Embodiment and the African Diaspora in the Fiction of Paule Marshall
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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Paule Marshall’s fiction is characterized by narration of the body in relation to African diasporic identity. My dissertation project, "Embodiment and the African Diaspora in the Fiction of Paule Marshall," seeks to examine how Marshall uses body-centered narration to launch discussions about embodiment and its integral connection to African diasporic identity. This narrative technique, and the discussion of embodiment and identity that it engenders, capture well Marshall’s position as a diasporic feminist writer. She has often been identified by scholars as either an African American, Caribbean, diasporic, or—though less often—feminist writer. Through this dissertation project, I am committed to unveiling the ways in which Marshall is all of those at once, as evidenced by her focus on Black women expressing diasporic identity through embodied practices like ritual dance, Vodou possession, obeah medicinal strategies, and spiritual connection to African and diasporic ancestors as felt through the body. Marshall’s fiction reveals that these embodied practices are not tangential or complementary to African diasporic identity, but are integral to it. Like Marshall’s work, this dissertation employs lenses of Black feminist theory and African and African diasporic theories of embodiment. Through her short stories and novels, Marshall makes an explicit case for examining the role of embodiment within diasporic communities. Her fiction suggests that embodiment will not only strengthen diasporic identity, but will also strengthen diasporic communities. The larger message of Marshall’s fiction is that disembodiment, especially of women, is a result of capitalist, materialist ideology that is racist, gendered, and oppressive to Black communities. By reconnecting with and reclaiming their bodies, Marshall’s female characters reveal that embodiment is not only a path toward diasporic identity, but also a resistant act to the systems of oppression, dating back to slavery, that inevitably result in disembodiment. For Marshall’s women, embodiment becomes a source of power. By using body-centered narration, Marshall makes discussions of the body inescapable. My dissertation is a critical analysis of three of her novels, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Daughters (1991), with the intention of uncovering the ways in which Marshall makes embodiment an integral part of scholarly discussions about and literary depictions of the African diaspora.