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Abstract

Paule Marshall Reimagining Caliban and Prospero in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People

Throughout her decades long career as a writer, Bajan-American novelist Paule Marshall has consistently defined herself as a novelist of the African diaspora, explaining that her “way of seeing the world” has been “profoundly shaped by her dual experiences” as both West Indian and African American. A recurring purpose of her work has been developing diasporic consciousness, creating awareness of and representing the connections between peoples of African descent. Her second novel -- The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969) – is profoundly influenced by the late 1960s/early 1970s era when radical black nationalism was most influential in the United States and the Anglophone Caribbean. Set in contemporary time and in actual and symbolic Caribbean space, Chosen Place is her epic of the black Atlantic for she depicts the imaginary postcolonial Caribbean nation of Bourne Island within the larger geographical and historical frame of the Atlantic slave trade and its legacy. Marshall links the literary traditions of African American and Caribbean literature in a work that is more like novels by George Lamming and other Caribbean nationalist novelists of the era than African American novels of a period when the Black Arts Movement was at its height.

From the start of her writing career in the 1950’s, Marshall has been unabashedly feminist. Continuing a tradition of black feminist critique of white women’s imperialism, Marshall very deliberately uses women characters to explore the dynamics of the colonizer/colonized relationship, explaining in a 1979 interview with Alexis DeVeaux that Merle Kinbona and Harriet Shippen are meant to “embody the whole power struggle of the world.” Influenced by George Lamming’s brilliant appropriation of the characters Prospero and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marshall audaciously engenders the Prospero/Caliban trope, first in her portrayal of the relationship between Merle and the wealthy English white woman who had “kept” her while she was a student in England. She uses the trope most powerfully, however, in her depiction of the relationship between Harriet Shippen, Anglo-American heir to a fortune amassed through investments in the slave trade, and Merle Kinbona, African-Caribbean descendant of a white plantation owner and an enslaved woman.

In doing so, Marshall precedes the explosion of essays by black feminist critics questioning exclusions in feminist theory and racism in the feminist movement. In evoking this relationship, she also precedes by more than a decade critical writing by Caribbean and African American feminist theorists who explicitly challenge the absence of black women in The Tempest by defining themselves as heirs of Sycorax and “daughters of Caliban.” In The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Marshall uses two masterfully realized women characters to powerfully render the continuing impact of the history of colonialism and enslavement on contemporary relationships. With her gendered rendering of the Prospero and Caliban relationship, she depicts the ways white supremacist beliefs have historically and continue to contaminate the ideal of sisterhood between women.

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