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Brown Girl Brownstones by Paule Marshall - Book Review
Paule Marshall's novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, accurately portrayed the complexities of African American mother-daughter relationships as well as culture. Selina Boyce is the daughter of first-generation Bajan immigrant parents, Deighton and Silla, who have come to America in search of a better life. While Deighton has his heart set on eventually returning to Barbados once they have acquired enough money, his wife Silla has different plans. Silla is determined to obtain her part of the American dream and initially works as a cleaning woman for the upscale whites so that one day she, too, will be able to own property, or “buy house” as she and her other Bajan neighbors refer to it. She is determined to stay in America, for she feels that there is nothing in Barbados for her family. The book covers the broad issue of ethnic duality. Selina rebels against her given ethnic identity, and yet comes to a kind of resolution with her community.
The most striking issue I found to represent this “duality” of cultures within the novel was this constant clash between a husband and his wife. Silla is obsessed with owning a “brownstone” and goes so far as to forge Deighton's signature on legal documents so that she can get the money for the property. Deighton, besieged and sorrowful of his lost dreams, spends all of the remaining money to spite his wife. He is consequently turned in by Silla to immigration and deported. This type of reaction is not normal, and could be considered to be strikingly harsh and cold. This leaves Silla alone with her newly acquired “brownstone” as well as her guilt, and Selina with the task of coming to terms with strong, indecisive feelings toward her mother and her own Bajan American heritage. In Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs by Askhari Johnson, it comments on marriage that “Husband is the tie; wife is the parcel: when the tie breaks, the parcel loosens,” (Nigeria). It also says, “Husbands are like firewood; If left unattended, they go out,” (Africa).
Silla would belittle and criticize Deighton instead of consoling with him. At one point she says to him, “You ain’t no real-real Bajan man,” (p.173). Therein lays the cultural clash. She sees Deighton as lazy and a dreamer, but not a hard worker and a pragmatist like a typical “Bajan” This is an intense moment as the severity of this comment would greatly offend anyone in the Bajan community. The second instance of her rebellion against her husband was his own deportation and consequent demise. While thought to be in the best interests of her family, Silla begins to lose them instead. She is a loose parcel, and she struggles to stay together afterwards. “Hitler” is repeated by Selina over and over at her father’s leave. Silla is in a very small way her own Hitler, not someone of mass genocide and utter madness, but someone who strongly drives culture into the minds of her followers, and loses loved ones because of it. Silla is stuck in a tough situation however; she is torn between the allegiance of her husband and the respect of the community and security of her family. In my opinion however, Silla loses her own sense of identity through her adherence to the Bajan community’s unspoken will, and loses her husband and in a way, even her daughter for a time.
Brown Girl, Brownstones resists the idea that ethnicity is destiny and embraces individualism as an important value. However, Selina still feels that responsibility towards her ethnic group or ethnic duties and that ethnicity is inescapable after all. It harshly criticizes and yet celebrates the Bajan community, and becomes a signature American novel through its migratory nature and the struggle for identity that a young girl comes to find. Although this is a Bajan culture, it resembles Hispanic culture in many ways through the character and came close to home with me as my own father was once deported. It is an outstanding novel and scintillatingly new cultural experience for me.