Sunday, July 18, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Paule Marshall's Triangular Road

According to Triangular Road, Paule Marshall’s memoir on her experiences as a young writer, the United States Department of State sent her on a month-long cultural tour of Europe in 1965 despite her open condemnation of the government. As a matter of fact, when the author of the classic novel Brown Girl, Brownstones arrives in Washington for a briefing, a dossier which details all of her “anti-American” activity—her involvement with the American Youth for Democracy (an offshoot of the Communist Party), her participation in the first ever joint Civil Rights-Anti-Vietnam war march, and other leftist organizations whose causes she espoused at one point or another—is laying on the desk of a government official.
“I sat puzzling over this as the briefing continued, only to conclude that the government might actually benefit by sending ‘an emissary’ such as myself overseas,” she writes. “The fact that I would be openly critical of its policies could well serve as proof that the country was truly a democracy committed to respecting the First Amendment rights of even its most vocal detractors.”
The United States government was not the only one benefitting from this excursion, however. Paule Marshall clarifies that the bigger honor was being hand selected for the trip by Langston Hughes himself. She eulogizes the Harlem poet for deeming a young author with “only one novel and a collection of short stories to date” significant enough to travel the world discussing African-American literature. Marshall’s memoir is a fond remembrance of the Harlem Renaissance figure as much as it is a recollection of her own quest as a young Black female writer trying to find footing in the White patriarchal field of literature. She pays tribute to the London train off which the two authors smuggled doggie bags of their half eaten steaks and the Copenhagen nights where Hughes recounted the good old Harlem Renaissance days, golden morsels that as a novice that Marshall considers herself lucky to snatch.
The location of the memoir shifts, after a chapter, to Virginia where Marshall’s strong identity as a liberal writer from the North puts her at the dubious end of many racially unresolved moments. For instance, a visit to the historic James River conjures in her mind the Richmond port where Africans once stood in chains waiting to be sold as chattel to southern slave masters. This is why Marshall blankets her stay in Virginia with an austere reverence, explaining her adverse reaction to her Jewish editor who, with a touristic jubilance, looks forward to seeing the famous Tidewater plantation. Marshall writes, “How, I wonder, would she have reacted had I announced that I was on my way to visit Dachau or Buchenwald to my pay respects to the millions who had perished there while doing to the boogaloo and snapping my fingers? Our association ended shortly thereafter.”
Marshall borrows that the title of her memoir from the Atlantic triangular slave trade which transported chattel cargo between Africa, colonies in the Caribbean and America, and Europe. Though she would say the “triangular road” of her life refers to her African ancestry, her Caribbean blood, and her Brooklyn upbringing, the triangular road in her memoir consists of her tour with Hughes, her residency at Virginia Commonwealth, and her retreat to Barbados prior to the release of her first novel.
It’s the last of these three, her journey to Barbados (to clear her head and more crucially revise Brown Girl, Brownstones before publication), that provides the most sincere portrait of Marshall as a young writer. Upon her editor’s suggestion “to take this swollen, overwritten baby tome of yours and to extricate from it the slender, impressive first novel that’s written there”, Marshall embarks on a voyage to the island’s capital, Bridgetown, where a newly rented and built manor-style house awaits her. Here, Marshall both meditates about her lineage and comes up with the inspiration for what would be her second novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.
Throughout the book, there are numerous moments where Marshall is more surprised about her literary achievements than her readers. Those with a strong idea how of Marshall fits into the canon of African-American literature would most likely not find her inclusion in the European tour with Langston Hughes too far-fetched nor her success with whittling down a bloated draft into a tight first novel. Triangular Road portrays a great writer who feels the same anxieties and uncertainties that any professional would encounter in his or her own career. If anything, the humanity and the humility is much appreciated.

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