This story is part of our “Brooklyn Classics” series, about well-known and underappreciated books set in the borough.
Compared to other authors in our Brooklyn Classics series, Paule Marshall isn’t quite a household name, yet her book Brown Girl, Brownstones, first published in 1959, is a breathtaking achievement. A coming-of-age story about Barbadian immigrant, Selina Boyce, who grows up among the brownstones in Brooklyn during the 1940s with one parent pining for his old life in Barbados and one parent seeking to achieve the American Dream. Young Selina is caught in the middle between the past and the future, trying to understand which is the better way to be. At a dance, a man asks her mother, “How can you forget the past, mahn? You does try but it’s here today and there waiting for you tomorrow.” We trace Selina’s path from her suffocating Crown Heights apartment to college in Manhattan and the road is paved with her struggles of identity, as a daughter, a girl, a West Indian immigrant, a Black person in America, a lover, and, finally, as an artist. Marshall writes: “It was [Selina’s] own small truth that dimly envisioned a different world and a different way; a small belief—illusory and undefined still—which was slowly forming out of all she had lived.” With lyrical language, well-drawn characters, and studied depictions of Brooklyn, Marshall captures the complications of finding footing in changing world. Add to this, the surprising elements of a cult, the artistic expression of modern dance, and a clandestine love affair, and the novel becomes impossible to put down.
Brown Girl, Brownstones is loosely autobiographical.
Marshall’s father worked as a mattress salesman after coming to America as a stowaway on a freighter that sailed from Cuba, and her mother worked as a maid. Though both from Barbados, her parents met in Red Hook. Like in her novel, her father really did leave the family to join a cult in Harlem, called Father’s Jealous Divine. Marshall studied European literature at Hunter College and then, Brooklyn College, and she has taught at Yale, Oxford, Cornell and Columbia and is a MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow. She died in 2019 at age 90.
The “e” in her first name is silent.
Born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, Marshall changed her name when she worked in journalism and believed having a less explicitly feminine first name would help. Additionally, it was said she was inspired by the first name of the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Langston Hughes was an early supporter of her work.
The poet Langston Hughes attended a party in Harlem for the launch of Brown Girl, Brownstones and from that point became a champion of and mentor to the author, including inviting her on a State Department tour of Europe in 1965. She writes about the importance of their friendship in her memoir, Triangular Road.
Paule Marshall only wrote five novels.
In addition to Brown Girl, Brownstones, her novels were The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Daughters (1991) and The Fisher King (2000) and she wrote a few collections of short stories. Her memoir, Triangular Road was released in 2009. She called herself a “very slow, painstaking, fussy writer” and would spend up to 10 years completing a novel.
Paule Marshall was influenced by “the poets of the kitchen.”
In an essay regarding her inspiration, Marshall wrote about the women who’d gather after work in her mother’s kitchen. “They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.” Marshall considered the everyday experience of the “ordinary” people, and her novel is peppered with the uncommon expressions and dialect she grew up around.
The descriptions of Brooklyn are by alone worth the read.
Marshall’s novel opens with “In the somnolent July afternoon the unbroken line of brownstone houses down the long Brooklyn street resembled an army massed at attention.” Comparing the townhouses to soldiers sets the scene in the neighborhood and the wartime era. Or, listen to her description of Fulton Street: “Fleeing the wind, the refuse of overturned garbage cans joining the driven snow and scudding pell-mell down the street, the few people hurrying close to the buildings, their bowed heads butting the wind.” Almost a decade later, Paule Marshall’s Brooklyn and the issues she raised are still identifiable, securing Brown Girl, Brownstone a revered spot in the Brooklyn canon.