Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth: Myth in Brown Girl Brownstones

Paule Marshall

Last week I read Caribbean-American Paule Marshall’s novel, Brown Girl Brownstones, and to put it simply, I was blown away. It definitely on par with The Invisible Man. It is a coming of age story that follows a Bajan (Barbados)- American girl, Selina Boyce, who is finding her own path amidst the destruction of her family in World War II-era Brooklyn, New York. Selina and her sister, Ina, are caught between their mother, Silla, a realist who thirsts for finding her place in America through property ownership, and their father, Deighton, a dreamer inundated by his own dreams and longing to return home to Barbados where he has a piece of land there. Although this book is not considered a piece of speculative fiction, Marshall’s use of figurative language, especially personification, in her descriptions of the scenery and the characters’ thoughts and feelings verges on the fantastical. Marshall blurs the line between history, memory, dreams and fantasy throughout Brown Girl Brownstones.

The main character of Selina is a visionary outsider figure, much like the nameless character in The Invisible Man and theme in African diaspora tradition. In ways she is a prophetic and clairvoyant character. She seems to see things that are beyond the scope of “reality.” Even the novel matches her prophetic nature through foreshadowing, using quotations from the later part of the book in the earlier part. Selina’s name means heavenly, stems from the moon goddess Selene, and coincidentally is an anagram of aliens. It works in the novel because Seline has an ancient and dark wise spirit, confronting the alienation and disillusionment she feels in her community and her urge to find her own place to belong (home).

Marshall’s descriptions are at times mystical and mythical, which is common in her works. She references Greek mythology, divinity of the characters, oracles, priests and priestess, mood bangles (like mood rings) and there is a whole scene including Caribbean magick, obeah. Seline, who wants to be a poet (griot/wisdom-figure), has three female guides in her life — Suggie, Miss Thompson and Miss Mary — who represent the three women archetypes/goddesses — the maiden, the mother and the crone. Suggie, who is viewed as a prostitute, is the fertile youth, Miss Thompson mothers Seline by dressing up her hair and giving advice, and Miss Mary is on her deathbed but tells Selina her memories. Silla is often referred to as “the mother,” not “my mother”, raising her to the status of a world mother or mother goddess (her name does mean “exalting”).The main male characters are killed off or left behind (Silla’s infant son, her husband Deighton, Selina’s boyfriend Clive), representing Christ (Silla actually calls Deighton that), Tammuz or Eshu-like figures (Deighton is somewhat of a trickster).

Marshall also includes the archetypal mother-daughter struggle in her work. Much like Jennifer Marie Brissett‘s analysis of the Demeter-Persephone myth in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, this is a story of a young woman disconnecting herself from her mother to find her own power as well as a mother and daughter trying to understand each other. As Persephone is the queen of the underworld, Selina is often surrounded by shadows and even compares Clive to the night during their first time. Clive is not a “rapist” like Hades, but he does take Selina further from the wing of her mother and chips away at Selina’s naivete.  Marshall’s use of the cycle of seasons; her opening the book with the start of Ina’s menstrual cycle; the godliness of Silla; descriptions of enveloping and revealing shadows and water; and the mentions of the rhythmic movement and womb-like nature of street life, home life and even factory machinery, frames the book in a female-centered environment. Selina is essentially the moon goddess (Isis, Erzulie, Ishtar), she has to rebuild her life from the ashes of apocalyptic-like events in her life. She creates her future from a broken and ghostly past within, as Silla would say, a “beautiful-ugly” world, remembering and transforming it.

Other themes explored in the book are death, loss of self (past, home), religion and spirituality (life-death-resurrection), gender roles and androgyny, the schism between Caribbean black people and United States black people, assimilation, the industrial versus the agricultural, migration and reverse migration, and the effect of slavery, racism and economic systems on Black people in the diaspora. Below are some passages from it:

(Description of Selina)...the eyes set deep in the darkness of her face. They were not the eyes of a child. Something too old lurked in their centers. They were weighted, it seemed, with scenes of a long life. She might have been old once and now, miraculously, young again — but with the memory of that other life intact (4).

(Walking into her father, Deighton’s parlor) It was the museum of all the lives that had ever lived here. The floor-to-ceiling mirror retained their faces as the silence did their voices. As Selina entered, the chandelier which held the sunlight, frozen in its prisms rushed at her, and the mirror flung her back at herself…The illusory figures fled and she was only herself again (5-6).

Of all  things upon the earth that bleed and grow, a herb most bruised is woman. (29)

(During the scene when Silla and her friends talk about how obeah and “duppy-dust” were used to kill a woman and how Silla wants to use obeah on her husband to get him to sell his land in Barbados so she can use the money to buy a brownstone) “Be-Jesus-Christ, I gon do that for him then. Even if I got to see my soul fall howling into hell I gon do it…”From her table in the corner, Selina visualized them as ominous birds, posied beaks ready to rip her father. (75)

(Selina walking into her mother’s workplace. The machines and their sound become a prophetic symbol for Selina after her mother’s sells her father’s land and he is later injured by a machine bringing the breakdown of her family). She was drowned suddenly in a deluge of noise…and just as the noise of each machine had been welded into a single howl, so did the machines themselves seem forged into one sprawling, colossal machine. The machine-mass, this machine-force was ugly, yet it had grandeur. It was a new creative force, the heart of another, larger, form of life that had submerged all others, and the roar was its heartbeat — not the ordered systole and diastole of the human heart but a frenetic lifebeat of its own.

The workers, white and colored, clustered and scurried around the machine-mass, trying, it seemed, to stave off the destruction it threatened. They had built it but, ironically, it had overreached them, so that now they were only small insignificant shapes against its overwhelming complexity. Their movements micmicked its mechanical gestures…as if somewhere in that huge building someone controlled their every motion by pushing a button. Ann no one talked…they performed a pantomime role in a drama in which only the machines had a voice (99).

(Clive, Selina’s boyfriend, speaking to her about race) “Who knows what they see looking at us? The whole damn thing is so twisted now, so deep seated; the color black is such a hell of a powerful symbol, who can tell…some of them probably still see in each of us the black moor tupping their white ewe, or some legendary beast coming out at night and the fens to maraud and rape. Caliban. Hester’s Black Man in the woods. The evil. Evil. Sin….Maybe our dark faces remind them of the all that is dark and unknown and terrifying within themselves and, as Jimmy Baldwin says, they’re seeking absolution through poor us, either in their beneficence or in their cruelty….But I’m afraid we have to disappoint them by cobfronting them always with the full and awesome weight of our humanity, until they begin to see us and not some unreal image they’ve super-imposed….” (253)

(Selina looking at her reflection in the mirror) She peered shyly at her reflection — the way a child looks at himself in the mirror. And, in a sense, it was a discovery for her also. She was seeing, clearly for the first time, the image which the woman — and the ones like the woman — saw when they looked at her. What Clive had said must be true. Her dark face must be confused in their minds with what they feared most: with the night, symbol of their ancient fears, which seethed with sin and harbored violence, which spawned the beast in its fen; with the heart of darkness within them and all its horror and fascination. The woman, confronted by her brash face, had sensed the arid place within herself and had sought absolution in cruelty. Like the night, she was to be feared, spurned, purified — and always reminded of her darkness.

Above all, the horror was that she saw in her image — which had the shape and form of her face but not really her face — her own dark depth, Her sins rose like a miasma from its fetid bottom…they took the form in the shadows around her — small hideous shapes jeering her and touching her with cold, viscid hands. They were unbearable, suddenly monstrous…their idea of her was only an illusion, yet so powerful that it would stalk her down the years, confront her in each mirror and from the safe circle of eyes, surprise her even in the gleaming surface of a table. (291)

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