The Triangular Road
In this nontraditional memoir, novelist Paule Marshall explores the rich material that fueled her five decades of work.
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“Triangular Road” is adapted from a series of lectures Marshall delivered at Harvard University on “specific rivers, seas and oceans – and their profound impact on black history and culture through the Americas.” It includes an affectionate, still half-awed homage to poet Langston Hughes, an early and steady supporter of Marshall’s work, describing the government-sponsored cultural tour of Europe he invited her to join in 1965.Skip to next paragraph
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The triangular road of the title, though, is the path of Marshall’s life, which she describes as “a thing divided in three,” between her childhood in Brooklyn, the Caribbean islands that became her on-and-off home, and, in a surprisingly abrupt account at the book’s end, her introduction to “ancestral Africa.”
The book’s soul is Marshall’s description of her childhood in the “tight, little, ingrown immigrant world of Bajan Brooklyn,” particularly her pained, closely observed account of her parents, both born in Barbados and separately making their way to America.
Hearing her mother and friends “ol’talk” in the kitchen, with their Bajan proverbs and colorful stories, she wrote, was her first lesson in the art and craft of writing. She flatly describes her status as “a grievous and permanent disappointment” to her mother, a daughter rather than the hoped-for son, “and one, at that, who was nothing as pretty as her first.”
Her hopeful account of her parents’ courtship, as well as other accounts in the book, are couched in terms of maybes – conversations that might have occurred, emotions that might have been felt. Even her mentor Hughes, she writes, “might have been remembering his own trials and tribulations” as he sat silently, or “might well have been instrumental” in Marshall’s receiving an award for her work, “perhaps recommending the collection” to those he knew on the selection committee.
At first, these suppositions nag like uncut threads. But by the end, drawn in by Marshall’s rich tapestry, it is enough for us to know that this is the story she sees as the best-crafted and most likely.
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle-based freelance writer.