Academic journal article African American Review

The Pull to Memory and the Language of Place in Paule Marshall's 'The Chosen Place, the Timeless People' and 'Praisesong for the Widow.' (Novels)

Academic journal article African American Review

The Pull to Memory and the Language of Place in Paule Marshall's 'The Chosen Place, the Timeless People' and 'Praisesong for the Widow.' (Novels)

Article excerpt

Merle Kinbona in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Avey Johnson in Praisesong for the Widow reveal subtle, if ultimately optimistic, models of resistance to the insidious, internalized effects of racism and Western acquisitiveness. Written in 1969 and 1983, these two novels weave the spiritual power of a significant place with the psychic lives of the main women characters. In The Chosen Place, Bournehills and the surrounding sea provoke both visitors and island dwellers to confront the past, their histories, or be destroyed in the process. In Praisesong, the island of Carriacou, off Grenada, offers such a strong psychic pull that Avey deserts her luxury cruise in order to embark on what turns out to be a middle passage in reverse, a spiritual return to her African roots and the ritual healing of a self stunted by years of conformity and acquisition.(1) Both islands are located furthest east among the Caribbean Islands, closest geographically to Africa. These places, with their long and painful histories of slavery and colonialism, manifest both physical and temporal characteristics which seem to demand a kind of settling of accounts. The result is a powerful political viewpoint that Marshall claims explicitly. Of The Chosen Place, she writes:

In it there is a conscious attempt to project the view of the future to which I am personally committed. Stated simply it is a view, a vision if you will, which sees the rise through revolutionary struggle of the darker peoples of the world and, as a necessary corollary, the decline and eclipse of America and the West. ("Shaping" 108)

In both explicit and implicit ways, this commitment to the future relies on "a clear and truthful picture of all that has gone before" (107) - the histories and stories and spirit of the Afro American and Afro Caribbean people.

Critics of Marshall's "connective" politics have accused her of formulating a simplistic, arbitrary, or at the very least predictable and heavy-handed spiritual connection between Africa and the Americas (a connection others read as deep, complex, and subtle); some accuse her of promoting an essentialized Blackness that does nothing to help the causes of African Americans. She herself has admitted to being an unabashed ancestor worshipper and has emphasized on numerous occasions the importance of historical roots in Africa. Although some critics have attended to place, none that I have read has made the important connection between place and women's bodies as sites for transformation, resistance, and spirituality. Yet in both novels Marshall spends a great deal of time describing Merle's and Avey's bodies as the sites for radical transformation, not only of the self but of the community as well.

Although Marshall has said that her "special" audience is "young black women trying to establish a sense of self" ("Little Girl" 21), I believe her broader audience cuts across racial, gender, and class lines. For instance, I expect that Praisesong, because it's about a widow in her sixties, appeals to older women who appreciate the fictional heroine's maturity and the fact that her transformative journey occurs late in life. For me, the importance of crossing cultural lines in both Praisesong and The Chosen Place makes them especially relevant not only to my own work as a white scholar deeply concerned about racism, white privilege, and cross-cultural understanding, but also to our need as citizens (and those who aren't citizens) in this country to live together with dignity and hope. Writing about crossing cultural lines means that I cannot stay cautiously on my "own" turf. Yet I recognize that, for white scholars, "venturing out" is a time-honored tradition full of entitlements and privilege, that academic criticism is tainted by its institutional contexts. As Patricia Hill Collins writes, "Scholars . . . represent specific interests and credentialing processes, and their knowledge claims must satisfy the epistemological and political criteria of the contexts in which they reside" (751). …

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