May 2009

Carolyn Juris

nonfiction

Triangular Road: A Memoir by Paule Marshall

In 1983, Brooklyn-born, Barbadian-American author Paule Marshall accepted a two-year position as writer-in-residence at Virginia Commonwealth University. On a stroll downtown during her first week in Richmond, she encountered a slew of women in full Scarlett O’Hara garb, accompanied by men in Confederate dress gray. To a black woman who had never spent any time south of the Mason-Dixon line, the sight was vertiginous. “For a hairbreadth of a second, time reverses itself,” she writes. No longer was she a published novelist and teacher living in the last quarter of the 20th century. Instead, “I’m suddenly chattel cargo, merchandise, goods, a commodity to be bought and sold.”

She quickly regained perspective and realized that she’d encountered Civil War reenactors; people who choose, for a period of time and for various reasons, to relive an era when it was legal to own another human being. Although she doesn’t state this overtly, to Marshall, such an exercise is almost redundant. She’s steeped in slavery’s legacy; it permeates her work and her worldview.

Marshall published her first book, the autobiography-tinged bildungsroman Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959. As one of the earliest American novels to portray the interior life of a young black woman, it established the author as a pioneer of African American fiction, though it didn’t receive widespread recognition until its 1981 reprint. The book also introduced themes that pervade her work -- the search for identity and the need to claim one’s cultural heritage. For the author, this means acknowledging Africa as her homeland -- the ultimate homeland of all members of the Diaspora.

Fifty years, several books and multiple awards after Brown Girl, Marshall has penned a slender volume on her coming of age as a writer. The name of her memoir, Triangular Road, reflects the author’s assertion that “my life, as I saw it, was a thing divided in three” -- her Brooklyn birthplace; the Caribbean, from where her parents had emigrated and where she lived on and off for several years as an adult; and “ancestral Africa.” But the title also alludes to the Triangular Trade that, beginning in the 17th century, sent raw materials from the New World back to Europe, which produced manufactured goods that were shipped to Africa, where they were exchanged for human beings transported to the Americas and sold into slavery -- the all-important manual labor for those cash crops.

That murderous Middle Passage and the further humiliating terrors awaiting the survivors weigh heavily on Marshall’s psyche. She calls the Atlantic “an entire ocean permanently sitting shivah,” and her invoking of the Jewish weeklong period of mourning is striking. Just as modern Jews observe the Passover holiday each year as though they personally had been delivered from slavery in ancient Egypt, Marshall feels her ancestors’ torment acutely. In the Richmond chapter, Marshall and a friend spend Labor Day on the banks of the James River, a major artery of the slave trade. The author’s attention wanders downstream and back in time to the Manchester Docks, where people who resembled her were purchased like cattle for a life in bondage. “Seems to me this particular holiday needs to be more inclusive in whom it acknowledges,” she says. “All those centuries of hard back, donkeywork done gratis.” She adopts into an improvised family tree the first group of Africans bartered for goods at Jamestown, in 1619; as well as the leaders of the failed 1816 Easter Sunday plantation uprising in Barbados, among others.

Throughout the book, Marshall, who turned 80 in April, honors forebears, family and mentors. Road opens with an elegy for the charismatic Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes. Called “Homage to Mr. Hughes,” the chapter paints an appealing portrait of the tireless champion of young African American artists, who would phone Marshall late at night to check on her writing progress. Subsequent sections are adapted from a 2005 lecture series Marshall delivered at Harvard University on the theme “Bodies of Water,” and their titles -- “I’ve Known Rivers,” “I’ve Known Seas” and “I’ve Known Oceans” -- recall Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” All of Road is a tribute to Mr. Hughes and to other influences on her work, beginning with the so-called “poets of the kitchen.” Women, Barbadian immigrants all, would gather in her family’s Brooklyn rental to gossip, complain and story-tell. Absorbing their homegrown sayings and proverbs -- “beautiful-ugly” was a favorite adjective, “mout’ king” the name for a skilled raconteur -- Marshall developed her keen ear for dialog and narrative, as well as the respect for authenticity that, at least once in her career, threatened to overwhelm her.

In the section of Road that deals most directly with her process, she describes the paralyzing writer’s block that kept her from working on the ambitious historical novel she had traveled to Granada in 1962 to compose. Eventually, she put aside the notebooks filled with careful research she’d conducted as background for the book, 1969’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, and put her trust in her instincts. “As a fiction writer, a novelist, a storyteller, a fabulist, as it were, my responsibility first and foremost was to the story, the story above all else: the old verities of people, plot and place; a story that if honestly told and well crafted would resonate with the historical truths contained in the steno pads.” The revelation frees her to do with what she does best: write fiction that sings with authenticity.

What does this say then about her memoir, which traffics mainly in fact and memories? Marshall writes with sensitivity, compassion and incisiveness, and she maintains a tight control over the personal details she chooses to share. But the book reads, at times, almost as a résumé -- I won these awards, I taught at these universities, I wrote these books. It’s a greatest-hits version of a life, a map of her development as a writer; and it never purports to be anything else. The larger truths, as she says herself, are layered into the pages of her fiction.

Triangular Road: A Memoir by Paule Marshall
Basic Civitas Books
ISBN: 0465013597
192 Pages