She was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn to Barbadian parents who had migrated to New York in the 1940s. She educated at Girls High School, Brooklyn College (1953) and Hunter College, New York (1955). In 1950 she married psychologist Kenneth Marshall; they divorced in 1963. In the 1970s she married Nourry Menard, a Haitian businessman.
Early in her career, she wrote poetry, but later returned to prose, her first novel Brown Girl, Brownstones being published in 1959. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960 and the following year published Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a collection of four novellas that won her the National Institute of Arts Award. In 1965, she was chosen by Langston Hughes to accompany him on a State Department-sponsored world tour, on which they both read their work, which was a boon to her career. She subsequently published the novels The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), which the New York Times Book Review “one of the four or five most impressive novels ever written by a black American”, and Praisesong for the Widow (1983), the latter winning the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1984.
Marshall has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of California, Berkeley, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Yale University before holding the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at New York University. In 1993 she received an honorary L.H.D. from Bates College. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
She is a MacArthur Fellow and is a past winner of the Dos Passos Prize for Literature. She was designated as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library in 1994.
Marshall was inducted into the Celebrity Path at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2001.
Her memoir, Triangular Road, was published in 2009.
In 2010, Paule Marshall won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.