In "The Poets in the Kitchen," Paule Marshall tells stories from her childhood in the late s and early '40s that reflect what it means to be an immigrant, a West Indian, a black in a racist society, a mother, a wife, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and a worker near the bottom of the economic ladder. Marshall's mother and her mother's women friends had all immigrated from Barbados. After a long day toiling as domestics or in other low-paid jobs, and before going home to their families and their own household chores, they would gather in Marshall's mother's kitchen. There, the "soully-gals," a self-reflexive term implying both spirit and the visible self, took the time to drink a cup of tea or cocoa, relax, and comment on their day, their lives, and their jobs. In Marshall's retelling, their humorous stories are philosophical treatises on "living in this man country," as they called the United States.
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SOME years ago, when I was teaching a graduate seminar in fiction at Columbia University, a well-known male novelist visited my class to speak on his development as a writer. In discussing his formative years, he didn't realize it but he seriously endangered his life by remarking that women writers are luckier than those of his sex because they usually spend so much time as children around their mothers and their mothers' friends in the kitchen.
What did he say that for? The women students immediately forgot about being in awe of him and began readying their attack for the question and answer period later on. Even I bristled. There again was that awful image of women locked away from the world in the kitchen with only each other to talk to, and their daughters locked in with them. But my guest wasn't really being sexist or trying to be provocative or even spoiling for a fight.
What he meant -when he got around to examining himself more fully - was that, given the way children are or were raised in our society, with little girls kept closer to home and their mothers, the woman writer stands a better chance of being exposed, while growing up, to the kind of talk that goes on among women, more often than not in the kitchen; and that this experience gives her an edge over her male counterpart by instilling in her an appreciation for ordinary speech.
It was clear that my guest lecturer attached great importance to this, which is understandable. Common speech and the plain, workaday words that make it up are, after all, the stock in trade of some of the best fiction writers. They are the principal means by which a character in a novel or story reveals himself and gives voice sometimes to profound feelings and complex ideas about himself and the world. Perhaps the proper measure of a writer's talent is his skill in rendering everyday speech - when it is appropriate to his story - as well as his ability to tap, to exploit, the beauty, poetry and wisdom it often contains.
It's all a matter of exposure and a training of the ear for the would-be writer in those early years of his or her apprenticeship. And, according to my guest lecturer, this training, the best of it, often takes place in as unglamorous a setting as the kitchen. He didn't know it, but he was essentially describing my experience as a little girl. I grew up among poets. Now they didn't look like poets - whatever that breed is supposed to look like.
Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives and mothers, my mother included, who dressed in a way shapeless housedresses, dowdy felt hats and long, dark, solemn coats that made it impossible for me to imagine they had ever been young. Nor did they do what poets were supposed to do -spend their days in an attic room writing verses.
They never put pen to paper except to write occasionally to their relatives in Barbados. Rather, their day was spent ''scrubbing floor,'' as they described the work they did. Several mornings a week these unknown bards would put an apron and a pair of old house shoes in a shopping bag and take the train or streetcar from our section of Brooklyn out to Flatbush. There, those who didn't have steady jobs would wait on certain designated corners for the white housewives in the neighborhood to come along and bargain with them over pay for a day's work cleaning their houses.
This was the ritual even in the winter. Later, armed with the few dollars they had earned, which in their vocabulary became ''a few raw-mouth pennies,'' they made their way back to our neighborhood, where they would sometimes stop off to have a cup of tea or cocoa together before going home to cook dinner for their husbands and children.
The basement kitchen of the brownstone house where my family lived was the usual gathering place. Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked.
While my sister and I sat at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they talked - endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them. True, they would indulge in the usual gossip: whose husband was running with whom, whose daughter looked slightly ''in the way'' pregnant under her bridal gown as she walked down the aisle.
That sort of thing. But they also tackled the great issues of the time. They were always, for example, discussing the state of the economy. It was the mid and late 30's then, and the aftershock of the Depression, with its soup lines and suicides on Wall Street, was still being felt. Some people, they declared, didn't know how to deal with adversity.
They didn't know that you had to ''tie up your belly'' hold in the pain, that is when things got rough and go on with life. They took their image from the bellyband that is tied around the stomach of a newborn baby to keep the navel pressed in. They talked politics. Roosevelt was their hero.
He had come along and rescued the country with relief and jobs, and in gratitude they christened their sons Franklin and Delano and hoped they would live up to the names. The name of the fiery, Jamaican-born black nationalist of the 20's was constantly invoked around the table. They had contributed to his organization, the United Negro Improvement Association UNIA , out of their meager salaries, bought shares in his ill-fated Black Star Shipping Line, and at the height of the movement they had marched as members of his ''nurses' brigade'' in their white uniforms up Seventh Avenue in Harlem during the great Garvey Day parades.
Garvey: He lived on through the power of their memories. And their talk was of war and rumors of wars. They're the ones always starting up all this lot of war. But what they care? It's the poor people got to suffer and mothers with their sons. He was for them ''the devil incarnate. Then there was home. They reminisced often and at length about home.
The old country. Barbados - or Bimshire, as they affectionately called it. The little Caribbean island in the sun they loved but had to leave. And naturally they discussed their adopted home. America came in for both good and bad marks. They lashed out at it for the racism they encountered. They took to task some of the people they worked for, especially those who gave them only a hard-boiled egg and a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese for lunch. Yet although they caught H in ''this man country,'' as they called America, it was nonetheless a place where ''you could at least see your way to make a dollar.
They might even one day accumulate enough dollars, with both them and their husbands working, to buy the brownstone houses which, like my family, they were only leasing at that period. This was their consuming ambition: to ''buy house'' and to see the children through. THERE was no way for me to understand it at the time, but the talk that filled the kitchen those afternoons was highly functional.
It served as therapy, the cheapest kind available to my mother and her friends. Not only did it help them recover from the long wait on the corner that morning and the bargaining over their labor, it restored them to a sense of themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth. Through language they were able to overcome the humiliations of the work-day. But more than therapy, that freewheeling, wide-ranging, exuberant talk functioned as an outlet for the tremendous creative energy they possessed.
They were women in whom the need for self-expression was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to them they made of it an art form that - in keeping with the African tradition in which art and life are one - was an integral part of their lives. And their talk was a refuge. They never really ceased being baffled and overwhelmed by America - its vastness, complexity and power.
Its strange customs and laws. At a level beyond words they remained fearful and in awe. Their uneasiness and fear were even reflected in their attitude toward the children they had given birth to in this country.
They referred to those like myself, the little Brooklynborn Bajans Barbadians , as ''these New York children'' and complained that they couldn't discipline us properly because of the laws here. After all, these is New York children. Confronted therefore by a world they could not encompass, which even limited their rights as parents, and at the same time finding themselves permanently separated from the world they had known, they took refuge in language.
This is what it became for the women at the kitchen table. It served another purpose also, I suspect. My mother and her friends were after all the female counterpart of Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Indeed, you might say they suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners.
They really didn't count in American society except as a source of cheap labor. But given the kind of women they were, they couldn't tolerate the fact of their invisibility, their powerlessness. And they fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word.
Those late afternoon conversations on a wide range of topics were a way for them to feel they exercised some measure of control over their lives and the events that shaped them. For me, sitting over in the corner, being seen but not heard, which was the rule for children in those days, it wasn't only what the women talked about -the content - but the way they put things - their style.
The insight, irony, wit and humor they brought to their stories and discussions and their poet's inventiveness and daring with language - which of course I could only sense but not define back then. They had taken the standard English taught them in the primary schools of Barbados and transformed it into an idiom, an instrument that more adequately described them -changing around the syntax and imposing their own rhythm and accent so that the sentences were more pleasing to their ears.
They added the few African sounds and words that had survived, such as the derisive suck-teeth sound and the word ''yam,'' meaning to eat. And to make it more vivid, more in keeping with their expressive quality, they brought to bear a raft of metaphors, parables, Biblical quotations, sayings and the like:.
Meaning that it was not to be trifled with. And meaning perhaps in a larger sense that man should treat all of nature with caution and respect.
A woman expecting a baby was never said to be pregnant. They never used that word. Rather, she was ''in the way'' or, better yet, ''tumbling big. And a woman with a reputation of being too free with her sexual favors was known in their book as a ''thoroughfare'' - the sense of men like a steady stream of cars moving up and down the road of her life. Or she might be dubbed ''a free-bee,'' which was my favorite of the two. I liked the image it conjured up of a woman scandalous perhaps but independent, who flitted from one flower to another in a garden of male beauties, sampling their nectar, taking her pleasure at will, the roles reversed.
And nothing, no matter how beautiful, was ever described as simply beautiful. It was always ''beautiful-ugly'': the beautiful-ugly dress, the beautiful-ugly house, the beautiful-ugly car. Why the word ''ugly,'' I used to wonder, when the thing they were referring to was beautiful, and they knew it.
FROM THE POETS IN THE KITCHEN