From Brooklyn to the Caribbean to Africa, Marshall describes the places she has called home and the people she has loved in Triangular Road.
Your book is framed by two journeys across the Atlantic. It begins with your trip to Paris with Langston Hughes and ends with your trip to Africa. What's the significance for you of these two journeys?
Well, the first journey with Langston Hughes was very important because when I started really seriously reading, he served as a kind of guide, because his two books about traveling—The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander—those two books that I came to in my early teens gave me the sense that I wanted to be very much that kind of person who moved around the world.
It's clear that your parents' native Barbados fueled your imagination, but it must have also had a very strong emotional charge when you first got there.
It did indeed, because [Barbadian] friends of my family, especially my mother and her friends, they were extraordinary storytellers first of all, and they came from this place that seemed such a mystery to me, because of the way they talked, with that West Indian accent, and the stories they told about living under British rule and being forced to learn these long British recitations and so on. And yet they had created a language of their own through the West Indian patois.
You pepper your work with West Indian expressions. Did the patois influence the cadence of your writing?
Yes, because there was something so poetic and daring about what my mother and her friends were doing with language—I knew that the way they spoke English was very different from the English that I spoke in school, but it was so full of color, it was so full of their own authority that I had a sense that they were on to something.
I was struck by your use of the Jewish image of “sitting shiva” to describe the sea mourning for Africans who died during the Middle Passage.
It was an interesting area in Brooklyn where I grew up. There were the Scotch-Irish, there were the Jews, and there were the West Indians, and there were also black Americans. The West Indians did not mix with others, but at school it was a wider world. [Among Jews] when someone dies, the relatives sit shiva—they just mourn for a long, long time. In the West Indies, that sea roars in, there's almost a cry that it sends out, and I just thought that the image of sitting shiva for the dead was one that I wanted to use to see if I could convey how traumatic it was for me.