Paule Marshall's People: Meeting the Relatives

Article excerpt

With the publication of The Fisher King, her fifth novel, Paule Marshall reminded us that she is a national treasure. For more than 40 years this Brooklyn native has given us extraordinary stories by way of "ordinary" people. We have met Paule Marshall's people in our own living rooms and kitchens, and they are us.

Callers said as much on March 18, 1983, when Marshall appeared on WLIB AM radio in New York to talk in general about writing, and in particular about her then new novel, Praisesong for the Widow. "I know Clarence personally, and I know Thomasina, and I know Avie," said one man, naming characters in the book. "It's really something that when people read this book, they're going to find that you're probably talking about them, you know, their neighbors, their aunts."

The caller identified himself as a Barbados native and a member of the Barbadian-American Alliance, a civic group. Commenting on Marshall's first pubfished novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, another caller declared, "The mother in that book-she seems to be my mother." And a third listener claimed the South Carolina-Georgia sea islands Gullah heritage that is conveyed in Praisesong for the Widow by the great-great aunt of protagonist Avery "Avie" Johnson. The listener empathized with Avie, and with the youthful heroine of Brown Girl.

A writer told us that "for more than two decades now, I've been resonating with Merle, the troubled, stubborn, heart-sore lightning rod in Marshall's 1969 Caribbean neocolonialism saga, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. Paule Marshall's characters stick like one's own family members, somewhere beyond words and forebrain awareness, deep in the solar plexus, the heart-gut, maybe in the genes."

Marshall's writings reflect her background as the daughter of Barbadian immigrants, and she concentrates on the culturally distinct world of the Caribbean Islands and of Caribbean immigrants.

Marshall's most recent novel, The Fisher King, published in October 2000, is rich with characters so textured that we're plumping for a sequel. Sonny-Rett Payne, nee Everett, is a gone but about-to-be memorialized jazz pianist who came out of a Brooklyn neighborhood and by 1949 was an expatriate living and making music in Paris. Sonny-Rett's grandson, 8-year-old Sonny Carmichael Payne, has been reared by his grandparents' special friend, Hattie Carmichael, in a seedy quarter of Paris.

Referred to in the novel as the boy's fathermothersisterbrother, Hattie Carmichael has been scraping by in the employ of a charitable old friend, with baby-sitting help from an elderly, genteel alcoholic. Hattie accepts an invitation from the deceased musician Sonny-Rett's brother for her and his grandnephew to attend a memorial concert in honor of the posthumously fabled brother and grandfather.

The uncle, Egar, heads a neighborhood reclamation agency that New Yorkers will think bears a coincidental resemblance to the nation's first community development corporation, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. (The not-forprofit organization, founded in 1967 with the bipartisan support of the late Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Jacob K. Javits, incubates businesses, residential development, and arts and cultural amenities in a teeming Brooklyn neighborhood. …