inspiration for her writing to the women in her childhood. These "walking poets" -- a group of women who included her mother -- worked as domestics in the suburbs of New York City.

Each day, she says, the women would gather in the kitchen of her Brooklyn home to exchange stories about how their day went. Ms. Marshall would sit off in a corner, quietly "absorbing it all."

"They'd never tell a story without great form and structure and style," she said. "They were really teaching me to write fiction, how to make characters interesting. They trained my ear to the power and complexity of ordinary speech."

In time, her observations moved from the kitchen to the local library, where she discovered the work of writers ranging from Jane Austen to Zane Grey.

"I loved people who tried to get the whole world into their stories," she said. "That's what I try to do. It takes a long time to PTC get the pieces to fit, but I love the spaciousness and latitude of the novel."

After graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1953, Ms. Marshall worked as a magazine writer and researcher before starting her first novel, "Brown Girl, Brownstones," which was published in 1959.

The story of a young girl's coming of age, "Brown Girl" reportedly sells 10,000 copies a year and is required reading in many college courses. At the time it was published, though, black female writers were scarce and public acclaim for them even scarcer.

Ms. Marshall is fond of telling the story of how Random House publisher Bennett Cerf agreed to publish her book, but told her not to expect much because "these kinds of books don't do that well."

"Even though he recognized my talent and was willing to publish me, there was an unwilliness to go the next step to let the world know," she said.

But the world found out anyway. Ms. Marshall quietly became the forerunner to today's successful and popular female writers, such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Today, at 62, Ms. Marshall makes her home in Richmond, where she has been on the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University since 1984. Previously, she taught at Yale, Columbia and the University of California at Berkley, among other schools.

"I would teach a year or two and feverishly save my money so that I could quit and write constantly for another year or two," she says. But after two years as visiting professor at VCU, she was offered a full-time position teaching fiction and allowing her plenty of time on her own to write. It was an offer she couldn't refuse.

"Like the critics, we consider her to be one of the finest living American novelists," said James Kinney, chairman of the department of English there. "She writes with great power and creates moving characters and memorable novels.

"I think our students appreciate her experience as a writer who began young in life and continued to produce first-rate work over time."

Indeed, Ms. Marshall is known for her slow, deliberate style, with often several years passing between publications: After "Brown Girl" it was 10 years before "The Chosen Place, the Timeless People" was published in 1969. "Praisesong for the Widow" came in 1983, and "Daughters" in 1991. In between, she published a book of novellas and a collection of her early writing.

Her work has earned such prizes as the American Book Award in 1984 and the John Dos Passos Award for Literature in 1989.

Twice divorced and the mother of a son, Ms. Marshall doesn't talk easily about her personal life. She said she doesn't think she made sacrifices in the name of her work, but that her relationships with others, including her son, probably were affected by her devotion to writing.

"One of the great things about middle age is that you learn to accept yourself," she said. "I recognize no one put a gun to my head and said you have to be a writer."

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