A memoir of creative and personal self-discovery

By Renee Graham
April 6, 2009
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At first glance, it seems an ordinary portrait of a little girl.

Dressed in her Sunday best, she has an oversize bow in her hair, her feet, in white shoes and socks, are delicately crossed at the ankle, while her hands are politely clasped in front of her. Yet closer inspection reveals steeliness in her dark eyes, as the defiant tilt of her head makes clear that even at 4, Paule Marshall was someone to be reckoned with, ready to, as she writes, "go my own way almost from the beginning."

That way would be into an accomplished literary life that has spanned 50 years, five novels, two short-story collections, and now her thoughtful first memoir, "Triangular Road," whose cover is adorned by that long-ago photo of Marshall. Perhaps best known for her first novel, "Brown Girl, Brownstones," Marshall is an elegant, compassionate writer whose books, including "Daughters," "The Fisher King," and "Praisesong for the Widow," reveal the knotty, workaday lives and relationships of black Americans, some of them West Indian immigrants like her parents.

Marshall writes poignantly of her parents, Barbadian immigrants who came seeking hope in America, where they met, only to find heartache, but this lean memoir isn't primarily about her family.

The book's title refers to the three geographical areas that helped to forge her creative and personal life - Barbados, her parents' island homeland; Brooklyn, where Marshall was born and raised in an African-American and West Indian neighborhood; and Africa, with its indelible culture and difficult history.

She begins her book with an unexpected invitation to Europe.

In 1965, Marshall had two books to her credit - her semi-autobiographical first novel and "Soul Clap Hands and Sing" a short story collection -- when the great Langston Hughes asked Marshall and another young writer to accompany him on a US State Department-sponsored cultural tour across Europe. The chapter "Homage to Mr. Hughes" is a delight, and Marshall's recollections about watching Hughes school young black Brits on African-American history and being squired around Paris to underground jazz clubs and cabarets by Hughes who, even in his 60s, remained an inveterate nightfly, are fascinating enough for their own memoir.

Because this is not a traditional memoir, Marshall then shifts more than 30 years to Virginia, where she taught at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Labor Day excursion to the James River, which flows through Richmond, evokes for Marshall the city's role in the slave trade as the primary port of entry for Africans brought to America in the 18th century. Arguably, this book's best chapter covers Marshall's acrimonious childhood in Brooklyn. Her parents, especially her father, Sam, were social strivers thwarted by race, circumstances, and plain old bad luck.

"My father went about life insisting by his manner, that his was a higher calling than the series of factory jobs he held over the years," Marshall writes. "In his eyes he possessed the ability and talent to be so much more."

Her parents' disappointments were exacerbated by Marshall's birth - they wanted a son, not another daughter. Her mother would chastise her as ugly and willful, and because of this Marshall becomes a self-possessed, determined child, who not only finds an escape in books - the local library was a welcome sanctuary - but a career path to lead her from poverty and despair. Speaking of the book's cover photo, which shows Marshall with a children's picture book, she writes, "I had also already chosen my life's work."

Given the vigor and depth of these 165 pages, it seems a shame that it's taken Marshall, now nearing 80, so long to write a memoir. Perhaps with "Triangular Road," she is now ready to share more of her own stories from a life as a full and compelling as any character she has ever created.

Renée Graham is a freelance writer.

By Paule Marshall
Basic Civitas Books, 165 pp., with photos, $23