Grace Paley and the Writer/Activist

This is a post I originally wrote in Everyday Citizen http://www.everydaycitizen.com/2008/03/grace_paley_writeractivist.html

One day, about a year ago, I was busy doing my usual work of processing books in the library where I work.  As I was going through the books, I spied a cover that caught my interest.  The cover was a sepia picture of an older woman staring straight ahead at the reader, in a backyard with a crow to the right of her foot.  The book was titled The Collected Stories and it was by an author that I had never heard before.  They say a person should never judge a book by its cover, but I became interested in reading Grace Paley’s stories because of that cover.  I found a remarkable writer of the lives of working class families.

 The Collected Stories are the combination of Grace Paley’s 3 short story collections that she wrote over the period of over 30 years:  The Little Disturbances of Man, written in 1959;  Enormous Changes At the Last Minute, published in 1974; and Later the Same Day, which came out in 1986.  These 45 stories make up the bulk of Paley’s writing, and it portrays the lives of a group of mostly women over the life of a New York working class neighborhood.    They are a mixture of immigrant Europen Jews, Puerto Ricans, African Americans and a whole assortment of ethnic groups, learning to live together.  In the short stories we follow the lives of recurring characters of that neighborhood, especially Faith Darwin and the loves of her life.  

What I most like about her stories is the gritty humor and the compassion of her characters.  Each story begins with wonderful first paragraphs, done often in a smart alecky style that I associate with the New Yorker writers like Dorothy Day or James Thurber.   The characters that inhabit these stories are extremely likable and funny, and as a first generation Filipino American, I relate to the difficulties of Paley’s characters trying to fit in to the general American society.  One of my favorite stories is the dilemna faced by Jewish parents when their daughter gets a big role in the school Christmas play.    Another favorite story is the transformation of an old man’s racist views when he discovers he has a son who is part African American.   In these stories, Paley’s characters grow, discover their own political consciousness, remain optimistic in spite of some horrible things that happen in their neighborhood.

After reading The Collected Stories, I became interested in learning more about Grace Paley.  I found a woman whose life was just as interesting as her stories.    Paley was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, and she grew up strongly influenced by the leftist movements of the time.  She studied poetry briefly in college, taking a course with W.H. Auden.  Paley married and raised 2 children, and that took up most of her time. Grace wrote occassionally, and it was only when a visiting parent noticed her stories that she became published.  That parent happened to be Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday, and soon after her writing career was born.   The acclaim of her first book attracted the attention of Columbia University, and that started 20 years as a teacher at Columbia University, City University of New York, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence. 

Along with her writing and teaching, Grace Paley was also a political activist.  In the early 1960s, Paley helped organize the Greenwich Village Peace Center.  Paley went to Hanoi to free prisoners of war and agitate for peace in 1969.  In 1973, Paley traveled to Moscow  as a delegate of the World Peace Congress.  During the Carter administration, Paley was arrested along with other peace activists for unfurling a peace banner on the White House grounds.  Her political activities are chronicled in a series of essays she wrote that can be found in a wonderful book Just As I Thought.

Though I’ve only known of Grace Paley for only about a year now, her books and her life have had a profound influence on me.  She shows me that one can be passionate about politics and art and still maintain a sense of humor and a love of family and friends.  Her works are never dogmatic, and they are full of compassion for even the people she disagrees with.  From what I’ve read, Paley has had that effect upon many readers in the past 40 years.  In her book, “Traveling Mercies”, Ann Lamott gives a description on the effect Grace Paley had in her life:

“In 1970, when I was sixteen, the women’s movement had just burst into the general public awareness. I am someone who can say with all sincerity that I owe my life to the movement, but as it first emerged from New York, much of its gospel was defined by grown-up daughters who did not want to risk having anything in common with what had been their mothers’ entrapment. As a result, some of the language of the early movement contained an ugly rejection of mothers, of motherhood, of softness, of wanting to be in deep relationships with men. But at the same time, coming out of New York from the tenements and the Village and the antiwar movement was a short story writer whose work taught me that you could be all the traditional feminine things-a mother, a lover, a listener, a nurturer- and you could also be critically astute and radical and have a minority opinion that was profoundly moral. You could escape the fate of your mother, become who you were born to be, and succeed in the world without having to participate in traditionally male terms- without hardness, coldness, one-upmanship, without having to compete and come out the winner.

She was beautiful, zaftig, and powerful; she was a mother; she was in love; she was a combative pacifist. That was Grace Paley.

I used to almost pant like a thirsty dog when I’d have a new story of hers to read. I drank up her generosity, the radical wisdom in her stories, the wonderful sense of perspective, grounded in self-forgiveness. She pointed out her own flaws and foibles, but it was clear that she was not bogged down in them, not caught up in the small stuff. Foibles are not worth hating- that was the point; what was worth hating were poverty, injustice, war, the killing of our sons and brothers.”

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