I’ve always admired single-author examinations. They allow the critic the opportunity to inhabit the world of the author, to track the evolution of the writer’s development both as an artist and as an individual. In one of the few book-length studies centered around Paule Marshall’s fiction, Eugenia DeLamotte explores the essence of Marshall’s writing, unearthing the layered meanings in her fiction and excavating her equally important contributions to narrative art and feminism. The issues at the heart of DeLamotte’s exploration are matters crucial to understanding the potency of Marshall’s creative efforts. According to DeLamotte, Marshall probes several areas of narrative and feminist inquiry that revolve around the question of silence and voice. These concerns include examinations of the relationship between women’s power and their disempowerment; the interpenetration of the social and political worlds with the world of the psyche; and the role race, class, and gender play in maintaining those systems of domination that keep women of color at the margins of society. Marshall’s narrative technique, what DeLamotte terms “double exposure,” results from the simultaneity of these contested sources of power. This “doubleness” likewise shapes the topography of DeLamotte’s study. [End Page 1040]
In her introduction, DeLamotte traces Marshall’s own personal journey from silence to voice in her insightful analysis of Marshall’s short story “Brooklyn.” In this story, a young woman is inappropriately propositioned by her college professor during a visit at his summer home to discuss the merits of her writing. This narrative mirrors Marshall’s own experience of sexual harassment early in her writing career. As DeLamotte aptly points out, “Nowhere is [Marshall’s] art of double vision more evident than at the climax of this story, in which the image of a woman’s powerlessness beneath a man’s gaze becomes, beneath Paule Marshall’s gaze, a simultaneous image of her power.” It is Marshall’s own willingness to make her personal turmoil known (it took almost a decade to complete the writing and publishing of this project) that attests to her ability to write the woman’s experience through the site of the body, as this is the locus of her agency and likewise her oppression. “By voicing her experience—for which [. . .] there was not even a word in 1952—,” DeLamotte explains, “[Marshall] took possession of the place of her dispossession, transforming it into one of the first sites of her power as an artist.”
Marshall’s symbolic reappropriation of her own voice joins her struggle with that of the women she writes about in her novels. In each instance, her central characters lose the ability to speak because their voices are appropriated, silenced, and/or suppressed within the context of oppressive discourses that cannot accommodate their individual expression. Here, DeLamotte is particularly keen as she delineates those coercive acts of silencing embedded in the ideological frameworks of society’s economic and political discourse, and practiced in America’s social milieu. One such silence DeLamotte identifies is created by a censored mode of “hearing” which takes the speech of the dispossessed and translates it into terms that the hegemony recognizes, “discarding anything that [it] cannot voice.” These acts of suppression lead to another form of silencing that DeLamotte calls “ventriloquism.” In this instance, the oppressor speaks in the voice of the oppressed, appropriating their language and their speech acts in a manner that causes so much anxiety for the individual that she loses sight of herself in the process. Marshall depicts these “helpless obits[. . . in] the form of ‘runaway’ monologues associated with imagery of a plunge down a hill, stampede, self-destruction, suicide.” The achieved end results in an allegorical repositioning of the interior life of the character as the [End Page 1041] oppressed moves from silent object to vocalized subject by the end of the narrative. This phenomenon can certainly be seen in Praisesong for the Widow (1984) as Avery recovers a self buried underneath the sorrow and solitude of her recent loss.