Book Review: Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road
One of the most important writers of the 2nd half of the 20th century, Paule Marshall bears witness to the artist’s life in her first memoir, Triangular Road.
In many ways, Marshall embodies the complex hybridism of the 20th century. The daughter of immigrant parents, she is both West Indian and American, Bajan and New Yorker. As a young woman she secretly attended the City University of New York’s Hunter College, defying her mother, who intoned “You ain’ hear that the telephone company is starting to hire colored?” enough times to compel Marshall to use the phrase in an epigraph.
Marshall emerged from her working class childhood to enter the intelligentsia and commit to the world of art and protest and ideas. Her work as a Black Arts Movement writer bridges the temporal space between the 1920s-1930s Harlem Renaissance and today’s Word Movement. Marshall was encouraged by Renaissance luminary Langston Hughes, who attended a book party to celebrate the publication of Brown Girl, Brownstones in 1959. She later influenced Gen X author Edwidge Danticat, who pays homage to Paule Marshall and her Kitchen Poets in her first book, Krik? Krak!, published in 1996.
In Triangular Road, Marshall is an American girl in search of her island roots, both working class and upper middle, the link between the start of the 20th century and its end. This authentic twoness is all the rage in middle America because of the similar complexity of President Obama’s identity, but Marshall, like so many of us, was doing the two before DuBoisian twoness was mainstream cool.
The title Triangular Road speaks to the movement, across cultures, across class, and across time, that is the artist’s life. It also conjures images of the Slave Era’s Triangular Trade, that water route from Europe (the source of financing) to West Africa (the source of humanity) to the Americas (the source of profit). Marshall’s memoir enters the same geographic spaces.
The book starts with her invitation to tour Europe as part of a US State Department series of talks on African American literature. Initially skeptical, even afraid that the State Department has issued a McCarthy-esque summons to her because of her participation in the Civil Rights Movement, Marshall realizes Langston Hughes is involved in the tour and thrills at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread the word on the condition of Black folks. She takes it, and indeed discusses Black disenfranchisement as much as she discusses Black Books in Europe.
The memoir then enters the space between the East Coast and The Caribbean, from New York and Virginia to Barbados and Grenada. This section’s structure replicates the movement of captured Africans, who were “broken in” and then traded up and down the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean Sea. Finally, the narrative shifts back to Africa, celebrates a kind of homegoing to the Mother Source, and begins to resolve some of the personal and political conflicts Marshall bravely reveals in the earlier sections.
In Triangular Road, Marshall travels back, along the Triangular Trade in reverse, to an African-centered, liberated self. This is a theme familiar to fans of her fiction, particularly her 1983 novel, Praisesong for the Widow. Readers entranced by Praisesong’s female protagonist, Avey, and the character’s psychic shift back across the waters of The Middle Passage will devour Marshall’s descriptions of her trip to Grenada, from which she traveled to the tiny out-island of Carricou and, just as her fictional character, danced at The Big Drum.
Marshall is also much like Avey in her ability to name and claim kin, from “the twenty-and-odd negroes” who landed in Jamestown in the 1600s, to the 132 victims of the 1781 Zong massacre. The human cargo on that British slave ship were drowned at sea before they arrived to port in the Caribbean because the traders who had stolen them figured it would be more profitable to collect the insurance money their deaths would bring than to try to sell the “sick and ailing chattel cargo in the hold.”
This emotional space of the Middle Passage figures prominently in the work of writers of African descent throughout the Diaspora. From Langston Hughes’ “I’ve Known Rivers” to Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” the Black soul “has grown deep like the rivers.” To learn of Marshall’s real life journeys over the waters is a wonder whether or not the reader is familiar with Avey or the characters in this important author’s 7 other books.
Triangular Road is essential for fans of Marshall’s work, and a pleasure for the uninitiated. Delightfully compact, substantive, strong, this is a lovely memoir, artfully exploring the world around the woman writer, revealing the woman herself.
Other Books by Paule Marshall :