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Novelist Paule Marshall Has Died

The acclaimed author was known for her books like "Brown Girl, Brownstones." She was 90.
Author Paule Marshall poses during an interview Author Paule Marshall interview, New York, USA - 22 Nov 1991 "Daughters," her latest novel, took eight years to write and tells the story of a young black professional, periodically distracted from her hectic life in Manhattan by thoughts of her family in the tiny Caribbean island of Triunion. Photo by Shutterstock
By Paula Rogo · August 17, 2019

Paule Marshall, a leading Black female fiction writer of the 1950s that wrote vividly about the African diasporan experiences in her book, has died. She was 90.

According to her son, Evan K. Marshall, the novelist died Monday in Richmond, Virginia after suffering from dementia in recent years. 

According to the Associated Press, Marshall was virtually the only major Black woman fiction writer in the U.S. in the 1950s, described as “a bridge between Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and others who emerged in the 1960s and ’70s.”

An avid reader, Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn to working-class Barbadian immigrants, a family whose culture and habits often appeared in her books. In her debut novel, “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” a young Black woman raised in a Trinidadian community in Brooklyn searches for her own identity amid the conflicting values of her Barbadian parents.

Similar themes could be found in Marshall’s other works like “The Chosen Place, the Timeless People,” and “Praisesong for the Widow.”

“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,” she told The Associated Press in 1991.

She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1952 after which she worked as a journalist with assignments that took her around the world, eventually taking up the pen name Paule Marshall. 

A self-described “unabashed ancestor worshipper,”  her books focused on women, race, cultural identity and adventure.

“Traditionally in most fiction, men are the wheelers and dealers. They are the ones in whom power is invested. I wanted to turn that around. I wanted women to be the center of power. My feminism takes its expression through my work. Women are central for me. They can as easily embody the power principles as a man,” Marshall wrote in ESSENCE Magazine in 1979. 

Many in the literary community sang Marshall’s praises once news of her death spread. Marshall’s own goddaughter, award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, credit’s Marshall’s encouragement as a big part of her writing growth.

“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Nottage wrote. “#RIP Another beloved elder has crossed over.”

Other fellow writers mourned her passing include Nicole Dennis-Benn, Ishmael Reed and Jason Reynolds.

Marshall’s death comes a week after that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Marshall is survived by her son, stepdaughter and two grandchildren.