Marshall (Literature and Culture/New York Univ.; The Fisher King, 2000, etc.) recounts her coming of age in Brooklyn, the Caribbean and Africa.
She opens with “Homage to Mr. Hughes”—poet Langston, that is, who became Marshall’s mentor and friend after they met at a party celebrating the release of her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959. Hughes subsequently invited the novice writer to accompany him on a cultural tour of Europe. Marshall’s warm, reverent portrait includes charming anecdotes about his affinity for nightlife and excerpts from his handwritten notes, always penned in green ink. Subsequent chapters are adapted from a series of lectures the author delivered at Harvard on “Bodies of Water.” Marshall focuses on the three that made up the triangular slave-trade route: the James River, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. She mingles the history of each with the chronicle of her life and development as a writer. Her parents were from Barbados, a principal way station in the slave trade. They moved to Brooklyn, where Marshall grew up in a close-knit West Indian community and first discovered her passion for books. She drew inspiration for her early writing from Barbados and used the advance for Brown Girl to spend a year in the island nation revising her manuscript and reconnecting with her parents’ native ground. After receiving a 1962 Guggenheim grant she spent another year in the Caribbean, this time on Grenada and its tiny satellite island, where she attended an annual Big Drum/Nation Dance ceremony. The final chapter describes FESTAC ’77, a cultural festival that brought together in Nigeria artists from the entire African continent and from the diaspora to the Americas. Marshall and other Americans were welcomed as Omowalies (Yoruba for “the child has returned”). This sense of a far-flung African community informs the author’s lush descriptions and informative historical accounts, though these later portions of the book lack the approachable intimacy of her opening homage to Hughes.
An elegantly written memoir that reflects more on world history than on personal history.