Author Paule Marshall was born April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, as Valenza Pauline Burke. The daughter of “Bajan” (Barbadian) immigrant parents, Paule Marshall gained widespread recognition for her critically acclaimed novel, “Brown Girl Brownstones."
As a young girl growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Paule Marshall was a voracious reader. She read the sweeping English novels of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry Fielding.
However, it was not until her discovery of the great African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar that she became aware of another type of literature, one that spoke to her like no other that she had read before and that expressed to her the possibility that she, too, might someday become a great writer.
Marshall attended Girls High School. After graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1953, she worked at various jobs to make ends meet.
She worked as a librarian for the New York Public Library and then, at first as a research assistant and later as a full-time journalist, for the once very influential African American magazine Our World (1955–1956).
The road to becoming the kind of writer who would inspire others to follow in her footsteps was long and hard. Marshall ended up leaving Our World and married her first husband, Kenneth Marshall, in 1957. In 1958, she gave birth to her first and only child, Evan-Keith.
Still, Marshall was not satisfied with the role deemed appropriate for her and most other women of the 1950s, that is, wife and mother exclusively; she needed more. A novel was slowly but surely forming in her consciousness, but because of her marriage and the birth of her child, she had very little free time for her writing.
She needed, paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, "a room of her own." Against the wishes of her husband, she enlisted someone to help with Evan-Keith and rented a small apartment in order to devote more time to her fledgling novel. Two years later, in 1959, her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, was published.
Brown Girl, Brownstones is a milestone in African American fiction not only because it goes against stereotype in its portrayal of African Americans but also because for the first time since Claude McKay, another West Indian immigrant writer, a connection had been made in literature between African American people and their West Indian counterparts.
Marshall's next literary project, published in 1961, was a collection of short fiction entitled Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Eight years elapsed between the publication of Soul Clap Hands and Sing and Marshall's second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969)
The year 1983 was very important to Paule Marshall's career. It marked not only the publication of her third novel, Praisesong for the Widow, but also of another collection of short stories entitled Reena and Other Stories, which included her most anthologized short story, “To Da-duh, in Memorium.”
With a career that spans almost half a century, Paule Marshall continues to garner both critical raves as well as literary success. In 1992 she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Prize Fellowship for lifetime achievement.
As a pioneer in the exploration of themes such as ageism, sexual harassment, and nuclear proliferation, Marshall continues to be a writer's writer, both steady and enduring.
Marshall has lectured on black literature at universities and colleges such as Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University. She holds a distinguished chair in creative writing at New York University.
Paule Marshall is without a doubt one of the most influential African-American writers in cotemporary literature today.