Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn to Adriana Viola Clement Burke and Sam Burke. Marshall's father had migrated from Barbados to New York in 1919 and during her childhood, deserted the family to join a quasi-religious cult, leaving his wife to raise their children by herself. Smitten with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, she changed her given name from Pauline to Paule (with a silent e) when she was 12 or 13. Marshall attended Girls' High School in Bedstuy and subsequently enrolled in Hunter College with plans of becoming a social worker. She took ill during college and took a year off, during which time she decided to major in English Literature, eventually earning her Bachelor of Arts at Brooklyn College in 1953 and her master's degree at Hunter College in 1955.[unreliable source?] After graduating college, Marshall wrote for Our World, the acclaimed nationally distributed magazine edited for African-American readers, which she credited with teaching her discipline in writing and eventually aiding her in writing her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. 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 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones being published in 1959. Brown Girl, Brownstones tells the story of Selina Boyce, a girl growing up in a small black immigrant community.[unreliable source?] Selina is caught between her mother, who wants to conform to the ideals of her new home and make the American dream come true, and her father, who longs to go back to Barbados. The dominant themes in the novel - travel, migration, psychic fracture and striving for wholeness - are important structuring elements in her later works as well.
 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 called "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. Now retired, she lives in Richmond, Virginia.
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.
"I realise that it is fashionable now to dismiss the traditional novel as something of an anachronism, but to me it is still a vital form. Not only does it allow for the kind of full-blown, richly detailed writing that I love... but it permits me to operate on many levels and to explore both the inner state of my characters as well as the worlds beyond them."