NEW YORK — Paule Marshall, an exuberant and sharpened storyteller who in fiction such as “Daughters” and “Brown Girl, Brownstones” drew upon classic and vernacular literature and her mother’s kitchen conversations to narrate the divides between blacks and whites, men and women and modern and traditional cultures, has died at age 90.
Marshall’s son, Evan Marshall, said she died Monday in Richmond, Virginia. She had been suffering from dementia in recent years.
First published in the 1950s, Marshall was for years virtually the only major black woman fiction writer in the U.S., a bridge between Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and others who emerged in the 1960s and ’70s. Calling herself “an unabashed ancestor worshipper,” Marshall was the Brooklyn-born daughter of Barbadian immigrants and wrote lovingly, but not uncritically of her family and other upholders of the ways of their country of origin.
“Paule Marshall was a profound and luminous writer, as well as a generous teacher, mentor, and friend,” the Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat wrote in an email. “Her work delved deeply into what she considered her triangular journey from her ancestral homeland on the African continent, to the Caribbean, then the United States. Reading her novels often felt like reading my own family’s history on a global scale. She will be greatly missed.”
From the start, Marshall contrasted the values of Americans and other Westerners with those from the Caribbean and tallied the price of assimilation. In “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” her autobiographical debut, a young Brooklyn woman seeks her own identity amid the conflicting values of her Barbadian parents — her hardheaded mother and tragically hopeful father. In “The Chosen Place, the Timeless People,” idealistic American project workers in the Caribbean encounter the skepticism of the local community. “Praisesong for the Widow” tells of an upscale American black woman’s awakening during a Caribbean vacation.
“I like to take people at a time of crisis and questioning in their lives and have them undertake a kind of spiritual and emotional journey and to then leave them once that journey has been completed and has helped them to understand something about themselves,” Marshall told The Associated Press in 1991.
Marshall’s admirers included Walker, Dorothy Parker and Langston Hughes, an early mentor who sent her encouraging postcards in green ink, brought her on a State Department tour of Europe and urged her to “get busy” when he thought the young writer was working too slowly. Marshall received several honors, among them MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and, in 2009, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for books “that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity.” She taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and New York University.
Other fellow writers mourned her passing, which came a week after the death of Morrison. Nicole Dennis-Benn, Ishmael Reed and Jason Reynolds were among those posting tributes on social media. Award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Marshall’s goddaughter, tweeted that Marshall was the “first champion” of her work and had urged her mother to “Just let her write.”
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Nottage wrote. “#RIP Another beloved elder has crossed over.”