SOURCE: “PW Interviews Grace Paley,” in Publisher's Weekly, April 5, 1985, pp. 71-2.
[In the following interview, Paley comments on her upbringing, her fiction, the rewards of parenthood, and the value of community participation and political action.]
Grace Paley has been a respected name in American letters for years. Her new book of short stories, Later the Same Day, confirms her as an utterly original American writer whose work combines personal, political and philosophical themes in a style quite unlike anyone else’s.
Paley’s characters, women and men who have committed themselves to trying to alleviate some of the world’s myriad woes, usually appear in print as activists at demonstrations, marching with upraised fists. She has given them children, friends, lovers, aging parents, financial worries, shopping lists—in short, a private life to go with their public activities. Paley’s work is political without being didactic, personal without being isolated from the real world.
This striking individuality accounts for the profound impact of Paley’s writing, despite what is to her admirers a distressingly small body of work. Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, appeared in 1959; readers had to wait 15 years for the next one, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and just over a decade for Later the Same Day. “I do a lot of other things as well,” explains the author. “I began to teach in the mid-’60s, and at the same time there was the Vietnam War, which really took up a lot of my time, especially since I had a boy growing towards draft age. And I’m just very distractable. My father used to say, ‘You’ll never be a writer, because you don’t have any sitzfleisch,’ which means sitting-down meat.”
Her father’s comment is hard to believe at the moment, as Paley sits tranquilly in a wooden rocking chair in the sunny living room of her Greenwich Village apartment. A small, plump woman in her early’60s, with short, white hair framing a round face, she resembles everyone’s image of the ideal grandmother (so long as that image includes slacks, untucked shirttails and sneakers). As she does every Friday, she is simmering soup on the stove in her large, comfortable kitchen; she regrets that it’s not ready yet, as she thinks it would be good for her interviewer’s cold. She has to content herself with offering orange juice, vitamin C and antihistamines. Many of Paley’s stories express her deep love of children; meeting her, one realizes almost immediately that her nurturing instincts extend beyond her own family to include friends and even a brand-new acquaintance. It’s this pleasure in caring for others that makes her activism seem so undogmatic and natural, a logical extension of the kind of work women have always done. It’s more complex than that, of course—lifelong political commitments like Paley’s don’t arise out of anything so simple as a strong maternal instinct—but it helps to explain the matter-of-fact way in which the author and her characters approach political activity as the only possible response to the world’s perilous state.
The direction of Paley’s work is guided by similarly concrete considerations. One of the reasons she switched from poetry, her first love, to short stories was that she couldn’t satisfactorily connect her verse with real life. “I’d been writing poetry until about 1956,” she remembers, “and then I just sort of made up my mind that I had to write stories. I loved the whole tradition of poetry, but I couldn’t figure out a way to use my own Bronx English tongue in poems. I can now, better, but those...
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early poems were all very literary; they picked up after whatever poet I was reading. They used what I think of as only one ear: you have two ears, one is for the sound of literature and the other is for your neighborhood, for your mother and father’s house.”
Her parents had a strong influence on Paley, imbuing her with a sense of radical tradition. “I’m always interested in generational things,” she says. “I’m interested in history, I’m interested in change, I’m interested in the future; so therefore I’m interested in the past. As the youngest child by a great deal, I grew up among many adults talking about their lives. My parents were Russian immigrants. They’d been exiled to Siberia by the Czar when they were about 20, but when he had a son, he pardoned everyone under the age of 21, so they got out and came here right away. The didn’t stay radical; they began to live the life of the immigrant—extremely patriotic, very hardworking—but they talked a lot about that period of their lives; they really made me feel it and see it, so there is that tradition. All of them were like that; my father’s brothers and sister all belonged to different leftist political parties. My grandmother used to describe how they fought every night at the supper table and how hard it was on her!”
As Paley grew older, there were family tensions. “My parents didn’t like the direction I was going politically,” she recalls. “Although my father, who mistrusted a lot of my politics, came to agree with me about the Vietnam War; he was bitterly opposed to it.” Her difficulties with her mother were more personal. “One of the stories in the new book, ‘Lavinia,’ was told to me by an old black woman, but it’s also in a way my story,” she says. “My mother, who couldn’t do what she wanted because she had to help my father all the time, had great hopes for me. She was just disgusted, because all I wanted to do at a certain point was marry and have kids. I looked like a bust to my family, just like the girl Lavinia who I’m convinced will turn out very well.
“There’s no question,” she continues, “that children are distracting and that for some of the things women want to do, their sense is right: they shouldn’t have children. And they shouldn’t feel left out, because the children of the world are their children too. I just feel lucky that I didn’t grow up in a generation where it was stylish not to. I only had two—I wish I’d had more.”
The experience of her own children confirmed Paley’s belief that each generation is shaped by the specific historical events of its time. “I often think of those kids in the Brinks case,” she says, referring to the surviving fragments of the SDS, who were involved in the murder of a bank guard during an attempted robbery in the early 1980s, after they had spent years underground. “If they had been born four years later, five years earlier. … It really was that particular moment: they were called. In one of the new stories [“Friends”], I talk about that whole beloved generation of our children who were really wrecked. I mean, I lived through the Second World War, and I only knew one person in my generation who died. My children, who are in their early 30s, I can’t tell you the number of people they know who have died or gone mad. They’re a wonderful generation, though: thoughtful, idealistic, self-giving and honorable. They really gave.
“The idea that mothers and fathers raise their kids is ridiculous,” Paley thinks. “You do a little bit—if you’re rich, you raise a rich kid, okay—but the outside world is always there, waiting to declare war, to sell drugs, to invade another country, to raise the rents so you can’t afford to live someplace—to really color your life. One of the nice things that happens when you have kids,” Paley goes on, “is that you really get involved in the neighborhood institutions. If you don’t become a local communitarian worker then, I don’t know when you do. For instance, when my kids were very little, the city was trying to push a road through Washington Square Park to serve the real estate interests. We fought that and we won; in fact, having won, my friends and I had a kind of optimism for the next 20 years that we might win something else by luck.” She laughs, as amused by her chronic optimism as she is convinced of its necessity. “It took a lot of worry, about the kids and buses going through the park at a terrific rate, to bring us together. You can call it politics or not; it becomes a common concern, and it can’t be yours alone any more.”
Paley believes such common concerns will shape future political activism. “One of the things that really runs through all the stories, because they’re about groups of women, is the sense that what we need now is to bond; we need to say ‘we’ every now and then instead of ‘I’ every five minutes,” she comments. “We’ve gone through this period of individualism and have sung that song, but it may not be the important song to sing in the times ahead. The Greenham women [antinuclear demonstrators who have set up a permanent camp outside the principal British missile base] are very powerful and interesting. When I went there the first time, I saw six women sitting on wet bales of hay wearing plastic raincoats and looking miserable. It was late November, and they said that on December 12 they were having this giant demonstration. I thought, ‘Oh these poor women. Do they really believe this?’ Well, three weeks later, on December 12, they had 30,000 women there. You really have to keep at it,” she concludes. “It’s vast; it’s so huge you can hardly think about it. The power against us is so great and so foolish.”
Yet Paley has never despaired—she notes in the story “Ruthy and Edie” that her characters are “ideologically, spiritually and on puritanical principle” against that particular emotion. “People accomplish things,” she asserts. “You can’t give up. And you can’t retreat into personal, personal, personal life, because personal, personal, personal life is hard: to live in it without any common feelings for others around you is very disheartening, I would think. Some people just fool themselves, decide they have to make a lot of money and then go out and do it, but I can’t feel like that.” Her voice is low and passionate. “I think these are very rough times. I’m really sorry for people growing up right now, because they have some cockeyed idea that they can get by with their eyes closed; the cane they’re tapping is money, and that won’t take them in the right direction.”
Despite the enormous amount of time and energy political matters absorb in Paley’s life, they remain in the background of her fiction. “I feel I haven’t written about certain things yet that I probably will at some point,” she says. “I’ve written about the personal lives of these people; I haven’t really seen them in political action, and I don’t know if I need to especially, for what I’m trying to do. There has to be a way of writing about it that’s right and interesting, but I haven’t figured it out. I’ve mainly been interested in this personal political life. But I refer peripherally to things: in ‘Living’ in Enormous Changes, where [the protagonist] is bleeding to death, she remembers praying for peace on Eighth Street with her friend; in ‘Zagrowsky Tells’ in Later the Same Day, he’s furious because they picketed his drugstore. That’s the way a lot of politics gets in, as part of ordinary people’s lives, and that’s really the way I want to show it, it seems to me now. What I want is for these political people to really be seen.”
The people who aren’t seen much in Later the Same Day are men: Jack, the live-in lover of Faith (Paley’s alter ego among her work’s recurring characters), is a fairly well developed presence, but the book’s focus is strongly female. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about men,” Paley explains, “but there is so much female life that has so little to do with men and is so not-talked-about. Even though Faith tells Susan [in “Friends”], ‘You still have him-itis, the dread disease of females, and they all have a little bit of that in them; much of their lives really does not, especially as they get older. I haven’t even begun to write about really older women; I’ve only gotten them into their late 40s and early 50s.”
Is Paley bringing her characters along to her own current stage of life? “I’m very pressed right now for time to write; I just feel peevish about it,” she says. “But I’ve always felt that all these things have strong pulls: the politics takes from the writing, the children take from the politics, and the writing took from the children, you know. Someone once said, ‘How did you manage to do all this with the kids around? and I made a joke; I said, ‘Neglect!’ But the truth is, all those things pull from each other, and it makes for a very interesting life. So I really have no complaints at all.”
Grace Paley 1922-
American short story writer, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Paley's career through 1998. See also, Grace Paley Criticism and volume 6.
Grace Paley belongs to a small group of writers who have written comparatively little, yet are celebrated in the world of letters for the singularity of their voice and excellence in their genre. Over four decades Paley has published only forty-five short stories, but these works place her at the forefront of American short story writers. The world of Paley's fiction is intensely local and socially conscious, centering primarily upon a few blocks in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where she lived, raised her children, and participated in various political movements, organizations, and demonstrations during the 1960s and 1970s. Additionally, her stories often focus on the world of liberal, first- or second-generation New York City Jews and illustrate how the Jewish Diaspora is mirrored through their personal lives. Perhaps most important, Paley's fiction vividly chronicles aspects of female experience in the United States from approximately 1950 to 1989. Paley was named the first official New York State writer in 1989. Her book The Collected Stories (1994) was a National Book Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
The youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Paley grew up in the Bronx and was surrounded by political discussion in three languages: Russian, Yiddish, and English. Paley's parents had, during their adolescence, participated in the Socialist movement in Russia and were imprisoned for these activities. When freed, they fled to the United States with members of their family. The family worked at menial jobs so that Paley's father could attain the higher education necessary to lift the entire family from poverty. Her father became a physician in the neighborhood and conducted his practice from their home. The confluence of radical politics, ever-present suffering among her father's patients, and her female relatives' sacrifice of their own independence in deference to her father shaped her beliefs, her writing, and her political stance. To her family's dismay, Paley neither completed a college degree nor embarked on any kind of professional career. She spent one year at Hunter College and another at New York University, and studied briefly at the New School for Social Research, where one of her teachers was W. H. Auden. She married Jess Paley, a motion picture cameraman, at age nineteen and relocated to Greenwich Village. She had two children with Paley and spent her time as a mother, housewife, occasional clerical worker, and emerging political activist. In the early 1950s, when Paley's life involved many trips to Washington Square Park with her children, she became interested in two things as she listened to other women talking about their own lives. First she began considering the relationship between men and women and how unhappy many of her acquaintances were in their marriages. Along with this, she began thinking about the often difficult lives of women and children. Yet, as overwhelming as these concerns were to her and her neighbors, she observed little if any serious literature being written about this population. Consequently, she began writing herself, confident that no one could possibly be interested because the topics she explored seemed trivial by the standards of the day. Her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) garnered such critical acclaim that Paley was offered a teaching post at Columbia University. A Guggenheim fellowship in fiction followed in 1961. In 1970 she was awarded two grants, one from the National Council on the Arts and another from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the years between her publications, she has been active in various movements and organizations, including PEN, where she was instrumental in the establishment of a women's committee within the organization. She also taught at Syracuse University and Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has been honored with the Rea Award for short story writing and the Vermont Governor's award for Excellence in the Arts, both in 1993, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for fiction in 1997. With her second husband, poet and playwright Robert Nichols, Paley divides her time between homes in Vermont and New York City. She remains a member of the affiliate faculty in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.
In her three major collections of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man,Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985), Paley explores the vibrant, multiethnic worlds of New York City, including the immigrant-Jewish and African-American population, and in particular the experiences of individual women. Paley has published forty-five stories; among the most admired and representative of her work as a whole are “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “The Loudest Voice.” In “Goodbye and Good Luck,” which first appeared in The Little Disturbances of Man, Paley draws on her Jewish heritage to create the memorable character of Aunt Rose. “The Loudest Voice,” also from her debut collection, speaks to the immigrant experience in public school. In this story Jewish children are selected, to the chagrin of their parents, to play the lead roles in the school's Christmas pageant. The Jewish child chosen to narrate the program explains that she was selected because of her loud voice; Paley, however, leaves no doubt that the child will survive in a new culture, assimilating as necessary but never forgetting her roots. A recurring character in some of the stories is Faith Darwin, her name an example of Paley's ironic voice. Though many critics call Faith the author's alter ego, Paley herself insists that the character is in no way autobiographical. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute contains “Faith in the Afternoon,” “Faith in a Tree,” “A Conversation with My Father,” and “The Long-Distance Runner.” “Faith in the Afternoon” shows the protagonist disconsolate over the departure of her husband for another woman, weeping for her own and other women's losses. The story gives Paley the opportunity to explore the pejorative nature of much of the language used by men to describe women. “Faith in a Tree” depicts the main character looking down on her neighborhood from a tree in a park where she has been playing with her children. She proudly watches her young son use brilliant pink chalk to write an anti-war message on the sidewalk, encouraging a small impromptu protest. Her son's combative reaction to a policeman's breaking up the demonstration leads Faith to a decision to pursue a more activist role in political movements. In the oft-quoted “A Conversation with My Father,” Paley manages to articulate her philosophy of both fiction and life through a request from her dying father, a wish she finds impossible to honor. “The Long-Distance Runner” explores the racism inherent in human interactions. Faith returns to her old neighborhood, where the population has shifted from primarily immigrant-Jewish to African American. In the course of a conversation with one of the residents, Faith learns that she does indeed harbor some racist beliefs and is naïve about Black culture. She notes the many similarities between Jews and African Americans in terms of their minority status, linguistic differences, and problems with assimilation. Paley further explores issues of racism in “Zagrowsky Tells,” a much-noted story from Later the Same Day. Zagrowsky, an elderly pharmacist, has a reputation in the neighborhood for being a bigot. His emotionally unstable daughter produces a son whose father is African American. Zagrowsky assumes responsibility for the care of his grandson, and the love he feels toward him transcends his previous feelings so that his attitude changes entirely. Paley has produced several volumes of poetry, including Learning Forward (1985), New and Collected Poems (1992), and Begin Again (1999), a compilation of all her poems. She has also published poetry and short stories in Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991). Paley's Just As I Thought (1998), a collection of essays, criticism, interviews, and lectures from thirty years of political activism and belief in feminist ideals, functions as her memoir.
Paley is praised for the distinct style, voice, and wit of her short fiction. As many critics note, her fiction possesses an understated humor, warmth, and earnest feminist vision that sets her work apart from that of others. Though she has written comparatively little to hold the place in contemporary literature that she does, her sense of community, made manifest through her language, and her feminist ideals give readers a glimpse into the life she has lived and offer hope in their own lives. Feminist leaders have long averred that “the personal is political,” and this is particularly true for Paley. Her writing and her political life are closely connected; the critical reception of her work often varies depending on the reviewer's political stance. Paley's work is often admired as a chronicle of her personal confrontations with issues of power between men and women, the Jewish immigrant experience, and racism. However, in the eyes of some critics Paley's radical leftist beliefs, currently out of favor, date parts of her work. Her short stories garner universal acclaim for the uniqueness of their voice. Her prose has been compared to that of Donald Barthelme, and the importance of voice in her work likened to the significance of color in the paintings of Mark Rothko. Her stories lack plot in the traditional sense, and some critics view aspects of her fiction as postmodern. In general her stories speak clearly and truly to the life experiences of their characters, particularly those in mid-twentieth-century New York City. Her verse is considered inferior to her short stories, yet some critics consider the poetic voice in her stories essential to their overall tone. Paley is frequently criticized for having written too little and, especially in her later works, for writing repetitive sketches rather than full stories. At the top of her form, Paley is especially admired for the wordplay, irreverence, and classic Jewish overtones of her humor and depiction of her characters' lives. The 1994 publication of The Collected Stories elicited an outpouring of renewed critical admiration for Paley, who continues to be held in high regard.
SOURCE: “Lox, Lettuce, and Love,” in Washington Post Book World, April 28, 1985, pp. 3, 13.
[In the following review, Taliaferro offers praise for Later the Same Day.]
There aren’t enough books by Grace Paley in the world, so a new one is cause for great rejoicing. In The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), her two previous short story collections, Grace Paley staked out her territory: New York tenement and city block as microcosm, playgrounds aswarm with children, streets jammed with mothers demonstrating for peace, love in the kitchen when the children finally go to bed. She’s our most fearlessly practical feminist. You could call her a doyenne of the American short story, but she’d probably hoot at the patrician word, for her stories are earthy, intimate, funny, astute and plebeian—just like her voice as a writer.
In Later the Same Day, she picks up almost where she left off. As always, love and friendship are her interchangeable subjects, modified now by the passage of time. Zagrowsky the pharmacist offers this gloss on love and aging: “Inside the head is the only place you got to be young when the usual place gets used up.” But Faith, who is Grace Paley’s fictional alter ego, speaks for the modest generosity of middle age, when living in “passionate affection” with someone gives you room for different manifestations of love. “We talked over the way the SALT treaty looked more like a floor than a ceiling, read a poem written by one of his daughters, looked at a TV show telling the destruction of the European textile industry, and then made love”—a Paleyesque sequence if ever there was one.
The vocabulary of critical pomposity simply will not do to describe these stories, so I’ll avoid the word “epiphany”—but there are piercing moments when Ms. Paley’s lens zooms from the immediate to the universal and swiftly back again. This double vision is marvelously present in “Friends,” which centers on “three opinionated left-wing ladies,” Faith, Ann and Susan, at their friend Selena’s deathbed. There are many woman-years of attachment behind them. “We’re irritable,” Susan explains. “We’re angry with our friend Selena for dying. The reason is, we want her to be present when we’re dying. We all require a mother-surrogate to fix our pillows on that final occasion, and we are counting on her to be that person.” But losing Selena is only a small entry in the universal ledger. Meanwhile, Faith reports, the world—“poor, dense, defenseless thing—rolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts.”
Such quirkily poetic observations occur in these stories whenever honest women say what’s on their minds. Often it’s earth’s kind beauty, glimpsed in the window box or at the grocery store: “From half a block away I could see the kale in the grocer’s bin, crumbles of ice shining the dark leaves.” Often, though, it is earth’s destruction—“This planet, which is dropping away from us in poisonous disgust.” In “Anxiety,” an elderly woman leans out of her window to address a young father on the sidewalk below: “Son, I must tell you that madmen intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. That the murder of our children by these men has got to become a terror and a sorrow to you, and starting now, it had better interfere with any daily pleasure.” Grace Paley’s women can speak with the largeness of matriarchs, until they suddenly break into the verbal equivalent of a buck and wing.
They may discuss in consecutive breaths the lettuce boycott and the revolutionary theater of Artaud, but they are more durably interested in the lives of the young and the old. When Faith wishes she could have another baby, her old friend and lover Jack wonders why, for “life is short and sorrowful. … Though of course some fools never stop singing its praises.” “But they’re right,” Faith answers, thinking about giving the rising generation a good start. “It’s very important to emphasize what is good or beautiful so as not to have a gloomy face when you meet some youngster who has begun to guess.”
There are fewer little children in these stories than in the previous collections, more aging parents, more long thoughts about life. (“Hindsight, usually looked down upon, is probably as valuable as foresight, since it does include a few facts.”) In “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” Faith’s parents are now living at the Children of Judea, Home for the Golden Ages, Coney Island Branch. Her father, a realist, hates it. Her mother “thinks she’s in a nice quiet kibbutz.” Her mother’s sour friend Mrs. Hegel-Shtein jabs the air with her elbows and her knitting needle, cries, “Look it in the face: old age! Here it comes, ready or not.” Like most middle-aged people, Faith is not ready, either for her parents to be old or to be old herself.
Many of Grace Paley’s stories seem to meander. In fact they move in short straight lines from one emotional association to another, and they reward the reader who pays attention. They deserve to be reread as faithfully as poetry, these songs of durability and experience.
The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love (short stories) 1959
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (short stories) 1974
Later the Same Day (short stories) 1985
Leaning Forward (poetry) 1985
Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories and Poems (poetry and short stories) 1991
New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1992
The Collected Stories (short stories) 1994
Just as I Thought (essays, criticism, interviews, and lectures) 1998
Begin Again: The Collected Poems of Grace Paley (poetry) 1999
SOURCE: A review of Leaning Forward, in Poetry, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 1, April, 1986, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Shaw offers a positive assessment of Paley's verse in Leaning Forward, but notes that Paley's fiction is more accomplished.]
I doubt that Grace Paley’s reputation as a poet will supersede her renown as a writer of short fiction. Still, it is good to have this selection of the poetry she has been writing, as Jane Cooper says in an Afterword, “before, during, and after writing her stories.” Without being momentous, [Leaning Forward] is perky, likable work, recognizably in the Paley voice. Some of the tactics that work well in her stories do not work so well in the more constrained dimensions of verse. Effects of spontaneity, of improvisation, sometimes keep the manner fresh at the expense of the material, and we have what seem like notebook jottings instead of fully realized poems. The following untitled piece, quoted in toto, is an example of this slighter work:
I don’t think the rain will end today this is because I come from another country
I don’t get much out of this, and I doubt there is much to get.
On the other hand, I am impressed by some of the poems in which a deeper import seems to lurk behind the impromptu observation Paley’s best work is often reminiscent of the shorter poems of William Carlos Williams, and I imagine he would have enjoyed the exuberance and clear rendering of “psalm”:
their shoes are stuccoed with sawdust and blood the two young butchers walk singing together on ninth avenue the sun is out because it is the lunch hour they kick the melting snow and splash into deep puddles then they embrace one another in the cold air for water and singing may wash away the blood of the lamb
I would still prefer to introduce an inquiring reader to Paley by way of her stories, but a poem like this one, or “On Mother’s Day,” or “My Father at 89,” can be recommended without any caveats. As with Williams, Paley’s vitality and affectionate vignettes are often diverting enough to make us overlook many of the self-restrictions to which a minimalist style commits a poet.
Bach, Gerhard, and Blaine H. Hall, eds. Conversations with Grace Paley. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997, 274 p.
A book-length collection of various interviews with Paley.
Clark, La Verne Harrell. “A Matter of Voice: Grace Paley and the Oral Tradition.” Women and Language 23, No. 1, (Spring 2000): 18.
Examines the synthesis of multiethnic dialect, verbal nuances, humor, and folkloric techniques that gives Paley's fiction its distinct voice.
Goffman, Ethan. “Grace Paley's Faith: The Journey Homeward, the Journey Forward.” MELUS: Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 25, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 197.
Goffman examines the cross-cultural, multiethnic perspective of Paley's fiction, particularly as found in the contrasting histories and interpretations of Jewish and Black marginalization in “The Long-Distance Runner” and “Zagrowsky Tells.”
Kennedy, John. Review of Just As I Thought, by Grace Paley. Antioch Review 57, No. 1 (Winter 1999): 108-09.
Discusses Paley's thought-provoking perspective in Just As I Thought.
Kirsch, Adam. “Lover of Justice, All Kinds.” New York Times Book Review (27 February 2000): 22.
A review of Begin Again.
Merriam, Eve. “In Praise of Grace.” Ms. 13, No. 10 (April 1985): 13-14.
A review of Later the Same Day.
Willis, Ellen. “Mother Wit.” New York Times Book Review (19 April 1998): 42.
A review of Just As I Thought.
Additional coverage of Paley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 46, and 74; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1, and 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 8.
SOURCE: A review of Later the Same Day, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 310-11.
[In the following review, Jacobs offers a positive assessment of Later the Same Day.]
With narrative skill and sharp characterizations, Grace Paley deftly details the phenomena of our everyday lives. Each of the seventeen stories in Later the Same Day leaves the reader with a sense of wonder at the varieties and complementarities of human motivation and action. Her style varies with character and tale, but there are constants in her stories. Old friends, aging, and the varieties of love are portrayed and examined. Who can deny observations such as this one from “Friends,” a story about a group in which one member is dying of cancer? “People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they’re getting older they look at each other’s face a little ashamed. It’s clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn’t mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once. I didn’t want to remind you, my dear friend, of our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life.”
Many of the stories are written in the first person and often from the point of view of Faith, the character Paley created so clearly in her earlier collections. In selections such as “Zagrowsky Tells,” however, even though Faith is the narrator, the voice of Zagrowsky, an elderly European man explaining the presence of his black grandchild, comes through vibrantly. Paley possesses an extraordinary ability to evoke strong characterizations and epiphanic moments in the briefest of stories. In two very short pieces, almost sketches, titled “Mother” and “In This Country, But in Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To,” Paley leaves the reader profoundly moved and nodding in recognition.
A poignant sense of the effects of change and loss permeates the stories of Later the Same Day, but they are not merely tales of sadness. Infidelity, arguments, prejudice all exist here, but they are simply a portion of the human lot and not its definition. Characters exist in a world where affirmation and love, trust and continuity are the central human virtues. Grace Paley shares with us the vision of a world which is surely flawed yet is filled with moments of extraordinary tenderness and insight.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley's World-Inventing Words,” in Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Emory Elliot, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987, pp. 173-87.
[In the following essay, Wilde argues that Paley's fiction is neither realist nor strictly metafictional. According to Wilde, Paley's “midfictional” style embodies elements of mystery and affirmation that, while acknowledging the disorder and ambiguity of the world, reflect an approach to creativity and experience that is both vivid and adaptive.]
People require strengthening before the acts of life.
Grace Paley, “Living”
I digressed and was free.
Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree”
“When I was a little girl, I was a boy,”1 Grace Paley told the audience of a recent symposium, a remark that ironically pays tribute to the power critics with a good many different axes to grind have come to find in the so-called “discourse of the Father.”2 Insidiously formative (Paley went on to suggest), it shaped “a lot of little girls who like to get into things and want to be where the action is, which is up the corner someplace, where the boys are. And I understand this very well, because that was what really interested me a lot. I could hardly wait to continue being a boy so that I could go to war and do all the other exciting boys’ things” (PWW, p. 247). The point of the reminiscence, which is central to Paley’s feminist ethic, is made elsewhere and more obliquely in the opening section of “Ruthy and Edie,” where the two characters enact different but congruous responses to “the real world of boys”3—a phrase sardonically intended to suggest the prevailing ideological atmosphere of the girls’ working- and middle-class Bronx neighborhood. Ruthy, recalling the young Paley, dreams of war and bravery, of fighting for her country, of joining the boys who “ran around the block a lot, had races, and played war on the corner” (p. 115), while Edie, more passive and “feminine,” clings to her vision of “that nice family life” (p. 117) she derives from her reading of books like The Bobbsey Twins. The ironic turn of the episode comes when both girls panic at the approach of “an ordinary middle-sized dog” (p. 117) and, more dramatically still, when Ruthy, fleeter of foot or quicker of mind, runs into her apartment house, holding the door shut not only against the dog but against the terrified Edie. So much, then, for Ruthy’s all too theoretical notions of chivalry, as she betrays both her friend and herself. But we read partially at best if we stop there. Paley means to imply not that either Ruthy’s fear or her reaction is implausible but, rather, that reading about Roland’s Horn at Roncevaux has hardly prepared her to face the more commonplace dangers of her ordinary life. Consequently, if the irony is partly at Ruthy’s expense, it is aimed far more directly at the ideas she has ingested in her emulation of “the real world of boys,” the shadow and precursor, as the remainder of the story makes clear, of the equally false and more pernicious world of men.
I’ll come back to “Ruthy and Edie” shortly, but it will be useful first to pursue some of the larger implications, literary as well as political, of its brief prolegomenon. To begin with, and as virtually all of Paley’s critics have noted in their obligatory discussions of her best-known story, “A Conversation with My Father,” patriarchal discourse complacently assumes a number of fundamental and determinative values—those, for example, in Joyce Meier’s words, of “abstraction, linearity, possession, cause-and-effect progression.”4 In short, the paternal world—encoded in the father’s request that his daughter compose “a simple story … Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next”5—bases itself on unexamined and peremptory powers of discernment and identification. Defensively but still smugly, it prescribes an impossibly “simple,” stable, and objective mirror to reflect what it takes to be the inevitable, sequential trajectory of life’s beginnings, middles, and ends. Paley’s own discourse, as critics have also recognized, is predicated instead on the belief that, as the narrator of “A Conversation” puts it (she is commenting on “plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away”): “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (p. 167).
The possibility of change, which the story-telling daughter confers on her character in defiance of the father’s cynical insistence (understandable given his life and times) that she recognize “Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end” (p. 173), relates, in turn, to Paley’s belief that art’s beginnings, like its endings, rest on what is not already known. Thus, in “Of Poetry and Women and the World,” Paley, echoing Barthelme’s formulation, speaks, though in terms of her own interests and career, of not knowing and, by extension, of learning to know the world:
When I came to really thinking as a writer, it was because I began to live among women. Now the great thing is that I didn’t know them, I didn’t know who they were. Which I should have known, since I had all these aunts, right? But I didn’t know them, and that, I think, is really where lots of literature, in a sense, comes from. It really comes, not from knowing so much, but from not knowing. It comes from what you’re curious about. It comes from what obsesses you. It comes from what you want to know. (p. 249)6
The passage underlies what Paley has several times said, that her aim as an artist is to provide “the illumination of what isn’t known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden” (PWW, p. 250).7 To a degree, however, the credo, as expressed here, threatens to mislead. Paley’s stories make abundantly clear that the issue is not one of discovering or revealing what is already there, available to the scrutiny of anyone and everyone willing to turn the rock over, but, rather and as in Barthelme’s case, that it has to do with “inventing.”
To be sure, one needs, just as when dealing with Barthelme’s “Not-Knowing,” to be gingerly in establishing the meaning of a word currently so overdetermined, especially since it is a good deal more common in Paley’s work and, I will argue, central to an understanding of her aesthetic. Briefly, it can be said for now that in reading Paley we are dealing with invention as a function not of the free-floating, unanchored imagination—what Larry McCaffery refers to when he says that metafictionists “insist that the reader accept the work as an invented, purely made-up entity”8—but of imagination inextricably entangled with a world that, at the very least, provides the foundation for whatever it is that invention intends and accomplishes. In short, imagination of the metafictional kind is, for Paley, closer to “fantasy” (PWW, p. 251), whereas writers like her, she says, “write about things, not just words, about a certain subject matter.”9
On the other hand, it is just as clear that the world, according to Paley, is variously perceived and construed, that, partly because of temperament and partly because of historical circumstance, human beings inevitably grasp their common world differently.10 Thus, the narrator of “The Immigrant Story,” insists to her old friend Jack: “I believe I see the world as clearly as you do … Rosiness is not a worse windowpane than gloomy gray when viewing the world”,11 while Paley herself, commenting on her characters in “A Conversation with My Father,” says of them that “they were really speaking from their own latitude and longitude, and from their own time in history.”12 Obviously, the suggestion is that at least to some degree our modes of seeing are, and must be, perspectival; and if there is, from story to story, some variation in the degree of determination Paley attributes to her characters’ responses, there is no question but that she asserts, everywhere and always, the individual, subjective basis of experience.
That insistence constitutes, one might argue, the most persuasive reason for excluding Paley from the ranks of realistic writers: those who, to invoke J. P. Stern’s definition one last time, “take reality for granted.” I’ve indicated already that for Paley perception is limited, partial, and, in phenomenological terms, “situated.” But there is more to it than that. In “Faith in a Tree,” Paley attributes to her protagonist what is obviously in some sense her belief as well: “Despite no education,” Faith says, “Mrs. Finn always is more in charge of word meanings than I am. She is especially in charge of Good and Bad. My language limitations here are real. My vocabulary is adequate for writing notes and keeping journals but absolutely useless for an active moral life.”13 Of course Paley’s stories are precisely about “an active moral life,” but the subject is approached over and again by way of fluid interrogation rather than definitive statement: like Alexandra in “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” Paley is “an enemy of generalization.”14
And an enemy, too, of the kind of circumstantial detail that Apple calls “description-centered realism.” It is worth stressing—since in this respect, as in others, she is paradigmatic of other writers discussed in this book—that, for all her concern with the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace, Paley is not given to highly sensuous textures. The things of the world matter, certainly, but they are not the primary object of her attention; and it is therefore hardly surprising that Paley’s descriptions tend to be vivid but sketchy. We hear, for example, of “the most admirable mountain or … the handsomest forest or hay-blown field,” of “the tan deserts and the blue Van Allen belt and the green mountains of New England,” or of a “sunny front room that was full of the light and shadow of windy courtyard trees.”15 Like Selena in “Friends,” who is described as speaking “very matter-of-factly—just offering a few informative sentences” (p. 76), Paley favors the laconic. But only up to a point. In some ways a remarkably conceptual writer, she offers us images and conceits (“Living as I do on a turnpike of discouragement”; “my lumpen time and my bourgeois feelings”16) that are as witty and unexpected as Barthelme’s, as eccentric as Apple’s. And even that does not tell the whole story, for the tropological aspects of her storytelling are, like Barthelme’s in “Basil from Her Garden,” deployed so as to render the forms of feeling. The weight of Paley’s stories is, above all, the weight of intersubjective acts and encounters; their density, partly the result of the repeated presence of children, friends, lovers, and husbands and, still more importantly, of the ways in which these people impinge on one another through their feelings and ideas, their needs and desires. In short, it is not the empirical world that is rendered in the universe of Paley’s fiction—not first and foremost, at any rate—but the feelings that derive from being in the world and from the need, somehow, to make sense of what is not transparent to either heart or mind.
Given the fact that by now most of Paley’s critics are in agreement that she is not a realist, it may seem supererogatory to labor the point. Nevertheless, old habits die hard, not to say old labels; and it is revealing that some of her most perceptive commentators, even as they reject the idea of realism, sneak it in by the back door. Kathleen Hulley, for example, having asserted that Paley’s “style is neither realistic nor naturalistic,” later on in her essay describes one of the “tracks” her stories run along as, precisely, “realistic.”17 Marianne DeKoven, for her part, argues that “Paley reconciles the demands of avant-garde or postmodern form for structural openness and the primacy of the surface with the seemingly incompatible demands of traditional realist material for orchestrated meaning and cathartic emotion.”18 And, most revealingly of all, Jerome Klinkowitz maintains that Paley “practices her own storytelling art with a more experimental sense of realism.”19
My intention, however, is not to catch Paley’s critics in contradictions but to confront the far more dubious and, as it seems to me, misleading assumption that, if Paley is not a realist, she is therefore, and as a result, not only a postmodernist but a metafictionist. Of those who make this argument, probably the most thoroughgoing—although he never actually uses the word metafiction—is Nicholas Peter Humy, who, in a discussion of “A Conversation with My Father,” contends that the protagonist wants her father “to see the process of storytelling anew, to see how, in the telling, the story becomes defamiliarized, becomes, not what it is about, but what it is. And what it is is a form which, according to Shklovsky, reveals the experience of its making.”20 Humy is right, of course, that the story “reveals the experience of its making.” It does not follow, however, that that is all it is “about.” In fact, “A Conversation” is preeminently about different ways of apprehending life and art, and what the story denies is not the world but the world’s transparency and self-evidence before language. As I indicated earlier, what is in doubt is our ability to grasp the world objectively, to apprehend it in a way that is not at once mediated and contingent. But for Paley, at least, contingency is a two-way street, an emblem of dependence on what we perceive as much as on the categories through which we perceive. To say, therefore, as another critic does, that “the voice of Paley’s fiction … assumes its freedom to create its own laws and logic through play”21 is to exaggerate the autonomy Paley claims for herself and her work and to confuse the always partly determined possibilities of midfictional invention with the theoretically absolute freedom (linguistic, at least) of poststructuralist jeu and jouissance.
Klinkowitz in his brief essay does neither of these things, but it is worth attending to his argument nevertheless. “For Grace Paley,” he writes, “metafiction … is a peculiarly social matter, filled with the stuff of realism other metafictionists have discarded. … Only Grace Paley finds them [realistic conventions] to be the materials of metafiction itself.”22 But precisely because this argument is ostensibly more subtle and persuasive, it makes clear how inadequate to our understanding of contemporary literature is the draconian choice of either realism or metafiction—or, as with Klinkowitz’s “experimental realism,” of some combination of the two. No doubt, and to his credit, Klinkowitz senses something operative in Paley’s fiction that cannot be subsumed to the notion of metafiction. But, unable to find a name and an identity for such work, he and other critics I’ve cited choose instead to pursue and, more, to reify what, for them, continues to be its constituent and still separable elements. It needs to be emphasized, therefore, that, by modifying and adulterating the idea of realism, by failing to take adequate account of those ontological and ideological features that must enter into its definition, these critics effectively undermine their arguments, just as they also, and more importantly, fail to recognize the integrity of what is in fact another form and vision altogether, one that is not part realism and part metafiction but uniquely and indivisibly itself. As I’ve been contending throughout this book, and as Paley demonstrates perhaps more than anyone else discussed in it, the binaryism of our current categories betrays the very diversity that gives to postmodern fiction in particular its vitality and richness. Which is also to argue, once again, that in order to do justice to Paley, as to the writers already considered, we require a descriptive middle ground capable of encompassing assumptions and strategies that give primacy to neither language nor the world but that seek—in ways and with means that are entirely their own—to recognize and negotiate the claims of each and both.
At issue, then, is the artist, in this case Paley, as the site where invention and receptivity join, and, by way of confronting head-on the claims of metafictionally disposed critics, it will be useful to focus on two of her more deliberately reflexive stories. What needs to be determined, most of all, is whether reflexivity implies only (and merely) a story’s concern with its own fictional processes—a concern which is, furthermore, generally taken to imply a disbelief in literature’s referential function—or whether, in Robert Alter’s words, what we witness as we read is “the dialectic between fiction and ‘reality’ … a play of competing ontologies.”23 The remaining and longer section of “Ruthy and Edie,” to which I want to return now, begins, at least, to make clear that for Paley reflexivity is to be seen not as the antithesis of referentiality but as its complement.24
First, however, what always matters more to Paley than such generalizations: the particulars of individual lives. Gathered together to celebrate Ruthy’s fiftieth birthday, the women in the story wander among their memories and their concerns (as usual, very little “happens” by way of traditional action or plot); and it is not long before the reader recognizes as the background of these the continuity between, indeed the identity of, “the real world of boys” and the equally “real” world of men. The women find themselves, as much as when they were girls, the unwilling victims not only of specific situations and problems (international relations, war, urban blight, capitalism25) but more importantly, of a series of mind sets, categories, and received ideas seen, by men at any rate, as essential and eternal truths. Their task, then, is to set against this bogus essentialism an ever-renewing, existential awareness of the world, which is, as it happens, more in accord with their feelings and which is the unstated, perhaps not fully recognized agenda of their discursive talk.
This is not to suggest that Ruthy, Edie, Faith, and Ann speak with one voice or form a kind of seamlessly unified feminist collective. Edie, for example, manifestly an adult version of her younger self, is in some sense the odd woman out, the not fully awakened woman. (“Sometimes,” Faith says, “I think you’re half asleep” [RE, p. 123]). Tearful and intermittently hopeless, for all her idealism, Edie tells the others: “You know you three lead such adversarial lives. I hate it. What good does it do?” (p. 123). Yet, as the narrator comments, “They were all, even Edie, ideologically, spiritually, and on puritanical principle against despair” (p. 123), and it is Edie who, though “softly,” says “bravo” to Ann’s birthday resolution: “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world” (p. 124). In a larger sense, therefore, the friends are at one, united, not necessarily in their advocacy of this or that issue, nor yet in their special ways of responding, but in their women’s way of seeing, which is, most fundamentally, their impulse to save the world from the assumptions of boys and men, and from their mirroring shape: the relentless, forward-moving, sequential prison of time.
We are back, in other words, to the kinds of problems broached by Paley in “A Conversation with My Father,” and it is, in fact, at this more general, almost parabolic, level that “Ruthy and Edie” operates, even as it continues to root itself in the concrete and specific: Ruth’s joyous and doting response to the arrival of her young grandchild, Letty, which is shadowed by the unexplained absence of another of her daughters. As that absence betrays its effect in Ruthy’s repeated hugging of Letty, the story ends:
Letty began to squirm out of Ruth’s arms. Mommy, she called, Gramma is squeezing. But it seemed to Ruth that she’d better hold her even closer, because, though no one else seemed to notice—Letty, rosy and soft-cheeked as ever, was falling, already falling, falling out of her brand-new hammock of world-inventing words onto the hard floor of man-made time. (p. 126)
The metaphor of the fall as used here is neither theological nor, except incidentally, Wordsworthian. Whereas one cannot avoid altogether an awareness of “shades of the prison-house” closing upon Letty, the narrator’s phrase is intended to focus on time not as an emblem of some general human condition but as something molded specifically in the image of Man, or, more accurately, of men. Consequently, Letty’s soft “world-inventing words” sum up more than the child’s way of coming to terms with what surrounds her; they are Paley’s and her characters’ weapon against the mediations of those man-made categories that present themselves as adequate, necessary, and self-evident representations of reality itself.
But if this celebration of creativity, of “the open destiny of life” is central to “Ruthy and Edie,” it is not all that the story has to say on the subject. Earlier, Ruth, meditating on Letty’s movement from a “present full of milk and looking” (p. 121) to her first experiments with language, concludes: “In this simple way the lifelong past is invented, which, as we know, thickens the present and gives all kinds of advice to the future” (p. 121). No doubt the passage, like the one that closes the story, privileges the freedom of invention, but, as the context it provides makes clear, that freedom depends upon an altogether concrete and irreducible experience of the world language brings into being—but does not, as in some metafictional and poststructuralist models, simply “make up.” As John R. Boly argues in a recent critique of Derrida, “no human mind can ever totally escape a perspective field with its horizon of enabling limits”;26 and if part of what Paley is after is a revelation of how paternal discourse coerces, or attempts to coerce, perception according to its own unacknowledged preconceptions, it is no less her aim to demonstrate the extent to which consciousness is anchored in the world it invents. Surely that is the burden of the narrator’s comment in “A Conversation with My Father,” when, arguing for the possibility of change in the character she has created, she says of her: “She’s my knowledge and my invention” (p. 173). Denying the claims that either phrase, taken by itself, would seem to make—in the first case, for realism; in the second, for metafiction—the two together acknowledge as twin sources of the narrator’s (and, it seems fair to say, of Paley’s) inspiration: consciousness and the world. The phenomenological axiom according to which “the world gives itself to consciousness which confers on it its meaning” comes to hand here again. But one might as well give the last word to Paley herself. “When I was writing stories,” she said in her interview with Joan Lidoff, “it was really me getting the world to speak to me.”27 In short, if “the hard floor of man-made time” awaits those who fail to keep vital the generative impulses of “world-inventing words,” something more barren still attends those others for whom invention, endlessly mirroring the self-enclosed universe of poststructuralist language, floats free of the world, and of reference, altogether.
In the course of “Friends,” Faith Darwin, Paley’s most ubiquitous character and the narrator of the story, expresses her irritation over an allusion to the dead daughter of Selena (one of the four women to whom the title refers) as “the kid.” “I didn’t like to hear ‘the kid,’” Faith says to herself. “I wanted to say ‘Abby’ the way I’ve said ‘Selena’—so those names can take thickness and strength and fall back into the world with their weight” (Fr, p. 79). Thickness and strength are what characterize Paley’s best work as well, and nowhere more so than in “Friends,” which, of all the stories in Later the Same Day, most fully and skillfully realizes the possibilities, strategic and axiological, defended in “A Conversation with My Father.” My emphasis on the facticity, the affective weight, of Paley’s enterprise, is not, however, meant to indicate that either her conception of reality or the techniques she uses to render it assume the consistency, still less the “readability,” of the world, the text, or, as some would have it, the world as text. On the contrary, and as Faith’s remark makes clear, all of these are implicated in a creative, reciprocal, and ongoing relation with consciousness. “The fact of the world” (Fr, p. 88), as Faith later calls it, is no more (but also no less) than the fluid and unstable boundary of perception, the horizon of signification as act.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Paley’s stories are, at their most successful, amazingly free-form. One might, for example, note that “Friends” focuses first on the visit that Faith, along with Susan and Ann, pays to the dying Selena and then on the visitors’ return trip to New York. One might add too that both occasions spark memories, discussions, disagreements, revaluations, all of which disrupt and subvert the linear movement of Faith’s account. But this summary hardly conveys what is most striking about “Friends,” namely, the fact that its structure is so radically, if unobtrusively, associative and discursive. “Plot,” Paley has said, “is only movement in time … but that doesn’t mean it moves dead ahead in time,”28 a remark that Virginia Woolf would have endorsed, and for similar reasons. For what both women share is the belief that the writer’s obligation is not to re-present a fixed and stable reality but to suggest the ways in which an elusive “otherness” modifies, even as it is modified by, the constitutive activity of consciousness. Thus, although “Friends” is in some sense about death and dying (and, as we shall see, about their opposites), it is more immediately, or at least more fundamentally, attentive to the problem of coming to terms with experience, of sorting out perceptions and feelings that are not as simple or single as they are for, say, the characters of Carver and Beattie. In other words, like Barthelme—although her work is generally without the calculated extravagance and playfulness of fictions like “Overnight to Many Distant Cities” or “Basil from Her Garden”—Paley presents a world that is a more supple, sinuous, and mysterious place than it is for the realists; and to the degree that past and present, memory and interpretation, self and other, intermingle in the narrative to-and-fro of “Friends,” what the story registers is precisely the difficulty of knowing the world, along with the still more urgent need to know it.
As the difficulty manifests itself in the fabric of the storytelling, in the low-keyed and subtle ways “Friends” keeps the reader off-balance, so the urgency makes itself felt in the affirmations the story wrests from the jumble of recollected encounters and events that Faith relives in the process of narrating them. For if, according to both Paley and Barthelme, knowledge, far from being merely a passive reception of the world’s pre-existing being, is instead a response elicited by the pressures of the not-known, then it follows that knowledge is to be found only in and through the activity involved in generating it. Or, as Faith puts it, more concretely: “Though the world cannot be changed by talking to one child at a time, it may at least be known” (Fr, p. 78). In fact, a good deal of value-laden knowledge is generated and affirmed in “Friends,” though, as its technique dictates, always hesitantly, tentatively, and, as its subject requires, with due consideration of the story’s background of egoism, death, and loss.
Even without Faith’s confirming remark, it is easy enough to conclude that the story dwells repeatedly on the value of act and effort. Moreover, like many other midfictional works, it does so in a way that is characteristically modest and tempered. Speaking, for example, of “our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life” (p. 83). Faith comments:
Luckily, I learned recently how to get out of that deep well of melancholy. Anyone can do it. You grab at roots of the littlest future, sometimes just stubs of conversation. Though some believe you miss a great deal of depth by not sinking down down down. (pp. 83–84)
Recalling Virginia Woolf again (“I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts”29), this time, however, by way of contrast, the passage orients itself toward the open or uncharted and, accepting life’s inevitable disunities, it opts for a distinctively human rather than a quasi-metaphysical depth. The same ethos informs the story’s midfictional confirmations of the ordinary and the daily as mysterious and extraordinary30—most notably in its treatment of the relationships, however flawed or difficult, to which the title refers. More generally, it ratifies the world as the necessary site and foundation of whatever creative gestures both “the little disturbances” and the genuine sorrows of women and men allow.
“Creative” is the key word here and becomes, if anything, still more central as “Friends” draws to its close, since in its final paragraphs the story turns reflexively on itself and reveals that, whatever else it may be, it is a meditation on art, both as a specifically literary enterprise and as an emblem of all human responses to “the fact of the world.” Reacting to her son’s solicitude for her, his irritation at what he takes to be her unwarranted hopefulness, and his own inconsistent vitality and gloom, Faith sums up the digressive tale she has told about herself and her friends as follows:
Meanwhile, Anthony’s world—poor, dense, defenseless thing—rolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts.
He was right to call my attention to its suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments. (p. 89)
Again, the crucial concept has to do with the idea of invention, and, by way of bringing together the various threads of my argument, it may be useful one last time to explore how exactly, in its use of the term, Paley’s aesthetic compares with other twentieth-century beliefs about the autotelic, mimetic, tautological, or mediative functions and powers of art. Obviously, her position is at once less magical than the modernists’ and more interrogative than the realists’. Art, that is, presents itself for Paley neither as a self-sufficient counterpoint to the unsatisfactoriness of life (art being only one value among many) nor as an instrument that simply records and comments upon a shared and common world (the world being more plastic and interpretable than this view suggests). Which is not, however, as some of her critics would have it and as Raymond Federman insists, to maintain “that reality as such does not exist.”31 To be sure, Paley’s work, including the passage just quoted, acknowledges the ambiguities both of consciousness and the world; but it needs to be emphasized that art represents for her, as it does not for the metafictionists, a way of reaching out to the world, of doing justice to it by calling into question the very substantiality it also affirms.
For Paley, then, invention is a way of being in the world, the self’s means of conferring significative value on what inchoately solicits and surrounds it. And it is also, in “Friends,” the middle ground on which she stages the contest between living and dying and urges, in the face of rampant mortality, the claims of friendship and love. To put matters this way is. I recognize, to risk making Paley sound sentimental, but the effect of the story is neither to resolve nor to transcend, as sentimental literature does, life’s fractures and disjunctions. The “report” that Faith “invents” encompasses “private deaths” as well as “lifelong attachments,” so that what is at issue is not an effort to ignore or mitigate the fact of death but the attempt to accept it and, through that acceptance, to make possible the raggedly continuing activities of life. Nor is it, one must add, only the story’s ending that justifies its suspensiveness and its assent. Throughout, it is the narrator’s voice to which we attend, as it threads its way among the bits and pieces of past and present, giving to them a consistency that is, at best, only potentially theirs. Often defensive, at once concealing and defending its vulnerability, sometimes even a bit hard in its jokiness, generally understated but ready, as in the description of “Anthony’s world,” to move into other registers, the story’s various but ultimately compassionate voice is what earns “Friends” the right to its final affirmation.
Words like “compassionate” and “affirmation” threaten once again to rattle the bones of sentimentality; and so it is probably worth insisting that not only “Friends” but Paley’s work as a whole articulates what can most accurately be called an economy of gain and loss. “All of life is tragic,” she has said, sounding for the moment very much like the father in “A Conversation.” “Sorrow is just natural.”32 And indeed, as it defines itself in her three volumes of stories, life is often disappointing and frustrating, the cause, for women especially, of considerable desperation and bitterness. Displaying from the beginning signs of “man’s inhumanity.”33 it is filled, in her most recent and gloomiest collection particularly, with the certain and unmistakable odor of mortality. But although all of this is true enough, it represents only part of what Paley has to say. Against (but never in place of) the experience of inevitable and not so inevitable disillusionments and defeats she sets a sense of hope and possibility, embodied in characters who, like Aunt Rose in “Goodbye and Good Luck,” consider life more their creation than their fate or who, like Virginia in another story, conclude that “all that is really necessary for survival of the fittest, it seems, is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar.”34 Paley’s survivors exhibit, above all, pluck and determination, a capacity to enjoy what they can and to distinguish the little disturbances of man from the “catastrophes of God.”35 When all is said and done, and whatever may be urged to the contrary, it continues to be for Paley “the interesting world,”36 as open and unpredictable as the digressive techniques she characteristically uses to express it.
Her stories, then, as compared, for example, with Beattie’s more limited and lapidary efforts, aim not for a state of grace, stylistic or otherwise, but for the riskier, more human condition of world-invention: the continual and continually imperiled creation of the self in act and in time. In this sense, as in her privileging of the ordinary. Paley, for all the uniqueness of her talent, recalls the other writers discussed in this book, who would, I think, agree with the spirit of one of her recent remarks: “When I’m asked—Is she a heroine?—I’m not really interested in that, I’m not interested in that extraordinary person to that extent, except to the degree that all those people are extraordinary to me.”37 We are, in other words, dealing once again with the extraordinariness of the ordinary. This focus—as well as its attendant belief that change, in the nature of things, is as partial as it is slow—may, I recognize, seem in its deliberately un- or antiheroic stance to impugn the capacity of human beings definitively to shape their world and their fates. It can only be said therefore that the need for heroism of this kind, la recherche de l’absolu, is something less than self-evident in an age when literary, no less than political, rhetoric, whether of the right or the left, has become increasingly missionary, strident, and self-assured.
Or, perhaps, what we witness as we follow the fortunes of midfictional characters like Mad Moll, Oedipa Maas, or Faith Darwin, to choose radically different incarnations of the same impulse, is a redefinition of what it means to be heroic. Along with Paley, the novelists and short-story writers I’ve concentrated on seek neither, like the modernists, to substitute for the disorder of life the less assailable order of art nor, like the metafictionists in their own radically world-denying maneuvers, to gambol on the playing fields of language. To be sure, though less absolute in their hopes and beliefs, they acknowledge, along with the world’s indeterminacies and imperfections, a more personal sense of loss: in Apple’s case, the loss of an earlier and simpler America; in Barthelme’s, of a perhaps mythic single-mindedness; in Pynchon’s, of a time before men and the depredations of consciousness; in Elkin’s of the integrated self; and in Berger’s, of the natural and normal, the prelapsarian ease of being in the world. Obviously, such unrealizable dreams have their effect in shaping the works of these writers, but final, all-resolving unities are not, in fact, what they are after. On the other hand, they reject as well the limits and constraints assumed by realists: the assumption of a world at once immutable and independent of creative intervention. Instead, and with a more chastened sense of the heroic, midfiction presumes, in small and modest ways, to bring about change in a world it knows it cannot ever fully control or understand. Barthelme’s “wine of possibility,” Elkin’s manic celebration of energy, Mooney’s confirmation of the human, Apple’s notions of sufficiency and assent, Berger’s acts of definition. Paley’s “open destiny,” and, most especially, Pynchon’s hectic, labyrinthine pursuit of diversity, all speak to this attempt.
But in different ways. As I’ve been arguing from the beginning of this study, contemporary fiction has fallen victim to a too partial and exclusive sense of what it proposes, not to say, achieves. If the concept of midfiction can be seen to provide an alternative to the mutually exclusive choices of realism and metafiction, it needs itself to be thought of not as one more monolithic category but as a capacious middle ground on which broadly like-minded writers raise the most varied and heterogeneous structures. Nevertheless, even terms like midfiction and middle grounds project their own borders and boundaries, and so as to keep these as flexible as possible, it is probably wise to end by minimizing rather than stressing the constitutive powers such taxonomic categories possess. At the last, there is something to be said for focusing not only on what such works represent collectively (whether in formal or in ideological terms) but on what each of them specifically and distinctively intends.38 In short, what joins the writers studied in this book is also, paradoxically, what distinguishes them from one another: the still lively (but no longer imperial) humanistic impulse that seeks to do justice to the world’s irreducible particularity by inventing it into always unique and individual being. To what end? Partly, no doubt, to defend and confirm in acts of creation the validity of the now thoroughly beleaguered self, but also, as another of Paley’s reflexive narrators says, conceding her “debts” to the immediate world around her, “in order, you might say, to save a few lives.”39
Grace Paley, “Of Poetry and Women and the World,” TriQuarterly, 65 (Winter 1986), 247. The essay will be referred to hereafter as PWW. The symposium, sponsored by TriQuarterly, was called “The Writer in Our World.”
Joyce Meier, “The Subversion of the Father in the Tales of Grace Paley,” Delta, 14 (1982), 122.
Grace Paley, “Ruthy and Edie,” Later the Same Day (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), p. 115. The story will be referred to hereafter as RE.
Meier, p. 122. See also Nicholas Peter Humy, “A Different Responsibility: From and Technique in Grace Paley’s ‘A Conversation with [My] Father,’” Delta, 14 (1982), 87–95. For Humy, the father’s conception of literature and life is basically Aristotelian.
Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974: rpt. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1975), p. 167. The story will be referred to hereafter as CF.
On Paley’s friendship with Barthelme, see Kathleen Hulley, “Interview with Grace Paley,” Delta, 14 (1982), 38–39. On the back cover of Enormous Changes, Barthelme is quoted as saying: “There’s no writer in our country whose work exceeds in beauty and truth that of Grace Paley.” And on the back of the other two collections he describes her as “a wonderful writer and troublemaker. We are fortunate to have her in our country.”
See Paley’s remark in her interview with Hulley: “Writing does not help me deal with anything! … I mean if I wrote a poem, it doesn’t help me to deal with it, [it] helps me to think about it” (p. 38). And see also, Joan Lidoff, “Clearing Her Throat: An Interview with Grace Paley,” Shenandoah, 32, 3 (1981), 23.
Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), p. 5. For such a metafictional approach to invention, see Coover’s “The Magic Poker,” Pricksongs & Descants (1969; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1970). The story opens: “I wander the island, inventing it” (p. 20), and the word recurs throughout, most notably on p. 33: “At times, I forget that this arrangement is my own invention. I begin to think of the island as somehow real, its objects solid and intractable, its condition of ruin not so much an aesthetic design as an historical denouement” (my italics).
The remark appears in an interview with Nina Darnton, “Taking Risks: The Writer as Effective Teacher,” New York Times (“Education Life,” Section 12), 13 April 1986, p. 66.
None of which, however, rules out for Paley the possibility of change. See, for example, the poem that ends “Of Poetry and Women and the World” (pp. 252–53), which makes as clear as anything she has written her personal, social, political, and feminist agenda.
Grace Paley, “The Immigrant Story,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, p. 180.
Lidoff, p. 19.
Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, p. 91.
Grace Paley, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, p. 130.
The quotations come from three different stories by Paley: “Midrash on Happiness,” TriQuarterly, 65 (Winter 1986), 151: “Faith in a Tree,” p. 95; “Friends,” Later the Same Day, p. 85. “Friends” will be referred to hereafter as Fr.
The first quotation is from “A Woman, Young and Old,” The Little Disturbances of Man (1959; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1973), p. 40, the second from “Faith in a Tree,” p. 86. On Paley’s imagery, see Marianne DeKoven’s fine essay, “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears,” Partisan Review, 48, 2 (1981), 217–23. DeKoven speaks, rightly, of Paley’s “startling, comic-bizarre language and imagery” (p. 221).
Kathleen Hulley, “Grace Paley’s Resistant Form,” Delta, 14 (1982), 3, 4.
DeKoven, p. 217.
Jerome Klinkowitz, “Grace Paley: The Sociology of Metafiction,” Delta, 14 (1982), 82. Klinkowitz develops his notion of “experimental realism” in The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction as Language/Language as Fiction (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), chapter 6.
Humy, p. 90.
Diane Cousineau, “The Desires of Women, the Presence of Men,” Delta, 14 (1982), 64.
Klinkowitz, p. 81.
Robert Alter, Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (1975; rpt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), p. 182.
McCaffery, in The Metafictional Muse, distinguishes between two kinds of metafiction. The first, he writes, “either directly examines its own construction as it proceeds or … comments or speculates about the forms and language of previous fictions” (p. 16). The second seeks “to examine how all fictional systems operate, their methodology, the sources of their appeal, and the dangers of their being dogmatized” (p. 17). This useful distinction will serve to discriminate between different sorts of non-metafictional but still reflexive stories as well; and, as will become apparent. “Ruthy and Edie” especially belongs in the second of these groups.
In “Of Poetry and Women and the World,” Paley asserts that “war is man-made. It’s made by men. It’s their thing, it’s their world, and they’re terribly injured in it. They suffer terribly in it, but it’s made by men” (p. 247).
John R. Boly, “Nihilism Aside: Derrida’s Debate over Intentional Models,” Philosophy and Literature, 9 (October 1985), 163.
Lidoff, p. 7.
Lidoff, p. 18.
Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall,” A Haunted House and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 39.
In her interview with Hulley, Paley said: “I’m anti-mystic too. … What I think is mysterious is life. What I’m trying to do is to show how mysterious ordinary life is” (p. 35).
Raymond Federman, “Fiction Today or the Pursuit of Non-Knowledge,” Humanities in Society, 1 (Spring 1978), 122.
Hulley, “Interview,” p. 30.
Grace Paley, “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All,” The Little Disturbances of Man, p. 149.
Grace Paley, “An Interest in Life.” The Little Disturbances of Man, p. 98.
Grace Paley, “An Interest in Life,” p. 99.
Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree,” p. 89.
Lidoff, pp. 12–13.
By “each of them” I mean to suggest both an individual story or novel and, more comprehensively, the body of a particular author’s work.
Grace Paley, “Debts,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, p. 18.
SOURCE: “An Interview with Grace Paley,” in Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, University Press of Mississippi Jackson, 1997, pp. 204-212.
[The following interview was originally conducted with Paley in 1988, and was originally published in The Brick Reader, edited by Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje, 1991. In the interview Paley discusses her characters’ voices, her political interests, and the inspiration for several of her stories.]
[Wachtel:] Why did you start writing short stories?
[Paley:] I’d been writing poems for a number of years—in fact for most of my life. But they weren’t doing the work I wanted them to do. So I felt I had to try to see what I could do with the story form.
When you say the poems weren’t doing the work that you wanted, what do you mean?
I mean a couple of things. I couldn’t use people in the way I was really interested in doing. I began to think about language and sentences, and using other voices. And I had also become oppressed by my worries, my feelings about women’s lives. That was in the mid-fifties. I began to hang around with women, doing the mundane things that most people don’t enjoy too much but which I really loved. I liked working in groups. I began to feel a great deal of pressure on my soul about women’s lives. A lot of them, even then, were women alone with kids. My kids were in day care. Also it’s as though some kind of sound in the air had begun to be heard by other women and by me, even though we didn’t know what it was.
A lot of this began to bother me. It wasn’t just a question of women. There were my aunts, my mother, et cetera. I had to find a way to write about them. My husband was really good about this. He said, “You have a sense of humor and it’s never in any of these damn poems.” And it’s true, it wasn’t. “And you’re interested in people.” All of this was true and I was also interested in myself as a Jewish woman, which I had not really thought about particularly or read about in literature. So all of that came together at one particular time and I began to write stories. Once I started I was lucky. I was sick that year. As a result I had to be home a lot and the kids had to be away a lot, so I had a couple of months in there—maybe two months—in which I could really carry one or two things to completion. Getting that done was important. Actually beginning and finishing the two stories in my first book—“The Contest” and “Goodbye and Good Luck”—was great.
What kind of voices are you referring to when you talk about the use of other voices in your work?
For me, you don’t get to your own voice until you use other people’s voices. I mean, you’re not going to get that gift until you have paid enough attention. And maybe in the use of other voices, in that kind of dialectical experience, something happens so that your own voice comes through, almost in opposition. It sounds peculiar, but I think I’m probably right. That’s what I was interested in when I wrote those two stories—one in the voice of an aunt who’s totally invented and the other in a man’s voice.
Your writing style is very original. Were you conscious of going your own way when you began writing short stories?
I was conscious in this sense. I had gone to school to poetry, I hadn’t gone to school to fiction. I’d gone to school to poetry to learn how to write, so I had the habits of a poet, which seem original maybe in fiction. That’s part of it: the kinds of jumps and leaps and liking of language that a poet has. The other thing was that I didn’t like literary life. I was afraid of it. I didn’t want to be part of it in any way, so that must have entered into the way that I began to write. I was afraid of being cut off from my own life by going into another world that was more literary. But I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m being original.”
I had done a lot of imitating. Not on purpose, though. I didn’t even know it when I was imitating someone like Auden and writing with a British accent. Not on purpose, but because this tune was in my ear and I couldn’t get my own tune going until I wrote stories. I wasn’t so much aware of it as I felt something peculiar was happening. I’m probably doing something wrong, I though. I was writing about those lives that no one would be interested in. I was putting in all those kitchen scenes that no one would care about. And I was writing in a funny way that probably nobody would like. But I had a great commitment to finish.
To some degree you write the way people talk. You have syncopated rhythms of speech. How do you do that?
I don’t know. I just listen to people. If you pay attention you get some things right. I also rewrite a lot. I don’t get it the first time. It can take me a helluva long time to get even the simplest dialogue right. Just an exchange between two people in four lines can really drive me crazy before I get it right.
A lot of people say they write to create order out of chaos, but you let a certain amount of chaos into your stories. Everything isn’t tidy and ordered. Things jump from one thing to another.
That really comes from the poetry. Once you write poetry you get a certain courage about jumping and making leaps. You don’t feel you have to put in five paragraphs of transition every time you go from one room to the next. I don’t know if one makes order from chaos, it’s such a general statement. I’ve said it myself, to tell you the truth. But it seems to me that that’s just one way of looking at it. You might just as easily and with as friendly a tone of voice say: “I’m here to make disorder from excessive order. I’m here to bring a little bit of noise into this quiet place.” Why not? Why not say that too?
Where do you start with a story?
It could be anything. It could be a sentence. I’m thinking of a story called “Distance,” which begins: “I was the lady who appreciated youth.” And I just put that sentence in. I was thinking about something. I didn’t go on with it for a long time. Then I wrote another paragraph. Then I realized I was writing about this Irish woman and it was her voice I was writing in, which I didn’t really know until I was well into the second page and she was the mother of one of the characters in another book. So that’s how it starts. Sometimes it starts with an argument, like “The Immigrant Story.” I was just having this abstract argument between two characters. One was being psychological and the other historical. I was writing that argument out for myself and I realized a few years after I wrote it out that it was the beginning of a story that I had been thinking about for a long time.
Do you recall what it was about women’s lives that you particularly wanted to write about?
In my first book—I guess it was in my mid-thirties—I was trying to understand men’s attitudes towards women, which I had begun to dislike very much, after years of liking both men and their attitudes. I had lived in army camps years earlier with my husband who was a soldier when we were kids—I mean we were in our early twenties, maybe nineteen. And I liked men pretty well in those days and I like them now, but there had begun to be something very wrong. And I had begun to be aware of it in a way that a lot of women were—suddenly feeling a discomfort—even women who were presumably happily married or who had not seemed terribly dissatisfied. I had not been very ambitious, so I can’t say it was because suddenly I realized I couldn’t be a lawyer or a doctor or something. It was nothing like that. I didn’t want to be anything. I didn’t even want to be a writer; I just wanted to write. I liked having kids, I liked all that very much. But I became very resentful of the general attitude of men towards women and maybe getting older had something to do with it.
Where did your feminist consciousness, or whatever you want to call it, fit into your general political awareness?
It didn’t for a long time. It did to this extent: that I worked a lot with women. Women, in general, have been the main workers in local organizations, even the local organizations of great big centralized organizations. But forget that. Think of ordinary things, like getting a light at a crossing. I worked for a long time, at a time when Jane Jacobs was in New York, at keeping a road out of Washington Square Park. Lots of things like that. PTAs were almost entirely women. A kind of sisterhood was happening inside local work—a lot of which involved children, but not all. And then finally, when the Viet Nam War came, there were men working with us too. We had a local [Greenwich] Village centre, but women were still doing a tremendous amount of the work.
To what extent do you draw on your own life? The work seems autobiographical.
Basically I don’t, or basically I do. My life is totally different from this woman Faith’s. I lived with my children’s father for twenty-two or twenty-three years, whereas she’s really alone. My children are different. And so in every particular way, in every accountable way, it’s not my life. But on the other hand, she could be a friend of mine. She could be some friend who hasn’t been registered yet.
Do family or friends think they appear in your work?
Actually, much less than you’d think. I had to point out to a couple of my friends that I had really jumped off their backs. That’s what you do: you get on the back of a person or a sentence and you jump. Sometimes they are very close to life. I have a couple of stories, like “Friends,” which I wrote in memorial for a friend of mine who died, so that happens sometimes.
In that story about the death of a friend, you write that you, or the character telling the story, are “inventing for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our life-long attachments.” Is that your purpose as a writer?
I never really think about my purpose as a writer. If I did, my standards would be so high that I would never reach them. If you said, “What should be your purpose as a writer?” I’d think something noble and gallant and great. But as it is I write because I want to tell you something. I write because I don’t understand what’s going on. And I begin to barely understand my writing. In that particular story, I was trying to understand all our difficult relations, not just with the woman who died, but with the other women. And another reason you write—it’s just what every writer does—you simply illuminate what’s hidden so in that way you become a person who makes some justice in the world. Every writer does that who’s serious, but you do that by accident.
You equate illuminating something with justice?
Yes, if you have lives that are hidden, where nobody wants to talk about them and you shine a light on them then the world sees that light for the first time. You see that in all new work. We began to write about women and put it in the same scale as the life of men. Black women, Native Americans, different classes. The middle class shone a light in the nineteenth century or earlier, saying: This is how we live, not just the nobles. We’re this rising middle class, get a look at us, we’re having a good time, we just invented capitalism.
Is it difficult or problematic to try to integrate politics into writing without being didactic?
No, it’s not difficult in that sense. It’s something that for me is maybe a little easier than for someone who doesn’t do a lot of politics. I really want to write about those people who think about it and talk about it. And I really believe that more people think and talk about politics than writers let on. Writers don’t let them talk about anything mostly. So it’s not hard. And as for being didactic, you want it to be part of the form of the story and one of the things that the story is about. So that to leave it out would be much more noticeable than putting it in.
One of the things that you try to do when you’re writing—you can’t really do it—but you try to give as much primary experience as you can. That is, you want people to respond to what you’re writing in a way that is as close as possible to the way you yourself responded to the event. But the only way you can do it is by not telling them how to respond, because once you do that they won’t. People are very stubborn. There’s no dealing with them. So what you try to do is be as primary as possible—really really do the event somehow. You might do it in a very surreal way, I’m not talking about naturalism or realism. You may go way out and yet the reader knows what you’re talking about. But if you start telling people what to think they get kind of grouchy. My characters’ political nature just means that they’re aware that they live in the world.
What can a writer do, while functioning as a writer, to have some impact on the world politically?
It’s kind of mysterious. I don’t even dare to think in those terms because it’s too great a dream to think that you could be that useful. Everybody longs for that. And yet we know that there are writers who have been able to speak for different classes or groups or colors. The success of a lot of Black women writers has been empowering to women, whether they mean to do that or not. I think partly you write to give yourself a sense of possibility. In the sense that you strengthen others, you can be useful. You give courage. It’s the thing writers think about a lot. And you don’t really know who’s the boss of beauty.
Who’s “the boss of beauty”?
Who’s the judge? Who’s the critic? Who are they to say you can be political or you can’t? Who knows in what way other work will come forward that is both didactic and beautiful? Who’s in charge?
You have this line in a story called “Anxiety” [from Later the Same Day]: A woman is leaning out from her window and talking to a young father she doesn’t know and she says, “Son, I must tell you that madmen intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. That the murder of our children by these men has got to become a terror and a sorrow to you, and starting now, it had better interfere with any daily pleasure.” Is that you talking?
It’s me talking, but you don’t see me doing that … Think of people who are doing really outstanding political work, for example in Central America. People who really decided that they’re going to put their lives into trying to prevent a war down there. Take a guy like Ben Linder who went there to build dams, and to help construct—not protest—but construct a new society. These people make up their minds to put away certain daily pleasures. I’m sure they have had a great time—in fact, Linder’s a clown from before and rode a monocycle and did wonderful things with children. You can’t live without joy and pleasure. But there have to be a lot of serious people around, of whom other people say: Tsk, they never think of anything else. What’s wrong with them? There have to be a lot of people who never think of anything else any more.
Are you one of them, or have you been at different times in your life?
No, I never have been totally. During the Viet Nam War, I spent a helluva lot of time doing all kinds of work, and I do again, now and then, but I’m a writer too and I have to do that. I have strong feelings for happiness.
How can you maintain your optimism?
Who said I was optimistic? No, I happen to have a cheerful disposition. But I’m not optimistic. I think we just may kill ourselves ecologically before we kill ourselves with nuclear war, so that’s a great piece of anxiety. But at the same time, you do see—I think some of my early political struggles had some success. The little ones, the small ones, really, that shaped the city, that helped make parts of the city decent, which most of it isn’t, New York, I mean. So you have some of those successes and they shape you a little bit, they give you courage for the future. And I think the United States would be at war right now in Nicaragua if it weren’t for the breadth of the anti-Central American War movement—if it wasn’t for that, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we worked so hard during the Viet Nam period. So in general, Americans no matter how often they vote for Reagan really don’t want to go to war right now. They’ve lost their taste for it. I’m happy that I was a little tiny part of helping them lose their taste for war.
Are there other American writers you have an affinity to who are writing political fiction?
There are many different kinds of writers who are thinking about these things. There’s a young woman, Irini Spanidou, who isn’t writing about the U.S. at all, she’s writing about Greece. She has a book called God’s Snake and it’s all about women. Then there’s E.M. Broner who’s a very interesting writer. Mary Gordon thinks about these things a lot. There are a lot of women writing about women, but in a very narrow kind of way, in a way that is so classbound. I really don’t know how to describe it because although it does what I believe in doing, it describes the lives of women, which I’m interested in, I don’t really care about that particular middle class or upper middle class of women and marriages and infidelities and stuff like that. It’s a little too late for that. There’s got to be more of a move. Marge Piercy has given herself the great and serious task of covering all the bases, and there are people I really love like Tillie Olsen and Kay Boyle who are still writing away there—Kay is in her eighties—fierce and amazing women.
Are you conscious of apportioning your time towards writing or political action or happiness?
No, I’m just pulled one way or another: writing, politics, house and family. That’s all right. It’s an idea of life. If you can take it, and you don’t feel guilty. Feeling guilty is what’s wrong. I tend to be pulled without an excess of guilt—just enough so I know something is happening to me. I’m a writer but I’m also a person in the world. I don’t feel a terrible obligation to write a lot of books. When I write, I write very seriously and I mean business. I write as well and as truthfully as I possibly can and I write about the things that have created a good deal of pressure in my head.
Who are the people who you hope or imagine will read your books?
The whole world. I’d like everybody to read them. Sometimes I’m surprised by the people who read the books. Without the support of the women’s movement the response might be different. I’m very conscious of the fact that there exists a movement, a political and women’s movement that supports all women writers, no matter who that writer is, even if she says: “I hate feminism and I don’t really like women too much.” Even so, that woman, whether she knows it or not, is supported by the historical fact of the wave of the women’s movement. So that exists for all of us women right now and we’re very lucky.
Do you think of yourself as a realist writer?
No, I don’t think about where I’m lodged in the house of literature.
How do you want to be remembered?
I don’t know. I just don’t think about that. We all throw ourselves into the hearts of our grandchildren and luck.
SOURCE: “A Perfect Marginality: Public and Private Telling in the Stories of Grace Paley,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 35-43.
[In the following essay, Aarons examines the importance of personal storytelling and oral narrative in Paley's fiction, noting its relationship to Jewish literary tradition. Aarons contends that such shared stories function as a mode of self-discovery, communal solidarity, and affirmation for Paley's characters.]
It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.1
So resolves Grace Paley’s narrator in the short story “Debts” as she—like so many of Paley’s narrators—begins to make public, to reinvent, personal history. These lines, spoken by a narrator who is also a character dramatized in the story, suggest that Paley at once thematizes the act of telling stories in her fiction and employs storytelling as a fundamental narrative structural device. The resolve to “tell” stories, as set forth by Paley’s narrator in “Debts,” illustrates by no means simply a classic storytelling prelude, which frames a story within a story. More to the point, Paley’s narrators reflect an urgency to tell stories. For them, recording the lives of their families and friends becomes a necessity which can be heard in the immediacy in their individual and collective voices; it is the “debt” that Paley’s narrator “owes.”2 One might well claim that virtually all of Paley’s stories call attention to telling in one sense or another (many of the titles of the stories themselves reflect this preoccupation: “A Man Told Me the Story of His Life,” “The Story Hearer,” “Zagrowsky Tells,” “Listening,” and the like). For Paley and her host of character-narrators, telling becomes the collective experience of bearing witness, the making public of personal mythologies, validating both self and community. Through her skillful use of terse, simple language, Paley creates a community of shared belief and experience. It is this communal experience that is reinforced through the words of her narrators, characters who tell their stories and the stories of their families and friends. The dramatic unfolding of these narratives, derived from the tension created by Paley’s stark and unsparing use of language, underscores, paradoxically, a source of hope and optimism for her characters. For, in verbalizing and thus making real individual histories, telling stories serves as a means of connecting, of creating a community in which Paley’s narrators and characters may indeed “save a few lives.” It is this saving power of storytelling, the merging of public and private discourses, that moves Paley’s short fiction and demonstrates the life-affirming force of memory enlivened through community.
Paley’s characters cry out to be heard, to connect with others, believing that, in doing so, they will imbue their lives with meaning. In “Listening,” for example, Faith (a reappearing character who governs the telling in many of Paley’s stories)3 is confronted by her friend Cassie, who, angered that she has been omitted from Faith’s stories, feels that her identity has been denied. In her characteristic mixture of irony and humor, Paley constructs a character who steps into the narrative to demand characterization, so to speak, to assert her place in the unfolding of the story. In doing so, she demands a kind of public approbation from her friend, the narrator of the story:
Listen, Faith, why don’t you tell my story? You’ve told everybody’s story but mine. I don’t even mean my whole story, that’s my job. You probably can’t. But I mean you’ve just omitted me from the other stories and I was there. In the restaurant and the train, right there. Where is Cassie? Where is my life? … you even care about me at least as much as you do Ruthy and Louise and Ann. You let them in all the time; it’s really strange, why have you left me out of everybody’s life?4
On the one hand, as Cassie makes clear above, it is her responsibility to tell her own story, to take control over her own life. On the other hand, however, individuals do not live in isolation from each other in Paley’s fictional universe. They have a responsibility to one another, to include one another in the telling of stories, in the making and reinforcing of reality. And they do so carefully, deliberately. In leaving her friend out of the stories she tells, Faith has essentially denied her a reality. Furthermore, in omitting Cassie from her story, Faith prevents her from participating in the community. Cassie’s plaintive tone is very suggestive here; it calls attention to her need to be a part of “everybody’s life,” an ongoing communal heritage. Cassie, of course, is the narrator’s invention, just as Faith is Paley’s fictive creation. Paley’s self-conscious, reflexive narration here renders her own authorial position ironic. She, as writer, invents and thus gives life to her characters. Their utterances, however fictive, enliven them, make them real. And what makes this passage so compelling is the implied relation between self and others, and the reminder of the storyteller’s responsibility to tell and, in so doing, to bring together the lives of her friends. In recognition is affirmation, is self-identity. Faith responds to her friend by acknowledging her outrage: “It must feel for you like a great absence of yourself” (210).
Storytelling thus becomes a process of discovery, a making of selves for Paley’s characters, but a making of selves in relation to others, to a community of belief, a community of shared values. I am reminded here of the “community of memory” and the creative, enduring power of such “communities” set forth by Robert N. Bellah, et al., in Habits of the Heart:
Communities, in the sense in which we are using the term, have a history—in an important sense they are constituted by their past—and for this reason we can speak of a real community as a “community of memory,” one that does not forget its past. In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community. These stories of collective history and exemplary individuals are an important part of the tradition that is so central to a community of memory.5
The “community of memory” for Grace Paley’s characters depends upon a coming-to-terms with the past, which, by necessity, is comprised of the ethical choices and circumstances of others. These choices, of course, determine possibilities for the future. In “The Immigrant Story,” for instance, Jack tells the haunting story of his parents’ past. Polish immigrants who have lost three sons to famine, they live out the remainder of their lives—sorrowfully, from Jack’s point of view—in America. Their story becomes the vehicle, the filter, through which Jack views the world: “Isn’t it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person’s sorrow?”6 Jack can’t let go of his parents’ past because in it he views his own agency, his own participation and thus compliance. In describing their lives in America, he concludes his story:
They are sitting at the edge of their chairs. He’s leaning forward reading to her in that old bulb light. Sometimes she smiles just a little. Then he puts the paper down and takes both her hands in his as though they needed warmth. He continues to read. Just beyond the table and their heads, there is the darkness of the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room, the shadowy darkness where as a child I ate my supper, did my homework and went to bed. (175)
The abrupt closure of Jack’s story, the matter-of-fact, abbreviated rendition of the narration at large, suggests a combination of reluctance and urgency—an uneasy compulsion to tell. Jack’s “memory” of his parents’ past is fictionalized in the telling of it, fictionalized in such a way that he can see it in the light of his own day, making their lives real in the telling. It is this connection between memory and stories, community and a shared past, that we find in Paley’s unique voice and in the varied voices of her narrators.
It is, in no small part, this multi-layered narrative interplay of voices that enriches Paley’s fiction so dramatically. Her short stories, characteristically related in first-person narration, are “told” by characters in conversational style, a necessarily abbreviated form of address, because they speak a language that the other characters understand. Paley creates a linguistic community based on shared assumptions about how the world works: her characters speak the same language, as it were, and recognize that in talking—in conversations about people, living and dead, about experiences, about politics, love, children—they are giving meaning to the past and so create a “community of memory” out of shared stories. In, for example, “Friends,” a small group of women, friends for a generation, sit at the bedside of their dying friend, another woman whose own child died. Their gathering is defined by storytelling—stories of their pasts, collective and individual, and of the lives of their children. In recollecting the past, in naming the dead child of their dying friend, the women bring her back to life: “I wanted to say ‘Abby’ the way I’ve said ‘Selena’—so those names can take thickness and strength and fall back into the world with their weight,”7 affirms the narrator.
Individual tragedies are embraced by the community here, as they always are in Paley’s stories. But the community is selective and, more often than not, gender-defined. In “Listening,” for example, Faith responds to Jack’s question of why she doesn’t tell stories “told by women about women” by claiming, “those are too private” (203). However, there is virtually no distinction between public and private for Paley. Faith’s reluctance here to tell Jack stories about women speaks to the establishment of and belief in a community of women, which provides mutual strength and support. By its very nature, telling stories is a public act, but one which gives meaning to private sorrow, personal suffering, and tragedy. However, in the telling—and this is what makes words so powerful for Paley’s characters—sorrow is mitigated. The act of telling provides hope; it suggests a future because the private is shared and preserved in the memory, in the language, of others. And this, finally, for Paley, defines community. Dena Mandel argues in “Keeping Up with Faith: Grace Paley’s Sturdy American Jewess” that Paley’s Faith Darwin, in particular, functions as “an emblem of hope in a hopeless world.”8 I would go on to argue that hope exists not only in the ways in which Paley’s narrators live in the world, but also in the ways in which they talk about living in that world. Talk enlivens the past for Paley’s characters as well as ensures a future: “You grab at roots of the littlest future,” says the narrator in “Friends,” “sometimes just stubs of conversation” (83)—as a stronghold on life. It is these “stubs of conversation” with which Paley creates a community into which we too are drawn, since, as John Clayton contends in a very interesting essay, “Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen: Radical Jewish Humanists,” “it is our common life, our common pain, that concerns her. … In the stories of how many modern writers do we hear of collective experience?”9
This “collective experience” is achieved through the active telling voices of Paley’s characters. And this community can only occur and remain intact if the stories are told. Paley’s narrator in “Debts” tells us: “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling” (9). Such invention is a process of making knowledge, a process refined. In creating characters who tell their own stories and the stories of their friends, Paley is able to bring to her fiction a multiplicity of perspectives. This coming-together of diverse points of view enriches our reading experience and, perhaps even more to the point, provides us with a more complete worldview, suggesting to us—as it does to her characters—the possibilities for life. Paley as the implied author who invents characters, dramatic situations, and actions, remains behind the scenes, as it were, allowing her characters to speak for themselves. In this way, Paley is very much in the tradition of the late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century Eastern European Yiddish writers such as Sholom Aleichem, who made a place for Yiddish fiction, who formed a written tradition of Jewish storytelling in which we can locate such contemporary Jewish writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Tillie Olsen. Sholom Aleichem, the great Yiddish realist and humorist, creates in his short fiction the qualities of oral storytelling—an orality, preserved in written prose, that has continued to be a fundamental characteristic of Jewish literature.10
The orality in Paley’s fiction contributes to the fluidity of her prose and engages the reader in what often appears to be direct address with the character-narrators. In constructing characters who become narrators, the tellers of their own tales, Paley’s characters resemble the monologists in Sholom Aleichem’s early stories of ordinary shtetl Jews—Jews who relate their troubles, their complaints, to the writer Sholom Aleichem. In doing so, Sholom Aleichem’s monologists seek vindication. The monologist in the short vignette “Gitl Purishkevitch” is typical in beseeching the writer, Sholom Aleichem, to record the injustices of her life: “do I deserve having people laugh at me and poke fun at me, having everyone’s tongue wagging about me? … This town’s made up of wags, numbskull and loafers. … Write them up so that the whole world will know about them. Write it all down so that not a single one of them will escape being written up.”11 Like Sholom Aleichem’s narrator, Paley’s characters believe, more often than not, that making public their personal inequities will give them control over their lives; through the telling they, in fact, secure a future. How like Sholom Aleichem’s monologist is Paley’s character-narrator Zagrowsky, in “Zagrowsky Tells”:
since I already began to tell, I have to tell the whole story. I’m not a person who keeps things in. Tell! That opens up the congestion a little—the lungs are for breathing, not secrets. My wife never tells, she coughs, coughs. All night. Wakes up. Ai, Iz, open up the window, there’s no air. You poor woman, if you want to breathe, you got to tell.
So I said to this Faith, I’ll tell you how Cissy is but you got to hear the whole story how we suffered.12
I emphasize the connection between such seemingly unrelated writers because both Sholom Aleichem and Grace Paley are masters of the construction of dialogue in the short-story form.13 Both not only construct characters who, as I’ve said, are compelled with such urgency to tell their life-stories, but also write about them with a mixture of affection and irony. Their characters are ordinary people, not exemplary individuals noted for exceptional deeds. Or perhaps I should say, they are exemplary because they are ordinary—recognizable, identifiable people whose lives revolve around common occurrences. When asked to record the life of a stranger’s grandfather, “a famous innovator and dreamer of the Yiddish theatre,” Paley’s narrator in “Debts” declines, saying, “I owed nothing to the lady who’d called” (10). She opts to tell, rather, a story about the family of her friend Lucia. By no means, however, are we meant to believe that the quotidian is any less tragic than the extraordinary. The very stuff of ordinary dialogue is full of tragic possibilities, as “Listening” demonstrates. In this story, the narrator overhears a conversation in which two men dispassionately discuss the timing and relative merits of suicide. Paley’s characteristically understated tone underscores the pathos in the lives of her speakers. It is, indeed, in the ordinary that Paley’s narrators uncover a rich and complex heritage.
Again I refer to Robert Bellah’s description of a “community of memory,” a community constructed of the stories of ordinary people:
The stories that make up a tradition contain conceptions of character, of what a good person is like, and of the virtues that define such character. But the stories are not all exemplary, not all about successes and achievements. A genuine community of memory will also tell painful stories of shared suffering that sometimes creates deeper identities than success. … And if the community is completely honest, it will remember stories not only of suffering received but of suffering inflicted—dangerous memories, for they call the community to alter ancient evils. The communities of memory that tie us to the past also turn us toward the future as communities. They carry a context of meaning. … (153)
It is this context of meaning that allows for identification and community. John Clayton, in defining the underlying Judaism in Paley’s fiction, argues that Paley establishes a community based on a “radical Jewish humanism” (41), a communal sense of Judaism as a recognition of suffering, of the role of the oppressed, as a kind of “populist politics” (42) and, moreover, that the value in such a culture is preserved through her stories of ordinary people living out lives with which we can identify. While I agree with Clayton that Paley’s fiction is grounded in Judaism—that her fiction indeed reflects and affirms a Jewish heritage, the heritage of the immigrant, the outsider—I think that her stories speak even more powerfully to a universal human experience, an experience defined by seeming antitheses: public and private, traditional role expectations and feminism, suffering and hope, life and death. It is in the resolution of these tensions that Paley’s characters and narrators survive. And they survive through the telling, through the making of fictions, through the integration of their collective pasts, their communal experiences and beliefs.
Nowhere more poignantly do we find this relation between invention and reality than in the brilliantly constructed story “A Conversation with My Father.” The dramatic situation of this story is, on the surface, relatively simple. The narrator, a writer, is at the bedside of her father, who makes of her a request: “‘I would like you to write a simple story just once more,’ he says, ‘the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.’”14 The narrator agrees, despite the fact that it’s the kind of writing she has “always despised” (162), and the body of the narrative is governed by her invention and revision of a story constructed for her father. It is a story about a woman who joins her son and his friends in becoming junkies, only to find herself alone, abandoned by her son, who opts for health food and a clean life instead. It is a story, says the narrator, “that had been happening for a couple of years right across the street” (162). Fiction, reinforced by reality becomes the governing metaphor for the frame story as well. The two “stories” work together: the “outer” story, the narrator’s conversation with her father; and the “inner” story, the story she constructs to please him.
Her story, however, does not please him. He wants motive, character development, plot—“the absolute line between two points” (162). She can’t give this to him because, in her estimation, such a story “takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (162). What we come to discover, in the dramatic unfolding of the frame story, is that the narrator’s insistence upon what she describes as “the open destiny of life” is, beyond anything else, self-protective. After several drafts of her story, in which her protagonist’s life ends in despair, she constructs a hopeful story of a woman who has options. Yet the narrator’s father insists on a tragic ending to her story. In this moving dialogue between the narrator and her father, we come to appreciate the source of the story’s tension:
“Yes,” he said, “what a tragedy. The end of a person.”
“No, Pa,” I begged him. “It doesn’t have to be. She’s only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on. A teacher or a social worker. An ex-junkie! Sometimes it’s better than having a master’s in education.”
“Jokes,” he said. “As a writer that’s your main trouble. You don’t want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end.”
“Oh, Pa,” I said. “She could change.”
“In your own life, too, you have to look it in the face.” He took a couple of nitroglycerin. “Turn to five,” he said, pointing to the dial on the oxygen tank. (166–67)
The narrator has constructed a story—a tragicomic story about a woman with options, with hope for the future—as a protective shield against reality. The fabricated story about hope, the story with “the open destiny of life,” functions as a way of denying the reality of her father’s inevitable death. As the narrator revises her story about the heartbroken woman, she amends it in such a way that prevents closure. She believes that she has a responsibility not to let that woman die alone and miserable: “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying”; “She did change. Of course her son never came home again. But right now, she’s the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, ‘If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences …’” (167). And here the two stories merge in what becomes more and more a battle for authorial control, since the narrator’s father responds to her story’s conclusion by arguing, “No. … Truth first. She will slide back. A person must have character. She does not” (167).
Somewhat ironically and self-consciously, Paley’s character has just told the internal narrator-writer that her protagonist lacks character. “Character” becomes the key in making stories real, because it creates empathy and identification. This is the responsibility that Paley gives her narrators and that she assumes herself. For “A Conversation with My Father” ends in mid-dialogue, ends with a question posed to the narrator by her father: “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” (167). Of course, what he wants her to look at is the inevitability of his own death. Life, he implies, is indeed “the absolute line between two points” between living and dying. However, Paley’s storytelling defies such sharp delineation. In writing this story, Paley’s narrator does more than simply immortalize her father. He is not a static character any more than her narrator is, but rather, an active participant in an ongoing dialogue which gives him the last word.
Herein lies the “perfect marginality”15 of Grace Paley’s prose: “marginal” because the line between fiction and reality is precarious and because, for her characters, identity is a continual process; “perfect” because both self-identity and community are preserved in that precarious relation. Through the telling of stories, the ongoing dialogues among her characters, Paley creates a balance, which is, for her, a source of power. Dialogue provides her characters with possibilities for the future because it prevents resolution; it gives them the strength to insist on survival. Recording personal histories, creating and reinventing interaction and events, sustains her characters because it places them in the context of a wider human history. It makes such stories public, part of the heritage from which we all draw. The telling of stories becomes, in a very real sense, the saving of lives.
“Debts,” in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), p. 10. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
Grace Paley herself refers to the transmission of stories as a kind of moral obligation: “People ought to live in mutual aid and concern, listening to one another’s stories” (“A Symposium on Fiction,” Shenandoah, 28 [Winter 1976], 31).
For a discussion of the evolving role of this character-narrator, see Minako Baba, “Faith Darwin as Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley’s Short Stories,” Studies in American Jewish Literature, 7 (Spring 1988), 40–54.
“Listening,” in Later the Same Day (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 210. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 153. Subsequent reference is cited in the text.
“The Immigrant Story,” in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” p. 171. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
“Friends,” in Later the Same Day, p. 79. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
See Studies in American Jewish Literature, 3 (1983), 85–98.
“Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen: Radical Jewish Humanists,” Response, 46 (Spring 1984), 43. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
For a comprehensive account of the origins of Yiddish literature, see Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), and my Author As Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985).
Sholom Aleichem, “Gitl Purishkevitch,” in Old Country Tales, trans. Curt Leviant (New York: Paragon Books, 1966), p. 148.
“Zagrowsky Tells,” in Later the Same Day, p. 161.
I realize that the relation between Sholom Aleichem and Grace Paley, especially in terms of the function of Sholom Aleichem’s monologists, is much too complex to address within the scope of this paper. Sholom Aleichem’s monologists live in a very different world from that defined by Paley’s playgrounds and neighborhoods of New York. I hope, however, that my much-abbreviated comparison is useful in placing Paley within the larger tradition of Jewish writers.
“A Conversation with My Father,” in Enormous Changes, p. 161. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
I have liberally borrowed this phrase from Cynthia Ozick’s wonderful description of what it means to be “a third-generation American Jew (though the first to have been native-born) perfectly at home and yet perfectly insecure, perfectly acculturated and yet perfectly marginal” (“Toward a New Yiddish: Note,” in Art & Ardor: Essays by Cynthia Ozick [New York: Knopf, 1985], p. 152). For an analysis of the paradoxical position of contemporary Jewish-American women, see my “The Outsider Within: Women in Contemporary Jewish-American Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, 28 (Fall 1987), 378–393.
SOURCE: “This Narrow Language,” in Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1990, pp. 11-19.
[In the following essay, Taylor examines Paley's shrewd critique of male-dominated language which demeans and dismisses women. Taylor draws attention to deliberately awkward and ironic exchanges between male and female characters in Paley's fiction that illustrate the different uses and meanings of such language.]
Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language.
—“The Story Hearer,” Later the Same Day, 140
With the publication of Paley’s first collection of short stories, a boldly original voice emerged, telling stories about women unlike any we had heard before. But even though her early work challenges dominant meanings and offers woman-centered definitions, it does not provide the sort of explicit and conscious critique of male dominance in language that we find in her more recent work.
Of course, one can make changes in language without consciously identifying language as the site of a problem, and indeed Paley does so in her early work. But it is interesting that as Paley has matured, and as feminists have developed increasingly powerful critiques of the dominant language, Paley’s stories have come to incorporate ever more explicit references to women’s particularly problematic relationship with language. In arguing that Paley reveals a conscious awareness that women have been muted and offers specific challenges to examples of male dominance in language, this chapter will draw heavily on evidence in Later the Same Day, her most recent volume of short stories. But first I want to show that such language awareness, although much less consciously developed, is prefigured in her first two volumes.
When Paley began writing stories in the 1950s, the generic use of man and he went unchallenged, and no one voiced concern over the precedence of the male term in such phrases as “husband and wife” or “male and female.” The title of Paley’s first volume contains an interesting combination of accepting and challenging these evidences of male dominance which would provoke so much discussion twenty years later. The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love is a title whose generic use of man sounds like a misnomer to contemporary ears. But the same title challenges dominant language in a subtitle that gives unconventional precedence to the female term. In fact, Paley’s use of “women and men” was so unconventional that in the second edition of her book, a typesetter “inadvertently” transposed the words, a mistake Paley herself failed to catch.1 The book continued to be printed with the transposed title until it was reissued in the eighties. The typesetter’s mistake provides a dramatic illustration of the power of dominant meanings to reassert themselves.
The Little Disturbances of Man also contains the first evidence of Paley’s belief that women and men do not always speak the same language. In “A Subject of Childhood,” Faith’s boyfriend Clifford accuses her of having done a “rotten job” as a mother and of raising her kids “lousy” and “stinking.” These remarks so infuriate Faith that she hurls an ashtray at him. She takes this action because Clifford has used the wrong language: “‘You don’t say things like that to a woman,’ I whispered. ‘You damn stupid jackass. You just don’t say anything like that to a woman. Wash yourself, moron, you’re bleeding to death’” (140). “A Subject of Childhood” is one of two stories about Faith in this volume linked by the title “Two Short Sad Stories in a Long and Happy Life.” Besides the characters of Faith and her two sons Richard and Anthony, these stories share a growing consciousness that women and men occupy different worlds (more on this in chapter 4). Faith’s explanation to Clifford rests on the propositions that women have particular and distinctive language requirements and that men often fail to understand this.
The idea that sometimes women and men simply do not speak the same language surfaces again in Paley’s second volume of stories:
Cool it! he said. Come back. I was just starting to fuck you and you get so freaked.
And another thing. Don’t use that word. I hate it. When you’re with a woman you have to use the language that’s right for her.
(“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 128)
Paley’s character is not the first to note that fuck is a word that describes sexual activity from a male perspective. As Germaine Greer noted in 1971, “All the vulgar linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element, fucking, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female.”2
Enormous Changes contains another instance of an explicit critique of male language. In “The Immigrant Story,” Jack’s use of dominant language seems to the female character so dangerous that she refuses to answer him. Jack and a woman friend (probably Faith) argue about why Jack as a young boy found his father sleeping in the crib. Jack shouts, “Bullshit! She was trying to make him feel guilty. Where were his balls?” The narrator-character explains to the reader: “I will never respond to that question. Asked in a worried way again and again, it may become responsible for the destruction of the entire world. I gave it two minutes of silence” (172). Never in the discussions of male dominance in language have we seen a clearer dissection of the word balls as a name for macho courage. This narrator knows she has encountered a word so dangerous that silence is the only effective response. A nuclear holocaust could be precipitated by just this mix of insecurity and machismo.
One other technique Paley has developed for critiquing male language appears in Enormous Changes. At times, she explicates the problems with dominant language by contrasting the dominant label with a woman’s definition. A narrator who reflects the consciousness of Faith tells us about Faith’s ex-husband, Ricardo:
He was really, he said, a man’s man. Like any true man’s man, he ran after women too. …
He called them pet names, which generally referred to certain flaws in their appearance. He called Faith Baldy, although she is not and never will be bald. She is finehaired and fair, and regards it as part of the lightness of her general construction that when she gathers her hair into an ordinary topknot, the stuff escapes around the contour of her face, making her wisp-haired and easy to blush. He is now living with a shapely girl with white round arms he calls Fatty.
(“Faith in the Afternoon,” 34)
The contrast between Ricardo’s and Faith’s meanings in this scene is stark indeed. According to dominant meanings, a man’s man is one whose masculinity is unassailable. He is unambiguously one of the boys. Faith’s commentary on Ricardo’s dominant definitions directs our attention to the objectifying and demeaning implications of his names for women. Ricardo’s requisite pursuit of women depends on a view of women as interchangeable objects of male desire. Similarly, Ricardo’s “pet names” are not endearments at all but call attention to the women’s failure to conform to a narrowly defined and objectifying standard of female beauty.
Paley’s critiques of and negotiations with dominant meanings depend on her belief that the meaning of a word is not absolutely fixed but rather is negotiated through use, a belief that surfaces in the title story of her second volume. In “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” songwriter Dennis defends his use of a word (ecology) that Alexandra believes is too technical for a song: “Any word is good, it’s the big word today anyway, said Dennis. It’s what you do with the word. The language and the idea, they work it out together” (129). Dennis’s comment recognizes that language and the ideas language represents are not identical but exist instead in a relationship of tension. Furthermore, meaning is evolutionary, negotiated through use.
Although language that is fixed and that represents perfectly the ideas to which it refers might simplify the world, it is not available to the narrator of another story in this collection, “Faith in a Tree”: “Despite no education, Mrs. Finn always is more in charge of word meanings than I am. She is especially in charge of Good and Bad. My language limitations here are real. My vocabulary is adequate for writing notes and keeping journals but absolutely useless for an active moral life. If I really knew the language there would surely be in my head, as there is in Webster’s or the Dictionary of American Slang, that unreducible verb designed to tell a person like me what to do next” (85). Although Faith claims that the language limitations are her own, the reader recognizes her ironic acknowledgment that Mrs. Finn, with her belief in absolutely fixed word meanings, has the more serious limitations. Faith shares with Paley a postmodern belief in the negotiation of meaning and the potential within language for the kind of wordplay that expands or revises definitions (we will examine the negotiation of meaning through wordplay more fully in the next chapter).
These first two collections of stories were published in 1959 and 1974. Thus, Paley wrote most of these stories well before the comprehensive critique of male dominance in language that feminists have recently articulated (in fact, many of these stories preceded the critique of male dominance at all—the word sexism was not coined until the late sixties).3 Given the times in which she was writing, it is not surprising that these stories reveal relatively few examples of conscious critiques of language. As awareness of the male dominance revealed and perpetuated in language increased during the seventies, so too did Paley’s explication of the problem in her stories. Her latest volume, Later the Same Day, provides ample evidence that Paley believes language is male dominated and language change worth the struggle.
The women in Paley’s most recent stories recognize that many of the words used in the dominant language to name women function to demean or denigrate us. When the middle-aged Selena addresses her friends, she reveals a developing consciousness of this: “Well girls—excuse me, I mean ladies—it’s time for me to rest” (“Friends,” 76). Selena participates in the conscious language change which results from the recognition that naming grown women “girls” belittles them, but her substitution of “ladies” still smacks of patriarchal control. In “The Story Hearer,” Paley’s recurrent character Faith goes farther than Selena, objecting to a similar title and explaining exactly what is wrong with such names for women:
At this point the butcher said, what’ll you have, young lady?
I refused to tell him.
Jack, to whom, if you remember, I was telling this daylong story, muttered, Oh God, no! You didn’t do that again.
I did, I said. It’s an insult. You do not say to a woman of my age who looks my age, what’ll you have, young lady? I did not answer him. If you say that to someone like me, it really means, What do you want you pathetic old hag?
Are you getting like that now too? he asked.
Look, Jack, I said, face facts. Let’s say the butcher meant no harm. Eddie, he’s not so bad. He spends two hours commuting to New York from Jersey. Then he spends two hours going back. I’m sorry for his long journey. But I still mean it. He mustn’t say it any more.
Eddie, I said, don’t talk like that or I won’t tell you what I want. (136)
Faith wins her point after a fashion. The butcher does not call her “young lady.” His response, however, reveals his inability or unwillingness to find any real alternative to denigrating names for women: “whatever you say, Honey, but what’ll you have?” Language change is both important enough to struggle for and exceedingly difficult to implement.
Faith’s success with the butcher is mixed, at best. But her protest and her lengthy and lucid explanation of the problem to Jack make it abundantly clear that she knows exactly what is wrong with naming a woman of her age “young lady.” Jack’s strategy for silencing such protest is to place Faith in a group with other women who are “like that”—i.e., crazy, difficult, strident, unreasonable. Women who make explicit the language bias against women learn that the price of such protest is classification as members of an undesirable group. Jack’s remark is an example of the kinds of pressures exerted against women who attempt to break down mutedness, but it does nothing to dissuade Faith from voicing her critique.
To correct inaccurate names reveals an underlying belief that such names matter. In the same story, Faith corrects an old friend:
You don’t understand Artaud, he said. I believe that the theatre is the handmaiden of the revolution.
The valet, you mean.
He deferred to my correction by nodding his head. He accepts criticism gracefully, since he can always meet it with a smiling bumper of iron opinion. (136)
Faith objects here to a metaphor that places the female in the subservient position. Her friend could convey his idea as easily with a metaphor of male subordination. She believes it is important to make these corrections, even though the old friend’s “smiling bumper of iron opinion” shows that real change is as unlikely here as in the exchange with the butcher.
Some words are used to apply to only one sex, even when the same behavior can be observed in persons of either sex: “Jack … unbuttoned his shirt. My face is very fond of the gray-brown hairs of his chest. … He began to get a very rosy look about him, which is a nice thing to happen to a man’s face. It’s not called blushing. Blushing is an expression of shyness and female excitement at the same time. In men it’s observed as an energetic act the blood takes on its determined own” (“Listening,” 205–206). Although Jack is, in fact, blushing, dominant meanings dictate that men do not blush, so the narrator offers this tongue-in-cheek explanation of the difference. The technique she uses in this passage is a favorite of Paley’s. By explaining in simple and patient terms the implicit notions on which dominant usage rests, she exposes the absurdity of dominant categories. Her (only apparently) guileless statement of the enthymeme immediately exposes its illogic to the reader.
In “The Story Hearer,” Faith experiences the difficulty of trying to get women’s meanings into the record. The butcher announces:
… when I was a boy, a kid—what we called City College—you know it was C.C.N.Y. then, well, we called it Circumcised Citizens of New York.
Really, said Jim. He looked at me. Did I object? Was I offended?
The fact of male circumcision doesn’t insult me, I said. However, I understand that the clipping of clitorises of young girls continues in Morocco to this day.
Jim has a shy side. He took his pork butt and said goodbye. (137)
The butcher’s joke is, of course, based on an assumption that all City College students are Jewish males. Thus the comment is at once anti-Semitic and sexist. The anti-Semitism is the basis of the joke, while the sexism results from ignoring the presence of women. The muted condition of women is maintained through just such an assumption of males as the normative humans. Faith attempts to shift the conversation to a consideration of women’s experience (and thus highlight the male-dominant perspective on which the joke is based) by making a transition from circumcision to clitoridectomy. But her effort is met with awkward silence. The men are embarrassed not by their own omission of women, but because Faith has violated a cultural rule that denies the very existence of clitoridectomy (and even of clitorises, for that matter).
Women who try to tell the truth about women’s lives find that the dominant culture can employ a whole range of strategies to silence them or divert them from their point:
Ruth was still certain that the bad politics and free life of Jiang Qing would be used for at least a generation to punish ALL Chinese women.
But isn’t that true everywhere, said Faith. If you say a simple thing like, “There are only eight women in congress,” or if you say the word “patriarchy,” someone always says, Yeah? look at Margaret Thatcher, or look at Golda Meir.
(“The Expensive Moment,” 189)
Faith identifies a familiar patriarchal strategy: justifying the continuation of male dominance by pointing to the failure of token women to provide an alternative. Meanwhile, the colossal failures of patriarchy—war, ecological destruction, world hunger—go unmentioned.
Faith realizes that dominant beliefs about the lives of women make it so difficult for woman-centered stories to get a hearing that sometimes it is better not to try to tell them. In “Listening,” Jack, Faith’s companion, asks her to tell him stories about women:
… all those stories are about men, he said. You know I’m more interested in women. Why don’t you tell me stories told by women about women?
Those are too private.
Why don’t you tell them to me? he asked sadly. Well, Jack, you have your own woman stories. You know, your falling-in-love stories, your French-woman-during-the-Korean-War stories, your magnificent-woman stories, your beautiful-new-young-wife stories, your political-comrade-though-extremely-beautiful stories …
Silence—the space that follows unkindness in which little truths growl. (203)
Faith refuses to tell Jack the “stories told by women about women” because “those are too private.” She implies that the stories told by women about women can only be told to women. As Faith lists Jack’s “woman stories,” she reminds us of the narrow and distorting formulae within which women appear in dominant narratives. The women in Jack’s stories are seen through a romantic and objectifying lens that is so powerful that it would profane and distort his hearing of the woman-centered stories Faith could tell.
In “Ruthy and Edie,” Faith offers further evidence that stories structure meaning and that the stories of a dominant tradition often fail to account for the experiences of female readers. Two small girls talk “about the real world of boys” (115). Ruthy maintains that one of the advantages of being a boy is that “you could be a soldier.” We learn that “Ruthy was a big reader and most interesting reading was about bravery—for instance Roland’s Horn at Roncevaux. Her father had been brave and there was often a lot of discussion about this at suppertime. In fact, he sometimes modestly said, Yes, I suppose I was brave in those days. And so was your mother, he added. Then Ruthy’s mother put his boiled egg in front of him where he could see it” (116). This passage is revealing both because it shows how Ruthy has identified with the male protagonists in her childhood reading, concluding that theirs are the interesting lives (an experience all too common for young female readers), and because it offers an ironic contrast between the family belief in the father’s past bravery and the reality of his present life in which his wife waits on him as if he were helpless.
In “Zagrowsky Tells,” Paley herself provides a good explanation for the prevalence of explicit critiques in language in her recent stories. We learn from the narrator Zagrowsky that he is another in the apparently long list of men whose language Faith has corrected: “She got more to say. She also doesn’t like how I talk to women. She says I called Mrs. Z. a grizzly bear a few times. It’s my wife, no? That I was winking and blinking at the girls, a few pinches. A lie … maybe I patted, but I never pinched. Besides, I know for a fact a couple of them loved it. She says, No. None of them liked it. Not one. They only put up with it because it wasn’t time yet in history to holler” (165). As women have become conscious of our position as an oppressed group, it has become “time … in history to holler”; thus, the women in Paley’s most recent fiction register complaints when the language is used against them.
These passages clearly demonstrate Paley’s consciousness of the language problems women face when trying to articulate our experience through dominant modes. In a statement from “The Story Hearer” that served as the epigraph for this chapter, Faith provides a good summary of the extent of the problem and the urgency of the situation: “In fact, I am stuck here among my own ripples and tides. Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language, though the subject, which is how to save the world—and quickly—is immense” (140).
Lidoff, “Clearing Her Throat,” 23.
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 41, cited in Spender, Man Made Language, 177.
Although the current wave of feminism did not provide the first critique of male dominance, the fact remains that in the fifties and sixties earlier critiques had been thoroughly suppressed and the contemporary women’s movement did not yet exist.
SOURCE: “What Is There to Laugh?,” in Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1990, pp. 46-67.
[In the following essay, Taylor discusses cultural stereotypes about women and humor, and examines the use of comic wit in Paley's fiction. Taylor contends that Paley's subversive humor—earthy, optimistic, and distinctly Jewish—serves to expose the absurdity of patriarchal society and to foster a sense of survivalism among marginalized women.]
Naturally it was a joke, only what is there to laugh?
—“Zagrowsky Tells,” Later the Same Day; hereafter cited as LD, 160.
Publicly funny women are rare in our culture. This is not particularly surprising given the widespread cultural beliefs that women lack a sense of humor and that public displays of wit by women in mixed groups are somehow inappropriate. Although changes have begun to occur here as elsewhere, female comedians and female-authored comic strips, for instance, are still relatively unusual.1
While women have not created public expressions of humor as frequently as men, we have often been the butt of dominant humor, and the portrait of women that has emerged serves male dominance. As Gloria Kaufman notes in the introduction to an anthology of feminist humor:
By A.D. 101, in Juvenal’s “Sixth Satire,” the female stereotype is firmly defined as nasty, lying, vicious, pretentious, emasculating, garrulous, aggressive, vulgar, nymphomaniacal, gluttonous, dishonest, shameless, greedy, selfish, quarrelsome, impertinent, and disgusting. Notably absent in Juvenal is the idea of woman as stupid and ineffectual. Instead, she is offensively intelligent—the legitimate castrating bitch. When we add stupidity and ineffectuality to the Juvenalian list, we have a fairly complete picture of the stereotypical woman targeted by male humorists.2
Women are not likely to generate as much public humor as males, as long as such derogatory depictions of women form a staple of jokes and comic routines. As feminist comedian Kate Clinton explains, “Men have used humor against women for so long—we know implicitly whose butt is the butt of their jokes—that we do not trust humor.”3
Yet feminists have begun to chart the existence of an alternative female tradition of humor, one that relies less on jokes and set pieces and more on anecdotal and situational humor.4 More likely to find expression in private than in public settings, this tradition emphasizes connection, compassion, self-disclosure, and reciprocal sharing of perspectives (in contrast to the more hostile put-down tradition of male humor).5 Mercilee Jenkins links the difference in male and female traditions of humor to differences in conversational style: “Women and men in same-sex groups experience a different kind of ‘likeness’ due to their status in society and their roles and relationships. Men in their groups seem to be saying, ‘I’m great. I’m great, too. Gee we’re a great bunch of guys.’ In contrast, women seem to be saying, ‘Did this ever happen to you? Yeah. Oh, good, I’m not crazy …’”6 The recognition that the craziness might be in the system rather than in the perspective of an individual woman is the beginning of a radicalizing use of humor. Clinton describes humor with the potential to deconstruct male dominance and subvert the status quo: “Feminist humor is serious, and it is about the changing of this world. It is about making light in this land of reversals, where we are told as we are laughing, tears streaming down our faces, that we have no sense of humor.”7
Grace Paley is an unabashedly funny woman. Critics have commented consistently on the humor inherent in her innovative use of language (“startling, comic-bizarre language”)8 and her irrepressible urge to “make light” (“a kind of running thread of humor underlying nearly every passage”).9 To be a funny woman in a public forum is already to be a breed apart, but Paley goes farther: she is a funny woman whose humor does not come at the expense of women:
JT: I want to talk about your humor. It’s not unusual, even in literature by women, to find that women are the butt of the joke. Society might be seen as wrong to place such impossible demands on women, but women are more wrong for their inability to cope with those demands. Maybe they go crazy or they can’t function as superwomen, so they somehow fail. But in your work, the women are fine; the world is crazy.
GP: Well, it’s true, isn’t it?10 (Laughter.)
Such a distinction marks the difference between female humor and feminist humor. Feminist humor is transformative, locating absurdity in the perpetuation of male dominance.11 By inviting women to laugh together at the absurdity of a system that misnames us and our world, Paley employs humor to disrupt the status quo. “Laughter is the most subversive agent in literature,” notes Alicia Ostriker.12 This chapter analyzes humor as a key element in Paley’s transformation of language and illumination of women’s lives.
Humor plays a critical role in Paley’s fiction. Not only does Paley make hilariously inventive use of language, but her characters tell jokes and crack frequent one-liners. They take their jokes seriously enough to not only tell them but talk about them. Sometimes their humor falls flat, and they have to explain that “I was only joking” (“Dreamer in a Dead Language,” LD, 36). At other times they direct our attention to their ability to joke despite misfortune: “You see, I can crack a little joke because look at this pleasure” (“Zagrowsky Tells,” LD, 169). Jokes are understood to arise from a particular world view and have political implications, as Faith’s critique of the political shortcomings of the grocer’s C.C.N.Y. joke (see chapter 2) makes clear.13
In “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father criticizes her inability to write a story without jokes.14 He sees this as a major weakness. “With you it’s all a joke,” he comments, and then later, “Jokes … As a writer that’s your main trouble. You don’t want to recognize it” (Enormous Changes at the Last Minute; hereafter cited as EC, 163, 166–67). Finally he says sadly, “Jokes. Jokes again” (167). Like the writer in this story, Paley cannot write stories without also writing a series of wisecracks, one-liners, and jokes. But whereas the father in “A Conversation” sees the author’s joking as an indication of her unwillingness to take her writing and her characters seriously, this study sees Paley’s joking as central to her absolutely serious challenge to dominant meanings.
Wordplay is central to Paley’s humor. Paley has commented on the importance of wordplay in her work: “There’s a lot of wordplay. Partly because there’s a lot of play; there has to be play in everybody’s work. There’s a lot of play and variety or else it’s wrong. Writing that does not have play in it is often half-dead.”15 The two preceding chapters offer numerous hilarious examples of Paley’s considered and innovative approach to language.16 Her wordplay often occurs in the space between dominant and woman-centered realities. Many of the revised definitions offered in the preceding chapter are funny because they play with the discrepancy between dominant definitions and the experience of women. For instance, naming the other mothers in the playground “co-workers,” “craftsmen,” and “colleagues” amuses us because the dominant meanings for these words exclude mothers, who, in fact, have never been seen by the dominant culture as doing “real” work. Yet such terms become suddenly apt if we assume a perspective that values the work of women and appreciates the collegiality mothers share with each other. The humor results because such definitions invite us to appreciate our double vision as insiders and outsiders, a part of the dominant culture and yet excluded from it. And the laughter is subversive because we cannot appreciate this juxtaposition without perceiving the absurdity of the dominant meanings and without ceasing to take such false definitions seriously. Any of the areas of redefinition identified in the preceding chapter could also be analyzed as a source and location of humor in Paley’s work. Rather than reiterate these insights, however, this chapter seeks the sources of Paley’s humor.
One of the most basic characteristics of Paley’s humor is her irreverence. She refuses to take seriously any of the sacred cows of male dominance, choosing a stance that Adrienne Rich has named “disloyalty to civilization.”17 Her humor is survivalist humor—that is, humor created in order to survive oppression. Such humor is generated by an oppressed group to call attention to the absurdities and tunnel vision of a dominant perspective that assumes its own universality. Survivalist humor takes place on the margins of the culture in the space between dominant and muted meanings.
Two of the sources of Paley’s comic impulse are earthiness and optimism, qualities she shares with other contemporary women writers. Her humor is simultaneously down-to-earth and hopeful.
A third important source of the humor Paley employs to articulate women’s experiences is Jewish humor, a major survivalist tradition. As a member of two muted groups, Paley has derived some powerful comic devices from her Jewish heritage and employed them in the service of illuminating women’s reality.
Women as defined in the pages of dominant fiction are alternatively mysterious, ethereal, other-worldly creatures or depraved, shameful vessels of corruption. The virgin-whore dichotomy in dominant images of women is too well established to require reiterating here. In Paley’s fiction, irreverent humor becomes one of the primary means for challenging such depictions of women. Writing about contemporary women’s poetry, Ostriker notes that “among other sorts of ‘fracture of order’ designed to combat the oppressor’s language, earthiness, bawdry, and comedy abound.”18 “Earthy” is an excellent word to apply to Paley’s humor, for her humor is “down-to-earth and practical,” “of this world,” and “hearty and unashamed.”19 In a world that has posited women’s bodies and physical natures as a site of shame, this is no mean feat.
The women in Paley’s fiction are frankly and heartily sexual beings. Faith becomes pregnant “in happy overindulgence” and learns to love the properties in herself that “extracted such heart-warming activity” from her husband (“Faith in the Afternoon,” EC, 35). The night is a time for “sleep, sex, and affection” to “take their happy turns” (“Dreamer in a Dead Language,” LD, 15). Mrs. Raftery notes that she “liked the attentions as a man he daily give me as a woman” (“Distance,” EC, 19). These women express their pleasure. Lovemaking is a “noisy disturbance” (“Enormous Changes,” EC, 124) and the occasion of “incessant happy noises” (“A Woman, Young and Old,” The Little Disturbances of Man; hereafter cited as DM, 40). Such phrases probably will not cause the reader to laugh out loud, but their gentle redefinition of women as enthusiastically sexual beings provides a strong undercurrent of comic irreverence.
In Paley’s work, women at any age are likely to find themselves thinking and fantasizing about sex. In “A Woman, Young and Old,” two sisters talk about their desire for a man, a desire articulated in sexual terms: “Aunty Liz is seventeen and my mother talks to her as though she were totally grown up. Only the other day she told her she was just dying for a man, a real one, and was sick of raising two girls in a world just bristling with goddamn phallic symbols. Lizzy said yes, she knew how it was, time frittered by, and what you needed was a strong kind hand at the hem of your skirt” (DM, 25). In the park with her children, Faith (in contrast to the mothers in the dominant tradition, who, of course, lose all sexual feelings on learning they have conceived) has a strong sexual response as she watches Phillip flirt with her friend Anna:
“Say!” said Phillip, getting absolutely red with excitement, blushing from his earlobes down into his shirt, making me think as I watched the blood descend from his brains that I would like to be the one who was holding his balls very gently, to be exactly present so to speak when all the thumping got there.
Since it was clearly Anna, not I, who would be in that affectionate position, I thought I’d better climb the tree again just for the oxygen or I’d surely suffer the same sudden descent of blood.
(“Faith in a Tree,” EC, 97)
Not only young women, but also women “later-in-life, which has so much history and erotic knowledge but doesn’t always use it” (“Listening,” LD, 206), experience desire. In “Listening,” Faith’s sons are grown and busy with their own lives and her companion Jack has abandoned her in pursuit of “one last love affair,” but none of this has put her beyond the reach of sexual feeling:
A man in the absolute prime of life crossed the street. For reasons of accumulating loneliness I was stirred by his walk, his barest look at a couple of flirty teenage girls; his nice unimportant clothes seemed to be merely a shelter for the naked male person.
I thought, Oh, man, in the very center of your life, still fitting your skin so nicely, with your arms probably in a soft cotton shirt and the shirt in an old tweed jacket and your cock lying along your thigh in either your right or left pants leg, it’s hard to tell which, why have you slipped out of my sentimental and carnal grasp? (209)
If this passage surprises the reader, it does so because the intersection of ageism and sexism in language has left us without such frank depictions of late-middle-age female sexual desire. Although the pages of fiction are replete with descriptions of male longing and male fantasies about women, these scenes from Paley offer a glimpse of previously muted experience. The humor, as with so much of Paley’s work, derives from our encounter with a description of experience that the dominant discourse has defined out of existence and that we nevertheless recognize as an apt portrayal of actual lived experience.
The women in Paley’s stories make no pretense of sexual innocence. Instead, they seem to enjoy shocking their listeners with their down-to-earth acknowledgment of sexual reality. When Virginia’s friend John announces “Children come from God,” Virginia retorts: “You’re still great on holy subjects aren’t you? You know damn well where children come from.” She then informs us that, “He did know. His red face reddened further” (“An Interest in Life,” DM, 88). Mrs. Raftery takes particular delight in earthy reports and advice:
Ginny’s husband ran off with a Puerto Rican girl who shaved between the legs. This is common knowledge and well known or I’d never say it. When Ginny heard that he was going around with this girl, she did it too, hoping to entice him back, but he got nauseated by her and that tipped the scales.
Men fall for terrible weirdos in a dumb way more and more as they get older; my old man, fond of me as he constantly was, often did. I never give it the courtesy of my attention. My advice to mothers and wives: Do not imitate the dimwit’s girl friends. You will be damnfool-looking, what with your age and all. Have you heard the saying “Old dough won’t rise in a new oven”?
(“Distance,” EC, 17)
The earthy irreverence of these women often serves as an antidote to a false romanticism: “So we slept, his arms around me as sweetly as after the long day he had probably slept beside his former wife (and I as well beside my etc. etc. etc.)” (“The Story Hearer,” LD, 142). At other times humor counters false dominant meanings regarding women’s sexual motivation. In a culture that offers “prostitute” as one of the essential definitions for women,20 Faith responds with heavy sarcasm to her father’s assumption that she is sleeping with three different men for the money: “Oh sure, they pay me all right. How’d you guess? They pay me with a couple of hours of their valuable time. They tell me their troubles and why they’re divorced and separated and they let me make dinner once in a while. They play ball with the boys in Central Park on Sundays. Oh sure, Pa, I’m paid up to here” (“Dreamer in a Dead Language,” LD, 31–32). In another instance, a Paley character offers a cheerful reversal of the dominant definition of “moral turpitude.” Josephine, describing her mother’s enthusiastic response to a new boyfriend, announces, “Her moral turpitude took such a lively turn that she gave us money for a Wassermann” (“A Woman, Young and Old,” DM, 39). In this cheerful celebration of sexuality, moral turpitude is transformed from “inherent baseness” and “depravity” into the source of generosity and the explanation for the mother’s acceptance of Josephine’s marriage plans.
Grounded in ordinary daily life, these women derive humor from a practical view of events, an earthiness that extends beyond the sexual. When Virginia’s husband announces his plan to abandon his family and join the army, Virginia reports, “I asked him if he could wait and join the Army in a half hour, as I had to get groceries” (“An Interest in Life,” DM, 81). With four children to care for, Virginia has no choice but to be grounded in the practical. This response to her husband’s imminent departure has the effect of taking his desertion less seriously than her need for childcare while she gets groceries. In “The Immigrant Story,” Faith demonstrates a similar insistence on the practical. Jack tells Faith that as a boy he found his father sleeping in the crib because his mother “didn’t want him to fuck her.” Faith replies, “I don’t believe it. … Unless she’s had five babies all in a row or they have to get up at 6 a.m. or they both hate each other, most people like their husbands to do that.” When Jack insists that she was trying to make his father feel guilty, Faith notes that “anyone whose head hasn’t been fermenting with the compost of ten years of gluttonous analysis” could come up with a more reasonable (practical) explanation. “The reason your father was sleeping in the crib was that you and your sister who usually slept in the crib had scarlet fever and needed the decent beds and more room to sweat, come to a fever crisis, and either get well or die” (“The Immigrant Story,” EC, 172–173). To Faith, “gluttonous analysis” is the source of complex psychological explanations which obscure the simply practical realities of daily life.
This practical earthiness excludes a falsely romantic depiction of women’s physical life. When Rosie asks her lover Vlashkin how a Jewish boy grew up so big, he replies, “My mama nursed me till I was six. I was the only boy in the village to have such health.” Rosie’s shocked response directs our attention away from his romantic view of breast-feeding to an earthy appreciation of the mother’s experience: “My goodness, Vlashkin, six years old? She must have had shredded wheat there, not breasts, poor woman.” Vlashkin’s reply reveals his difficulty with this earthy resistance to romanticism: “‘My mother was beautiful,’ he said, ‘she had eyes like stars’” (“Goodbye and Good Luck,” DM, 10). Faith insists similarly on the realities of female physical life in “Living,” when she provides a comic yet realistic account of a time when she thought she “was going to bleed forever”:
I could hardly take my mind off this blood. Its hurry to leave me was draining the red out from under my eyelids and the sunburn off my cheeks. It was all rising from my cold toes to find the quickest way out. …
I felt a great gob making its dizzy exit.
“Can’t talk,” I said. “I think I’m fainting.”
Around the holly season, I began to dry up. My sister took the kids for a while so I could stay home quietly making hemoglobin, red corpuscles, etc., with no interruption. I was in such first-class shape by New Year’s I nearly got knocked up again.
This description of menstrual flooding (or possibly hemorrhaging) is funny because of its flip tone (“a great gob”) and also because we are surprised to find such a description in the pages of literature. After all, anything associated with menstrual bleeding is not even supposed to be mentioned in mixed company, much less in the public forum of a literary work (unless of course, it results in the death of the heroine).
Paley’s earthiness is not an extraordinary feature of women’s humor, it is simply a muted feature. In all-female groups in private settings, women have a lively ribald tradition. Nancy Walker, in A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture, cites a number of studies that attest to the vitality of earthy humor among all-female groups gathered around the kitchen table, particularly when such groups include postmenopausal women who are freed by virtue of their age from intense social pressure to behave like “ladies.”21
In Paley’s fiction, such female bawdry goes public, with literary characters who refuse to keep quiet about their sexual, physical, and resolutely earthbound selves, thereby functioning as a primary source of subversive humor. In all of these examples, the earthy practicality of Paley’s women challenges the falsely romanticized, sanitized, desexualized, or eroticized dominant views of women. The juxtaposition of dominant misrepresentations and actual lived experience produces the laughs, laughs accompanied by a sigh of relief as women readers recognize, “Oh, good, I’m not crazy.”
Yet another source of Paley’s humor is the irrepressible optimism of these works. Ostriker writes about the appearance of such a tone in contemporary women’s poetry: “From time to time there surfaces a tone difficult to describe in our ordinary critical discourse: a species of irony, it seems, but vulgar and cheerful in contrast to the resigned and cruel ironies modernism teaches us to scent out as a primary signal of the cultivated author. This peculiar tone may be one of the chief contributions women are making to our literary and personal repertoires.”22 Ostriker describes this tone as one of “giddy glee” and observes that “it is as if instead of the universe revealing itself as irrationally cruel and meaningless, it revealed itself as irrationally (for we are supposed to know better) benign.”23
Such optimism permeates Paley’s fiction and functions as a recurrent comic impulse. One result of this optimism is Paley’s resistance to narrative resolution, expressed in the statement that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (this resistance to narrative closure is discussed more fully in the next chapter). Paley’s stories portray a chronic hopefulness that, despite all manner of human suffering, things may, in the end, turn out happily after all. Such optimism exists not by ignoring “wars, deception, broken homes, all the irremediableness of modern life” (“A Woman, Young and Old,” DM, 25), but by the “interest in life” that continues in spite of and through such calamities: “In the middle of my third beer, searching in my mind for the next step, I found the decision to go on ‘Strike It Rich.’ I scrounged some paper and pencil from the toy box and I listed all my troubles, which must be done in order to qualify. The list when complete could have brought tears to the eye of God if He had a minute. At the sight of it my bitterness began to improve. All that is really necessary for survival of the fittest, it seems, is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar” (“An Interest in Life,” DM, 98). In this passage, Virginia is cheered not by self-delusion—she sees the difficulties of her situation quite clearly—but by a recognition that even the bad and peculiar are signs of life.
Like Paley’s character Lavinia, many of the people in these stories seem, despite personal difficulties, to have been “born in good cheer” (“Lavinia,” LD, 64). A group of women friends is “all, even Edie, ideologically, spiritually, and on puritanical principle against despair” (“Ruthy and Edie,” LD, 122). Their optimism derives from a profound belief in the possibility for change: “Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute” (“Enormous Changes,” EC, 126). A hard-nosed awareness that our planet is indeed “at the last minute” is nevertheless bearable because, as long as there is a future, there is still the potential for change. Such a perspective eschews the deliberate despair of modernism: “Luckily, I learned recently how to get out of that deep well of melancholy. Anyone can do it. You grab at the roots of the littlest future, sometimes just stubs of conversation. Though some believe you miss a great deal of depth by not sinking down down down” (“Friends,” LD, 83). Here Paley not only elucidates her own optimistic perspective but mocks the studied melancholy of modernism.
This insistence on seeing plainly the grimmest aspects of modern life while grabbing at “the roots of the littlest future” results in some wildly comic juxtapositions. In “The Long-Distance Runner,” Faith comments on New York: “I wanted to stop and admire the long beach. I wanted to stop in order to think admiringly about New York. There aren’t many rotting cities so tan and sandy and speckled with citizens at their salty edges” (EC, 181). Faith’s ability to admire her decaying urban landscape recurs in “The Story Hearer”: “The Times was folded on the doormat of 1-A. I could see it was black with earthquake, war, and private murder. Clearly death had been successful everywhere but not—I saw when I stepped out the front door—on our own block. Here it was springtime, partly because of the time of the year and partly because we have a self-involved block-centered street association which has lined us with sycamore and enhanced us with mountain ash, two ginkgoes, and here and there, (because we are part of the whole) ailanthus, city saver” (LD, 134).
Paley’s ability to express such optimism and faith in humanity without ever veering into sentimentality is largely achieved through her wry, knowing, comic voice. Marianne DeKoven illustrates her discussion of this use of the comic to displace potential sentimentality with a Paley description of Mrs. Hegel-Shtein:
“On deep tracks, the tears rolled down her old cheeks. But she had smiled so peculiarly for seventy-seven years that they suddenly swerved wildly toward her ears and hung like glass from each lobe.” The image of Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s tears swerving along deep tracks, formed by seventy-seven years of peculiar smiling, to hang from her ear lobes like crystals, is so striking that it appropriates most of our attention as we read, preventing us from noticing the pathos which we nonetheless feel. The fate of Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s tears is exactly the fate of our own. They fall, but they are “wildly” diverted along literally comic tracks to become something other than tears, something not at all commonplace; in fact, something transcendent: they crystallize into literary epiphany.24
Grounded in the demands and pleasures of daily life, Paley’s optimism resists the dominant literature’s modernist despair, insisting on the validity of a perspective that hopes always for enormous changes for the better. Perhaps modernist despair is one of the luxuries of male dominance, while those who exist on the margins have to believe that the world can change—that oppression must end. Accused of having “a rotten rosy temperament,” Faith staunchly defends her optimism: “I believe I see the world as clearly as you do, I said. Rosiness is not a worse windowpane than gloomy gray when viewing the world” (“The Immigrant Story,” EC, 173, 174). Through the windowpane of Paley’s comic optimism, we begin to suspect that the sterility of the modern landscape revealed to us in dominant literature may yet be found, when viewed through the eyes of women, to contain irrepressible signs of life.
No discussion of Paley’s use of humor to break down mutedness would be complete without a consideration of her use of Jewish humor. Paley herself has talked about the importance of Jewish humor in her work:
GP: When you talk about my humor, a lot of it is related to women and a lot of it is Jewish, plain old Jewish humor from around. Where the Jews make these jokes in which they are presumably the butt. In which they allow themselves that. But they’re not. Like the joke Faith’s father makes in that story, where he says give me another globe. That’s a typical Jewish joke, where the Jew says “well, it’s probably my fault, but still, give me another globe.”
JT: So in a way, you’re using this strategy that Jewish people have developed for making themselves central in a world that defines them as marginal, and transferring it to women.
GP: Well, to some degree. I think you put it in a very clear way. I could never have said it like that. I mean you would think that all oppressed people would understand all other oppressed people. However, this is not so. (Laughs.)
JT: It also seems to me that it’s your very existence as a member of two marginalized groups, women and Jewish people, that allows you to see so much.
GP: Umhmm. And also very verbal people.25
These comments contain several suggestions that can help us to understand not only Paley’s use of humor but also how she has managed to create a body of work that offers such a powerful challenge to dominant meanings. As a Jewish woman, Paley was born into a doubly muted state. Although the costs of double mutedness are high, such an experience places one so clearly outside access to the dominant patriarchal power structure that it may, in some cases, lead to a more radical critique of dominant meanings. Paley’s recurrent character Faith argues that offering a critique of dominance derived from their experience of marginality is what distinguishes Jews (and one might argue by extension, other marginalized groups as well) as the chosen people: “Jews have one hope only—to remain a remnant in the basement of world affairs—no, I mean something else—a splinter in the toe of civilizations, a victim to aggravate the conscience” (“The Used-Boy Raisers,” DM, 132).
In addition, Paley notes that the Jewish culture she grew up in is an extremely verbal culture and a culture that has learned strategies for coping as a group with centuries of unrelenting oppression. For a verbal people, language will offer a crucial means of resistance, and humor can serve as one of the more subversive strategies available through language. Walker’s study of women’s humor identifies Jewish people as “the single group that has affected American humor more than any other group. … With their long tradition of minority status, the Jewish people developed, centuries before their immigration to the United States, a highly refined humorous tradition that both acknowledges their position as a minority and makes fun of the oppressor.”26
For Paley, there are some important connections to be made between female and Jewish experiences of subordination. In “Friends,” Paley again links the two. Faith’s friend Ann, angry because Faith is making jokes in the midst of their troubles, accuses Faith of always having been lucky:
Well, some bad things have happened in my life, I said.
What? You were born a woman? Is that it?
She was, of course, mocking me this time, referring to an old discussion about feminism and Judaism. Actually, on the prism of isms, both of those do have to be looked at together once in a while.
Certainly looking at feminism and Judaism together helps to account for Paley’s creation of woman-centered humor. In order to consider the connection between Paley’s use of Jewish humor and her use of humor to deconstruct women’s mutedness, we need to understand how the characters in Paley’s works employ humor as a critique of anti-Semitism and the pressures toward assimilation.
The joke that Paley refers to in the interview quoted above appears in “Dreamer in a Dead Language.” Faith’s father tells it to Faith and her two sons, Richard and Anthony:
There’s an old Jew. He’s in Germany. It’s maybe’39,’40. He comes around to the tourist office. He looks at the globe. They got a globe there. He says, Listen, I got to get out of here. Where do you suggest, Herr Agent, I should go? The agency man also looks at the globe. The Jewish man says, Hey, how about here? He points to America. Oh, says the agency man, sorry, no, they got finished up with their quota. Ts, says the Jewish man, so how about here? He points to France. Last train left already for there, too bad, too bad. Nu, then to Russia? Sorry, absolutely nobody they let in there at the present time. A few more places … the answer is always, port is closed. They got already too many, we got no boats … So finally the poor Jew, he’s thinking he can’t go anywhere on the globe, also he can’t stay where he is, he says oi, he says achi he pushes the globe away, disgusted. But he got hope. He says, So this one is used up, Herr Agent. Listen—you got another one?
Oh, said Faith, what a terrible thing. What’s funny about that? I hate that joke.
I get it, I get it, said Richard. Another globe. There is no other globe. Only one globe, Mommy? He had no place to go. On account of that old Hitler. Grandpa, tell it to me again. So I can tell my class.
Faith hates this joke because she finds the reality of the holocaust on which it is based too horrible to joke about. Later she explains her response to her sons:
Hey boys, look at the ocean. You know you had a great-grandfather who lived way up north on the Baltic Sea, and you know what, he used to skate, for miles and miles and miles along the shore, with a frozen herring in his pocket.
Tonto couldn’t believe such a fact. He fell over backwards into the sand. A frozen herring! He must’ve been a crazy nut.
Really Ma? said Richard. Did you know him? he asked. No, Richie, I didn’t. They say he tried to come. There was no boat. It was too late. That’s why I never laugh at that story Grandpa tells.
Why does Grandpa laugh? (35)
Grandpa laughs in celebration of the same irrepressible optimism that permeates Paley’s fiction. The Jew of this story is in a seemingly hopeless situation and yet he has hope. In one sense he is the butt of the joke, for his request for another globe is absurd. Yet in another sense he gives testimony to the strength of spirit that has enabled Jewish people to survive through centuries of vicious anti-Semitism. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten explains that “Humor … serves the afflicted as compensation for suffering, a token victory of brain over fear. A Jewish aphorism goes: ‘When you’re hungry, sing; when you’re hurt, laugh.’ The barbed joke about the strong, the rich, the heartless powers-that-be is the final citadel in which human pride can live.”27
This ability to laugh through one’s tears, to mock even the most difficult circumstances, is seen throughout Paley’s work. In “Zagrowsky Tells,” Zagrowsky describes his response to an encounter his wife had with an African American man on the subway:
In the subway once [Mrs. Z.] couldn’t get off at the right stop. … She says to a big guy with a notebook, a colored fellow, Please help me get up. He says to her, You kept me down 300 years, you can stay down another ten minutes. I asked her, Nettie, didn’t you tell him we’re raising a little boy brown like a coffee bean. But he’s right says Nettie, we done that. We kept them down.
We? We? My two sisters and my father were being fried up for Hitler’s supper in 1944 and you say we?
Nettie sits down. Please bring me some tea. Yes Iz, I say: We.
I can’t even put up the water I’m so mad. You know, my Mrs., you are crazy like your three aunts, crazy like our Cissy. Your whole family put in the genes to make it for sure she wouldn’t have a chance. Nettie looks at me. She says, Ai, ai. She doesn’t say oi anymore. She got herself assimilated into ai … That’s how come she also says “we” done it. Don’t think this will make you an American, I said to her, that you included yourself in with Robert E. Lee. Naturally it was a joke, only what is there to laugh?
Zagrowsky interprets his wife’s acceptance of responsibility for racism as a response to the pressures of assimilation. This is, of course, an arguable interpretation that depends on the belief that accepting responsibility for racism has become a dominant position. But the scene illustrates again the Jewish strategy of joking even while one asks “only what is there to laugh?”
The dominant culture’s determination of meaning extends even to definition of what is beautiful, definitions that are easily internalized by muted groups. Faith’s father jokes about the effect of such internalized anti-Semitism:
He had been discussing the slogan “Black is Beautiful” with Chuck Johnson, the gatekeeper. Who thought it up, Chuck?
I couldn’t tell you, Mr. Darwin. It just settled on the street one day, there it was.
It’s brilliant, said Mr. Darwin. If we could’ve thought that one up, it would’ve saved a lot of noses, believe me. You know what I’m talking about?
Mr. Darwin’s joke makes the point that Jewish people have had plastic surgery on their noses not because there was anything wrong with those noses, but because dominant definitions of beauty had muted definitions created from their own reality.
“At That Time, or The History of a Joke” shows how Jewish humor can offer powerful resistance to the pressures of assimilation. Here Paley takes one of the principal tenets of Christian faith, the concept of a virgin birth, and has some fun with it. Setting the story somewhere in the future (“by that time, sexism and racism had no public life, though they were still sometimes practiced by adults at home”), Paley tells of a second virgin birth. This one differs from the Christian version in several important respects. First of all, it comes about because a woman receives a uterus transplant, and the transplanted uterus contains “a darling rolled-up fetus” (LD, 94). Thus, this virgin birth has a scientific explanation. In fact, this birth results from scientific technology run amok, for the woman needs a uterus because her “uterus was hysterically ripped from her by a passing gynecologist. He was distracted, he said, by the suffering of a childless couple in Fresh Meadows” (93). (Obviously, the jokes in this short story are relentless, including the pun in the use of the word hysterically, a word with Greek origins that originally meant disturbances of the womb. Paley’s usage here suggests that the word hysteria is the site of yet another exclusionist name based on a reversal.)
Another important difference between this virgin birth and the Christian one is that this time the child is an African American girl, a fact omitted from the initial reports: “‘O.K.!’ said Dr. Heiliger. ‘It’s perfectly true, but I didn’t want to make waves in any water as viscous as the seas of mythology. Yes, it is a girl. A virgin born of a virgin’” (95). With this revelation, Paley takes a dig at the sexism and racism embedded in beliefs regarding the Christian messiah. When the people in Paley’s futuristic tale discover the sex and race of the newborn, they are ready to choose a symbol for celebrating the new virgin birth: “… plans were made to symbolically sew the generations of the daughters to one another by using the holy infant’s umbilicus. This was luckily flesh and symbol. Therefore beside the cross to which people were accustomed there hung the circle of the navel and the wiggly line of the umbilical cord” (95). This passage asks the reader to see the symbolic use of the cross from an outsider’s comic perspective and takes a passing swipe at the Christian belief in a Eucharist where symbol (wafer) becomes flesh.
The Jews of the story see this as one more in a long string of false messiahs. “It is not He! It is not He!” they insist before the child’s sex is announced (a response that becomes a pun when the child’s sex is revealed). Because of the Jews’ “stubborn” and “humorless determination,” the authorities confiscate all of their electronic means of communication. They are forced “to visit one another or wander from town to town in order to say the most ordinary thing to a friend or relative” (94). In fact, it is through “their gossipy communications” that the sex of the child becomes known. Nor do they feel any better about a female messiah: “Wonderful! So? Another tendency heard from! So it’s a girl! Praise to the most Highess! But the fact is, we need another virgin birth like our blessed dead want cupping by ancient holistic practitioners” (95).
Although the Jews of this story are once again constructed as outsiders through the occurrence of a virgin birth (at the story’s conclusion they are described as “workers in the muddy basement of history”) (96), the actual butt of this joke is the dominant culture and some of the features of Christianity that appear to Jewish eyes most absurd. Among these features we might include insistence on the scientific improbability of a virgin birth, attempts to force Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the messiah, and the commercialization of Christian symbols throughout the dominant culture (“the birth was reenacted on giant screens in theaters and on small screens at home”) (94), most notable in the commercialization of Christmas. The resulting “joke” provides the sort of reversal of dominant beliefs (in this case often achieved by pursuing dominant beliefs to their logical conclusion or stating the enthymeme) typical of survivalist humor.
Paley’s first comic treatment of the problem of assimilation occurs in one of her earliest stories, “The Loudest Voice.” Shirley Abramowitz is chosen to narrate the school’s Christmas play because she has “a particularly loud, clear voice” (DM, 56). Her mother is horrified that Shirley and her Jewish classmates are participating in this enactment of the Christian story:
“I’m surprised to see my neighbors making tra-la-la for Christmas.”
My father couldn’t think of what to say to that. Then he decided: “You’re in America! Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas. … Some joke, ha?” (58)
Mr. Abramowitz’s joke argues that there is no place on the globe where Jewish people can live in peace. His comment also suggests that compared with the conflict of the Middle East and the pogroms of Europe, Christmas, despite the pressure to assimilate that the nationwide attention to this holiday exerts, is the least in a list of evils. Finally, by his grim awareness of the reality of this situation he offers resistance to it. Because he sees the situation clearly, he is not yet defeated by it.
He expresses this resistance in another way when Mrs. Kornbluh, mother of the child who played the part of Mary, stops by after the performance for a visit:
That night Mrs. Kornbluh visited our kitchen for a glass of tea.
“How’s the virgin?” asked my father with a look of concern.
“For a man with a daughter, you got a fresh mouth, Abramovitch.”
“Here,” said my father kindly, “have some lemon, it’ll sweeten your disposition.” (62)
Here Mr. Abramowitz mocks the Christian belief in a virgin birth, while simultaneously teasing Mrs. Kornbluh and by implication himself as well for their participation in the Christmas pageant. Even when seemingly coopted by the dominant tradition, he maintains his outsider perspective and critique.
In the same conversation, Mrs. Abramowitz reveals that she has also managed to make a distinctly Jewish accommodation to her daughter’s participation in the play. Mrs. Kornbluh points out that the Christian children had the smallest parts in the play:
“They got very small parts or no part at all. In very bad taste, it seemed to me. After all, it’s their religion.”
“Ach,” explained my mother, “what could Mr. Hilton do? They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler? The English language they know from the beginning by heart. They’re blond like angels. You think it’s so important they should get in the play? Christmas … the whole piece of goods … they own it.” (62–63)
By a curious twist of logic, Mrs. Abramowitz has determined that it is more appropriate for the Jewish children to be in the Christmas play than for the Christians. But her analysis has nothing to do with a belief that the Jewish children are or should be part of the dominant group.
“The Loudest Voice” reveals that Shirley has also succeeded in maintaining the double vision available to the outsider who participates as an insider. She notes that the city administration has installed a decorated Christmas tree on one of the corners in the neighborhood and that neighbors are shopping for groceries in a different neighborhood “in order to miss its chilly shadow” while the butcher pulls down “black window shades to keep the colored lights from shining on his chickens.” But Shirley has no fears of being tainted by proximity to such Christian symbols: “Oh not me. On the way to school, with both my hands I tossed it a kiss of tolerance. Poor thing, it was a stranger in Egypt” (60). So confident is Shirley in the norms of her Jewish community that she feels free to pity the tree as a shunned outsider. She reiterates this perspective when describing her participation in the play, telling us that she “carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood.” At the end of the day, she listens for a while as her parents and Mrs. Kornbluh discuss the pageant, and then, too sleepy to stay awake any longer, she kneels by her bed: “I made a little church of my hands and said, ‘Hear O Israel …’ … I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest” (63). Far from becoming assimilated as a result of her participation in the pageant, Shirley has concluded on the basis of the story she told (the pageant included Jesus’ birth, life, and death) that the Christians are a lonesome lot. Furthermore, she knows that if you want to be heard in this world, you have to speak with a loud voice. By valuing their distinctive perspective as outsiders to the dominant culture, and by continuing to articulate the reality of their experiences with a loud voice, the Jewish characters in Paley’s fiction offer a powerful resistance to mutedness. Survivalist humor is a crucial element in this resistance, for humor allows them to make clear their conscious awareness of the absurdity inherent in the simultaneously insider/outsider experience of muted groups.
This discussion has isolated three strategies of resistance in Paley’s use of Jewish humor: (1) humor in celebration of irrepressible optimism—laughing through one’s tears; (2) humor about the absurdity of dominant definitions; and (3) humor as a technique for maintaining an outsider perspective while participating as an insider in the dominant tradition. Paley uses each of these strategies in the service of women as well. Her irrepressible optimism as a strategy for maintaining a woman-centered perspective received lengthy attention earlier in this chapter. The redefinitions catalogued in the preceding chapter offer ample evidence of her use of humor to provide a woman-centered corrective to the absurdity of dominant definitions. As for the third strategy, women more than any other oppressed group have been forced to participate as insiders in a culture that defines us as outsiders, for connections with our oppressors extend beyond work and social life into family and personal life. Thus a humor of resistance that critiques the very culture one participates in becomes a crucial strategy for survival. Just as Shirley Abramowitz comically offers her prayers for “all the lonesome Christians,” Paley’s women mock male deficiencies. Some of the passages cited in the last chapter offer excellent examples:
First they make something, then they murder it, then they write a book about how interesting it is.
(“The Long-Distance Runner,” EC, 189)
His time took up with nonsense, you know his conversation got to suffer. A man can’t talk. That little minute in his mind most of the time. Once a while busywork, machinery, cars, guns.
(“Lavinia: An Old Story,” LD, 63)
Though I like the attentions as a man he daily give me as a woman, it hardly seemed to tire me as it exhausted him.
(“Distance,” EC, 19)
Perhaps most to the point in its explication of women’s fulfillment of our role in the dominant culture while nevertheless maintaining a subversively comic appreciation of our situation is Faith’s comment in “The Used-Boy Raisers”: “Livid and Pallid were astonished at my outburst, since I rarely express my opinion on any serious matter but only live out my destiny, which is to be, until my expiration date, laughingly the servant of man” (DM, 132). Paley has commented on this story as “the beginning of feminism” (see chapter 4). Faith tends to the needs of the two husbands and two sons of this story, but when she tells us that her destiny is to be “laughingly the servant of man,” we are left with the strong impression that this is not the laugh of compliance but the laugh of resistance.
Because Paley uses humor liberally in the service of women’s resistance to dominant meanings, one could extend these examples considerably. But without belaboring the point, it is clear that Paley has borrowed from a rich Jewish tradition of subversive humor in her woman-centered contradictions of male dominance. Paley has achieved a distinctively female subversive humor by being earthy and earthbound, by being simultaneously realistic and optimistic, and by drawing on the vision available to her as a doubly muted woman to make light of and in women’s oppression. What emerges from all of these strategies is the irreverent voice of a survivor.
For a thorough discussion of these factors and their relationship to women’s mutedness, see Cheris Kramarae, “Joking Matters,” in Women and Men Speaking, 52–63.
Gloria Kaufman, “Introduction,” in Pulling Our Own Strings: Feminist Humor and Satire, ed. Gloria Kaufman and Mary Kay Blakely, 14.
Kate Clinton, “Making Light: Another Dimension: Some Notes on Feminist Humor,” Trivia 1 (Fall 1982): 39.
Kramarae (Women and Men Speaking) is one of numerous researchers who have begun to describe women’s alternative tradition. Even when women participate in a form of humor more characteristic of the male tradition (i.e., joke-telling), we still maintain a separate tradition. In a comparison of the male and female joke-telling traditions, Carol Mitchell collected a total of 1,507 jokes. She found that male joke-telling sessions are competitive, with each man attempting to tell a funnier joke than the last. Even when women are audience members at such sessions, they usually do not participate, preferring to use jokes to conciliate opposing views. Further, women tell jokes that are less openly aggressive, and they are more likely to tell those jokes in private rather than public settings. Whereas men are confident telling jokes to large groups and to strangers, women prefer small groups of close friends. Finally, Mitchell found that women place less value on joke-telling than men do, so that jokes in women’s groups function as a minor part of the conversation, while in men’s groups they tend to become an end in themselves (“Some Differences in Male and Female Joke-Telling,” in Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture, ed. R.A. Jordan and S.J. Kalcik, 163–186).
See ibid. for a discussion of private versus public settings. For the characteristics of the female tradition, see Mary Crawford, “Humor in Conversational Context: Beyond Biases in the Study of Gender and Humor,” in Representations: Social Constructions of Gender, ed. R.K. Unger.
M. Jenkins, “What’s So Funny? Joking Among Women,” in Proceedings of the First Berkeley Women and Language Conference, ed. S. Bremner, N. Caskey, and B. Moonwomon (Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, 1985), cited in Crawford, “Humor in Conversational Context.”
Clinton, “Making Light,” 38–39.
Marianne DeKoven, “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears,” Partisan Review 68, no. 2 (1981): 221.
Anne Tyler, “Mothers in the City,” New Republic 192, no. 7 (April 29, 1985): 39.
Taylor, “Grace Paley on Storytelling and Story Hearing,” 56.
My thoughts about this distinction were clarified by hearing Nancy Walker discuss the differences between the motives of male and female humorists. She noted that both point to social incongruity and attempt to restore balance. But the male locates reason and right in himself, while the female locates incongruity in herself—she’s out of step (Nancy Walker, “Inescapable Stereotypes? Protest and Perpetuation” [paper delivered at the National Women’s Studies Association Convention, Seattle, Washington, June 1985]). She develops these ideas in “Feminist Humor,” in A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture, esp. 139–145.
Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 201.
See also the discussion of the “give me another globe” joke below.
See chapter 4 for a full discussion of the way this story functions as a critique of Paley’s writing.
Bonetti, American Audio Prose Library Interview.
“Hilarious” might seem an overstatement to some readers of Paley. Yet when (on several occasions) I have read portions of the two previous chapters to groups, Paley’s redefinitions have produced hearty laughter. Humor seems to work best in a communal setting. Where an audience bursts into laughter, a silent reader will merely smile.
Adrienne Rich, “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 275–310.
Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 168.
These definitions appear in Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary, Unabridged (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1970) and Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1976).
“… as we consulted dictionaries and thesauruses, we found that words describing women ultimately led to the description ‘prostitute.’” Feminist English Dictionary: An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Dirty Words (Chicago: Loop Center YWCA, 1973), cited in Kramarae, Women and Men Speaking, 42–43.
Walker, A Very Serious Thing, 126–129.
Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 168.
DeKoven, “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears,” 221.
Taylor, “Grace Paley on Storytelling and Story Hearing,” 56–57.
Walker, A Very Serious Thing, 115.
Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, xxiv.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley,” in Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, University Press of Mississippi Jackson, 1997, pp. 213-225.
[The following interview was originally conducted in 1991, and was originally published in Broken Silences (1993), edited by Shirley M. Jordan. In the interview, Jordan and Paley discuss Paley's feelings about racial relationships, her methods for writing character and dialogue, and relationships between women.]
[Jordan:] What specific conditions seems to be in place when black and white women become friends?
[Paley:] That’s very hard. … Well, there has to be an awful lot of trust. It has to be able to go two ways. But I think mostly the black woman has to be able to trust the white woman. By that I mean that the white woman has to be trustworthy. I could probably think of a better answer but that’s a beginning. A matter of trust that can happen with work when people trust each other—or have a common experience such as children, age. … And it’s also a class thing too, economic class.
I was just going to ask you if the issue of class also plays a part in the forming of these friendships. If the women do not meet in situations in which they are on the same footing socially, it’s hard.
Yes. But that would be true of white women too. It would be more difficult for a black and a white woman. But two white women could have a lot of misunderstanding or different interests too.
That’s also true. Have you noticed distinctions between how black women authors portray characters and how white women portray them?
I’m trying to think of authors. I think the last book I read was by Ellen Douglas who is a Southern white woman author writing about friendships between black and white women. You’ll have to refresh my memory. Her novel is unusual and truthful. In it, the black woman who works as a maid is really portrayed with a lot more feeling than the white woman. The white woman is a decent sort of woman but there is no real understanding. I just met the author, Ellen Douglas, so I paid particular attention.
As you were drawing the character of the black female in “Long Distance Runner” [in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute], what particular concerns did you have about her portrayal? How was this figure born and what do you think of her now that she is actually here?
First of all I come from the Bronx, and so I will give you an example from my background to show how I started her. I have been going back there every year to visit my father and mother’s house. The neighborhood has changed since then. Now there are about four houses left on the block. My father was the neighborhood doctor. Just a couple of years ago I returned. I see this little black girl sitting on my stoop and … well I’m overcome with happiness. She’s sitting there and a woman is looking out the window—the mother I thought (this happened after I wrote the story). I was elated, I almost ran into the house like the woman in the story yelling “Mama! Mama! Let me in!” Anyway I had been going earlier—often—and I had looked at the neighborhood and had seen what was happening—it’s hard to talk about a story that pretty much said what I felt. What I tried to see and maybe know is another life. Not terribly unlike my own, which was full of mommies and daddies and so forth, but still to see another life in the same place. Place being a very important thing. The same place.
I remember what the neighborhood was like. The people who lived on my block then, now have some kind of idealized view of what our street was like. It was really not a rich people’s street. It was a poor people’s street—at least during the ten years of the Depression—most of my childhood and adolescence. Maybe it started out and planned and wanted to be more middle class, but in those days, my days, the street itself was often lined with evictions—people thrown out of their homes for nonpayment of rent. Those were hard times for my neighbors so that it wasn’t hard for me to move into the world of the story, which ends with the narrator asking “What in the world is coming next?” I want to show that in a loving way—loving and truthful, not bullshit.
And I wanted to break certain stereotypes that the narrator has—for instance, when she says she’s going to teach the kid to read, it turns out he’s a great reader. You want to break this thing without a hammer but crack it anyway. That was intentional. But I also wanted to show the truth of that. I don’t know if it’s that story—it is—but there is one house left on this street. Nothing there but rubble and dirt and so forth. There’s a big sheet hanging out the window and it says, “People still live in this God-forsaken neighborhood.” That was just one house. Nothing around it but rubble and dirt and junk.
Do you think others go back too?
Well, I think people do want to go and look at where they grew up—at least if they can. I lived there my whole life until I got married, so I lived there for nineteen years. I was on the streets a lot. Kids used to play in the streets all the time so I had a kind of identity with that kid on my old stoop. I see very little street life in the white neighborhoods in Manhattan. None practically. I mean, it’s really pathetic for children. I had such a nice, rich street life. So the streets themselves are interesting and exciting to me.
Now I live downtown. I’ve lived for years in and around the Village. It’s a very strong neighborhood, and Chelsea is a neighborhood much like it. There are some city areas that aren’t neighborhoods; new people are moving in and new houses are built. A community takes time anywhere. You don’t have a community the minute you move in.
To what extent do you use historical sources when you are developing a character like Ludie or Cynthia?
I just write from my knowledge. Tough little girls and stuff like that—they are all going to have some of the same characteristics, right? “She’s gonna not let the boys push her around and she’s gonna …” I mean you go to school with these kids too. I did. My children did.
What can black and white women teach each other about writing and about living?
Another complicated question. I know this sounds silly to say this but in general white people have a lot to learn about what it means to live in this country. … I’m Jewish and I’ve been in situations—for instance, I lived in a small town in Illinois when I was about twenty or twenty-one, when I first left home. The anti-Semitism was acute and painful to me and surprising since I had lived a ghetto life. I lived in a Jewish ghetto, and there’s nothing more protected than a ghetto. And in its own way, there is probably nothing more protective for little black kids too. It’s kind of nice to be in a kind of cocoon for a while, protected until you get your muscle together. But then we do have to go into the world; we must go into the world. You have got to have your strength to go into the world, and you get some of it from the people you’ve been living your childhood among.
I have a very brutal story in that book [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] about a killing. You may have read it. This story comes from a guy who was a friend of mine. I met him just after World War II. Late forties. I worked at that time for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in New York; it was basically just a fund-raiser for the South. There were a lot of black people around even though the group was run by these very idealistic white people who were going in and out of jail. Joe Louis was the chairman, and he would come around sometimes.
But I made friends with this guy, Bill, who was working there; he was from Eclectic, Alabama. I can’t believe these names. We became very close friends. We were friends until he died a couple of years ago. He told me that story, and he didn’t tell it to me once. He told it to me so many times that it was as though I knew it by heart.
A writer in general has to be a person who pays attention. I would say if you’re not the kid sitting under the table who listened to grownups, you’re not going to be a writer black or white. I think it’s that listening. … For white Americans, of any kind, to listen is to begin to understand the country. To listen to blacks particularly is to understand the whole country historically. Slavery was a great curse the United States greedily, foolishly accepted.
One thing I have noticed as I’ve been reading novels in which black and white women appear is that we see fewer novels written by black women that have a central white female figure. Do you think this pattern will remain the same, or do you see black women starting to tell stories through the white female voice?
Well—first of all—people tell their own stories, their unknown stories, and certainly black women’s stories haven’t been properly told by white men or women or black men so they have had a big job on their hands. In general, I think people go through this business of writing about their own people. I mean you had this whole big wave of Jewish literature and what it was, of course, was the first time they could write about their own Jewish experiences and be generally read. I’m just going to make one Jewish comparison here. When I wrote my first stories, they were really explicitly about my own neighborhood life, which I was just trying to understand and then there were a couple of other stories. And then I didn’t need to explore that life so much.
When I wrote my first stories, I was afraid I’d stop writing because I have a lazy nature. I went to the New School for Social Research thinking maybe a class would keep me writing. And I had a teacher who kept saying to me “You’ve got to get off this Jewish dime.” So I asked, “How can I write about a middle America?” What I didn’t have the brains to say then was “I’m not even interested in it yet.” Black women are important and interesting to black women writers. And to be able to write truthfully from where you are toward what you don’t know about yourself, toward what you’re trying to find out, toward your own mysteries and be read, which is possible at this time, is a very great thing. There’s no reason yet for them to write with a central white character unless they were very specifically trying to understand what that person was in relation to blacks. Otherwise, they’d be writing a kind of middle America voice, the sort you hear on the radio or used to. So unless they were after something specific. … But it seems like there is so much yet to tell that hasn’t been told and the new ways of telling are exciting.
So many women are writing now, women of all colors. It’s a wonderful time. Before this, they didn’t know that they could write about themselves. I remember when I wrote my first story—about a woman’s life—I thought, “Gee, this must be boring. This is so boring to everybody. But I don’t care. I can’t help it. I have to write it.” So I think that experience of suddenly being able to talk about ourselves—not just black women, I’m talking about myself and all women—is exciting and curious. And to be read by strangers as well as friends is a great thing.
That leads me to my next question. How do you maintain your own voice or manage to remain true to the voices of the characters without succumbing to pressures from publishers or readers to write either what they want to hear to what they consider proper to write? Has this been an issue at all?
Well as far as the pressures from readers and publishers go, the only time I responded to a publisher was when I was told to write a novel. I had written my first book of stories. And I tried to write a novel and I failed. I mean I really gave it a shot. I did two years of writing a novel. And it was no good. Since then I just do what I want to do. I don’t feel that pressure at all because I don’t think in terms of a career or something like that. I don’t think that way, and I never expected to make a lot of money writing so I teach like all writers do. [Laughs]
Did you grow up aspiring to write?
I grew up aspiring, knowing that I was going to write my whole life because there was all this childhood encouragement. Every time you wrote a sentence, somebody said, “That is very good,” so then you wrote two sentences. But people should not worry about this kind of pressure, not if they really want to write. I mean if their reason to write is to speak truthfully, writers must give their characters a full life and a truthful life—that’s the only job a writer has.
Suppose you’re writing something so radical that you think you can’t find a publisher for it, then you still don’t consider the publisher but pursuing the truthfulness of the story?
See, when I wrote my first book, I got every story back again and again and again. Every single one. I mean until suddenly the University of Illinois printed two stories and that was it for the whole book. None of the others were accepted. I could have been very discouraged, and I mean I could have succumbed if I hadn’t by luck gotten a publisher. I wouldn’t have stopped writing though. But you really have to stick by your vision because life isn’t so long really. It’s always something. It’s just as hard to fit somebody’s—a publisher’s—idea of what writing is as it is to write your own way. They’re equally hard. So you might as well be hung for who you are. [Laughs] Cause they’ll get you. They get you anyway … so … I mean look at publishing today. It’s in such a weird shape anyway that you have to go to small presses if you’re starting out.
As you are writing, are you ever conscious of race or ethnicity in a very overt way as you allow characters to come to life, or is it the story that is more important? Therefore, you’re concentrating on the story and not so much on “This is the Jewish person who has to speak” and “This is a black person who has to speak.”
No. No. Well … I’m thinking of what I’m writing, and I’m letting the characters work their way through to the story. When I wrote “Long Distance Runner,” I just began with the narrator running. I really had no plan. I did not know where I was going and when I got to the street, I didn’t know I was going upstairs. And so you just sort of open yourself up to it, and by not knowing you have more tension somehow. There is some kind of great pull like a great stretch. And you stretch toward something that you don’t understand totally and that then pulls you along somehow. The stretch and the tension in it I think is the way it works. So when I get the people I have to figure out how they evolve and sometimes I do the best I can. And what I also do is I read it aloud to myself. I read it aloud so that I try to get it right. Sometimes I show it to other people. It’s funny when I wrote this story with a lot of black speech. I didn’t feel so comfortable about it at all, and I wouldn’t have for some reason. I didn’t know if I could do it.
As the story is pulling you along, what do you do when other things also demand some of your time like picking up the kids or whatever?
Oh, you mean my life? Ah, it’s very hard. Some people are very organized. I talked to Mary Gordon. She puts aside the time. She has two kids, adores them, gives them a lot. But she organizes her time well, and she gets a novel out every couple of years. She is young and in another time than I am. She is the age of my children. But as for me it was always push and pull and pull and push. And then I had two children, and then I also had jobs, and I did a lot of politics too. I mean I just did it. It was a very rich period; I don’t feel bad about any of it. And I would sit and talk with my children, take them to the park; they would give me a lot. In fact, they sometimes became my subject matter. So I can’t really say I shouldn’t have done that because that’s what was interesting to me then.
But I was lucky enough to have child care. Everybody—not just writers, to hell with writers—but all women do have to have decent child care. And I don’t think I could have accomplished all that I did without having a certain amount of child care. Basically, it was a settlement house in the neighborhood, which was cheap—what I could afford which wasn’t much. It’s hard but you gotta stick with it. [Pauses] Just think of a woman who really has some rotten job who is running back and forth with the kids. I’m particularly lucky to have some wonderful thing I want to do.
Back to the protagonist of “Long Distance Runner.” She seems so much at home in the community even near the beginning when she first gets into the neighborhood and there are all these people around her. She seems alert and on guard but she never seems to me afraid for her life—at least most of the time she isn’t. …
Yeah, when she runs up there and the kid starts yelling at her.
I thought that that scene really moves far beyond the stereotype.
It’s a little surrealistic.
That’s it! She couldn’t be that naïve, and I didn’t think she could be that open-minded but I suppose she could have felt at home. After all, if she has returned home, she wouldn’t be as afraid anyway.
I think it’s a couple of things. It was quite surrealistic. No one would stand there and say … On the other hand, there is a certain naïveté. Even her deciding to give the little boy a reading lesson—I mean there was a kind of good-hearted naïveté about her in a sense. But it also had a surrealistic quality. … I mean the whole thing is invented. It’s not very likely she would say those things. None of that is likely but all of it is in the realm of the barely possible. She might have gone up there in her shorts …
And maybe it’s the naïveté that allows her to get even that far. If she were truly just sitting around reasoning out everything, she probably wouldn’t have run that far off course.
Yes. Yes. I’m nearly seventy. I come from a less fearful time. I used to have to pick up the collection boxes for the Southern Conference about forty-five years ago. I walked up and down apartment houses in Harlem, jangling shopping bags full. I never thought about it. I was afraid of the Irish neighborhoods though when I was a kid—because of Father Coughlin.
I’m sure you have heard the following said of your work before, but I will add my compliment as well. You capture the speech of the characters so brilliantly that the words seem naturally to flow from the characters’ mouths. How did you develop your ear to capture Black English on the page without it sounding like “and now here is a black person speaking” versus “here is a person speaking in his or her own way who happens to be black?”
I don’t know. It goes back to listening. I think a lot of people could do better than they do. I say the dialogue aloud to myself. I can’t tell you how many times I change the words. The smallest sentence I change many times. I mean any ten-word sentence I must have changed ten times. I rarely got it right. That’s the main thing. I rarely got it right the first time, and I rarely got it right the third time. But it’s this business of saying things aloud again and again. You know poets read aloud, right? And fiction writers don’t do that so much in working. But just to say it again and again. You will get it. You may not get it perfect but you’ll get it a lot better than—say—if you write it once and you say, “Oh I can’t write dialogue.” If you haven’t been listening to people, you’ll never get any kind of sound, but if you have been listening, then I think you can get it. But as I said I really have more self-consciousness right now.
It didn’t seem self-conscious in the story at all.
But that was because I rewrote it after it was in my head a long time. I wrote it, and then I made certain changes. I got it right, I think. It didn’t begin with me being self-conscious. I began with the idea that I could do it, and then I only had to make the effort to and do it. I don’t remember where, but I feel like I went off someplace. But that story, “Lavinia,” was very much like my grandmother’s story, and I wanted, in my mind, to bring people closer together. I wanted to show the same kind of story really in one case in the older immigrant woman and in this case, the working black woman. Married, didn’t want children, wanted to make something of herself and had children. And then wanted her daughter to make something of herself. And it’s not that the daughter went bad. I don’t want her to become the bad person. What she did was live with a guy, just begin to have a lot of children. It didn’t seem like she was going to do something with herself—from the old woman’s view.
When we look at the protagonist leaving the neighborhood, Ludie tells her that it’s time for her to go suggesting that she understands the protagonist perhaps in ways that she does not know she really understands. How does Ludie intuitively seem to know when it is time to leave? She’s accepted this stranger into her home as if that were the natural thing to do, and then she seems to know exactly when she ought to leave. Is that just her instincts at work?
I think also it’s the surrealistic part of it. I wanted her to leave. [Laughs] She’d been a guest an awful long time, and nothing is more annoying than people telling people how to raise their children. Like telling them to go downstairs. Tell them to do this; they need more air. They would get really pissed at that.
The protagonist is renewed by her journey back. At the end of the story, we see her at home. In particular, what has she learned from her journey back to the neighborhood—to her roots?
Well, she says that at the end, she’s learned “what in the world is coming next.”
Do you think our stereotypes of interracial relationships and of sexuality keep us apart as women rather than becoming closer?
From the perspective of both races?
Yes, but I really think from the point of view of black women. … First as real people and as valuable people I can see their suspicion is historically so reasonable, but on the other hand, what it means is that white people, white women who are really interested have to prove themselves, and when people start to prove themselves, they become somewhat false. I mean not a bad false. I don’t mean anything like untrue or anything like that. I mean they become unnatural and then a certain falsity sets into the relationship. And that has to happen, and that happens a lot. I think it can’t help but happen. It’s not anyone’s fault. Our terrible history—oppression and hatred.
It’s probably one of the hardest hurdles to cross in learning to trust.
Yeah. It’s a hard thing for people to act naturally together.
Once you start to make the effort to do so then that’s when the falsity sets in.
Yes, so people have to sort of recognize that falsity not as an evil thing sometimes but as an unnatural effort. Not meaning ill. And that goes both ways too. Listen, this business of suspicion between people who have hurt each other in one way or another. … What bothers me about say my own family or a lot of Jewish people I know who are really open-minded. … People think that the persecution of Jewish people started with the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the moment like the bringing over of slaves in our recent history. If Jews just thought about the way they’ve been treated in a daily way not just forty years ago but about a thousand years ago, they could identify better. Put away the most recent experience and think of what their ordinary life—just their daily life was like—not just the genocidal moment, but everything, then they would really understand better the daily life others live. And that’s one of the things they don’t do. So one of the arguments I have, like the idea that their neighborhoods were so great, is that they were just like any good people. I remember my mother going to Orchard Beach and saying, “Look what a mess! Our people were here.” But when I tell that to my sister, she says, “No. No. We were never like that. We were never like that.” [Laughs] Mama said that. She said that: “Our people were here. It’s dirty. Let’s go to another beach.” [Laughs again]
That makes me think about blacks and how we remember slavery. I think sometimes people my age and older become frustrated with black teenagers who—not that they don’t want to remember slavery—don’t make it the pinnacle of all black experience. We think that they don’t fully understand and that often frustrates us.
Well, I think a lot of the kids think things are bad enough. “What are you going back there for? Why do you keep talking about that when here I am on this block, you know?” So going back has many possibilities.
What are some of the uses of memory or history you see at work in your fiction?
Well for me, I like to go back into my parents’ life, and I have a number of stories like that—stories from my father and history. There’s a story called “A Conversation with My Father,” which to me is historical. It is seen by a lot of people as a psychological father/daughter thing, but to me it is clearly a historical statement. More than that the father comes from a place where change is not possible. That’s one thing. He has that rigidity and also he comes from a world where he says she’ll never change, it’s like that. It’s more historical than psychological, and I’m more interested in the historical than I am in the psychological.
When you look at young children and teenagers who do not know their own family histories and do not have or know the words to recount their experiences or what they see, what kinds of things do you think ought to be done to help them gain control over their own voices?
Well, I just think, first of all, we tell them stories from history, not just the stories that happen to Grandma and Grandpa, but also tales of the past. From my own experience, I am not religious at all but I really enjoyed stories from the Bible when I was a kid. I felt related to them, so I told my children these stories. My son has told my granddaughter too, though he has no religious feeling. It’s the way that our own old stories connect us to our past, and the stories of other people connect us to their past, so that we read not just our own stories but the stories of other people to know history, to make connections. And I really think that’s very useful to children to ground them and to place them among the generations. I want to tell you a good assignment that I did with kids. Exactly related to this. I didn’t know it was going to work out so well. Just before Thanksgiving I said when you get home ask the oldest person there to tell you a story he or she remembers by the oldest person he or she knew. One of the women went back through great-great grandparents to slavery. In fact that’s one of the stories in “Long Distance Runner.” When the little kid says, “I remember that story, ‘Freedom Now,’” that’s the one that student had told me. She’s the one who told me that story. Her grandfather told her what his grandmother had told him. This is the story of how they ran from cabin to cabin. So you can go way way back. That was one of the best. I’ve done the assignment again, and you go pretty far back.
Did you want to make any comments about “Lavinia” at all?
The story came from that common experience that seems to me to be a class experience, a common women’s experience. Someone said to me, “Well, why didn’t you just tell your grandmother’s story instead of doing this?” And I guess I was just extremely interested, and it would have been boring to do it in my grandmother’s voice at that particular time because what I was after was trying to understand what it would have been like for someone else. And I had been talking to this old black woman, Mrs. Pinchner, who had told me the same story anyway—exactly the same story. And it just seemed that I wanted to tell her story. In that whole period of my life I felt as a white woman that I wanted to understand more and also try to make some kind of contribution in a sense. Somehow I should understand and help other people to understand to see certain commonalities. And also the whole female subject, the whole business of these two women saying, “We wanted to be teachers. We didn’t want to have all those children,” interested me.
In growing up in the Bronx, what made you open to wanting to understand all cultures?
Well, first of all, my parents were socialists who came from Russia. They’d been in prison in Russia when they were eighteen, nineteen years old so they were very young when they emigrated. And when they came here they didn’t do a lot of politics. They had to work too hard. All my aunts worked in the garment district to make my father a doctor. They were all about twenty years old. Think of all these young people coming over, and they worked very hard so he could become a doctor, and he became one. He was always a neighborhood doctor. And the office was in the house so there were always people coming and going. And there was always sickness, and there was always a lot of feeling for other people’s suffering. My father, unlike some doctors, had a lot of feeling, identification with pain. In fact, so much so that by the time he was sixty he just had to stop. He couldn’t handle it anymore.
So I think it began with that, and then we read the papers at breakfast and all these things were happening in America. People were being actually lynched. And the Armenians got into my head too. All those worries—the pogroms my parents went through—uncles killed or deported from this country in the repressions that followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
And then I had a very small but strong experience. Children in the street used to play among many other games—
eenie meenie minie mo catch a nigger by the toe …
My sister gave me such a crack across the face. When I remind her of this now, she asks wondering, proudly I think, “Where did I get such an idea?” She said to me that day, “Never let me hear you talk like that ever again.” I mean that was a traumatic smack. So that’s an early remembered corroboration from the family. As you go on, you realize that you’ve said a bad thing, which will mean a sad painful thing to someone else and that leads to other ways of thinking. It moves from person to the community to the world. It’s not so good if it stays in the area of personal kindness—in fact it could be dangerous if there’s no wider political understanding. Anyway—with experience of other people’s suffering, my sister’s smack remained a lasting education. And we did have black women and occasionally men working in the household and office a lot of the time, and they totally engaged me as often happens. But because of my family’s old politics, they had gotten a lot less radical actually, these conversations were socializing and useful—and also established remembrances of personal love.
SOURCE: “Daring to Be Radical,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 51-2, 54.
[In the following excerpted review, Dame offers a positive assessment of Long Walks and Intimate Talks.]
It is refreshing, in these days of mean-spirited attacks on “political correctness,” to read the works of three women who are unabashedly radical—radical in the sense of examining the world from the perspective of those without power, security, or respect in American society. Two of these books are overtly political. Grace Paley’s Long Walks and Intimate Talks was intended as a statement “against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters, all those destroyers of days,” while Karen Brodine’s posthumous Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking was published by the Freedom Socialist Party, to which she belonged when alive. Patricia Smith’s volume of poems, Changing Your Story, quietly explores the dynamics of a troubled, multiethnic, working-class family. All of these works offer important insights about change, community, and continuity between generations.
Accompanied by her friend and fellow activist Vera Williams’s paintings, Paley’s poetry and short fiction are, as usual, a feast for the reader—a meal of hot soup and good bread shared in a friend’s kitchen. The prose sketches are especially strong, particularly those in which Faith, a familiar Paley character from her fiction, reappears. Faith’s personal (and political) philosophy is set forth in the witty, insightful “Midrash on Happiness.” Adapting the traditional Jewish means of explicating a scriptural text to her own uses, Faith, during a stroll with her friend Ruth, identifies all her essential needs: from “a dear person to live with, preferably a man, but not necessarily” to “bread on the table.” When Ruth chides her for ignoring the disastrous state of the world—“the news of halfway round the planet is falling on us”—Faith agrees: “I know all that. I do, but sometimes walking with a friend, I forget the world.”
Though Paley is an engaged writer, she is never confrontational or didactic. Her method is to charm readers with her gift of language and warm sense of humor. Yet, she is not naive about the realities of power. “Cop Tales,” for example, records many amusing interchanges between demonstrators and policemen. Members of both groups laugh and joke with each other. During one protest at Wall Street, the police prevent a conservatively dressed disrupter from breaking into the picket line. When he expresses amazement that the law is not on his side, the officers reply cheerfully, “Just role playing.”
As these incidents pile up, the atmosphere becomes almost cloying; can deep social dislocations be resolved this easily one wonders. Then Paley zaps us with another part of the truth. When the narrator complains to a formerly friendly cop about the brutal behavior of a state trooper, he icily draws into his “role”: “Lady, be careful … I just saw you try to strike that officer.”
“Conversation” depicts three generations in a radical Jewish family. Faith has just returned from a conference on “The Bilingual Child” in Puerto Rico. She, her activist son Richard, and her elderly parents try to explain the nature of colonization to a stubbornly naive neighbor. Richard grows impatient with the older people, especially his grandparents, who reveal that they were “once” as radical as he. “He was once like that. You were once. No wonder the world’s in this condition,” he shouts, tearing out of the room. The grandparents are not upset by this outburst. Indeed, they are proud: they expect young people to be vehement hotheads. The reader shares their tolerance, knowing that Richard will probably modify his revolutionary absolutism as he matures. Yet Richard is not entirely wrong: The couple’s resignation to apolitical old age represents a real loss. Then again, Richard himself is undoubtedly the person he is because of the people they were: in a way, there is no loss. The power of this story lies in its subtle (and funny) evocation of the complex skeins of family connections.
I do, however, have one serious reservation about this book. Williams’s pictures, especially the brilliantly colored ones, often distract from, or overwhelm, the text. Williams is a fine artist, but her paintings interfered with some of the joy of reading for me. (But then, I prefer radio to television.)
SOURCE: “The Question of Chronology in Paley's ‘Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 583-86.
[In the following essay, Greiner examines the reversed chronological ordering of the companion stories “The Used-Boy Raisers” and “A Subject of Childhood.” Greiner draws attention to the motif of the Jewish Diaspora in both stories and contends that their backward ordering suggests a return to historical origins, birth, and unity.]
Recent commentaries on the two narratives within Grace Paley’s “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life” offer mere outlines of the curious relationship between these stories: “The centricity of men and subordination of children changes with the two stories …” (Eckstein 128); “Husbands and boyfriends, although often welcome, are unreliable and transient. Children are much more constant family members …” (Taylor 80); “though the action of the stories foregrounds the comings and goings of the men in Faith’s life, the real focus is on the … relationship with her children” (Isaacs 25). Yet critics rarely question the structure of Paley’s paired narratives and the evident reversal of chronology in their ordering. That the events of the second story, “A Subject of Childhood,” precede those of the first, “The Used-Boy Raisers,” is evident in the peregrinations of Faith’s first husband, Pallid. Whereas Pallid in “A Subject of Childhood” resides in Africa (“on the gold coast of another continent” ), he has returned from there in “The Used-Boy Raisers.” Faith remarks in “The Used-Boy Raisers” that she has not seen her former lover, Clifford, in the two years since his bloodied departure in “A Subject of Childhood,” calling attention to the interval of time separating these stories. But why does Paley present these stories out of chronological order? Or, to be more accurate, why must the first of these stories present Faith’s relationship with her past and present husbands, Livid and Pallid, whereas the second recedes in time to describe in greater detail her role as the mother of Richard and Tonto? A possible solution to this question of chronology presents itself in the twin visions of these stories: as “The Used-Boy Raisers” moves toward a suggestive concluding image of separation and dispersal (husband and ex-husband departing), so “A Subject of Childhood” provides a counter-vision of unity—“that unifying memory out of childhood” (131), to borrow Pallid’s phrase—as Faith cradles Tonto in her arms in a beatific moment of near-religious resonance.
That Faith, during a kitchen-table debate in “The Used-Boy Raisers,” announces her belief in the Diaspora, “not only as a fact but a tenet” (131), proves central to her narratives. The Diaspora represents the historical frustration of Jewish desire for a stable home and homeland, a desire that Faith, a Jew herself, evinces in personal terms. Her home and family poised between dispersion and security, Faith seeks and continually returns to male-centered households—with Pallid and Clifford and Livid—only to have such seemingly steady situations dissolve with the husband or lover’s departure. Oddly, however, Faith is an anti-Zionist. Her comment upon the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, that “once they’re huddled in one little corner of the desert, they’re like anyone else” (132), becomes symbolically relevant to her own circumstances. Faith seems to recognize that she, like the Jews, converts adversity into moral distinction.
Both narratives end with domestic and comically reductive reenactments of the Diaspora. “The Used-Boy Raisers” closes with the dispersal of Livid and Pallid from the home, as they “set off in pride on paths which are not [Faith’s] concern” (134); another departure of male authority and loss of a stable home—another Diaspora—figures in “A Subject of Childhood” with the violent dissolution of Faith’s relationship with Clifford. Yet this state of dispersion, which leaves the home unstable and fatherless, becomes for Faith not only a means of defining herself as a mother but also a mode of aggrandizement. Faith finds the singularity that attends the departure of male authority from the home empowering. She must fulfill both maternal and paternal roles; she must develop self-reliance. Throughout “The Used-Boy Raisers” Faith works on an embroidery of a “ranch house that nestles in the shade of a cloud” (128). Whereas the embroidery of this cloud-nestled home is an idealistic, almost heavenly contrast to Faith’s own household, Faith, as the act of embroidering suggests, solely creates—or knits, to alter the metaphor into a similarly archetypal activity—a home for her sons, despite the dispersion of Livid and Pallid at the end of this story. Thus “A Subject of Childhood” concludes with the poignant moment when Faith cradles Tonto in a maternal gesture that, like her embroidery, compensates for the dissipation of male authority. In this little tableau Faith effectively defines “home” as the quasi-spiritual correspondence between mother and child.
The metaphor of imprisonment in the final image of Faith and Tonto—the author describes the heroine as “a black and white barred king in Alcatraz” (145)—echoes the Diaspora yet again, since, historically, the Diaspora commences with the Captivity of the Jews in Babylon. Within Faith’s re-vision of the Diaspora, the terms are reversed: lovers and husbands depart into freedom, not bondage. Though Faith remains imprisoned in the fatherless home, Paley elevates Faith’s stature within the circumstances of such abandonment, for Faith must supplement the lack that remains after Clifford’s departure, assuming the regal and male authority of a “king.” Emblematic of a kind of spiritual monarchy, Faith’s black and white stripes evoke comparisons with the tallith, the striped shawl worn by Jewish men at prayer. Ironically, the tallith is also worn by men and women during marriage ceremonies, at which time they are traditionally wished “a Long and Happy Life” (as one recalls from Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck”).
Though Paley’s use of the Diaspora explains the movement in these stories from dispersal to unity, the question of chronology remains problematic. The movement of these stories covers, in reverse, a history of Faith’s motherhood. The paired narratives regress not only toward that final silhouette of Faith holding Tonto but also to a more universal and historical vision of a mother cradling an infant, as Tonto places “his arm around [Faith’s] neck and curl[s] up right there in [her] lap, thumb in mouth, to be [her] baby” (144). Victoria Aarons notes that though “Paley’s fiction is grounded in Judaism … her stories speak even more powerfully to a universal human experience” (41). Small wonder, then, that one critic spies in this closing moment between Faith and Tonto “a living statue of a Pietà” (Isaacs 27). But such religious significance does not end here. Faith, as an archetypal mother, parallels Pallid’s “nervous old mother, the Church” (131), and the final image of this mother and her child in “A Subject of Childhood” becomes a restatement of “that unifying memory out of childhood” expressed by Pallid in “The Used-Boy Raisers” as he explains how he has never lost “faith” (131). In Pallid’s church, as well as in the home, there exists an original maternal force that inspires unity. Indeed, one may see in Faith the maternal repetition of “the passionate deed of Mary” (131). The potential for Faith’s “Long and Happy Life,” to look toward the larger title linking these stories, is understood only as her narratives move backward to a point of origin, to a concluding image—as Faith cradles the infant-like Tonto—that recapitulates Faith’s entrance into motherhood.
One may accuse Paley, in her reversal of chronology, of merely parading a postmodern device; Paley’s twin narratives, however, do not beg, like a puzzle, reconstruction, nor do they signal a conscious subversion of linearity and natural chronology. That Paley reverses the sequence suggests that, for Faith, these periods of dispersal and insulation are interchangeable, like the seemingly identical Livid and Pallid. The Diaspora, if considered in relation to the other stories within The Little Disturbances of Man, is thematically present throughout Paley’s collection. Aunt Rose’s narrative in “Goodbye and Good Luck” hinges upon Vlashkin’s repeated departures and her lingering singularity; in “A Woman, Young and Old” not only must Josephine’s mother fashion a home after abandonment, but young Josephine learns a humorous lesson in the loss of Corporal Brownstar. Closest in spirit and circumstance to Faith is Virginia of “An Interest in Life,” who endures the puzzling flight of the husband—for he is in some army: American, Brazilian, or Mexican—yet maintains a four-child home with visions of future maternal happiness. The backward movement of Faith’s narratives emphasizes her historical antecedents, those mothers who have preceded Faith and who, like Faith’s “chosen people,” are meant “to continue in time” (132).
Aarons, Victoria. “A Perfect Marginality: Public and Private Telling in the Stories of Grace Paley.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 35–43.
Eckstein, Barbara. “Grace Paley’s Community: Gradual Epiphanies in the Meantime.” Politics and the Muse: Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature. Ed. Adam J. Sorkin. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1989. 124–41.
Isaacs, Neil D. Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Paley, Grace. The Little Disturbances of Man. New York: Viking, 1968.
———. “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life.” Little Disturbances 125–45.
Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley: The Art of Fiction CXXXI,” in Paris Review, No. 124, Fall, 1992, pp. 181-209.
[The following interview was conducted by three Paris Review writers. Paley discusses her early transformation as a writer, her fictional style, major influences, personal motivations, and the central themes in her work.]
When Grace Paley visits New York she stays in her old apartment on West Eleventh Street. Her block has for the most part escaped the gentrification that has transformed the West Village since Paley moved there in the forties. The building where Paley lived for most of her adult life and where she raised her two children by her first husband, the filmmaker Jess Paley, is a rent-controlled brownstone walk-up with linoleum hallways. Mercifully spared mid-career renovations, Paley’s apartment retains the disheveled, variegated look of an apartment with children. Paley now lives in Thetford, Vermont with her second husband, poet and playwright Robert Nichols, but we arranged to speak with her in New York. We met her on the street outside her apartment—she was returning home from a Passover celebration with friends elsewhere in the city. We recognized her from half a block away—a tiny woman with fluffy white hair in a brown overcoat.
People often ask Grace Paley why she has written so little—three story collections and three chapbooks of poetry in seventy years. Paley has a number of answers to this question. Mostly she explains that she is lazy and that this is her major flaw as a writer. Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers to publish. Donald Barthelme scavenged her apartment for the stories that made up her first book, and her agent says she periodically raids Paley’s drawers and kitchen cabinets for material. Her first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, did not appear until 1959, when Paley was thirty-seven. Since then she has published just two collections of stories—Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974 and Later the Same Day in 1985—and three collections of poems—Leaning Forward (1985), New and Collected Poems (1992) and Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991). Though Paley is better known as a short-story writer than as a poet, her stories are so dense and rigorously pruned that they frequently resemble poetry as much as fiction. Her conversation is as cerebral and distilled as her prose. The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless. On politics Paley speaks unreservedly and in earnest; on writing she is drier, more careful.
Grace Goodside was born in the Bronx in December, 1922, seventeen years after her parents immigrated to New York and one year after the invention of the sanitary napkin (as she notes in her poem “Song Stanzas of Private Luck”). Her father, Isaac, was a doctor who learned English by reading Dickens and was, like her mother, Mary, a committed socialist. The family spoke Russian and Yiddish at home and English to the world with a Bronx twang that remains one of the more noticeable signs of Paley’s attitude towards the establishment. Writing has only occasionally been Paley’s main occupation. She spent a lot of time in playgrounds when her children were young. She has always been very active in the feminist and peace movements. She has been on the faculty at City College and taught courses at Columbia University and, until recently, Sarah Lawrence College.
[Interviewer]: What were you doing before you became a published writer?
[Grace Paley]: I was working part time. I was hanging out a lot. I was kind of lazy. I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven. I took them to the park in the afternoons. Thank God I was lazy enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. I say “lazy” but of course it was kind of exhausting running after two babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I began to know women very well—as co-workers, really. I had a part-time job as a typist up at Columbia. In fact, when I began to write stories, I typed some up there, and some in the PTA office of PS 41 on 11th Street. If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories. That’s pretty much how I lived. And then we had our normal family life, struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.
Could you tell the story of the publication of your first book?
I’d written three stories, and I liked them. I showed them to my former husband, Jess Paley, and he liked them, and he showed them to a couple of friends, and they liked them, so I was feeling pretty good about them. The kids were still young at the time, and they played a lot with the neighborhood kids, so I got to know the other mothers in the neighborhood. One of them was Tibby McCormick, who had just gotten unmarried from Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday. She knew about these stories, and poor Ken was more or less forced into reading them—you know, “the kids are over at her house all the time, you might read her stories.” So he took them home and read them and he came over to see me and said, “Write seven more of them and we’ll publish a book.” So that’s what happened. Luck happened. He also told me that no magazine around would touch them, and he was pretty much right about that too, although two of the stories in that collection were finally taken by Accent.
Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write?
As far as I know I’m not writing to anybody. Writers often write about what they want to read or haven’t seen written. Sometimes I write for people—I wrote a story called “Debts” about the mother of a friend of mine. I wanted my friend to like it, although I didn’t write it to please her. But that was different from writing to someone. I wrote “The Toy Inventor” about a guy on Sixth Avenue who later told me I understood him better than his wife. But I wasn’t writing it to him so much as speaking for him. Still, there’s always that first storytelling impulse: “I want to tell you something. …”
How do stories begin for you?
A lot of them begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant. A story can begin with someone speaking. “I was popular in certain circles,” for example; an aunt of mine said that, and it hung around in my head for a long time. Eventually I wrote a story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” that began with that line, though it had nothing to do with my aunt. Another example: “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs,” which is the first sentence of “The Used-Boy Raisers.” I was at the house of a friend of mine, thirty-five years ago, and there were her two husbands complaining about the eggs. It was just right—so I went home and began the story, though I didn’t finish it for months. I’m almost invariably stuck after one page or one paragraph—at which point I have to begin thinking about what the story could possibly be about. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.
In “A Conversation With My Father” you make a lot of disparaging remarks about plot.
Ever since then everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a time line. All our stories have time lines. One thing happens, then another thing happens. What I was really talking about in that story was having a plot settled in your mind: this is the way the story’s going to go. In the next thirty pages or so, this will happen, this will happen, this will happen. That’s what I meant.
So you would never start a story with the ending in mind?
No. When the ending comes to me, that’s when I know I’m going to finish the story. Usually it’s around the middle. And then I write the end. And then I change it.
How many drafts do you go through in writing a story?
I don’t like to count. I never understand what people mean when they say they’ve done twenty drafts or something. Does that mean they’ve typed it twenty times, or what? I’m always changing things as I go. It’s always substantially different by the time I’ve finished. I do it till it’s done.
Do you take advice from anyone when you write or edit?
I listen to what people tell me but I don’t always act on it. I read a story to my twelve-year-old granddaughter a couple of months ago. She told me what was wrong: there were sentences that were not clear—and she was absolutely right. My husband is a good reader.
How do you know when a story is done?
When I don’t have anything else to say. Sometimes I publish the story in a magazine, and I still have something else to say. One story comes to mind: “Faith in the Afternoon.” When it was published in a magazine it ended with Faith dreaming she was holding this guy’s balls. All the guys I knew loved it. But when it came time to publish it in a book, I realized that wasn’t what it was about; it would have been a cheap way to end it. I went beyond that. Everyone got mad at me—not really angry, just sad.
How did you change it?
I didn’t change it. I simply realized that Faith was still in the park, and it was probably the late-sixties and one of the frequent little theatrical anti-war walks or parades would have to be coming through. Faith was able to have a political imagination as well as an erotic one.
Is the character Faith, who appears in so many of your stories, at all autobiographical?
No. Her life is entirely different from mine. I was never as mad at any husband of mine as she was at her first. On the other hand, I feel very warmly toward my present husband, and she does towards hers too. But I was never that mad. And I brought my kids up in different circumstances. Faith represents a number of women I have been close to. It’s not as though she’s any one of them—but she has become one of them. The whole Faith thing also came about partly by accident. In “The Used-Boy Raisers,” I started off by giving Faith those two boys. Then to compensate for it I began giving all the other women daughters, but I was stuck with the major character of my stories having two boys from the beginning. I was also stuck with the name Faith, which I was very sorry for later on. It was too close to my own name, and I didn’t really want it to be—but at the time I never thought I would write another story about her.
The character must have some kind of hold on you, though, to keep turning up like that?
She’s become a very good worker for me.
How do you know a story is working?
I read it aloud a lot, and that helps me. It’s not so useful for a writer of novels, but for me reading aloud as I work helps me know if it’s right.
What about a story like “Lavinia: An Old Story,” written in a black voice—did you read that out loud as you wrote it?
I did read it aloud. I don’t know if I could write that story now. I was closer then to a couple of older black women as well as my own grandmother—whose story was exactly the same, which was one of my reasons for writing it. I was able to read the story to them—check it out in some way. There are other stories that may have been risky. These were recently read by some students in James Monroe High School in the Bronx where nearly all the kids were African-American. Not being in any political group yet—hopefully they will be—they weren’t bothered by my writing “Lavinia: An Old Story” or “The Little Girl” at all. They argued a few particulars but were harder on the narrator than I was.
What about people who criticize you for writing in a black voice?
Some have been critical. I know the politics of it, but I know I act out of real feeling and considerable respect for the person. That’s why I want to do it—not to show off. It’s true that in “The Little Girl” I do have a pretty terrible black character—a rapist, in fact. It’s not as though I only deal with sweet situations.
But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. I think men can write about women and women can write about men. The whole point is to know the facts. Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.
Are there any men you think write particularly well about women?
I liked Norman Rush’s last book, Mating. The main character is a very smart woman, very intellectual, very interesting, and very unlike many of the women many women write about. I love all the traditional books, but … well, I feel like many women that Anna Karenina shouldn’t have killed herself. Still, Kate Chopin in The Awakening also has the woman go drown herself for no reason that I can see!
Were you a poet first, before you started writing fiction?
I wrote poems all my life. I didn’t really write stories until I wrote my first book when I was in my thirties.
You’ve spoken very specifically about the way a story comes to you. Is it different writing poetry? Is there more of an awareness or an adherence to craft?
There’s an equal amount of adherence to craft in the use of both forms. I would say that I went to school to study poetry, that’s how I learned to write. I got my courage for the way I write stories from first writing poems. My poems of that period were more literary than the stories ever were, or than my poems are now. That was the difference.
What was it like studying with Auden at the New School?
He seemed an immortal to me. I had a conversation with him when I was seventeen, and though I only lived twenty blocks away, I never got to talk to him again that year—1939? 1940, probably. I couldn’t understand a word he said. He had just come here, he had this lisp, plus his English—his normal way of speaking. He was giving a class on the history of English literature. At one point he said, “Are there any poets who would like to speak to me or who want me to look at their work?” There were 250 people in the room, and maybe five people put up their hands. I was one of them. Nowadays two hundred and forty would have raised their hands. That I even put my hand up was amazing to me, since I’d just gone through high school without raising it once. And then he said, “Meet me in Stewart’s Cafeteria.” So the next week, I went to meet him at Stewart’s Cafeteria and he wasn’t there. I immediately called up this boy I had begun to go around with (and later married) and bawled, “He wasn’t there, he was fooling.”
It turned out there were two Stewart’s Cafeterias on Twenty-third Street—one east and one west—he was in the other one. So the next week he said, “Where were you, Grace Goodside?” Then I did meet him. He read my poems—which were exactly like his.
I mean, I really wrote in his style. I was crazy about him. I loved his poems so much that I was using this British language all the time—I was saying trousers and subaltern and things like that. You understand I was a Bronx kid. We went through a few poems, and he kept asking me, do you really talk like that? And I kept saying, “Oh yeah, well, sometimes.” That was the great thing I learned from Auden: that you’d better talk your own language. Then I asked him what young writers now ask me—and I always tell them this story—I said to Auden, “Well, do you think I should keep writing?” He laughed and then became very solemn. “If you’re a writer,” he said, “you’ll keep writing no matter what. That’s not a question a writer should ask.” Something like that, not exactly, but close.
Were there other poets that you heard or took a class with?
No, but I read poetry all the time. Probably the poets everybody read then. Very Catholic taste. I even loved Eliot then whom I later grew not to love. I knew lots of poems by memory and walked around mumbling them. Yeats, Rilke, Keats, Coleridge. I liked Milton a lot for some reason. And then there were the Oscar Williams anthologies of 1942 and 1943 with those pictures of the beautiful young poets.
How about fiction writers?
Again, you think you’re unique in some way but you really never are: you read what people your age are reading. We read a lot of Joyce—Dubliners was always very important to me—and Proust. Joyce’s stories were the only short stories I really liked. We used to read Ulysses aloud when I was eighteen years old. I think that’s where I got my habit of reading aloud. Gertrude Stein’s Three Stories impressed me. The use of the “other voice.” Then there were lots of other novels at home that my parents were reading—like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh—we worried, we felt for the Armenians. Later I read Chekhov, who meant a lot to me. Then Babel and Turgenev—all the Russians—and Flaubert. I don’t think I read more than most good readers, but I read as much.
Did you enjoy the Russian writers because you grew up with Russian at home?
Probably. Although it’s not just Russian: Russian is very dear to me because it’s a family language, but I am Jewish-Russian, which is a little different from Russian-Russian. My family ran away in 1905 from the Russian-Russians. People say I write like Isaac Babel, but it’s not that he has influenced me. I hadn’t read him before I wrote. It’s our common grandparents who have influenced us both … in terms of inflection and what one pays attention to. It’s not a literary influence so much as a social influence, a linguistic influence, a musical influence. I’ve just published a new book called New and Collected Poems with a blurb on the back from Jean Valentine, a wonderful poet. She says, “At last, a Russian writer in English!” The publishers felt it was a little weird, but I thought it was great.
Has your writing been influenced by nonliterary media? Art, or music, or painting … TV?
My husband, Robert Nichols, begins his day of writing by looking at paintings—for about an hour every morning. All this year he’s been looking at Klee. I’m not like that. I’ve always listened to a lot of music, but I’m not very visual. Noticeably not. You may be aware that I don’t do a lot of description. I’ve been surrounded by music for most of my life. Always classical. But I think the most powerful sounds are those voices, those childhood voices. The tune of those voices. Other languages, Russian and Yiddish, coming up smack against the English. I think you hear that a lot in American literature. TV I don’t watch too much. I don’t feel snobbish about it, it’s just that it can use up too much time. It’s terribly seductive.
People have described your writing as wise.
That’s because I’m old. When people get old they seem wise, but it’s only because they’ve got a little more experience, that’s all. I’m not so wise. Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.
In your choice of subject matter, you and Tillie Olsen have opened the door for a lot of writers.
I hope so. Of course that’s not up to me or Tillie to say, “Yes, there was the door and we opened it”—we can’t say that. It’s not nice. I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, people will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, it’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.
Meanwhile the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the Second Wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie was more like a cupful.
Was there anyone on that wave before you, who enabled you to write like you did?
Well, I didn’t know I was on any wave. I knew what I was writing, but I didn’t think then that I was part of any movement. I didn’t even think I was a feminist! If you had asked me if I was a feminist when I began writing The Little Disturbances of Man, I would have said I’m a socialist—or something like that. But by the end of the book I had taught myself a lot and I knew more or less who I was. I opened the door to myself.
Do you still feel supported by the women’s movement?
I do feel very supported. There’s hardly a woman writer who doesn’t receive some kind of support from the women’s movement. We’re very lucky to be living and writing now. I feel supported by lots of men too, but I feel very specifically the attention of women, even in opposition. And they’re the ones I get arguments from; they’re the ones who say, “Why don’t you write about this kind of life, or that kind of life? We like the children but why are they all boys?” But on the other hand, I was at a conference in California last week, where a young woman kept saying she didn’t want to be a woman writer because it trivialized her. The point is that the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.
Why do you suppose she said that?
I think she said it because she feels it’s true. And there is truth to it. A lot of European women feel it very strongly. They are afraid of being anything but totally universal. But we used to have a saying, I take it from whence it comes, which is a Bronx version of sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. So you take it from whence it comes, that is, if a certain society decides to trivialize you, it will marginalize you.
Do you think American women writers feel that way?
I think they fear being marginalized and rightly so. There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.
You’ve said that when you’re writing you are “doing women’s politics.” Could you say more about that?
Did I say that? If I did I probably meant that if the personal is political—as we all say—then writing about women is a political act. Just like black people writing about the lives of blacks. It’s very important to people that they have these stories. And the personal is especially political when it spreads fingers out into the world—because sometimes you find that what is most personal is also what connects you most strongly with others.
Has there been a change of climate from when you first started writing to now, in the nineties?
In 1959 it was absolutely insane for Ken McCormick to say yes, he was going to publish a book of short stories. Now everybody in the writing world is reading and writing short stories—that’s one thing. Another thing is that a lot more women are writing. A lot of people who wouldn’t have written are writing. When a couple of black women speak, the throats of many are opened. Somehow or other they give courage and sound to their sisters.
So you didn’t feel that sense of there being a community of women writers in the fifties?
I didn’t think about it. I just wrote. I didn’t say, “Oh, there are no women writers,” as much as I thought to myself, “this subject matter is so trivial. Who in the world would be interested in this stuff?”
Did it surprise you when you found that there was a response, the sort of response that Ken McCormick had?
I was surprised they published the book, I was surprised they liked the stories. It wasn’t even really surprise—I just considered myself lucky.
Do you feel that your subject matter has changed or broadened over the years?
As my life has changed, it has, I suppose. I’m still politically very interested in women’s lives, so I think about that a lot. But it really isn’t up to me to say. Some of these observations other people have to make. I don’t see a particular line, I just see that I’ve written a lot of stories. Yet I know they get different, somewhat, not a lot. I traveled, went to different places. I took an airplane out of the park.
Do you think editors have a responsibility to publish as many women as they do men?
Yes. Editors should think about those things. What sometimes starts out seeming artificial, well, it’s as though you have to be artificial at first. That’s what affirmative action is about—it’s hard for some people to evolve through artificiality into something natural and decent, a truth you and the world have refused to see. It’s like changing your language.
Can you tell when you pick up a manuscript whether it’s a woman writer?
You can’t always tell. Think of the number of women who sent their manuscripts in with initials so they didn’t give themselves away as women. I did that myself when I was young, I mean, with my poems. I’d write G.G. Paley.
You put the initials on the poems because you thought they had a better chance of being accepted?
It doesn’t happen so much anymore but that’s what used to happen: women hid in order to be seen.
Some writers say writing gets harder.
Well, some of it’s harder and some of it’s easier. The easy part is, you know you’re going to finish something. That’s the best part. When you first begin to write, you—well, I, at least, used to think, will I ever get past four paragraphs? But once I finished that first book I knew I would finish whatever I wanted to. That’s the great thing. It’s harder because you have already set yourself certain standards, and you’re probably trying to do something more demanding—not to change your voice, but trying to understand something different, so far unknown to you.
Your stories are so oriented around dialogue and how people sound. Have you ever written plays?
For a start, plays always seemed to me much more than dialogue. A play that’s all dialogue is really pretty uninteresting unless it’s Shaw or Oscar Wilde. So that was one thing. Second of all, I don’t like the theater as much as I did when I was really young. And third, when I was writing the early stories, the theater I liked was really the radical theater, street theater. I loved those audiences, and I really didn’t like twenty-five-dollar-a-seat audiences, especially when they couldn’t afford twelve dollars for a book! So I had a kind of a prejudice against it.
You wrote your father into Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and you dedicated it to him. What about your mother?
My mother died when I was young—in my early twenties. I was much closer to my father. My mother was very much like the person in a couple of the stories, in several poems: very serious, always telling my father not to think he’s so funny. She was a terrific person, a very kind woman … but it’s as though I haven’t really wanted to write about her. I have some kind of loyalty to a true portrayal—can I do it? I think about her very factually. With my father I invent and reinvent him. He had many aspects. He could be the working guy in “The Loudest Voice,” very charming, obviously not as principled as his wife; or he could be a man who writes poems or paints—he did most of the paintings in this kitchen. In actual fact he was a doctor, a neighborhood doctor who was much loved. He lived with my mother, my aunt and my grandmother. The joke was, if he said pass the salt, three women leaped to their feet—so he was a pain in that respect. My father had different aspects I could use, but my mother was very much one person, the same to everybody. She was wise, she didn’t talk a lot. It was easier for me to leap onto the bandwagon of my father’s conversation. In other words, I did the easy thing. I’ve been reprimanded for it by people who knew my mother—they ask me, where’s mama?
Virginia Woolf felt that a writer can’t write if she’s angry. What do you think about that?
You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he’s angry, he wants to take a poke at someone—or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it’s not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?
Other writers such as Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor use a lot of physical violence in their stories. In yours it’s there, but offstage, in the background, in the past. Was this a conscious decision?
I don’t use violence. Most of the time it’s used opportunistically. Still it is a terribly violent country. When I wrote “The Little Girl”—that story about the murder—it took all my strength … really used me from my toes to my head. It was so hard, it almost took my breath to write that story. I’m not as close to violence as African-American mothers who are writers, such as Toni Morrison or June Jordan. Having black sons who are vulnerable to police, to directed race hatred, they must be anxious all the time. Some of my stories are knock-wood stories—like “Samuel” in which four boys are fooling around on the subway between cars and one falls and is killed. It’s a taboo story. I tell it to prevent it from happening, not because it did … the idea that if you write it into literature it won’t happen in life.
But I hate the American expectation of violence. I’m not going to play into any of that. When I must write about violence, I will, but I’ll do it straight, not add and add because the level is higher every year. I was just reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I felt the American war in Vietnam in my bones. Flannery O’Connor’s a terrific writer, but somehow her conception of religion as specializing in death—and also her illness—forced her and her brilliant language in that direction.
You say also that the pressure to write is a pressure of language—how do these two relate?
It depends. I wasn’t angry when I wrote “Goodbye and Good Luck”—I just felt a certain pressure to use the resonance of the phrase “I was popular in certain circles”—a looking-backness, a storytelling justice for one of my aunts, a reinvention of her life for that purpose—all of which wouldn’t leave me alone. The sound of it required me to go on. This is what I mean when I say that art comes from constant mental harassment. You’re bugged.
The pressure to write and the pressure to publish are not the same?
Not for me. It’s not that I don’t like being published. I love to see my stuff in print. I really do. But I think I have a peculiar sense of time. I feel like I can always do something. There’s time. I never feel like I have to do something fast or it will never appear, or I’ll drop dead first. I may—I’m almost seventy. I figure, well, in a week I’ll figure out where to send this to, and then I think, well, I’m too busy to decide.
Have you ever had a hard time publishing?
I’ve had a lot of trouble publishing my stories in magazines. People say that I’m a New Yorker writer: the New Yorker published one of my stories in 1978 and two in 1979 and has never published anything since. I often have stories sent back, though now I have more requests for more stories than I have stories to give, so it balances out. I know I can publish, but I still get things sent back.
Have you ever relied on your writing for income?
No. I’ve always had to teach, or read, or lecture.
What is the relationship between writing and money?
It’s helpful to have money. I don’t think writers have to suffer to starve to death. One of the first things I tell my classes is, if you want to write, keep a low overhead. If you want to live expansively you’re going to be in trouble because then you have to start thinking very hard about whom you’re writing to, who your audience is, who the editor thinks your audience is, who he wants your audience to be?
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always wanted to write. Two different things. I never thought I was going to be a writer, but I was never interested in anything else. I failed at whatever else I undertook—even as an office worker, I was not outstanding.
You’ve said there are two kinds of people: those with children and those without. Could you say more about that?
It’s a different life. Another creature is really dependent on you. I think it’s good for a writer, though. I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day-care from the time they were three years old.
How did you find time to write while raising children, being involved in political activity, teaching?
I wrote at different paces. I wrote my first stories when I was sick and had a few weeks at home. I made a start in a big chunk of time, about three weeks. And after that I just kept going.
Sometimes one or the other part of my life would pull me away from writing—the children of course and then the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Having grown up the way I did, it just seemed natural to become involved. That was what the whole country was about. I was often busy with that from morning until night. I couldn’t stand that we were in this war, and I just wrote less. Actually, that isn’t quite true. I wrote leaflets, political reports, articles. And poems. As a matter of fact, my reports following my journey through North Vietnam in 1969 were mostly poems.
A lot of other writers were involved too. There were lots of readings. On the East Coast, Denise Levertov and Mitch Goodman had a lot to do with those events. Angry Arts Week—organized by Artists against the War—and the Greenwich Village Peace Center are good examples of that energy. Poets rode around the city reading from trucks. Almost any concert that week would begin with a dedication to the war’s end. One particular event—“Vietnamese Life”—focused on ordinary Vietnamese life and culture. No egotism allowed, no “Oh how bad I feel about all of this. …” I remember Hortense Calisher reading Vietnamese stories and Susan Sontag reading Lao Tse. Irene Fornes presented a Vietnamese wedding. Wally Zuckerman, who used to build harpsichords, created the wind instruments used in the windy forest of Indochina.
Who were the poets on the trucks?
People who were comfortable on trucks. I wasn’t. I worked in the office mostly. I was too shy anyway. Who were they? Well, Sam Abrams, Tuli Kupferberg, Clayton Eshleman, Bob Nichols, Ed Sanders, many more. I’ve probably got a file somewhere.
How important do you think it is for the writer to rise up at moments like that?
It’s interesting for the writer. It’s normal. Of course, it’s hard if you’re in the middle of a book. It’s a question only Americans ask. Is it good? It certainly isn’t antithetical to a passionate interior life—all that noise coming in. You have to make music of it somehow.
Do you think political statements belong in literature? Would you write a novel that was a political tract?
One man’s political tract is another person’s presidential statement—in Czechoslovakia, for example. The word tract is such a bad word by itself obviously one would have to say, “No, nobody should write a tract, nobody should do that.” But I think that a love of language, truthfulness and a sense of form is justification enough.
Anyway characters in fiction can say anything they want. They’re often quite willful, you know.
Has anti-Semitism affected your career?
I don’t know. It’s affected my work. I take being Jewish very seriously. I like it. My first two stories were specifically Jewish. When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, you’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but. … The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and others were getting more generally famous everyday. He was Jewish himself, but he wanted me to “broaden” myself.
I don’t think anti-Semitism has affected my career much. I’m sure in certain colleges they’re not interested in my stories, but you’d be surprised how people don’t take it into account. Kids especially, they just want to know how the plot turned out. I always say that racism is like pneumonia and anti-Semitism is like the common cold—everybody has it. I often meet it in this lovely Vermont countryside, sneezing away.
You used to embrace the position of literary outsider, whereas now you are a central figure. …
I wasn’t trying to be an outsider. At first I was afraid of hanging out with writers. Otherwise I would surely have seen and tried to talk to Auden again. But I really wasn’t interested. When the poets went out on the trucks, I helped organize, but I never read myself. Nor was I in any of those Vietnam anthologies … until about six months ago when a group of nurses put an anthology together of women who had gone to Vietnam during the war. Basically I didn’t want to get into that life … I was scared of it.
What were you scared of?
I was scared in the way that some people are scared to leave their neighborhoods: you have your people, you have your roots and you don’t want to pull away from them. You’re writing about these people and their lives and you don’t want suddenly to get into a literary scene. It seemed so logical to me. Besides, I wasn’t interested. I was interested in my Park friends. I was interested in the meetings I helped organize during those years or in going to the Soviet Union to do certain political tasks, to Sweden to talk to deserters, to Vietnam in 1969.
Though I devoted a good deal of time trying to be completely unliterary, I ended up working with writers on the PEN board and liking them, and it. Also having many beloved literary friends like Kay Boyle and Tillie Olsen, Esther Broner. Don Barthelme lived across the street—he was a beloved family friend. And my second husband is a writer. I was always afraid that if I started to become too literary it would end my street and kitchen life. But it turned out writers were okay. I was surprised. And then my closest friends like Sybil Claiborne, Eva Kollisch and Vera Williams had always been writing—so there was no escape.
Have you ever found yourself in conflict with the literary establishment?
There are so many different groups of writers. Some liked the first book and didn’t like what came after that, but I think it’s really me they didn’t like so much. As I became more feminist some people took a dim view of that. On the other hand other people liked me, not for the stories but for the stuff I did outside. I haven’t really seen a lot of criticism of my work; I know it exists and I know it’s good and bad, but I don’t go out and look for it. The longest review I’ve ever had was an attack in Commentary magazine. Kind of virulent. My publisher doesn’t send me terrible things that people have said. I’m not the kind of a writer who gets into literary fights. I prefer political ones. As for my attitude towards other writers, I’m kind of short on disdain or contempt. That is, I don’t belong to the school of “I can only live if you die.” I tend to be interested in writers whose work is different from mine. Of course I’m saddened and angered equally by work made of contempt, hatred, misogyny and too many adjectives.
At a recent PEN Congress in which you played a prominent role there was much argument over the proper relationship between the writer and the state. Is it necessarily an adversarial one?
It’s not that you set out to oppose authority. In the act of writing you simply do. Your job, your reason for writing, is to uncover what the state and the conventions of your town normally hide. That’s why you want to write—to tell what hasn’t been told. Our PEN Congress was about the conscience of the State and the conscience of the writer. One of its troubles and truths was that George Schultz, intent on making war on Central American people, was the keynote speaker. Another was the fact that out of eleven poets reading, ten were men. This situation has been eased somewhat by the creation of a Women’s Committee in the U.S. as well as one in International PEN.
And a final word?
The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.
SOURCE: “Faith and the ‘Black Thing’: Political Action and Self Questioning in Grace Paley's Short Fiction,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 79-89.
[In the following essay, Meyer examines Paley's self-conscious exploration of racism in various forms, particularly the naïve and self-righteous variety displayed by well-meaning white activists. As Meyer notes, through Faith, a white female protagonist, Paley confronts her own concerns and reservations about speaking on behalf of African Americans.]
Grace Paley is almost as well known for her politics as for her short stories. Indeed, she has said that “the three things in my life have been writing, politics, and family” (Isaacs 123), and that each has, at times, been forced to give way to the others. Many of the critics who admire her work, for example, lament the fact that her political activity has kept her from doing more of it. She disagrees with such an assessment. For her, the two are intimately connected; she has argued that “art, literature, fiction, poetry, whatever it is, makes justice in the world” (Shapiro 45), a belief that is expressed in much of her fiction. One of the most fascinating aspects of many of Paley’s stories, though, is the way in which they create a forum wherein she can question her own real-life activism. In these works she both explores and satirizes her theme of a commitment to others (Antler 16).
This paper was originally presented, in slightly different form, at the Twentieth-Century Literature Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in February 1993. At that time Judith Arcana’s vitally important text, Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993), had not yet appeared, and so Arcana’s insights were not included in the essays’s original version and can only be touched on in passing now. On several occasions in her book, Arcana makes statements very similar to some of the points I am raising in this essay. She writes in the introduction, for example, that “in [Paley’s] most apparently autobiographical work, characters reflect her well-known political stance, including her struggle to be responsible for her own consciousness: what she learns is learned by those characters. Faith is revealed as less than lovable when the erstwhile racist and sexist Zagrowsky ‘tells’” (6). Arcana points out that “Faith in a Tree” and “The Long-Distance Runner” both “reveal extensive development of political consciousness in their author” (115), and her comments on these stories and “Zagrowsky Tells” are quite strong. She also makes some very good observations about Paley’s black characters in stories that don’t feature Faith Darwin (particularly “The Little Girl”) and details the biographical facts of Paley’s involvement with civil rights issues. Anyone interested in Paley should become acquainted with Arcana’s groundbreaking work, much of which supports the position I have taken in this essay.
This self-questioning seems particularly aroused when Paley writes of African Americans. A staunch believer in civil rights, Paley states in the “Introduction” to her recent collection of short pieces, Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991), that she hopes her work will “by its happiness and sadness, demonstrate against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters, [and] all those destroyers of days” (emphasis added). Indeed, the central characters in Paley’s canon are, in the words of one critic, “self-defined activists faithfully engaged in fighting oppression. Such activism is inclusive; it recognizes shared suffering. … Paley’s characters identify with oppressed groups” (Aarons 25–26). Nevertheless, in some of her fiction Paley seems to acknowledge that she might herself display some racist behaviors. At other times she appears to be asking herself why she, a white woman, should have the right to speak about African-American concerns in the first place. Through the fictional persona of Faith Darwin Asbury, a recurring personality in Paley’s stories, she is able to examine someone very much like herself while at the same time distancing herself from that person’s activities. In this manner she is able to, as Jacqueline Taylor notes, “reveal her good intentions [as well as] her limited awareness” (84). The fact that Paley is aware of her own limited awareness only intensifies her self-consciousness and self-questioning. By examining African-American issues as they arise in Paley’s stories, particularly the stories that feature Faith, we can get a clear understanding of this self-questioning process, the way in which she uses her stories to comment on her political activism.
Faith appears (directly or indirectly) in five of the stories in Paley’s second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and issues of race are at least briefly mentioned in all of them. On some occasions, for example, Faith’s friends and acquaintances make negatively stereotyped comments about blacks. In “Distance,” Mrs. Raftery, Faith’s Irish neighbor, explains that “there are different kinds coming into this neighborhood, and I do not mean the colored people alone. I mean people like you and me, religious, clean, many of these have gone rotten” (67). Underlying her statement is the belief that “colored people” are not “people like you and me, religious, [and] clean,” that they are naturally “rotten.” Mrs. Raftery is not a sympathetic character, and Paley certainly intends for the reader to scrutinize such comments carefully. In “Come On, Ye Sons of Art,” Faith’s friend Kitty argues with her boyfriend, Jerry Cook, about moving out of the city. He asks her, “What have your kids got here, everywhere they go, shvartzes, spics and spades,” yet he feels compelled to add, “not that I got a thing against them, but who needs the advance guard” (122). He claims to believe in equal rights, but his profession rings undeniably hollow. Kitty’s response—she “put her finger over his lips. Ssh, she said. I am tolerant and loving” (122)—also seems inadequate, and Jerry undercuts it even more by reminding her how, in a previous time, she had been repulsed by Jewish immigrants. In both of these stories, however briefly, Paley is indeed demonstrating against racism, while at the same time pointing out that it is more subtle and pervasive than we might at first believe.
Faith herself makes similarly ambivalent remarks in the story “Faith in a Tree,” however. She goes out of her way to act according to her political beliefs, but she is not above making herself a martyr for doing so. When her son Richard has an argument with Arnold Lee, the only kid in his class smarter than he is, and Chinese, she explains to him that he should:
use some of these advantages I’ve given you. I could be living in the country, which I love, but I know how hard that is on children—I stay here in this creepy slum. I dwell in soot and slime just so you can meet kids like Arnold Lee and live on this wonderful block with all the Irish and Puerto Ricans, although God knows why there aren’t any Negro children for you to play with. … (84)
In a passage like this all of Faith’s politically proper actions are undercut, for Paley shows us her true feelings and motivations: she is giving up something she would prefer in order to do what she knows is the right thing. As with Jerry Cook’s profession of belief in equality, the reader must question the inconsistencies in Faith’s reasoning. In this way—as Taylor notes with regard to the later story “The Long-Distance Runner”—“Faith’s well-meaning liberalism is challenged” (84).
“Faith in a Tree” is more significant, though, for its depiction of the moment at which Faith decides to become politically committed. As the story opens she is, literally, in a tree—she is with her children playing in the park—and this perspective allows her to look down on the world below and beneath her. In this position she can, as one critic notes,
assume a superior air [and] talk down to her fellow New Yorkers in a sympathetic tone that slightly leans toward condescension. For all her democratic idealism of living in a slum, educating her sons in cultural pluralism, and participating in the PTA, Faith in a tree is only half-committed. (Baba 45)
At the end of the story, however, following a demonstration against the war, Richard himself forces Faith to come down from her perch. He argues with her that she should have been stronger in not allowing the park cop to break up the demonstration, and he writes the demonstrators’ message in huge chalk letters on the blacktop. The story ends with Faith’s comment,
And I think that is exactly when events turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world. (99–100)
She is going to assume a more activist role now—on the ground rather than in a tree—and we sense that she will soon begin to protest more vehemently against injustice, particularly with regard to the war. The ending of this story, like many of Paley’s stories, Victoria Aarons notes, provides us “with hope that manifests itself … in a kind of political resolve in which [Faith] see[s] opportunities for dramatic and willful change” (25), and, moreover, begins to seize them.
Yet even as she sets out on this action it is already being undercut. In the early portion of the story, Faith presents a rather negative portrait of a Mrs. Junius Finn, who is “glad to say a few words” and who, Faith reports, “always is more in charge of word meanings than I am. She is especially in charge of Good and Bad” (85). That is to say, Mrs. Finn is always willing to give out her opinion of what is good or bad as though she were stating fact. Faith seriously questions her authority. By the end of “Faith in a Tree,” however, Faith is on her way to assuming the same kind of authoritarian stance. We should not be surprised, then, when in later stories she comes to question her own authority, particularly when it comes to political issues that contain, in Clara Park’s words, “the ugly ambiguities that did not arise when it was so simply right to oppose the war” (488). These ambiguities arise particularly when it comes to the question of racism. Faith knows prejudice is wrong and wants to demonstrate against it, but, in the collection’s final story, “The Long-Distance Runner,” she is forced to question both her right and her ability to do so.
“The Long-Distance Runner” is plotted in terms of a journey motif, with Faith running back to her past to find a way to run toward the future. She leaves the house one morning and jogs to her old neighborhood, which has now become all black. Her initial encounters in the neighborhood range from jocular to threatening, and she is eventually forced to take refuge in the apartment where she had grown up, now occupied by a Mrs. Luddy, her son Donald, and her three young daughters. Faith ends up staying there for several weeks, after which she returns home having learned, the story concludes, “as though she were still a child[,] what in the world is coming next” (198). Throughout the narrative, however, Faith, herself the student, is constantly intruding into the lives of these black people, offering advice as if she knows, and can teach them, what is right. Every time she offers such a liberal bromide, she is made to see the difficulty inherent in her well-meaning but misguided suggestions. In the early portion of the story, for example, a young girl scout, Cynthia, takes her to her old building and asks her about the previous tenants. When Faith discovers that Mrs. Goreditsky had continued to live there until her recent death, she remarks, “Only two years ago. She was still here! Wasn’t she scared?” Cynthia replies, “So we all. … White ain’t everything” (185). Faith initially declines Cynthia’s offer of an introduction to Mrs. Luddy, claiming that she doesn’t want to see the apartment because her mother has recently died (although her mother, as we know from this and other stories, is alive and well at the Children of Judea nursing home). The lie backfires, as Cynthia becomes quite upset by the thought of the death of her own saintly mother. Faith tries to comfort her by telling her that, if anything happens to her mother, “you could come live with me” (187), but this sign of liberality on Faith’s part only provokes great anger in the child, who does not want to be taken out of her environment. “Stay away from me, honky lady,” she says, and begins to cry out for help. It is in running from the approaching sounds of these helpers, in fact, that Faith knocks at Mrs. Luddy’s door.
Mrs. Luddy takes Faith under her wing, protecting her from the mob and offering shelter. Almost immediately, Faith takes on the role of an older daughter, although she once again can’t help being a little like Mrs. Junius Finn. She feels compelled to offer advice to Mrs. Luddy and Donald, and African Americans in general, but all of her politically charged statements about what should be done are undercut. Upon seeing the urban trash, for example, Faith remarks that “Someone ought to clean that up”; Mrs. Luddy quickly responds, “Who you got in mind? Mrs. Kennedy?” (190). When Donald makes a rather astute, insider’s comment about the black youths on the street corner—“They ain’t got self-respect. They got Afros on their heads, but they don’t know they black in their heads”—Faith’s response, “I thought he ought to learn to be more sympathetic,” is easily seen to be inadequate (191). When she urges Mrs. Luddy to let Donald play on the street, that “he ought to be with kids his age more, I think,” Mrs. Luddy tells her, “Don’t trouble your head about it if you don’t mind” (191). Shortly after this conversation Mrs. Luddy tells Faith that it is time for her to go, that “This ain’t Free Vacation Farm” (195). Her comment “time we was by ourself a little” (195) indicates that Mrs. Luddy “will not allow Faith to play grandmother, for Black cultural ties cannot be impaired” (Kamel 42). Faith realizes that it is time for her to go as well and, although she will miss Mrs. Luddy and Donald, she feels that she is returning to her home wiser than she was when she left. While jogging back to her house she makes a stop at another locale from her earlier life: the playground that was the setting of “Faith in a Tree.” She stops to talk with “a dozen young mothers intelligently handling their little ones,” to tell them that “in fifteen years, you girls will be like me, wrong in everything” (196).
When, towards the end of her “vacation,” Faith finally listens to Mrs. Luddy—who talks to her “gently as one does to a person who is innocent and insane and incorruptible because of stupidity” (192) and tells her the stories that she has been told and raised on by her own mother—Faith comes to see how limited her awareness of black life has been before her sojourn in the ghetto. Initially she thinks that her liberalism, and moreover her Jewishness, would naturally align her with African Americans, but she discovers that she is “naive about … the lives of blacks” and that, outside of her community, she is, in Barbara Eckstein’s words, an “enthusiastic, bungling tourist” (138). When a black youth whom she has complimented for his manner of speech tells her that “we get that from talking,” for example, she responds, “yes my people also had a way of speech” (181). As in Bernard Malamud’s story “Black Is My Favorite Color,” however, in “The Long-Distance Runner,” according to Minako Baba, “neither Faith’s claim to lineage of radicalism or to familiarity with the neighborhood, nor her attempt to demonstrate friendship[,] succeeds with the street blacks, and she is hounded as a suspicious white lady” (46). It is only when she can put her own preconceptions aside and really listen to the black voice of Mrs. Luddy, though, and to the black voices that are contained in Mrs. Luddy’s mother’s stories from the oral tradition, that she can come to understand how she has been wrong in the past and what she must do to correct her behavior in the future. It may be true that her “affectionate identification with Mrs. Luddy and her unwanted assistance in her children’s nurturing and education are sincere,” as one critic would have it, but what she learns is that she has acted with “simpleminded presumption” (Baba 47).
One of the most important things that Faith learns in the story is that, regardless of how she might think of and view herself, she has ingrained racist beliefs that she must now begin to search for and attempt to eradicate. She is forced to admit that she’s afraid to leave the haven of Mrs. Luddy’s apartment because “I’d become fearful. Despite my wide geographical love of mankind, I would be attacked by local fears” (188). She now knows that such geographical love—a belief in equal rights as an abstract principle—is not good enough, unless one puts that love into practice in a necessarily small and local way. As in “Faith in a Tree,” we here witness Faith’s discovery of a new resolve to fight more strongly for justice; she jogs back home a changed person, “now in possession of a more realistic view of the diversity and complexity of the world and the limitations of her own experience and perspective” (Taylor 84). When “The Long-Distance Runner” ends, though, the message is not being properly received. Her sons and her boyfriend cannot understand where she has been or what it has meant to her, both because they don’t have the vision of the future that she now possesses and because she, an outsider, cannot do a very good job of describing or explaining it.
The connection that Faith tried to make between blacks and Jews here in terms of their linguistic innovations is similar to the kind of joking remarks her father makes about black-Jewish relations in several places. In “Faith in the Afternoon,” for instance, he reflects back on his youthful plans
to organize the help. You know the guards, the elevator boys—colored fellows mostly. You notice, they’re coming up in the world. Regardless of hopes, I never expected it in my lifetime. The war, I suppose, did it. Faith, what do you think? The war made Jews Americans and Negroes Jews. Ha ha. What do you think of that for an article? “The Negro: Outside In At Last.” (47)
Faith is not particularly amused and comments that “someone wrote something like that” (47), perhaps referring to (although inverting) Leslie Fiedler’s observation that “the American is becoming an imaginary Jew” while, “at the same time, the Jew whom his Gentile fellow-citizens emulates may himself be in the process of becoming an imaginary Negro” (98). Faith’s father again humorously points to this ethnic conflation in “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” one of the Faith stories in Paley’s third volume, Later the Same Day (1985). Here it is reported that “he had been discussing the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ with Chuck Johnson, the gatekeeper,” and stated, “it’s brilliant. … If we could have thought that one up, it would’ve saved a lot of noses, believe me” (16). He points out, appropriately, the two groups’ shared concern about the problems of assimilation in the multicultural environment, the way in which “the dominant culture’s determination of meaning extends even to definitions of what is beautiful, definitions that are easily internalized by muted groups” (Taylor 61). Unlike Faith, however, her father makes his points known in a subtle and humorous way, and he doesn’t feel the need to question his quiet, local gestures on behalf of improved race relations. His method provides an antidote that allows us to see Faith’s self-righteousness in the somewhat darker shades of contrast.
Faith’s self-righteousness comes under particularly pointed attack in “Zagrowsky Tells,” one of Paley’s finest works. Izzy Zagrowsky, the narrator of the tale, is an elderly man who had been a pharmacist in Faith’s neighborhood. At one point, he recalls, she and some friends had accused him of being a racist and had picketed in front of his store. The encounter he wants to tell us of, however, is a much more recent one, which occurred when he had gone to the park to play with his grandson, Emanuel, who is black. As the reader might suspect, Izzy was at first more than a little reluctant to take in his mentally unstable daughter’s illegitimate black son, but he now accepts his situation and looks at it philosophically. “All right,” he says. “A person looks at my Emanuel and says, Hey! he’s not altogether from the white race, what’s going on? I’ll tell you what: life is going on. You have an opinion. I have an opinion. Life don’t have no opinion” (158–59). Although all indications are that Zagrowsky had indeed employed discriminatory practices in his pharmacy, his love for his grandson has changed his attitude entirely. Like Faith’s father, he is now able to joke about the situation, claiming that Emanuel is “a golden present from … Egypt …—he’s from Isaac’s other son, get it?” (166). Zagrowsky is referring to Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, one of the biblical tropes that is often cited as a sign of literal black-Jewish brotherhood. He also notes of the Italian men he meets in the park to play bocce with that “they think the Jews are a little bit colored anyways” (169), and later on he says of Emanuel’s circumcision that “he isn’t the first colored child. They tell me long ago we were mostly dark” (171).
As the story opens, Zagrowsky is telling us, he was sitting in the park minding his own business when he was approached, more nearly accosted, by Faith. She does not see the humor in the situation—Zagrowsky’s first description of her is as “a woman minus a smile” (151)—because, as she soon demonstrates, she is entirely ignorant of what the situation is. Her first words to him are “Iz, what are you doing with that black child?” (151). She can only imagine worst-case scenarios and she feels it incumbent upon her to stand up for the rights of the “poor kid” (151). Here we see her once again intruding into other people’s affairs and offering advice in her authoritarian voice; Zagrowsky’s description of her as “giv[ing] me a look like God in judgment” reinforces this note perfectly. Emanuel’s response to her overtures, like Cynthia’s in “The Long-Distance Runner,” is not appreciation but fear.
Once Zagrowsky explains that Emanuel is his grandson, Faith cannot help but pry until she gets the whole story, in which, it turns out, she figures rather prominently. Cissy, Zagrowsky’s daughter, was always somewhat unbalanced, but the picketing seems to have been the event that, after the protesters’ departure, triggered her collapse. As Zagrowsky begins to fill in the details for Faith he becomes angrier and angrier with her. He finds it hard to give vent to feelings that he has kept inside, but he asks himself “why should I leave her off the hook” (160) and tells her that “you got to hear the whole story how we suffered” (161). He wants her and her friends to “know what they started” (161), to realize that their political actions have problematic consequences in the real world that they may not be aware of. But Faith doesn’t understand his intention and refuses to accept any responsibility. When he points out how hurt he was by their picketing, for example, she responds, “we were right” (157). When she repeats this rationale later in the story Zagrowsky mockingly labels her “Queen of Right,” and this appellation justly describes her Mrs. Finn-like attitude toward Izzy. For example, when he reminisces about how, before the picketing, he and his daughter were very close and used to dance together, she interjects “I don’t think that was good” (154). Her first comment when he completes his tale of Emanuel’s conception is “Right, Iz, you did the right thing” (171). By this point in the story the reader can only agree with Zagrowsky’s response: “I feel like smacking her. I’m not a violent person, just very excitable, but who asked her?” (170). Zagrowsky’s description of her “sit[ting] there looking at me, nodding her head from rightness” (170) is perfectly accurate and reinforces his earlier description of her as the Queen of Right. She comes across to the reader as “self-righteous, certain, unintentionally but willingly merciless” (Park 487), “insensitive[,] and patronizing” (Taylor 118).
Not only does Faith not question that she had been right in her previous encounters with Zagrowsky, but she again feels called upon to offer him advice about his present situation. She tells him that Emanuel “should have friends his own color, he shouldn’t have the burden of being the only one in school. [H]e should eventually know his own people. It’s their life he’ll have to share” (172). Once again political bromides are uttered and undercut in the same breath, for Faith is showing her own racist attitudes here. Zagrowsky is so enraged that he snaps at her, “Listen, Miss, Miss Faith—do me a favor, don’t teach me” (172). As in “The Long-Distance Runner,” Faith is trying to teach when she should be learning. Even at the end of “Zagrowsky Tells,” however, Faith still seems oblivious to the lesson in understanding that Zagrowsky has tried to teach her. When a young father approaches Zagrowsky to ask him a polite question about Emanuel, the grandfather replies “very loud—no one else should bother me—how come it’s your business, mister?” (174). The man really hasn’t done anything wrong, and Zagrowsky’s anger is displaced from its rightful target, Faith, who has now moved away. When she hears Zagrowsky’s raised voice, however, she comes over to take up his defense, badgering the man until he leaves, with his own child in tears. She then returns to Zagrowsky and says, “Honestly, some people are a pain, aren’t they, Iz?” (175). He, and the reader, could not agree more.
“Zagrowsky Tells” is thus unusual among Paley’s Faith stories for several reasons. It is the only one in the sequence that is narrated from the point of view of someone other than Faith. This allows the reader to gain a greater perspective into her character as it is perceived, not by herself, but by those with whom she interacts. We get a rare outward glimpse of, as Zagrowsky terms it, “her bossy face” (156). In addition, “Zagrowsky Tells” is the only one in the cycle in which Faith does not seem to have gained insight. As the story ends, she and her friends walk off “talking, talking” (211). Faith has indeed been doing a lot of talking in this story, but she hasn’t been doing much listening. Zagrowsky’s story is as significant as Mrs. Luddy’s, but Faith cannot put her preconceptions aside here to really listen to his position. Unlike Zagrowsky, who, in one touching scene, is able to put himself in his daughter’s place as he explains how he believes she came to make love with the gardener (Taylor 116), Faith cannot see beyond herself here. She is much more confident than in the earlier story that her behavior has been proper, and she does not feel the need to question herself. As a result, however, the reader questions her even more carefully. Faith appears to have lost her ability to become aware of her own limited awareness, which makes Paley and the reader all the more aware of it.
Like “The Long-Distance Runner,” then, “Zagrowsky Tells” ultimately “point[s] out the fallacy of [Faith’s] radical idealism and the relativity of the concept of ‘right’” (Baba 51). Because of Paley’s distance from Faith in this story, furthermore, we can sense a continued and even an increased self-questioning on the author’s part. As Jacqueline Taylor notes, “that the character so corrected is so closely identified with the voice of the author only makes the implicit message about the difficulty of really listening to the other all the more powerful” (119). Paley thus appears to be using the story to ask herself to what extent her own political activities have been like Faith’s, well intentioned but ill-advised. She argues on behalf of causes she knows to be right—including civil rights—but she wonders whether she is really well-informed enough to do so, whether she isn’t making of herself a Queen of Right. The fact that she is able to create a character like Zagrowsky, though, indicates that she will continue to ask herself questions about her political conduct. He is the real discovery in this story, and his political action, the local act of taking in and loving one boy, is appropriate and successful, whereas Faith’s grandiose plans are always unworkable. As Neil Isaacs points out, “Zagrowsky is arguing that his experience is more enlightening about racism than any institutional prejudice of the organized abstraction of a demonstration can be” (91). In the character of Zagrowsky, then, Paley is once again demonstrating against racism, as well as using humor to show the difficulty of doing so without succumbing to “the occupational disease of people of good will trying to be responsibly active in this place in democratic time” (Park 487): self-righteousness. As long as Paley can continue to invent characters like Zagrowsky to challenge her political assumptions, it is unlikely that she will fall victim to that trap.
Aavons, Victoria. “Talking Lives: Storytelling and Renewal in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 9 (1990): 20–35.
Antler, Joyce. Introduction. America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers. Ed. Joyce Antler. Boston: Beacon, 1990. 1–24.
Baba, Minako. “Faith Darwin as Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley’s Short Stories” Studies in American Jewish Literature 7 (1988): 40–54.
Eckstein, Barbara, “Grace Paley’s Community: Gradual Epiphanies in the Meantime.” Politics and the Muse: Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature. Ed. Adam J. Sorkin, Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green SU Popular P, 1989. 124–41.
Fiedler, Leslie. Waiting for the End. 1964 Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967.
Isaacs, Neil D. Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Kamel, Rose. “To Aggravate the Conscience: Grace Paley’s Loud Voice.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 11.3 (1983): 29–49.
Paley, Grace. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. 1974, New York: Farrar, 1991.
———. Later the Same Day. 1985. New York: Penguin, 1986.
———. Long Walks and Intimate Talks. New York: Feminist P, 1991.
Park, Clara Claiborne. “Faith, Grace, and Love.” Hudson Review 38 (1985): 481–88.
Shapiro, Harriet. “Grace Paley: ‘Art Is on the Side of the Underdog.’” Ms. May 1974: 43–45.
Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
SOURCE: “A Vent in the Park,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 3, 1994, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Eder offers a positive assessment of Paley's fiction, but notes that the collection contains several unexceptional pieces.]
Anger does for Grace Paley what love did for Dante’s Beatrice; it makes her speak. But Paley’s anger, at its best, is no more a rant or preachment than Beatrice’s love was a burble. A few of these Collected Stories are thinly didactic with only one or two relieving grace notes; a few others are gnomic to the point of clenching and evaporating.
These are slips of a chisel that channels through hard rock. The channels gleam. Paley, now 71, is a feminist going back to the '50s when she started writing. Many of her stories evoke a radical New York Jewish milieu where the talk, no doubt, was of great things but the women, joining in, were still expected to tend infant male bottoms and full-grown male egos. The women in Paley’s stories are partway along in revolt.
They have divorced once or twice, taken lovers, struggled to support themselves and their husband-less families, and fought in activist causes—while still cherishing their children, the men they live with, and their old and sick parents. They are the burdened rope bridges between two certainties: a past and traditional female generation and a younger, feminist generation on which the past weighs hardly at all. This is precarious: on the other hand, the view from a rope bridge is unhampered. Swaying, furthermore, is rather like flying.
Paley’s characters, refusing to detach entirely from any part of their contradictions, are in a sense imprisoned by them. Some of Paley’s writing is immured in realistic quandary, but often her voice, like a small dynamite charge, breaks jail. It is an eclectic voice, by turns disruptive and lyrical.
Her older generation speaks warm and sharp, in tones finely inflected by immigrant Russian and Yiddish. Her contemporaries, moving with her from their 30s to their 60s (Faith, a recurring character, is Paley’s alter ego and even looks like her), speak in the nervy patterns of the present-day educated classes. Under stress, the patterns distort into the kind of hyper-real connections and disconnections that Donald Barthelme and William Gaddis were experimenting with at roughly the same time.
Paley has a gift for uniting a far-out image with highly local pain and anger. In an early story, set perhaps in the 1920s and more folkloric than the author’s later work, Rosie, the heroine, persists in her scandalous and ultimately, successful attachment to a married star of the Yiddish theater. Phrases tumble out that begin with amiable comedy and intensify into something quite different.
“I am a samovar already,” says Rosie, refusing more tea. Told that her actor’s mother nursed him until he was 6, she protests: “She must have had shredded wheat there, not breasts, poor woman.” And when, in middle age, her conformist sister condescends to her, she bursts out. “If there was more life in my younger sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings, and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.”
In “The Loudest Voice” a Jewish husband and wife ruminate and complain about a Christmas play at the public school. These are pre-activist years; the tone is a mixture of pain and acceptance. But for the daughter, chosen over the mumbling Gentile children for her piercing delivery, there is exultation, a determination to prevail. “I expected to be heard,” she tells herself. “My voice was certainly the loudest.”
As Paley’s writing moves from sharply focused social and psychological pieces to ones that are more complex and diffuse, it is still the blinding and revealing phrase that pulls us in. In “Two-Part Story,” Faith, once or twice divorced—her particular circumstances shift somewhat through half a dozen stories—lives with a lover who tries to be friends with her two sons. He roughhouses so ineptly with them that they all get slightly hurt. He blames her; she throws an ashtray, taking a bit off his ear.
Later her smallest son, Tonto, wants to snuggle: “I love you, Mama,” he says. “Love,” she answers. “Oh love, Anthony. I know.” She has had plenty of love, what she needs is a life. Yet, watching the light come through the blinds, she thinks: “Through the short fat fingers of my son … my heart lit up in stripes.”
That is not reconciliation. There is nothing reconciled about this striped writer who rages at the way women have been victimized by their instincts, and refuses to deny the instincts or abstract them. Not explicitly erotic, her stories about Faith and her friends are as full of sex as they are of politics and protest. Sometimes her women succumb, sometimes they are the instigators. In one story, the Faith-character acquires a cabdriver, much younger, and a pregnancy. Instead of letting him move in, she turns her apartment into a commune for pregnant girls, and allows him to visit.
Not all the succumbing is disastrous nor all the seeking successful. Her female sexuality is not male sexuality in a skirt; her women are round and pointed. They love men for men’s needs as well as for their own. It is a contradiction, not a synthesis. It takes great creative power to keep such contradictions going, and often Paley will slip off to one side or another, sometimes too easily. Consistency is no more her hobgoblin than it is a rodeo rider’s; she stays seated only for a few moments, but what terrific moments they can be!
In any case, men are only sometimes the point. The points are many work, children, the discovery in middle age of who one’s parents really are. Some of the most subtle and penetrating of her stories are about visits to a mother or father in a hospital or nursing home.
This collection unites three earlier ones, published in 1959, 1974 and 1985. The third (Later the Same Day) shows signs of flagging; a number of the stories are slight or almost routine. Yet it also contains what I think is Paley’s masterpiece. “Zagrowsky Tells” reverses her usual form. It is told from the point of view not of a woman but a man; in this case a retired pharmacist taking his little grandson for a walk in the park. The boy is illegitimate, the son of Zagrowsky’s mentally impaired daughter and the black gardener in her sanatorium.
Zagrowsky is an extreme exemplar of the prejudices of an older generation of New York Jews. In his pharmacy he would yell at, or at least snub, any black customers who wandered in. He was, in fact, the object of a picket by a group of liberal white neighbors—Faith and her friends among them. Now he meets some of them after many years. The confrontation is rich, poignant and fierce. It is governed not by the spirit of irony, per se, but by the spirit of the supreme ironist. It is time, finally, that is Paley’s crowning theme, turning, as a kaleidoscope does, the same pieces into new patterns; changing them utterly.
SOURCE: “Amazing Grace,” in New York, Vol. 27, No. 15, April 11, 1994, pp. 64, 67.
[In the following review, Kirn comments favorably on Paley's fiction in The Collected Stories, though he notes that some of her later pieces are overly ideological.]
Grace Paley’s short stories have a tenement noisiness: They make an unholy racket in the air shaft. In her characters' cramped Greenwich Village kitchens, the teakettle is always on, whistling over the screams of colicky babies and personal and political arguments conducted with say-it-don’t-spray-it verbal fury. Outside lies an orderly socialist cosmos of block, neighborhood, city, nation, planet. The city is New York—stoop-sitting, immigrant New York—and the planet is Earth, as in Earth Day. Earth’s fate is Paley’s great concern: God and Heaven are crazy man-talk, things to fight wars in the name of. Like her pamphleteering female narrators, the sort of folks who bug you on Election Day and actually know their council members voting records. Paley’s a materialist in the old sense, from the days when materialist meant idealist and the ideal was a worker’s state.
All that is theoretical melts into air. Though the socialist world of the future is gathering dust in history’s Goodwill store, where it may or may not be refurbished and resold. Paley’s work still rates a big display window, perhaps because of its evergreen theme: “women and men, women and men, fucking, fucking” (from her story “Listening”). Her three volumes of fiction, published over four decades in a manner as sweetly uncommercial as the pre-Gap Greenwich Village that’s their setting, have now been bundled between two covers as Grace Paley: The Collected Stories. They’re everything the utopian schemes they touch on never were: funny, stylish, eccentric, and aware that cant and jargon take quotation marks.
Though men in Paley’s fiction have visiting privileges, which they rakishly tend to abuse, showing up mostly to chow down or get down, it’s predominantly a woman’s world feminist in spirit, but so intensely domestic as to seem almost premodern. The pace is set by the looping biorhythms of mating, child-rearing, and old age, and linear, macho clock time gives way to curving menstrual time. In “Goodbye and Good Luck,” the first story of Paley’s first book (1959’s The Little Disturbances of Man), a faded good-time gal, Aunt Rose, recounts her life story in terms of her liaisons with a Yiddish matinee idol nicknamed “the Valentino of Second Avenue.” In “Wants,” from 1974’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (the book’s title refers to a cabbie-philosopher’s notion that “the kids” will save the world), a woman returning library books bumps into her ex-husband and reduces their 27-year marriage to: “… First, my father was sick that Friday then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.”
What cocktail-drinking and groping the secretary were in Cheever stories, returning library books, marching for disarmament, and lobbying the city for playground improvements are in Paley. Do-gooding busybodyism reigns (“I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up”). And it’s not love of country swelling people’s chests, but love of block association. Paley’s close-knit New York is a place I hardly recognize, which leads me to fear I’m one of the folks who had a hand in ruining it. For an eighties emigré like me, Paley’s neverland of kindly butchers, credit-extending grocery stores, and young mothers living within blocks of their parents seems impossibly cozy and remote. Though Paley’s not a period writer—no trolley cars, frilly costumes, or blushing—the particular slice she takes of New York life can make her seem like one.
She knows this all too well. New York’s shift from a city of neighborhoods to a kind of residential mall is precisely her theme. Paley’s women and children are perpetually huddling in neighborhood parks, seeking cover on the turd-strewn greenswards from the “great ballswinger of a city on the constant cement-mixing remake.” “Faith in a Tree,” one of the best of the stories from the seventies, is a sort of WPA—style one-act drama set among the benches and swing sets. We’re shown a benign, endangered island culture, where friends and strangers pass an afternoon of edgy obliviousness. The Vietnam War sails briefly into view in the form of a tiny, four- or five-person protest, while the dead sea of gentrification laps blackly at every side. Faith says of some fellow hold, outs in her low-rent building. “Our four family units, as people are now called, are doomed to stand culturally still as this society moves on its caterpillar treads from ordinary affluent to absolute empire.”
Such a passage hefts heavy baggage, yes, but at least it’s out there for all to see. Balancing the ideological load, thankfully, are Paley’s satires of liberal knight-errantly. Of a crusading pothead PTA president: “One of his great plots was to promote the idea of the integrated school in such a way that private-school people would think their kids were missing the real thing. … He suggested that one month of public-school attendance might become part of the private-school curriculum, as natural and progressive an experience as a visit to the boiler room in first grade.” Also in the park that day is an old acquaintance who smugly identifies himself as the head of “Incurables, Inc., a fund-raising organization.” The urge to institutionalize one’s empathy dies hard and can become a dotty addiction. In “Faith in the Afternoon,” a nursing-home patient organizes the “Grandmothers’ Wool Socks Association” because “children today wear cotton socks all winter.”
Paley’s petition-circulating heroines, particularly her alter ego Faith, think globally and act locally, but they suffer individually. What’s shackling them is sex and love, and they’re not so sure they want to break the chains. Toiling in the salt mines of baby-making and husband-feeding appeals to Faith’s Marxist sense of noble labor as well as to her swollen maternal heart. What might be in another writer’s story a sad admission of co-dependence—“I rarely express my opinion on any serious matter but only live out my destiny, which is to be, until my expiration date, laughingly the servant of man”—is, in Paley, a humble manifesto, a raising of the broom-and-sickle flag. Paley and Faith are bake-sale revolutionaries, saving the world one nutritious lunch at a time. If you’ve ever noticed how hippie girls jump up so merrily to stir the lentils, you know the type.
In Paley’s later stories, published in 1985 as Later the Same Day, the politics grow a little bald and stark and the method of “found” everyday realism slightly programmatic. The problem’s not shrillness, but a stiff, super-literal Brechtian “objective” tone, as in the story title “This Is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor.” Paley, always inventive, here seems merely experimental. It’s as if the Reagan years raised the stakes for her left-wing art and challenged her to stand straighter at the barricades. “I am trying to curb my cultivated individualism, which seemed for years so sweet,” Faith announces in “The Story Hearer” (another one of those titles). “Somewhere Else” moralistically links a pair of anecdotes about taking snapshots of colorful lower-class types in China and the Bronx. It’s as close as Paley comes to agitprop.
Still, it’s a fact that a little Marx has never hurt American fiction writers, from Sinclair Lewis to Steinbeck to Hemingway. It puts some dirt on the plow, a tincture of blood, sweat, and tears in the ink-well. Literature comes up from the ground and out of the streets, not just down from the clouds. The earthy yet brainy Grace Paley has connections in both directions.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley: A Listener in the City,” in Washington Post Book World, April 17, 1994, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Baxter offers a positive evaluation of The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley’s stories have achieved something of a cult or classic status, and with good reason. Since their first appearance in book form in 1959 with The Little Disturbances of Man, they have been notable for their humor and urban grit, their quick-witted sadness, and for their voices. No one else’s stories sound like these. The stories don’t seem literary so much as colloquial socialist-democratic, spoken aloud on a street corner or a front stoop, to witnesses.
This book [The Collected Stories] brings together all 45 of them, from the first collection through the second, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, to the most recent, Later the Same Day, published in 1985. They are here without any appreciable changes, revision, or additions, except for a three-page preface by the author. It’s exhilarating and depressing to read them, depressing only because there aren’t a few more of them from the past few years. It’s as if they’re about a quality in American communal life that isn’t quite so visible anymore: the joy of telling a story, as opposed to the pleasure of confessing to error in oneself or finding blame in others, the triumph of the Puritan-therapeutic.
From the beginning, Paley’s stories have had a distinctive sound and subject. The sound is declarative, often high in volume but without vehemence or bluster. In the oblique connection between sentences, poetry seeps in. No speaker sounds just like any other. But often a love of Jewish-American cadences and storytelling style is audible. Samples won’t do. But here is one: “This is a great ballswinger of a city on the constant cement-mixing remake, battering and shattering, and a high note out of a wild clarinet could be the decibel to break a citizen’s eardrum.”
She has been one of our great listeners. Her African Americans (in “The Little Girl”) don’t sound like her Hispanics (in “Gloomy Tune”). Among her recurring characters, the nosy and gossipy Mrs. Raftery doesn’t sound like Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, the scourge of the Children of Judea Retirement Home, with her sinister, carefully oiled silent wheelchair, the better to intrude on visiting children and their parents. And Faith, the aptly named protagonist and narrator of many of the stories, sounds always like herself, a brainy non-linear political activist, a mother, lover, and citizen of a city.
The stories are tough and delicate, like spun steel. Most of them are about the refusal of victimization in the organization of collective political life and in the possibility of constant change. Their introspections are brief and lyrical. Being social, they are impatient with solemnity and inwardness, particularly of the masculine variety. In the very best stories—the great stories—all this collective optimism does its best to come to grips with trauma, personal and historic.
In “The Immigrant Story,” Jack, a child of immigrant parents traumatized by European history, tries and finally succeeds in breaking through the narrator’s relentless American optimism. The ending of this story is hushed and shockingly beautiful, a portrait of survivors living on in America where their terror is hardly understood. In “Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s dying father tries to convince her of the importance of background, the force of habit, the force of death. His daughter, the narrator, tries to humor him, but he sees through her. “Tragedy!” he says. “You too! When will you look it in the face?”
He has the last word. The stories recognize tragedy but struggle against it. Patterns, they say, can be broken. Zagrowsky, the ex-racist in “Zagrowsky Tells,” narrates his account of his adoption of a black grandchild and his personal, as opposed to ideological, change of heart. This story, like some of the others in Later the Same Day, has a slightly didactic feel, as if the anxiety one feels about the way things are turning out demands perpetual vigilance and some teaching. “Anxiety” includes a lecture to young fathers. People are always telling other people off in these stories—Faith gets told off in “Listening” for not paying attention to lesbians—for their own good. Everyone has an opinion. Voices are raised to entertain and instruct.
All these stories shift subjects rapidly, as colloquial storytellers do: they require a nimble mind to keep up with them. There’s a sort of old socialist feminist hipster quality to them, a style of self-interruption and wild interconnections. Paley has never had much use for the dogged and dutiful linear story of gruesome solitudes and subjectivities. This is not the country of Sherwood Anderson.
Paley’s stories are exemplars of radical democratic art, the fiction of argumentation, humor, and tale-telling in the public square. They urge us to break our patterns, to find enormous changes in the mixing of private and public life. They speak against compulsive repetition and its dulling of the spirit. The city they occupy is one where people still talk to each other. There is still a public life in these stories, of public women and men with articulated social ideals. The front stoop has not yet given way to the triple-locked furnished room, where obscure private events hold sway. It is heartening to think that the city these stories evoke may still exist.
There were virtually no models for her kind of story when Paley began writing. And it is possible that younger readers obsessed with wounds and privacy and therapy addiction may find these stories hard going. (My adult students have always caught on to them more quickly than my younger ones.) But one can take away a feeling for courage even from the horrific tales, like “The Little Girl.” One could wish for more stories, but Paley’s resistance to the American mania for productivity is itself admirable.
Humorous, sharp, and sly, The Collected Stories is that rare thing, a great collection of American fiction. Now those of us who love Grace Paley’s stories can replace our broken and taped paperbacks of her books, with their pages yellowing and falling out, with a book that will hold together and stand the test of time.
SOURCE: “Bookshelf: Life and Love in Greenwich Village,” in Wall Street Journal, April 25, 1994, p. A12.
[In the following review of Paley's Collected Stories, Locke claims that Paley has positively altered American literature.]
In the beginning—40 years ago—Grace Paley found a voice and, listening closely and thinking hard, she wrote the first of her 45 now Collected Stories. That story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” is still a great way to begin: “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.”
Boastful, competitive, adroitly linking mind and body, liberty and wit, this bittersweet and brassy dame, who decided to “live for love” and pays the price without rancor or self-pity, surprisingly gets her man in the end when she’s become “a lady what they call fat and fifty.” So love conquers all? Good luck.
Most of the women in Grace Paley’s stories are single mothers abandoned by cheerfully fickle feckless charmers whom they still warm to. But despite their street-wise jokes, the cozy sex and angry tears, these women are seldom victims. They’re much too passionately quick and proud, too rich in intelligence and friendship, too buoyant in bed, too exulting in their children, and too earnest in their exasperated love for their aging parents to be less than heroic. What makes them even larger is the brave continuity of their expanding thoughts and feelings, their natural self-extension from private life to public action, their movement from self to society, from family matters and neighborhood concerns to politics.
These politics are recognizably Greenwich Village feminist/anarchist/pacifist/ecologist, but ideological sermons and stereotypes are utterly absent from these texts. Politics have been transformed into literature by the triumphant idiosyncrasy of Ms. Paley’s voices (urban American, Russian-Jewish, Irish, black) and by the extreme compression of her style and structure. Take the opening of “Wants”:
I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
“Hello, my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, “What? What life? No life of mine.”
I said, “O.K.” I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
Here large questions of time, memory, private life and social duty, anger, gratitude, sex, self-assertion, and the refuge and resources of cultural institutions and traditions are set in rapid motion.
Even more spectacular is the opening of “Faith in a Tree”: “Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.” Set in a sunny “sexy playground” in Washington Square Park, the story traces the narrator’s transformation from private sorrow to public affirmation, from passive wit to active wisdom, through the moral outrage of her nine-year-old son, who writes an anti-Vietnam war message “on the near blacktop in pink flamingo chalk—in letters fifteen feet high, so the entire Saturday walking world could see.” Language is gesture: art and politics are conjoined.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of Ms. Paley’s art is the story “A Conversation With My Father,” which begins:
My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.
“I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” he says … I say, “Yes, why not? That’s possible.” I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: “There was a woman …” followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.
Here, with complete self-confidence and mastery, Ms. Paley moves an evolving, self-critical, moral and aesthetic debate toward a climax in the paradoxical phrase “the open destiny of life.” This self-contradiction expresses a wish for both absolute spontaneous freedom and secure transcendent form, for both modern indeterminacy and traditional divine order, a wish that well-formed words might have the power to change physical reality, to assure endless, loving, intergenerational dialogues, to conquer time and death.
These 45 stories of “men and women at love” in Greenwich Village since the 1950s may not be able to do all that, but they have certainly changed contemporary American literature in ways that enlarge and enliven us all.
SOURCE: “Sentences of Life,” in Women's Review of Books, July, 1994, pp. 29-30.
[In the following excerpt, Gornick recounts her introduction to and admiration for Paley's fiction, and reviews The Collected Stories.]
I remember the first time I laid eyes on a Paley sentence. The year was 1960, the place a Berkeley bookstore, and I a depressed graduate student, leafing restlessly. I picked up a book of stories by a writer I’d never heard of and read: “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised—change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years.” The next time I looked up it was dark outside, the store was closing, and I had completed four stories, among them the incomparable “An Interest in Life” and “The Pale Pink Roast.” I saw that the restlessness in me had abated. I felt warm and solid. More than warm: safe. I was feeling safe. Glad to be alive again.
There have been three story collections in 35 years. They have made Paley internationally famous. All over the world, in languages you never heard of, she is read as a master storyteller in the great tradition: people love life more because of her writing. In her own country Paley is beloved as well, but it’s complicated. Familiarity is a corrective. Limitations are noted as well as virtues. The euphoria is harder-earned. For many American readers, the third collection is weaker by far than the first. Scope, vision and delivery in a Paley story seem never to vary or to advance; the wisdom does not increase; the cheerful irony grows wearisome, begins to seem folksy. Oh Grace! the critically-minded reader berates a page of Paley prose, as though it were a relative. You’ve done this before. And besides, this, what you have written here, is not a story at all, this is a mere fragment, a little song and dance you have performed times without number.
Then suddenly, right there, in the middle of this same page refusing to get on with it, is a Paley sentence that arrests the eye and amazes the heart. The impatient reader quiets down, becomes calm, even wordless. She stares into the sentence. She feels its power. Everything Paley knows went into the making of that sentence. The way the sentence was made is what she knows: just as the right image is what the poet knows. The reader is reminded then of why—even though the stories don’t “develop” and the collections don’t get stronger—Paley goes on being read in languages you never heard of. …
No matter how old Paley characters get they remain susceptible to the promise that someone or something is about to round the corner and make them feel again the crazy, wild, sexy excitement of life. Ordinary time in a Paley story passes like a dream, embracing the vividness of remembered feeling. Age, loss of appetite, growing children, economic despair, all mount up: “normalcy” surrounds the never-forgotten man, moment, Sunday morning when ah! one felt intensely.
Strictly speaking, women and men in Paley stories do not fall in love with each other, they fall in love with the desire to feel alive. They are, for each other, projections and provocations. Sooner or later, of course (mostly sooner), from such alliances human difficulty is bound to emerge, and when it does (more often than not), the sensation of love evaporates. The response to the evaporation is what interests Paley. She sees that people are either made melancholy by loss of love, or agitated by it. When agitated they generally take a hike, when melancholy they seem to get paralyzed. Historically speaking, it is the man who becomes agitated and the woman who becomes melancholy. In short, although each is trapped in behavior neither can resist and both will regret, men fly the coop and women stand bolted to the kitchen floor.
This sense of things is Paley’s wisdom. The instrumental nature of sexual relations is mother’s milk to the Paley narrator. She knows it so well it puts her beyond sentiment or anger, sends her into a Zen trance. From that trance has come writer’s gold: the single insight made penetrating in those extraordinary sentences. Sentences brimming with the consequence of desire once tasted, how lost, and endlessly paid for.
Two examples will do: Faith Darwin—of “Faith in the Afternoon”—is swimming in misery over the defection of her husband Ricardo. When her mother tells her that Anita Franklin, a high-school classmate, has been left by her husband, Faith loses it:
Anita Franklin, she said to herself. … How is it these days, now you are never getting laid anymore by clever Arthur Mazzano, the brilliant Sephardic Scholar and Lecturer? Now it is time that leans across you and not handsome, fair Arthur’s mouth on yours, or his intelligent Boy Scouty conflagrating fingers.
At this very moment, the thumb of Ricardo’s hovering shadow jabbed her in her left eye, revealing for all the world the shallowness of her water table. Rice could have been planted at that instant on the terraces of her flesh and sprouted in strength and beauty in the floods that overwhelmed her from that moment through all the afternoon. For herself and Anita Franklin, Faith bowed her head and wept. (p. 156)
Now, the obverse. In “Wants,” the Paley narrator runs into her ex-husband and has an exchange with him that reminds her
He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its ways through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. (p. 130)
These sentences are born of a concentration in the writer that runs so deep, is turned so far inward, it achieves the lucidity of the poet. The material is transformed in the sound of the sentence: the sound of the sentence becomes the material; the material is at one with the voice that is speaking. What Paley knows—that women and men remain longing, passive creatures most of their lives, always acted upon, rarely acting—is now inextricable from the way her sentences “talk” to us. She is famous for coming down against the fiction of plot and character because “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” but her women and her men, so far from having an open destiny, seem hopelessly mired in their unknowing middle-aged selves. It is the narrating Paley voice that is the open destiny. That voice is an unblinking stare, it is modern art, it fills the canvas. Its sentences are the equivalent of color in a Rothko painting. In Rothko, color is the painting, in Paley, voice is the story.
Like that of her friend Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley’s voice has become an influential sound in contemporary American literature because it reminds us that although the story can no longer be told as it once was, it still needs to go on being told. The idiosyncratic intelligence hanging out in space is now the story: and indeed it is story enough. I felt safe in its presence in a Berkeley bookstore thirty years ago, it makes me feel safe today. As long as this voice is coming off the page I need not fear the loss of the narrative impulse. I need not, as Frank O’Hara says, regret life.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley's Book of the Ordinary,” in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 696-702.
[In the essay below, Pinsker evaluates the central themes and distinct style of Paley's fiction as evident in The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley's The Collected Stories is at once a cause to celebrate one of our country’s premier fictionists and an occasion to reconsider just what it is that makes her work so extraordinary. One could begin by pointing out that Paley is a painstaking writer (forty years of patient work has produced a mere forty-five stories) and then go on to suggest that The Collected Stories (which brings together in one volume her three previous collections—The Little Disturbances of Man , Enormous Changes at the Last Minute , and Later the Same Day ) constitutes a rough chronicle of a certain slice of immigrant Jewish life in New York City during the decades between the early fifties and the mid-eighties. Or one could focus on the ways that Faith Darwin Asbury (her abiding alter ego who appears in at least thirteen of the stories) serves roughly the same function as Sherwood Anderson’s George Willard, and then go on to point out that the same unities binding the stories of Winesburg, Ohio into an aesthetic whole also bind—albeit more loosely—one Paley collection to another. Finally, one could argue that both nothing and everything happens in a typical Paley story and that the rhythms of politics writ large (Paley herself is a fiercely political animal) often share floor space with what one of her best-known stories calls “the little disturbances of man.”
Worshipful generalizations about Paley’s fiction have never been in short supply, but they are often sermons pitched toward the choir, for Paley is a writer’s writer and something of an acquired taste. Moreover, the hoopla surrounding the publication of The Collected Stories, well-deserved though it is, may not help matters, because what does Paley honor may not do her fiction justice. This handsome, altogether impressive collection-of-collections tempts us to take in larger chunks of her fiction than its tightly compressed paragraphs allow. That Paley’s stories stand up under many rereadings is true enough, but it is truer still that, like fine liqueurs, they deserve room to breathe and time to be savored.
Sherwood Anderson called Winesburg, Ohio his “book of the grotesque”—presumably because he felt that the repressive nature of small-town life in the Midwest generated more than its fair share of psychic trauma. By contrast, Paley operates in ways that mingle the ordinary with the larger, more extraordinary rhythms of urban life. One could argue that Paley is the more parochial of the two, for the Greenwich Village blocks between Fourteenth and Houston Streets (where she spent most of her life—raising children, marching in anti-war demonstrations, protesting this, supporting that—before moving to Vermont) are considerably more restricted than Anderson’s Winesburg. Granted, we do not feel this, partly because urban pavements are, well, urbane in ways that cornfields never are, and partly because Paley gives us a fully imagined world so filled with adults, and adult problems, that we forget how insular it is.
What also links Anderson and Paley is that both had to discover the necessary conjunction of subject matter and voice that the prevailing models of their respective times failed to provide. For Anderson, this meant turning his back on everything that smacked of the conventional and safe; for Paley, it meant unlocking the long-dormant fictive imagination that turned a poet of modest reputation into a significant fictionist. This came about through a series of what she called “small lucks.” The first was the discovery that writing stories allowed her to remember “the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents” and then to unleash these rich verbal resources through her characters; the second was her recognition that although fifties’ fiction (whether traditional, avant-garde, or—later—Beat) was over-whelmingly masculine and she was a woman, there really was no choice: “Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me, my portion, the beginning of big luck, though I didn’t know it.” The volume’s introductory essay—“Two Ears, Three Lucks”—affords Paley the chance to talk about her art in a forum quite different from the interviews she generally shies away from.
The result is a collection that puts proper emphasis on the stories themselves. That they no longer seem as extraordinary nor as brave as they clearly were during the early days of Paley’s career (when editors regularly rejected them) is true enough, but during the fifties the prognosis for any feminist fiction was bleak indeed. At that time, however, Paley recognized that she was not alone, that “small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women’s movement.” She singles out Ruth Herschberger (Adam’s Rib, 1948) and Tillie Olsen as writers who started earlier and suffered more, but Paley can rightly be counted among literary feminism’s pioneers—this despite her efforts to deflect any personal credit to what she calls the “buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness” of the movement’s early days.
That Paley is also a poet (indeed, snatches of verse punctuate many of her stories) is hardly surprising, for she is blessed with a marvelous ear and an inclination for compressing character and situation into a singular phrase. In her fictions, people talk—and, oh how they talk!—arguing their way through a thicket of family squabbles and intimacies, internecine political warfares, and the whole panorama of loves and hatreds, griefs and disappointments. Here, for example, are the opening lines of “Goodbye and Good Luck,” Paley’s first story:
I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised—change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused.
And here is Shirley Abramowitz, the precocious narrator of “The Loudest Voice”:
There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. “Mrs. Abramowitz,” he says, “people should not be afraid of their children.”
“Ah, Mr. Bialik,” my mother replies, “if you say to her or her father ‘Ssh,’ they say, ‘In the grave it will be quiet.’”
“From Coney Island to the cemetery,” says my papa. “It’s the same subway; it’s the same fare.”
There are plenty of ways this kind of Yiddishized English can go wrong—for example, chunks of dialect arranged in thick, unwieldy slabs, or the cadences more insisted upon than real. One could blame the borsht belt comics for much that sinks Jewish-American literature, but the opposite is also true: when a landscape becomes willfully exotic, when it is nostalgically rendered rather than authentically felt, it can no longer sustain serious fiction. Such inferior work always arrives bursting with an excess of surface detail and speech patterns recorded by a tin ear. Paley, to her enduring credit, never strikes a false note. Her characters not only speak from the heart, but also from their respective socio-political circumstances.
“The Loudest Voice” is a case in point. It subtly records the inevitable tensions between an immigrant Jewish environment—the “block” that is Paley’s essential unit of humankind—and the pressures of a Christian America. The occasion is a public-school Christmas pageant, one in which the major roles have gone to Jewish students, and the largest role of all to Shirley Abramowitz. That Shirley’s mother is disappointed to see her “neighbors making tra-la-la for Christmas” is understandable, but so too is her father’s more accommodating response:
“You’re in America! Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine, the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas. … Some joke, ha?”
“Very funny, Misha. What is becoming of you? If we came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants, and instead we fall into a creeping pogrom, that our children learn a lot of lies, so what’s the joke? Ach, Misha, your idealism is going away.”
“So is your sense of humor.”
In less skillful hands, these tensions would no doubt have been sufficient, and the result would have been a story that sermonizes either for or against assimilation, but Paley’s story works on several levels simultaneously. The immigrant world surely matters here, as a place where teachers pay backhanded compliments to their Jewish students because they’re able to memorize all the words to “Silent Night” (“To think,” one remarks, “some of you don’t even speak the language!”) and parents are divided about how to respond when their children are chosen for key roles in the Christmas program: one crows because his son has “a very important part” while the rabbi’s wife writes off the whole sad affair in a single word, “Disgusting!”
Shirley, however, is the most chosen of them all because, like Ethel Merman, she has a voice able to carry to the last rows. No doubt Paley means to play on her protagonist’s “chosenness” and the curious effects created when she narrates the Christ story for the cast of largely Jewish pantomimes:
It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd’s stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father’s prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered round Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abbie Stock we came suddenly to a famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
One never forgets that this, after all, is a school pageant, with all the rough artistic edges of such events, but it also simultaneously speaks to the deeper rhythms dividing an immigrant Jewish world from a majority culture. Had Shirley been the protagonist of a Sherwood Anderson story, one suspects that the event Paley chronicles would have been traumatic, the occasion for a repression that this Shirley would only recount after years of silence, and only then to George Willard, Winesburg, Ohio’s recording angel. The result would be yet another chapter in the “book of the grotesque” George Willard will presumably write one day. Paley, however, allows her protagonist more flexibility, not only in how the charged image of her “loudest voice” is developed, but also in the story’s highly poetic resolution. As some family members crack jokes about a Christian pageant in which most of the non-Jewish students did not participate, and others continue to feel the sting of its shame, Shirley processes the conjunctions of herself and the play’s lonely Christ figure in quite extraordinary ways: “I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.”
“The Loudest Voice” is a triumph, as are others in Paley’s first collection: “Goodbye and Good Luck,” “An Interest in Life,” “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life,” and perhaps most of all, a strange, eerily affecting tale, “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All.” Indeed, the reprintings of The Little Disturbances of Man have been largely responsible for keeping Paley’s reputation alive among subsequent generations of readers. For while Paley rightly argues that the fifties was a lean time for feminist fiction, it was also an age when form and literary texture mattered greatly. Paley’s most achieved stories are indebted to this ethos.
On the other hand, the more open-ended stories that dominate her next two collections are less consistent. Certainly, Paley retains a playfulness and a salty sense of humor that keep even her most political stories from becoming limited by the narrowly ideological, but at their best these short fictions are more haunting mood pieces than linear, plot-driven arrangements. Part of this is probably due to Paley’s habit of threading one character to another so the result is a continuing chronicle of ensemble players we trace across the decades, but it is also a function of the affinities that bind Paley to her alter ego Faith Darwin, or, as Paley herself coyly puts it, the “not me” who, if she existed, “could be her best buddy.”
The line separating Grace Paley’s life experiences and Faith Darwin’s fictional ones is a thin one, much thinner, say, than the ones separating George Willard’s from Sherwood Anderson’s or Nick Adams’s from Ernest Hemingway’s. To be sure, when a writer as playful as Paley cobbles “Faith” with “Darwin,” we know the juxtaposition is meant to be ironic. So, when Faith’s invalid father urges her to try writing stories as Maupassant or Chekhov did—“Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next”—we understand that neither Faith nor Grace can work that way: “Not for literary reasons [Faith thinks to herself], but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
These lines from “A Conversation with My Father” have long been thought of as an aesthetic that author and character share. Perhaps, but I would insist that such an equation is ultimately reductive. It does not acknowledge the playfulness that those with strong political convictions often lack and those who write good stories always have. Consider the story “Somewhere Else,” about a group of Left-liberals touring China. (Paley herself has spent time in China.) One of the fictional group is accused of taking unauthorized photographs, thus precipitating feverish discussions of what constitutes politically insensitive behavior, and Paley slyly slips in what is one of the funniest, most tongue-in-cheek comments to be found in the works of an author with such impeccable credentials on the militant Left: “Later that evening we were invited to share our folk heritage with the Tientsin Women’s Federation. We sang ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’” Paley does not elaborate (nor should she), but the satire is both delicious and clear—for these are women who have never worked on a railroad, while the Chinese brought to America in the nineteenth century did precisely that. That neither group recognizes the faux pas tells us worlds about the ways that politics can be, and often is, mistranslated into the dailiness of daily life.
On the other hand, when Paley opens “Debts” with an admission that there is a considerable gap between “knowing and telling,” we tend to believe that the narrator is clearly speaking for her author:
A lady called me up today. She said she was in possession of her family archives. She had heard I was a writer. She wondered if I would help her write about her grandfather, a famous innovator and dreamer of the Yiddish theater. I said that I had already used every single thing I knew about the Yiddish theater to write one story, and I didn’t have time to learn any more, then write about it. There is a long time in me between knowing and telling. She offered a share of the profits, but that is something too inorganic. It would never rush her grandfather’s life into any literature I could make.
Paley’s stories emerge from large reservoirs of patience. No doubt this partially explains why she has resisted proddings to write novels rather than short stories. At the same time, however, when reading all of The Collected Stories, one notice—especially as we reach the stories in Later the Same Day—how many of them disappoint, either because they seem to be pushing old crumbs around the plate or because they strike us as flimsier than those in her first collection. My hunch is that politics has taken a certain toll, and that much of the adoration that currently surrounds Paley like a halo has more to do with the rightness of her various causes (she picketed to “Ban the Bomb” in the early sixties and later was one of the founding members of the War Resister’s League) than with the shape and ring of her paragraphs. The immigrant world that energized her best stories has largely faded into memory, and what has replaced it—namely, the more tumultuous, with-it seventies and eighties—is decidedly thinner soup.
Still, when Paley’s narrator has toted up the reasons why a request to write somebody else’s story is impossible—rather like a father’s hope that his talented daughter will put her talent toward more conventional literary structures—she suddenly factors in the business of debts: “It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.” Granted, no story can save a life, much less a few ones, but we cannot read Paley’s book of the ordinary without feeling that she has come close, for if it is true that loss is one of the collection’s dominant subjects—lovers and husbands, daughters and sons mysteriously leave—it is also true that the women who share their joys and griefs on public park benches, playgrounds, and over endless cups of coffee find a measure of community. And the lost often return, almost as miraculously as they drifted away. Meanwhile, the people on Paley’s best have been transformed into fictions that are destined to last—if not every one of the forty-five stories in The Collected Stories, then at least half of them. And that is no small accomplishment, especially when one considers that the sturdy reputations of Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway are likely to rest on a half dozen short stories each.
“Grace Paley,” in American Contradictions: Interviews with Nine American Writers, edited by Wolfgang Binder and Helmbrecht Breinig, Wesleyan University Press, 1995, pp. 77-100
[In the following interview, Paley discusses her early life, formative influences, and the feminist and Jewish perspective in her fiction.]
[SO:] You said somewhere that the three important things in your life are writing, politics, and your family. Let’s start with your family. Could you tell us about your parents?
[GP:] Well, my parents were Russian Jews. They were Socialists, and they were radical youngsters when they were kids. At one point or another my father has even written about some arrests, but the main one was when he was sent to, say, Arkhangelsk, and he and my mother were exiled. Then the czar had a son. When he had a son, he freed all prisoners who were less than twenty-one years old. My parents immediately, with my grandmother and aunts, came to the United States. They had already gone through a pogrom around that time that had killed my uncle, my grandmother’s seventeen-year-old son, so they came very eagerly, anxiously, and finally patriotically to the United States.
Who introduced you to literature? Did everybody in your family share in the story-telling? Would you say your father was the person who introduced you to literature?
Oh, I wouldn’t say he introduced me. I mean I wouldn’t use that expression. I would just say there was a lot of stuff in the house [laughs], that’s all. It was assumed that a kid would read. Because my parents read and didn’t make an issue of it. There were always a lot of books around. My father learned English very quickly and read immediately. Dickens, I think, in the first year. He also learned Italian the first year he came to the United States because he worked for an Italian photographer. The women in the family all went to work in the shops, the garment industry, and put my father through school, so he became a doctor.
[BF:] Was the world of learning or literature associated more with your father or with your mother?
Oh, it was associated with my father mostly in that sense. My grandmother did try to teach me Russian poems, so there must have been something there—I never got exactly what it was. But I would say my father read more, talked more. My mother read a lot, too; my aunts as well but not so deeply. In some ways, if you want to put it that way, some of their lives were sacrificed to the education of my father; and as I’ve said before, it paid off. He did well; he took care of the family. But I think my mother was always sad that she hadn’t gone to school. They had a lot of music in the house, too. And my mother liked music; my father did. So we had very early lots of records, classical music, so we lived naturally in that environment.
[SO:] You said again and again that you were interested in the lives of women and children, and you focus on them in your stories; although when you began writing, this was considered a boring topic. Did you share this view?
I did. I put off writing about it because I thought, who’s going to read this stuff, you know. You realize it was after the Second World War and a lot of the literature was heavily masculine, and you can see why. So coming into that world, into literature in a different way, was sort of embarrassing to me actually. I thought, Jesus, these guys are doing such important things. But I was unequivocally interested and pressed and bugged by the lives around me. It got to me. And so I just said one day, “Well, I’m going to do it. That’s all. That’s what I’m going to write.” So I wrote, but I never thought anything would come of it.
[BF:] Well, usually when you love literature you read all the great works and you’re male-identified.
That’s true. Exactly!
So when did you start developing a female-centered perspective?
Well, if I hadn’t been so interested, I wouldn’t have kept writing. I probably would have been more male-identified. But it was writing in itself, and I’m thinking as I wrote, you know, that really made me a much more female-centered person. People say, “Well, were you a feminist?” Well, I was writing those things in the mid-fifties. I was aware of a lot of things. I mean it’s not as if I was so naïve. I was not naïve. I already knew that I couldn’t stand Henry Miller, for instance. Goodness, I already knew that there was a literature that was not about me, sexually. And I knew that certain literatures didn’t free me. I mean I knew without knowing. I couldn’t have written an article about it. And I wouldn’t have written an article about it, but, you know, you should know there was a book that came out in 1948. It was by a woman named Ruth Hershberger, who was a poet also. She wrote a book called Adam’s Rib. I bet you could dig it up someplace. It actually talked about what was coming in the sixties and seventies. All the truth that was written later on vaginal politics and female sexual oppression. She really got it down there. So you get hints before your knowledge really comes together like that.
But especially in the fifties there was all this pressure on women to be feminine, the feminine mystique and everything. Now that was just before your first book of stories appeared. Did they praise you for the wrong thing, like writing on the feminine side of life? That could have happened.
That could have happened except that was one of the things that was already bothering me, that I was already thinking about. Also, the women lead unconventional lives. At that point of my life I was already very distressed about relations between men and women, and it’s not that I ever was a careerist; that is, I didn’t think to myself, oh, because you’re a woman, you’re not going to do this and that, because I never really wanted to do anything. [Laughs.] I wanted to keep writing. I happened to like doing those things that are in the book, like going to the park. I happen to like those things. I never did any of that out of some literary intention or anything. I did it out of sheer pleasure and duty. I believed the children should have air every afternoon. Things like that, you know. Rigorously I felt about that, but I never was pushed in that—not feminist but feminineness—way. It had no effect on me at all, partly because my parents were very angry with me that I wasn’t interested in doing anything professional. They were angry that I didn’t finish school, which I didn’t. They didn’t like any of this stuff that I was about, and they wanted me to get a trade, to get a profession, to make something of myself. And get married also, but they didn’t want me especially to go back to the kitchen or anything like that. They wanted me to be able to earn a living. Also they—mother, aunts—had a kind of Socialist puritanism: no makeup; be yourself with soap and water. I was a little like that.
Were you teaching at that time?
No. I didn’t have any trade. I was a typist. I worked in offices.
[SO:] You have this focus on women in your work, but the mother-daughter relationship really doesn’t figure all that much. To many other women writers it is of the utmost importance. Why is it not for you?
Well, first of all, my mother died when I was about twenty-one or twenty-two, and I was really brought up in a more extended kind of family than is customary in the States. In my house lived my father, my mother, my grandmother, and when I was very young, two aunts, and finally one aunt. So I had all these women taking care of me. So I never had that terrific focus, you know, that a lot of people do have. My grandmother took care of me, my aunt took care of me. My sister is fourteen years older than me, and I think actually she sort of stole me from my mother. I’m not exactly sure; but from the minute I was born, I was in her charge and not because my mother handed me over. But I also had terrible quarrels with my mother when I was in my teens, my adolescence, which were just being resolved really. None of them were because there was anything wrong with her. She was really a remarkable and kind, really a good person, and admired. But she was very puritanical, and this is very hard on teenagers. [Laughs.]
[BF:] Are you saying that this focus on the mother-daughter relationship as it often happens is the result of the nuclear family?
Yes, I think part of it is that. Also, for many women, compassion for the oppressed mother; for others, anger because that oppression was handed on. The mother also enforced foot-binding, clitoridectomies, and obedience to husband. The nuclear family does have something to do with it. All of those intense focuses are like that. So I think this was sort of broadened out for me. Somehow or other if I felt mad at my mother, I went to my grandmother; if I felt mad at my aunt, I went to my mother.
And you also had more than one role model in a way?
Yes. My sister to this day is a very powerful person in my life—she’s eighty-three now—so much so that people laugh at me. They say that when I talk to my sister I use an entirely different voice [laughs], especially my husband laughs. So there is that kind of thing. But there is also the fact that I haven’t dealt with a great deal of that. It’s no question about it.
Do you like to be identified as an ethnic writer? A woman writer, a regional writer? Any of these categories?
I don’t care. I’m perfectly happy to be called a woman writer. I’ve done this argument in another panel in California two weeks ago with a young woman who said she did not want to be a woman writer. She would be marginalized, trivialized, and so forth. My only answer was “They’ll marginalize you and trivialize you no matter what you call yourself.” It’s not because you say you’re a woman writer. It’s because they say, “What is this? A woman wrote it?”
You said somewhere the difference between male and female writing is in content, not in style.
Well, some of it is in style. I mean some writing seems to be, you know, like harder, and some seems softer. I know a lot of people feel that there’s a great difference, but I can’t. I don’t know. Maybe in other languages it’s true.
But just think, for instance, about your own work and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra. I don’t know anything comparable in male literature.
That’s true. But I think a lot of it is subject. Joyce was a great model to me because I think of him as a much more female writer. I think if you move away from Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom, you see that, you feel that in him. What he was to his wife is another story, but we can’t talk about that. [Laughter.] I mean he liked her, and that’s good enough I suppose. It’s a start. But I do think that a lot of it is subject matter. Somebody could sit down and prove to me that I was wrong. I’m wide open on that. I’m not opinionated. But I’m not able to totally see it. I see it in relationships. I see it at meetings. I see it in all of that, and so it should probably be reflected in the work. But I can’t swear to it, that’s all.
But don’t you have the feeling that there is maybe an international community of women writers who are concerned about the same kinds of things and have tried to develop a form to suit these concerns?
Listen, I not only think there’s an international community of women writers, I’m working on it. You really should know about what we are trying to develop right now: from PEN, the PEN organization, where we had our own personal struggle in our own country to create a women’s committee, for lots of reasons, including the fact that most of the panels, discussions, and so forth would be almost entirely men. Something even worse than last night. There would be only one woman among a dozen men. So there’s that. And then my friend Meredith Tax, who’s extremely energetic and bossy and driving, after she got on the board of PEN, got to go to international meetings, which I just didn’t want to go to anymore. But anyway she extracted from international PEN, which is run by mostly an old-guy-bloc from France, an international women’s committee. I see those things very practically, very pragmatically.
[SO:] Are you a Jewish writer?
Do you consider your writing Jewish-American literature?
Not exactly. But the particular sound of the language as I and others like me speak it, and the disharmony of our experiences, and the strong baseline on which we depend—from before Chaucer, including the King James Version of the Bible, Whitman, Dickinson, Rukeyser, Auden, Thoreau, Cather, Joyce (not to mention the Russians in translation, et cetera)—make American literature, to which the strong Hispanic rhythms are being added.
Do you, then, see yourself primarily as an American writer or rather as part of an international writers’ community?
Well, I think as a child of immigrants in a sense, of European immigrants. I am by birth, language, literary tradition an American writer. As a very strong feminist, which I wasn’t when I began writing my first book but became, I know there is an international women’s community, and I hope to be a part of that. And I think we have obligations to develop, maybe just translate and publish, those voices in other countries. I mean to help free those female voices. Just as you said, I mean, tell stories. Oh, by the way, another example of women’s writing would be Elsa Morante in the book History. That’s another great book that really no man could write.
[BF:] I agree. Your stories often celebrate communities of women and children. There’s hardly ever hate, jealousy, spite, isolation between women and among women which makes communities of women unbearable for many women. Is that just not your experience, or are you aware of that?
No. I’m aware of two things. First of all, they do get mad at each other. I mean I have this story “Friends,” in which an old friendship ends, and other stories where friendships end for all kinds of reasons. I don’t think hatred sets in, but the friendships do end. But I remember talking to Russian women and all they could tell me about was that women would never get together, they would scratch each other’s eyes out. But I think that’s not true. I think there’s no more anger or competition among women than there is among men. Now that may just be where I live and in my life. But the men seem in some ways a hell of a lot more competitive with each other. They kill each other—economically or actually. They do it a different way; women would be more personal.
I agree. But in my village the women usually gossip about each other. There’s not much help they give each other. And their loyalty is to their husbands in the first place. And in your stories the women get together and they help each other and. …
Well, first of all, one of the stories really began by my writing about women without husbands. I think that has something to do with it. I mean you hit on something that I didn’t think of quite that way. I worked with an awful lot of gay women, too, you know, who also aren’t that nice to each other. Most of those women, especially in the early stories, are pretty much alone. Or they are mad at men, and they are bound by common bad experiences with men. They have been insulted in one way or another.
[SO:] Where do you situate yourself in the contemporary literary scene?
It would be up to critics to say that. You know there are a lot of writers who think about that and speak about that. I don’t even know what the contemporary literary scene is, exactly.
Are you writing for a specific audience?
I don’t consciously do that. No, I don’t. Well, I think that so much of writing comes from a primary longing to tell, not a story but to tell. I want to tell you this, you know? In my book of poems I think I have a poem about how it begins as a child. You come home and say, “Listen Ma, I want to tell you this,” you know. And that’s a primary thing—“I want to tell you this.” I know it is first the mother and then whoever else is home. Then it’s your best friend—“I want to tell you this.” And then as time goes on, you don’t think who you want to tell, but you do think this is the way it is and I have to put it down. So your who-you-want-to-tell is broadening. But it doesn’t mean that you are going to change your work for that unknown out there.
[BF:] Do you know who your readers are?
I think that any woman who doesn’t know that she is supported by the women’s movement in any country is fooling herself. Because it doesn’t matter whether she is a feminist or not. People will read her and be angry at her, or they will read her and be glad. But women will read her, I know they will. But I know men read me a lot too because I get, in a funny way, more letters from men than women.
[BF:] Do you read reviews of your work?
Are you influenced by them in any way? I mean do you get annoyed at them?
Sometimes I get annoyed, yes. I remember my second book, which really wasn’t even all that political. But they said everything was too political. I wrote a letter back to the Times, just simply making a point that in any other country in the world you would be laughed at if you weren’t political. And all this stuff was coming up from South America at the time, you know. Yet they would tell me: not here, not in this country; there is no such thing as political writing in the U.S. There should not be. Whereas you are reading madly stuff from Middle Europe and South America.
Marge Piercy said at one point that the reviews in the New York Times can make a book or break it in a way. Do you agree?
Absolutely. It’s worse for the theater because so much money is put into the theater, and a play costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and many people’s careers can just be ended by one son of a bitch. The Times is very influential, but other things are too.
[SO:] Is it difficult to support yourself by writing?
Oh, I can’t.
If you are not dependent on writing as a means of support, of course, it’s easier. You are under less pressure to produce. It does make a difference for your art, doesn’t it?
Well, it means that I write when I really have to, pretty much. But once you start writing, you keep writing. You don’t end it. It is true that if I have a deadline—like I had to finish some of those poems at a certain point—I did really not do a thing but stay in my room and work. But my husband is a writer, and he has a lot of trouble being published and is not depending on it at the same time for a living, but he still works like hell. So what I mean is, when you’re a writer, you’re a writer.
But still, I think of women writers in the nineteenth century, when it was even worse than it is today …
They wrote because it was one of the few means for them to make a living, as when I was a typist and made no living at all. And then when my book came out, I began to teach. I made a modest living there. My books have been in print really since 1959, and I’m very fortunate. I won’t say a bad word about whether I am making money or not [laughs] because I consider it that I am just so fortunate. I mean that’s a large payment to me at this time of my life. So on this book [Long Walks and Intimate Talks] I won’t make a penny. [Since this interview I did make some happy royalties.]
Something that I noticed in your stories is that your female characters all seem to enjoy sexuality and don’t seem to have any problems with their sex life. For many women this is still a very painful, if not the most painful area. Why do you portray sex as unproblematic?
Well, partly I think that when I began writing about this I guess I was in my mid-thirties, and I found sex pretty unproblematic. That’s plain and simple. [Laughter.] And so did most of my friends. A number of the women who became gay later on became so partly because they had been gay to begin with or because of particular sexual experiences. People get divorced and fall for some other guy or some other woman, I mean as far as I can see. I am just thinking of Andrea Dworkin. I have really known Andrea since she was very young. I have known her since she was about eighteen years old. I used to love her very much. She was very dear to me. I mean when she writes about sexual life, it’s horrible. And she did have some horrible experiences, you know, but I am not writing about her. That’s all I can say. For me I really want to celebrate sexuality.
Because that’s the way you feel about it?
And because I want to celebrate it. Because I think it’s one of the greatest things invented [laughs], and it may be a pure invention that it is so great. I could be wrong, and Andrea could be right. But I think it should be. One of the things that bothers me with a lot of my sisters in movements that I have worked with is that their anger with men really has turned them not against men, which is all right as far as I am concerned, but against sex in general, so that even their lesbian experiences don’t strike me as so hot as far as that’s concerned.
[BF:] I think that everybody would want to celebrate sexuality. I think that wasn’t our point. It’s just that it isn’t that easy for most women. And I don’t mean in the way Andrea Dworkin writes about it. I mean it’s just not that easy to go to a bar, as in one of your stories, and pick up any man there, buy him a drink or two, and have a good time with him.
As far as I can see, she doesn’t do too much of that, going to bars. But whether it’s good sex or not I didn’t deal with. [Laughter.] I think I wasn’t even talking so much about sex as relationships with guys that were extremely difficult. Well, I don’t know. It’s really what you read, not what I say.
Let’s talk about your new book, Long Walks and Intimate Talks. It strikes us as quite different from Later the Same Day.
Oh, it is different. It’s an altogether different thing. It’s made up of things that were like articles that I wrote. Most of them were not written for this book.
It’s more overtly political than the rest of your work.
Yes, very specifically so. This book was originally a calendar for the War Resisters’ League.
[SO:] The entire book?
No, not the entire book. There’s more in this, but all the things about El Salvador; those long poems were written specifically for that calendar. And the little essays or whatever you want to call them, pieces—some of them were written for different journals like Mother Jones or Seven Days or something like that.
[BF:] If you put together another collection of stories, would your stories be less political than the ones in there?
Well, I would probably use some of those in there. I would use “Midrash on Happiness” and I would use “Three Days and a Question.” I consider those stories. But I think they are the only ones I consider really full stories. So I would use those two stories in a collection of stories.
[SO:] Are you working on a book of stories at the moment?
Yes. I’m writing some stories. I have another half or dozen or so of which I probably like about three. And I have another collection of prose pieces also.
Do you feel that your writing has changed over the years?
Not when I write stories. I don’t feel I have in those two little stories or in Later the Same Day. I don’t know. Again, you know, I’m not the judge of that. It’s like you’re getting older, right? Until you look in the mirror you think you’re you. [Laughs.] It turns out you’re not you anymore. But then you go away from the mirror and you’re you.
Is your poetry more personal as compared to your fiction?
Well, my poems are more personal, a lot. But at one time I wrote only extremely personal poems, and now I think some of the poems in there represent political feelings, but even so they are personal.
[BF:] You published a book of poetry in 1992, New and Collected Poems. For a while you didn’t want to publish your poetry because you thought it was too literary in a sense.
Well, it was.
What has changed?
Well, just as I learned how to write stories from poetry—I’ve used the expression before—I went to school to poetry to learn how to write, to learn how to move language around, give it some zip. [Laughs.] But from writing stories I learned also how to bring that other language into poetry—that language of family and street, that more human, daily language.
What about a novel now?
I don’t know. It’s probably too late. When I listen to these guys reading their novels [laughter], I get sort of, you know, I get interested. I just think, well, I’m going to write a novel. It would be different than those—proving what you said. [Laughter.]
Do you keep a diary?
Not really. I keep pieces of paper.
Could you imagine yourself writing your autobiography?
No, I really couldn’t. No. I have a couple of books written about me where I talk a lot and they ask me a lot of questions. And then they have gone ahead and looked stuff up. I can’t see me writing an autobiography. I mean it seems so stupid. [Laughter.] You have to feel like you are telling the world something. I feel I’m doing it when I write the way I write.
Did you read Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography? Were you interested in that? I mean a lot of women read her; even if they haven’t read any other women’s literature, they read Simone de Beauvoir’s.
Yes, I read it, but again it was a whole other life. Part of my life or what I’ve been interested in is staying this close to the people, if I can put it that way, to ordinary life, to daily life in some way. So she really did not have that much to tell me except that I was interested in her. I was interested, but I saw here is this woman who really wanted the absolute opposite of ordinary life, whereas that’s the opposite of me.
Well, she is in a way the archetype of the female intellectual who lived it all—the big culture, the big politics.
She lived all that under some guy’s thumb. [Laughs.] Under a generous thumb. [Both laugh.]
[SO:] Could you describe your relationship to language?
Well, I partly did by saying I really went to poetry to learn, to learn how to write. I like language. I have written a lot of poems about language here and there. I just think about language a lot.
Do you feel that you shape language, or do you feel that you are shaped by language?
Oh, I think both things happen. What I want to say is how interesting it is to be brought up with a couple of languages around you. There is something about getting these two tunes, three tunes, in your ear. And English is very receptive to this. I mean English really warmly receives all these other languages. At least it does in the United States at the present time. So I feel that my language was shaped by the fact that in my house normally Russian was spoken. English was spoken. You never knew when people were going into one language or another. And Yiddish less so because only my grandmother spoke that. So these languages kind of speak to one another. They address one another in the nicest ways, and I think that’s one of the things that happened. One of the best books that I have read in a long time is by a woman named Irini Spanidou, and it is called God’s Snake. She’s Greek. I just mean that she had that Greek and English coming together, and it gave it a new tune somehow.
[BF:] Do you think there is a trace of Russian in your stories?
I can’t call it a trace of Russian. I would just say that it was in my ear. There are inflections that are either Yiddish or Russian or something like that that are probably there and that people recognize. Probably better than I recognize because I’m used to it being me talking.
Did you ever consider language to be male? Like you couldn’t work in it because it belonged to men?
[SO:] Some feminist theorists have this idea that language is male.
My mother and my sister talked to me a great deal. I know that theory. I think too much is taken away from us by those theories, by many of those theories. It’s as though we are nothing; we are just putty in the hands of fate. Because women have struggled in different ways and do talk to their babies. I mean who the hell talks to those goddamn babies but mamas. Pap comes home once in a while and says a few … My father was a very busy man. He worked very hard, in a poor neighborhood. He was marvelous and all that, but he didn’t … When I got up in the morning and ran into my grandmother’s room, she talked to me. When I was a baby, it was my sister and my mother who talked to me. I don’t see it really. I would say that men take female language (I’m just making this up right now; I’ve never said this before); I would say that it’s very probable that little boys who are very tender—and I have a son and a daughter; little boys are the tenderest things in the world—that little boys as they grow older grow out of their female language and go into the male world, where adult men have re-created female language. I like that. That’s a good theory. [Laughter.] That’s as good as the other one, isn’t it? Where men take that language really and turn it into a means to make war and do other bad things. [Laughter.]
In your most recent collection, Long Walks and Intimate Talks, you have a poem entitled “It Is the Responsibility.” In this poem to be a woman seems like a moral, political objective. Actually, there is a line that reads “It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman.” Could you elaborate on that?
Well, what happened was when I was writing the poem, I wrote “It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman.” I think I wrote that line first. And I sort of knew that everybody would think that the next line would be “It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a man.” So I just couldn’t do it because I didn’t think it was true. [Laughter.] So I guess I just wrote it because I thought it was true. I thought that, for all the reasons we have talked about so far, a man poet ought to be able to be a female poet; I mean he’s got to think like a woman. And really it would do him a lot of good. On the other hand there’s no reason for women to change. Oh, people get very mad at me for that. That poem has created more anger at me than almost anything else I have ever written.
Oh yes. It’s so funny.
Do you perceive women as more peaceful than men?
I think by history, by culture, not by birth, you know. We have a one-year-old grandgirl who is quite nutty and wild and bopping people on the head and everything. No, I wouldn’t say that I think that women are more peaceful, but I will say that I think that men are quite crazy at this present time. And I don’t mean my own man or my son or lots of people that I know, but I mean the amount of blood, rage in the world, which is not women doing it at all. I mean more women are being killed. Women and children. You read the papers—more women and children have been killed in Yugoslavia and all through there. And dying in Somalia. It’s a male madness that’s been let loose in this world right now, as far as I can see. And where it comes from I don’t know. I don’t think women are more peaceful; I just think men are more warlike. It seems that way if you just listen to the radio. It’s not a theory. It’s what we actually see and read.
One of the things that always bothers me is when women in political movements that I’ve been involved in, like Central America and Palestine or something like that, when the women say, “I wish I had another two sons to give. I’m the mother of heroes.” That infuriates me when women do that, and I think that I always want to say to them, “You go be a hero and a martyr if you’re so hot for it, but don’t be giving away your boys’ lives.” But I notice that they aren’t going around being heroes and martyrs. They say, “Son, you go be a hero.” So it’s a hard question to answer because deeply I don’t want to believe that men are more warlike. But I think that just pragmatically, from reading the paper every day, I’d say so far.
[BF:] But whenever a war is going on, there are women supporting the war effort at home.
Of course there are, and one hates that. And yet for the First World War women from all countries tried to get together to stop it. There were women in Yugoslavia. I had lists of their names—of women and also a list of writers and intellectuals who just all begged them to stop. There were plenty of men who begged them to stop, that’s true, who were horrified by it all. But something goes wild. I used to make jokes of it. I used to say well, that’s because they don’t know what to do in the afternoon after work. I don’t think, for instance—you know we have this thing about being drafted into the army and stuff like that—I don’t think women should be drafted into the army. I think men should not. So my feeling is that in certain areas they should be equal with us, not we with them.
[SO:] What does feminism mean to you?
It means a couple of things. First it means you begin to understand you have a lot in common with other women. It’s like a class thing. This class of women is a group of people that you have a good deal of life in common with. And it begins at that point. And then you begin to think about how the world is organized and what your position in it is, socially, and you understand what a patriarchal society you are living in, and it’s not yours basically.
[BF:] Were you active in a women’s liberation group from the beginning?
Well, somewhat. You see I was in the peace movement. Probably because of the Vietnam War. And unlike many young women I was already working with a lot of women in it and also with several very unusual men, older mostly. A lot of the young women in the peace movement were really just pushed around by SDS (the student organization). That is, Meredith Tax or Marge Piercy were pushed around by these guys, these young fellows in these student movements, who were really not shallow because they were very smart, but callow and full of male beans and ambition and so forth. And accustomed to or forced to play a certain role. I think the women’s movement has done a lot for men, a tremendous lot for them. For men who paid attention it has taken some of the burden of machoism off their backs, which is a terrible burden to bear. If you think about it, it’s horrible. It’s horrible to have to be that kind of person in order to be a person.
A lot of men don’t seem to recognize that because there is this backlash now. Marilyn French was here with her book The War against Women. It’s like a lot of men say, “Women are responsible for everything that’s wrong in my life.”
Yes, but they were saying that before. I talked to her about it. I like her very much.
[SO:] What about that backlash? I mean Robert Bly’s book and people like that. Is it just something that is puffed up by the press?
A lot of it is puffed up, but a lot of it is true. You can’t expect men not to respond to a lot of criticism. All of those guys from the West talk about Toni Morrison. I can’t tell you how it affects me. I am so upset with them. Jesus Christ, you know. Anyway, the men are a class that privileges have been taken away from, and they don’t understand that. They think it’s ordinary life that’s been stolen, and it’s like they have lived in this room and you have said, “We’d like to have one third of the room,” and they go out of their minds naturally because they have been lying all over the place. [Laughter.]
It’s been like this all the time.
Yes, it’s natural, but we fight back. When she says there is a backlash, that doesn’t mean that the women aren’t there to fight that backlash. The press doesn’t say it so much, but there was a meeting with Anita Hill in New York, and they had room for about eight hundred people. And there were thousands of women who just came to that one half-day conference to hear her. And then I’ve been going to meetings with a group called Action Committee. They meet every single Tuesday. This is just an ordinary meeting of an organization, and between two hundred and four hundred people meet every single Tuesday. [These meetings and actions have continued since we spoke.] So there’s a backlash to the backlash if I can put it that way. It encourages me very much. That’s true where I live in New England as well, where the women’s movement was kind of pleased with itself and dormant for a while and has suddenly got mad, and women have begun to get together again.
[BF:] You have got a little piece in here. One of your conversation pieces where the narrator talks to her mother-in-law on her deathbed about women’s lib. She comes down the next morning and says, “Those young women—what wonderful lives they’re going to have.” Would you agree?
Yes, I do. I think it’s much better for you guys than it was for me. I mean it was much better for my daughter except for AIDS, which wrecks everything. That business of AIDS does terrible things. It prevents people from naturally loving one another, and it makes people who have ceased to love one another stick together. Both terrible things.
[SO:] Are your children feminists?
My daughter is. My son is a little backlashed [laughter] but not much. Not too much.
Apart from being a feminist you characterize yourself in this book as a cooperative anarchist. I like the term very much. And a combative pacifist. Which of these things is most likely to get you into trouble?
As a combative pacifist I have gotten into more trouble than as a cooperative anarchist.
What are the current projects politically that you are involved in?
I have been very involved in a lot of Jewish stuff too, and that’s very interesting because again it is mostly women. It is the women in Israel called Women in Black, who have been fighting, who have been vigiling week after week after week. And we have our own Women in Black in New York and even in Vermont and in California; only we don’t wear black, that’s the only thing. But we really vigil for that. Now that’s part of bringing together the peace movement and the women’s movement because it’s mostly women who are doing it. One of the really interesting things is that, for instance, in contacts with Palestinian women we have heard them say now that they won’t allow to happen to them what happened to the Algerian women—after the revolution everything was turned back. Who knows? But those are the international contacts where people help each other out to understand things. I have been involved in that as a writer and as a woman and things like that pretty much. I have moved up to the country, so my life is a little peculiar.
[BF:] What is your relation to Israel?
I’m not a Zionist and I never was. But I don’t want them destroyed. I really don’t. I do think there should be two states there. I think they should behave decently. They shouldn’t act like such pigs. I’m very happy about the elections, though God knows what they’ll finally mean.
I was surprised.
I was surprised. I think they were surprised too. I think people are tired of those rotten settlements. Those people are awful. And do you want to know something? They’re mostly Americans. If not mostly at least in a large percentage.
How did you feel about coming to Germany?
I’ve come a number of times and probably the first time was strange. I wanted to look into every face and see some truth. What happened was that Germans often began the conversation, and in the end I wondered how I would bear such a burden. At the same time I come from a racist country full of denial of its history and live among Christians who suffer some mild form of antisemitism at least and a more virulent form of race hatred. I am interested in history and how the generations make it, then tell it. I was glad to see hundreds of Germans come out in protest of the foreign bashing. If five thousand had come into the streets after Kristallnacht, the world’s history since would have been different.
[SO:] Let us return to women’s experiences. You said somewhere that women who don’t have children are missing out on a fantastic experience.
I didn’t say it like that.
You said, “I think it’s a shame that it has become almost a fashion not to have children.” Do you still think it’s necessary to have a child of one’s own?
Oh no, no. I never thought that. My sister has no children. But I do think relation to children is important. And I don’t think people have to have children. My daughter has no children. I wanted to. It was easy for me because there was no political opposition to it. [Laughter.]
On the contrary!
On the contrary, right! So I didn’t put it off. I do think a relation to children is a wonderful thing. I think a relation to old people … I think that you can’t live a single-generation life. I mean you can, but, one, you don’t learn enough from it, and two, it’s more boring. You can get into fights with the generation that’s ahead of you, and your children you certainly get into fights with. So you get into struggles with them. They are illuminating always. And you see what’s ahead of you and you see what’s in back of you. I think you have a sense of time. To me children are extremely interesting, but that’s me personally, and it’s not what I think other people must feel.
It should be an option for women to decide that they don’t want to have children.
Well, I would fight to the death for their right not to have children. I mean as far as the whole abortion thing is concerned, that’s one of my major concerns.
So you have been active on abortion?
Oh yes, I have. That’s a very big struggle in the United States. God knows what’s going to happen. I mean we’re really dealing with maniacs. There is this other little piece in there [Long Walks] about what it was like for us when there was no abortion allowed. It was just simply sheer oppression.
[BF:] Do you think that Pro-Lifers have a chance in the States?
They’re very strong, but they’ve been beaten back in every town. I mean women have really been there and not allowed them. But they are part of the whole fundamentalist movement that is crawling across the whole world, and we have to stop them.
[SO:] You’re right. It’s the same in Germany too.
Oh, I bet.
In your writing children always are a sort of promise, the hope for the future, new beginnings.
I don’t think you begin again. Sometimes when you are with children, you feel old. You feel worse than anything.
[BF:] Well, we wanted to ask you how you feel about turning seventy this year? What does old age mean to you?
Well, if you have the book, it has a couple of hard poems in there. Golda Meir was asked that question: “We hear you don’t mind getting older?” And she said, “That’s true, but I never said it was a pleasure.” I can’t think of a better answer in this sense. I mean you get older and your time gets shorter on this earth; and if you happen to like this earth, you really get a little gloomy about having to leave it. There are a lot of things one is curious about—like what will come next in the world’s life—and very angry that you won’t know. And you feel that if you turn your back by dying, it’ll get very bad behind your back, or something like that. The whole world will blow up, and you’ll never know that’s what happened. You couldn’t stop it. If you’d only been there, you would have stopped it. No, I think if you’re healthy … I’m pretty healthy. My husband is pretty healthy. We really like each other a lot, and our kids are in fairly good shape. But if you get old in another way, it’s very bad. If you don’t have money, it’s terrible. Not that we have a lot, but I don’t have to worry really, and I’m still working.
So you don’t worry too much?
You do; you can’t help it. You know, not really worry. You wake up early afraid sometimes, but you do sometimes when you’re thirty-three and a half [laughs], and you don’t know what’s coming, right?
SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, p. 42.
[In the following review, Tompkins offers a positive assessment of The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley dedicates The Collected Stories to her “colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade,” Sybil Clariborne. In celebrating a friendship spanning over forty years, Paley chooses to remember one of the last questions raised by her friend: namely, “How are we to live our lives?” And this is the question which best encapsulates the moral dilemmas Paley addressed in The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985).
In addition to highlighting Paley’s development as a writer, The Collected Stories allows for an appreciation of the array of subject positions and social issues explored. Points of view range from children to retirees. Also present are the immigrant experience and the plight of people of color; however, Paley’s greatest contribution lies in her sensitive exploration of the female experience. Whereas stories such as “Wants” look at the victimization of women from the perspective of gender-inflected conceptualizations of “ambition,” “Lavinia: An Old Story” shows a transgenerational pattern of self-sacrifice—women’s potential being repeatedly harnessed to the daily drudgery of motherhood.
A number of stories are interrelated. For instance, “Distance” results in a radically different reading of “An Interest in Life,” which revolves around the paradox of being abused and abandoned and the continued longing for the man who walked out. Similarly, the experience of being on welfare during World War II is counterpointed with that of contemporary welfare moms in “Northeast Playground.”
Especially since the 1970s, Paley’s texts illustrate the feminist dictum: the personal is the political. Social issues such as white flight and the blight of inner cities (“The Long-Distance Runner”), missing children, child abuse (“The Little Girl”), poverty (“Gloomy Tune”), and substance abuse (“Friends”) alternate with backgrounds such as the Vietnam War (“Faith in a Tree”), Allende’s Chile (“The Expensive Moment”), or China (“Somewhere Else” and “The Expensive Moment”). Scathing (male) irony (“The Contest,” “An Irrevocable Diameter”) and the subversion of gender expectations (“A Woman, Young and Old,” “The Pale Pink Roast”) give way to the exploration of transgenerational bonding (motherhood in “A Subject of Childhood” and “Gramma” in “Ruthy and Edie”). Self-reflexivity is a recurrent motif. “Debts” examines the function of writing, “A Conversation with My Father” hinges on the act itself, generic expectations appear in “Goodbye and Good Luck,” and, ironically enough, the Silenced refuses to continue in that role in “Listening.”
While Paley’s success undoubtedly stems from her sparse prose, her precise “ear” for idioms and speech patterns, the use of bittersweet epiphanic moments, and her iconoclastic female figures, her most remarkable gift may be the minute analysis of emotions (as states of being), especially in interpersonal relations. (Powerful stories such as “Friends” are reminiscent of Clarice Lispector’s “Love” and “Family Ties.”) In addition to being an overdue tribute to the public figure, The Collected Stories is a must.
SOURCE: “Grace Paley,” in The Progressive, Vol. 61, No. 11, November, 1997, pp. 36-9.
[In the following interview, Paley discusses her family and formative influences, and her career as a writer and activist.]
It’s August 6 in Thetford Hill, Vermont, and before the sun has dried the mist on the Green Mountains, Grace Paley is out at a Hiroshima Day vigil. Friends, family, and neighbors are there, too. So are a couple of dozen kids from a nearby camp. The protesters turn handmade peace signs toward passing cars and trucks. Some toot hello while others work hard not to notice. “We used to be very strict and yell at people if they laughed,” Paley tells one of the campers. But when a trucker honks and waves, she says brightly, “Maybe the world will change.”
From her home in Vermont, her principal residence for the past several years, Paley maintains a busy schedule. At seventy-five, she lectures at schools and colleges, she gives literary readings, and she pursues her political activities both here and abroad. In July, she returned from Antwerp, where she attended a meeting of Women’s World, an organization of writers, publishers, and editors working to end censorship. Her newest book, Just As I Thought brings together reports and memoirs written over the past thirty years about peace and feminist activities in Vietnam, China, and Russia, as well as the United States. It will be out early next year.
Paley became famous for short stories set in Greenwich Village. Her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), was followed by Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). Other works include Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991) and New and Collected Poems (1992). In 1994, The Collected Stories appeared. Paley is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards. In 1989, New York’s Governor, Mario Cuomo, named her the first official New York State Writer.
After the vigil disbands, she heads home with her husband, writer Bob Nichols, and local friends. She scrambles up some eggs to go with a platter of herring, a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and a big pot of coffee—all set on an outside table. After a leisurely breakfast, the friends depart, the sun arrives, the sweaters come off, the hats go on … and we talk.
[Vine:] When did you start writing?
[Paley:] When I was a kid, a teenager, I wrote poetry. I hardly ever sent anything out. When I was about twenty-one, I published a few poems. Maybe I wrote a couple of stories before, but I really began to write stories in my mid-thirties. My kids were still little, and they were in school and day care, and I had begun to think a lot about wanting to tell some stories and not being able to do it in poetry.
I had been spending a lot of time in the park with all these women. There were things I didn’t like. I didn’t like a lot in the relations between the men and women that I knew. And I really knew some very nice guys. Many of them were the boys I knew when I was in my late teens, among them my former husband, Jess, to whom I was married for twenty-five years. But there was something wrong all the time. And in the park I met other women and I started to get interested in their lives. I developed a lot of pressure to talk about women’s lives, and children’s lives, too. Children interest me tremendously, and I didn’t see a lot of literature about children, or women and children.
I had a kind of resistance to writing those stories. I felt the stuff was probably pretty trivial. But I had a great pressure to tell these stories. I started to write. I was not naive about what I wanted to do or the level at which I wanted to do it.
I didn’t intend to become a short-story writer. I became one because I finished a couple of short stories and realized that’s what I wanted to do and could do with children and with all the other things in my life. I set out to write a couple of stories and maybe do more with prose but … there I was.
Had you intended to become a poet?
I didn’t intend. The word “intend” is the wrong word for what I do. It’s just that it’s something you do, and you can’t not do. If you want to do it, and you don’t intend to, you do it anyway. The word “intend” is wrong. The word “pressure” is right. It’s like any art form.
Did anything like a writers’ group exist?
I didn’t know of any. I remember going to NYU and I took a short-story writing class—this was before I had kids—and the guy told me he didn’t think I could really write. And I assumed he was right. I didn’t even worry about it too much. I said, “Well, wrong direction.” Many years later, after I’d begun to write stories, I was afraid I would stop writing stories so I took a course at the New School where I met a writer named Ellen Currie, a wonderful writer. The teacher, whom I liked a lot and was a very good guy, told me to “get off my Jewish dime.” This was when Bellow and Roth were writing, and the Jewish dime was about to become a quarter.
Who influenced you?
I read a lot. I liked a tremendous number of poets and writers. The person whose work I liked the most was Joyce.
Kids like us in the Bronx, we went to libraries all the time. And when you think of things that influenced your life, Mother Goose influenced more people than almost any other thing, the rhythms of those poems. Everything after that was a bare imitation of some of those mysterious and materialistic poems.
Our families encouraged us. My family were Russian Jews. They got you to read as soon as you could. And then assumed you would read, a lot. People didn’t really tell stories but they were good talkers. That’s important for a writer, to hear speakers.
What’s a “good talker”?
Good talkers are people who use interesting language and have a lot of energy in speech and who also listen.
What was your family like?
I come from a socialist family. They were very anti-communist from the beginning. My father was a political person. They all were. They left Russia in 1905, running from the terrible pogroms of the period, and my father had been in prison in 1903–1904 when he was just a kid. It was before the 1905 Revolution. He was in one prison and then he was sent to Siberia. But he wasn’t there for too long because the Czar had a son and everybody was freed who was under twenty-one years of age. He got out then. And very quickly people raised money for him and my mother, who was also arrested and freed and was his girlfriend at the time, to come to America. My grandmother came then, and so did my aunts.
The first thing my father did when he came here was learn English. He became a big reader of history, of literature, of everything. They all learned English, except for my grandmother, who never learned. The women went to work. My father also worked, in a photography place, and then he went to medical school and they supported him while he went to medical school. Then he got out and became a doctor and he supported them.
They didn’t do much politically once they came here. They worked hard. They had children right away. They got their newspapers. They had friends who were more active than they were. They were social democrats. I had one aunt who went to Palestine. In the late 1920s she came to visit my parents and was utterly disgusted at their non-politicalness. Her family was heavy socialist Zionists.
My mother went to demonstrations. I remember her going to a big demonstration for Earl Brower and she came home crying and said the Communists were very mean and booed their people. I remember feeling sad at her feeling sad. But they went to Norman Thomas events and stayed socialists.
I thought well of my parents. I disagreed with them about a lot of things because—they were right, of course, to be anti-communist—they didn’t like my being in the student unions. Even, if they weren’t communist organizations, they certainly were influenced. We didn’t have terrible quarrels, but after admiring them a lot, I was angry. I thought, “They are so middle class.” I thought, “Who are they?” Of course, my mother had continued to go to things, but I didn’t recognize it. And they were right about many things in the end. But I was also right about many things.
Where did your parents settle when they first arrived?
The Lower East Side. They took the route of all Jews. They moved from the Lower East Side to Harlem and then to the Bronx.
What was the community like where you grew up?
I lived in a house in the East Bronx, a totally Jewish neighborhood on East 172nd Street. You didn’t see Christians much, although one lived next door. We thought they were kind of a minority.
My memory of that place is of the Depression. In what had been a solid, working-class neighborhood, there was no work at all. I remember people’s fathers were out of work for years.
Was your family seriously affected?
Not really. My father didn’t ask people for a lot of money but he was a neighborhood doctor. We did have a car, and we had help in the house. It was a big house. In those days, you had the office in the house and the office was downstairs, and the family was upstairs. That included my aunt and my grandmother, too.
One of the themes that recurs in your stories is luck.
This idea of luck is not luck so much but that I have a pretty good sense of having been born at a certain historical time when I could really write about women’s lives. The women’s movement was coming, but I didn’t know it in 1956–1957, when I began to write. But it’s not luck because you could be born at that time and have other things on one’s mind. Still, because of what I was interested in, it was a big luck for me.
I was born into a certain kind of family which was very nourishing and I was well cared for. And that’s class. I always say that my brother and sister had working-class parents and I had middle-class parents. I came when people had time for me. They liked it that I read. I was fortunate that by the time I was born, there were a lot of comforts and at the same time I lived in a neighborhood where it was brought to my eyes every single day that people didn’t live like me. Every day I knew that many of my friends “got relief.” That was important in my thinking about the world, thinking that not everybody lived that way. When I say luck, I’m using a cheap word for very expensive things like ideas.
There’s also the person Faith.
I don’t know why I ended up with Faith. It had nothing to do with me. I had this very funny idea that I was going to write this family thing, and there would be three children named Faith, Hope, and Charlie. And that was the joke in my mind when I named her Faith. People won’t believe that, but it’s true. In “The Long-Distance Runner,” she talks about Charlie her brother, but he never comes up again. Those names are just inventions, but names are important. People get ideas from them even if you didn’t intend it.
Your involvement in peace activities spans decades. What changes have you seen in that time?
When you have a peace movement that has an actual war, it’s different from one that has wars that our country is not totally involved in. During the war in Vietnam, and to a lesser degree the wars in Central America where our country was directly involved, it was easier to organize.
When the United States supported Mobutu, it was much more subtle. That’s something people didn’t know as well. It’s harder to organize around that kind of imperial action than it is around the Vietnam War, where people’s children were going, or Nicaragua and El Salvador, where we were able to send many witnesses.
Now the Gulf War, that was one of the smartest wars the United States ever fought. Somebody figured out how to do it very fast, get in and out and make a lot of people miserable without anybody else knowing about it. If that had gone on any length of time, we would have had tremendous opposition to it. Even at the war’s prime, when yellow ribbons were supposed to be the greatest thing in the world, we were able to have vigils in most of the towns around here. You had enough response that people knew the war wasn’t so hot.
So without a war is it harder to get people involved?
It’s harder to mobilize people. But just look at the letters to the editor in the local newspaper about the land mines. It’s probably getting plenty of support out of Wall Street and the defense industry but I don’t see any support of that in the local papers. I see editorials saying, “What’s going on here?” As soon as you have people writing back and forth, you know that you can do something.
People are learning more and more about the American arms trade, which I think is one of the most horrendous things that is happening right now. They are learning about the defense industry contracting out to other countries where the wages are low but they are still American companies. I can hardly believe the hideous ideas of our government or of President Clinton—going out and looking for business. Right now I think we are running about 60 percent of the arms trade. Hanford, the plutonium center in Washington, was supposed to be closed down and then it received orders from the Energy Department not to close it down. To me, you can’t say that anything is more horrifying than this resumption. As far as militarism is concerned, we’re in a very scary situation, a very bad one.
How different is it for you to live here in Vermont instead of in Greenwich Village?
I live pretty much the same. If I miss anything, it’s being able to hang out in the city of New York meeting people and talking to them on the corner. There are two places to meet people here, to just hang out—the recycling center and the lake. And this town has a piece of beautiful beach on one of the many beautiful lakes. You go there and see some of the people and talk to them. I do it as much as I can. I like going with the kids. For me, it’s like going to Washington Square Park. You see all the young mothers with their children. It’s not so different.
This is also a gift that has been given me, that of rural life, because it’s not like living in the suburbs. It’s really living in a place full of small towns, and even living outside of those small towns. Even though in 1979 I helped organize a conference called Women and Life on Earth, it wasn’t until I lived in the countryside that I began to understand the life of the countryside and the people in it and trees and water. Just learning about water is an education for a city person.
Has living in Vermont affected your writing or what you write about?
Not really. I write more poems about this. They’re not sweet poems necessarily. You always have to invent the voice. You’re always inventing language—an older woman in the generation preceding, some guy, an Irish voice, or a black voice. I really believe one of the jobs of a writer is to stretch as far as you can into other voices. That’s one of the acts of sisterhood or brotherhood, to say, “Oh, this is how life is for the other one.”
Is that a form of empathy?
It’s more than empathy. Empathy can become psychological or sentimental. But it really is a way of trying to know what’s going on in another head and that’s different than saying, “Oh, this guy’s a good guy.” You don’t do it in order to say, “This guy’s a good guy.” You do it in order to understand. You might find terrible evil in that head. There is evil in this world.
When you’re teaching young people who want to be writers, what do you hope to accomplish?
That they show a lot of feeling for language. Sometimes before people know what they’re saying, they already love the language. I think I was like that. Even if they seem mixed up, if they’re using the language, I like that. Some are very self-centered. Some are less so. You can’t push them too much except by giving them assignments, making them write from other points of view. That helps a lot. But they do have to be interested in paying attention to the life of their world.
What I’m mostly interested in is that they should really want to get it right. Not settle for the easiest idea or the trendiest idea or the easiest word. They should always push themselves, if they’re serious. My job is to get people to write something truthful, something about truth and beauty—wherever they are—and to understand how literature is made. And then if they become great writers, that’s great, and probably has nothing to do with me.
I am very interested in people trying to write because I don’t have a big academic background at all. In fact, I don’t have any degrees. I went to Hunter College one year and New York University another year. It’s just on the basis of my books that I’ve been hired at any of the places I’ve been. I felt that I had been foolish not to go to school more. I liked the education. I liked people learning things all around me and I liked going to people’s classes. At Sarah Lawrence, I liked the two-generational aspect of it. I hate single-generational things.
It seems that you teach wherever you are. You don’t need a classroom.
As an older person, I do feel an obligation to tell the story about what was really happening in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, as I saw it. I’ve been asked to talk about these things in high schools, here and in other places, and I’m always glad to. I do lots of reading and speaking at many universities about literature and also about politics, which is as much a part of my life as the literature.
What is your old age like?
I am fairly healthy, I live with a man I admire and really love a lot, and my children are good people. There are very sorrowful things that have happened that you can’t run away from. A lot of sad things have happened to my friends’ children, people you knew as babies. They’ve been killed or become crazy or all kinds of tragic things. There are some people whose children haven’t talked to them in fifteen years. There’s all kind of meshugaas in this world. People say, “Why do you call your kids up, why do you worry like that?” And I say, “I was raised like that.” My grandmother looked at my father with the same eyes when he was sixty and she was eighty-five.
So you think, what is old age? Old age is not a good thing. It can be really hard, and those of us who have it a little easier should keep in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are not as well off. I’m seventy-five now. I also have the peculiar luck of having a sister and brother who are fourteen and sixteen years older than me. Their health is not good. It couldn’t be at that age. But their spirits are. Both my brother and my sister are an example to me.
If you’re old and you’re healthy and you’re active—I don’t mean you have to be politically active—if you remain interested in other people and the world, then you live as well as your health will allow. If you’re poor, you probably won’t have that health. Old people can lead terrible lives in this country. It depends. You simply don’t know how things are going to turn out.
For all your accomplishments, how do you maintain your modesty?
To be modest means that you have something to be modest about. I don’t feel particularly modest but I don’t feel particularly show-offy, because of this luck. I know I’ve done good work. I’ve been very serious about my writing, and I’ve done the best that I could. But I don’t feel that I’ve done more than I should have. In fact, I’ve done less than I should have.
What should you have done more of?
I should have written more. I should have written more during the period when I just liked so much doing the political work in the streets. I did write a number of reports on my political experiences, but there were many omissions, and I feel bad about that because it was work that was interesting and had I written more about it, it could have been useful. Still, I loved the comradeship of the sixties and the seventies, and I still maintain friendships with the people I worked with then—the ones that are still alive. That’s one of the great gifts of our political movements, great friendships … and also a few enmities.
SOURCE: “A Community of Hope,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1998, p. 22.
[In the following review, Cheyette offers a positive evaluation of The Collected Stories.]
The forty-five stories in this remarkable collection [The Collected Stories] have been published over the past four decades. Grace Paley’s three volumes of stories—The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985)—have been, at last, brought together for a British readership (the book was first published in the United States in 1994). Paley has always taken her time, remarking characteristically that there is more to life than writing fiction. There is certainly more to her life. Born in the Bronx in 1922, to Russian Jewish immigrants, she grew up in the poorer quarter of Lower, East Side Manhattan. The child of three languages, Russian, Yiddish and English, she wrote poetry, before turning to the story form, which since the 1950s she has made her own. Paley, who studied with W.H. Auden, rejected poetry as being too literary, and also too male. Her stories spring from her life as a mother, daughter, wife and, increasingly, as a political activist, although they are not bounded by these experiences.
The title The Little Disturbances of Man, comes from a typical early story, “An Interest in Life”, about Virginia, one of Paley’s stoutly optimistic, downtrodden mothers. Virginia lives in penury with her children; although long abandoned, she is still crazily in love with her ex-husband, a condition called elsewhere “himitis”, the consequence of her seemingly unstoppable sexual drive. In a bid to escape her biological destiny, she decides to list her trials and tribulations so as to qualify for “Strike it Rich”, a television programme about the misery of its audience. (Those in most torment presumably “strike it rich”, illustrating with perfect economy America’s hopelessly ameliorative attitude to suffering.) The extent of her anguish, Virginia believes, would bring “tears to the eyes of God if he had a minute”. Her lover, John Raftery, dismisses her troubles as “the little disturbances of man”. Those who write into “Strike it Rich”, he declares, “really suffer. … They live in the forefront of tornadoes; their lives are washed off by floods—catastrophes of God”; Virginia’s trivial domestic unhappiness does not qualify. As if to answer Raftery’s scepticism, Paley turns these “little disturbances” into comic masterpieces.
Writing in the 1950s, soon after the war, Paley felt that the only stories being told were about great historic, largely male, suffering. As Virginia states in her defence, “all that is really necessary for survival of the fittest, it seems, is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar”. The men in these stories are either in the armed forces or they “cart wheel” around the world, setting off on “paths” (often “eastward”) which do not concern the women. Paley’s interest is in the marginal and dispossessed, those who lack a voice. Her stories are not merely well-made tales, they have the illusion of the spoken word. She is interested in what gives people the will to live in the most adverse circumstances, but she does not moralize, and her quirky voice is always unpredictable, hence the stress on the “peculiar”. Virginia, for instance, appears again in “Distances” in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, where she is roughly traduced by John Raftery’s mother, a feisty Irish Catholic resident in her tenement block. Paley often returns to an earlier story to rewrite it from a different, shrewdly perverse, perspective.
The majority of the stories are about women’s lives. Faith Darwin, Paley’s most consistent presence, along with Virginia, is introduced in “Two Short Stories from a Long and Happy Life”. Like Virginia, Faith is a single put-upon mother. Based on Sybil Claibourne, the friend for nearly forty years to whom this volume is dedicated, Faith is a character who is realistic, yet also highly stylized. Her brother and sister are called Hope and Charlie, and her name, Faith Darwin, is a mixture of the spiritual and the rational (or the feminine and the masculine). After passively listening to her ex-husband’s complaints about her cooking, Faith has a brief but furious outburst against Israel: “Jews have one hope only—to remain … a splinter in the toe of civilizations, a victim to aggravate the conscience.” When Faith reappears again, her Jewishness becomes as important as her womanliness, whereas Virginia, Paley’s goyische persona, tends to recede into the background.
At the end of the second introductory tale, “A Subject of Childhood” Faith’s adolescent son follows his exhausted mother into her bathroom sanctuary and roughly declares that he loves her. This moment is caught in Paley’s distinctive bitter-sweet tone—“through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black and white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes”. At the point of despair, there is the note of barbed optimism. None of her characters accepts her fate, and all reject their supposed victimhood. Some, such as Rose Lieber in “Goodbye and Good Luck”, who recounts to her niece her lifelong unrequited love affair with a Yiddish actor, refuse their role as failure. In the end, Paley subtly reverses the usual expectations and makes the obese Rose, “driven by love”, into an attractive figure when compared to her thin, emotionally deficient, suburban sister. The tales all have a lightness of touch and wit in abundance, but they also have a historic and generational sweep. In a few pages, stories such as “A Woman, Young and Old” cover vast amounts of space and time.
While Paley, in her first collection, was most concerned with “women and men at love” (her original subtitle), the later stories move from the domestic to the social sphere. No longer are her downtrodden mavericks searching for a sense of self, they now have the confidence to change their lot. The decade-long gap between the published volumes enables Paley to reimagine the development of her characters and their communities a generation on. The “rotten rosy temperament” of Faith Darwin especially is seen in its full glory in “The Immigrant Story”, “Faith in the Afternoon”, “Faith in a Tree” and “The Expensive Moment”. Her children are now teenagers, and, just as she inherited the radical politics of her parents, so they become political idealists. As she writes about the 1960s and 70s, her fiction is increasingly about a lost generation, children who are victims of the drug culture, or of New York’s criminals, and the emotional devastation they suffer. Not even Faith’s life-giving sense of community and friendship can overcome such grief. Some stories about the loss of a child, such as “Samuel”, set her rosy outlook in stark relief.
An undertow of death and destruction always modifies Paley’s American sense of hopefulness. In a key story, “A Conversation with my Father”, Paley’s persona is forced to justify to her father why she does not write “a simple story” as Maupassant or Chekhov do. Her refusal to use a single plot-line, she argues, is because “the absolute line between two points … takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Many of Paley’s stories test this aesthetic principle. At first, the hopeful quest for an “open destiny” is traced back to the experience of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in the United States. Two superb stories, “The Loudest Voice” and “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All”, point to the children of immigrants who have an abiding sense of an “open destiny” on their side. In “The Loudest Voice”, a Jewish girl, Shirley, is asked to take part in her school’s nativity play because she has a “particularly loud, clear voice”. Much to the chagrin of her parents, who regard this as a “creeping pogrom”, Shirley agrees to appear in the play. Those already in the culture do not need to shout to be heard.
By the time we reach Later the Same Day, set in the 1980s, Paley questions Faith’s rosy idealism further. In “Ruth and Edie” and “Zagrowsky Tells”, Faith is assailed on all sides by a more cynical younger generation (who attack her “adversarial” lifestyle) and a conservative older generation, who fear that their lifelong achievements will be snatched away from them by the newly dispossessed. The decline in Black-Jewish relations, a symptom of a wider malaise, is also ambitiously addressed in a number of the later tales, such as “The Long-Distance Runner”. By the end of the volume, Paley can only do justice to her imagined community of family and friends—to “save a few lives”, as she puts it in “Debts”—by retreating back into the domestic. “Dreamer in a Dead Language” and “Faith in the Afternoon” are two poignant accounts of Faith visiting her aged parents in an old people’s home and the continued conflict of expectations that both parent and child have with each other. For Paley, past memories “thicken” the present, turning it into a more complex story. But the multiple voices of her early tales are sometimes a little too comfortably reduced to familiar faces.
A false note is struck when Paley recounts some of her international politicking in “Somewhere Else”, which describes a UN visit to China. As the title indicates, this is in stark contrast to her New York stories. Up to this point, she had resisted recasting as fiction her own local and national anti-Vietnam-war activities (these include a number of short jail terms and an arrest on the White House lawn). But the fact that “Somewhere Else” jars so much indicates how good a storyteller Paley is. It would be easy to categorize this collection as “politically correct”, given its leftist stress on the urban poor, but compared with the easy pieties of the present, Paley’s fiction continually challenges facile assumptions and is always true to itself. The range of her subject matter, within her little world, gives this volume an epic quality, a counterpoint to its comic minimalism. Few writers today would be able to successfully re-enact the rape and suicide of a young Southern white girl, using the narrative voice of an elderly black man, as she does in “The Little Girl”. By thinking of her writing as, essentially, an oral form Paley has never lost touch with her community of listeners. To maintain their interest, and ours, she has produced some of the most important and lasting stories of the second half of the century.
SOURCE: “Amazing Grace,” in The Nation, May 11, 1998, pp. 38, 40-42.
[In the following review of Just As I Thought, Leonard praises Paley's life, activism, and moral conviction.]
Never mind how wonderful it is that Grace Paley should have imagined an alter ego named Faith Darwin. One of them is about to undergo an enormous change at the last minute. “Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.” Like a Transcendental angel out of Emerson, she’s twelve feet up in a sycamore tree, from which she can see almost everything except the horizon of that “sensible, socialist, Zionist world” her mother had dreamt of—a future full of faith and grace:
“What a place in democratic time!” she thinks. Aloft, this “Faith in a Tree” will also consider motherhood: “I own two small boys whose dependence on me takes up my lumpen time and my bourgeois feelings.” And the older fathers in the park: “every one of them wearing a fine gray head and eager eye, his breath caught, his hand held by the baby daughter of a third intelligent marriage.” And the blue-eyed, boy-faced policemen: “They can see that lots of our vitamin-enlarged high-school kids are planning to lug their guitar cases around all day long. They’re scared that one of them may strum and sing a mountain melody or that several, a gang, will gather to raise their voices in medieval counterpoint.” And herself: “I often see through the appearance of things right to the apparition itself.” Plus her son Richard, her friend Kitty, the P.T.A., the Board of Ed, the People’s Republic of Ubmonsk, “the rise of industrialism and group therapy,” and the God of the Jews:
If it’s truth and honor you want to refine, I think the Jews have some insight. Make no images, imitate no God. After all, in His field … He is pre-eminent. Then let that One who made the tan deserts and the blue Van Allen belt and the green mountains of New England be in charge of Beauty, which He obviously understands, and let man, who was full of forgiveness at Jerusalem, and full of survival at Troy, let man be in charge of Good.
We’ve been here before Faith, inside this American English with a Yiddish accent, vitamin-enlarged, as it were, by a medieval counterpoint that modernized our postwar literature, that jumped our beans. We hear it in the brilliant twitchy speakfreak patter of a Bellow—mandarin and colloquial, sentimental and neo-Baroque, Talmudic mutter and gangster slang; the long irony, the low laugh and the short fuse. (“Orpheus, the son of Greenhorn. He brought Coney Island into the Aegean and united Buffalo Bill with Rasputin.”) And whenever Malamud is feeling bad, before he goes up in a magic barrel to consort like Chagall with cows, candles and violins. (“Have a little mercy on me, Lesser, move so I can break up this rotten house that weighs like a hunch on my back.”) And even in the fractured liturgies of an S. J. Perelman. (“To Err Is Human, to Forgive, Supine.”) And maybe in the idol-smashing of an Ozick. (“His intelligence was a version of cynicism. He rolled irony like an extra liquid in his mouth.”) But in Paley’s wonderful stories—about what mothers should have told their daughters and men don’t know about women, about friendship, death and making do, about reading Dostoyevsky and running for your life—the political accent is always grave, levitating leftward: socialist/anarchist/pacifist/feminist. To a table where the bread is kneaded with the baker’s tears and there’s blood in the chicken soup, she always brings a surpassing generosity, a radical optimism and our marching orders.
What happens to Faith in her tree in the park is the politics of witness:
a banging of pots and pans came out of the playground and a short parade appeared—four or five grownups, a few years behind me in the mommy-and-daddy business, pushing little go-carts with babies in them, a couple of three-year-olds hanging on. They were the main bangers and clangers. The grownups carried three posters. The first showed a prime-living, prime-earning, well-dressed man about thirty-five years old next to a small girl. A question was asked: would you burn a child? In the next poster he placed a burning cigarette on the child’s arm. The cool answer was given: WHEN NECESSARY. The third poster carried no words, only a napalmed Vietnamese baby, seared, scarred, with twisted hands.
The cops roust these troublemakers, but Faith has received their transmission:
And I think that is exactly when events turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heart-felt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.
When a young Malamud had been too long-winded telling a tale, his father used to ask him: “Vus noks du mir a chinik?” What tune are you banging on your pot?
Then, as often happens in stories, it was several years later: (“Listening”)
This was late in the eighties, on Second Avenue in Manhattan across the street from the Israeli consulate, next door to National Public Radio. From the window of a bus, I saw they were demonstrating—something about the intifada. So I got out, walked around and met the New Jewish Agenda. And there, of course, was Paley, appalled by rubber bullets and broken hands. I wanted to tell her to go home and write another story. I would agitate in her stead. For decades, no matter where, every time I went to a demonstration, she was already there. I also knew that when I failed to show, she’d be there anyway. Why not a bargain? Couldn’t she call when she felt a demonstration coming on? I’d go for her. She’d stay home and “invent for my friends and our children a report on those private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments.” I would gladly serve as a decoy, a beard or an umbrella, while she was secretly committing magic.
Which is to miss the point of a woman who had already looked into “the square bright window of daylight to ask myself the sapping question: What is man that woman lies down to adore him?” Famously, Yeats said: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” He wasn’t happy about it, adding: “That old perplexity an empty purse / Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.” But it was a male piggy thing to say. The Paley who wrote the stories for The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985), and who now publishes Just As I Thought—that Paley had never been up a sycamore tree. For her, writing stories and going to demos were both, and equally, the normal respiration of intelligence. It’s clear from this rich collection of essays, lectures and reminiscences, this compost heap of travel notes, position papers, prefaces and afterthoughts, that she was born with a pot and plenty of tunes to bang on it:
I had this idea that Jews were supposed to be better. I’m not saying they were, but they were supposed to be, and it seemed to me on my block that they often were. I don’t see any reason in being in this world actually if you can’t in some way be better, repair it somehow. … So to be like all the other nations seems to me a waste of nationhood, a waste of statehood, a waste of energy, and a waste of life.
From the very beginning seventy-six years ago in the East Bronx, she has been agitating. Her doctor father was a socialist, her uncle Grisha an anarchist, one aunt a Zionist and another a communist. She learned early on never to carry the flag at a protest march; a cousin had been gunned down in Russia, in 1905, because the red banner was such a nifty target. She wore, at age 9, the blue shirt and red kerchief of a young socialist Falcon, and fought in gang wars between the Third and Fourth Internationals. She was suspended at age 12 from junior high for signing the antiwar Oxford Pledge, and staged agitprop plays with titles like Eviction! She was married at 19, and the doctor to whom she went for the abortion she’d later write about, as she helped organize one of the first abortion speakouts in the sixties, would later be arrested and imprisoned. Her first jobs included opening doors and answering phones for a doctor like her father; typing bills at an elevator company; being secretary to the fire chief on a North Carolina Army post; superintending linens in a rooming house; fetching for professors of zirconium and titanium at Columbia; working for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the New York Tenants Association; housewife, mother, teacher, writer, angel.
And see where she went: into geographies of disobedient mind and language, out among fractious worlds. To Cooper Union, the I.L.G.W.U. and May Day parades. To Margaret Sanger’s 16th Street birth-control clinic, the Whitehall Street Induction Center, Wall Street and the Pentagon; to a World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she conferred with Sakharov, and a conference in Puerto Rico on the bilingual child and public education; to Hanoi, from which she brought back prisoners of war (“You are assumed by your hosts to be an important person in your country, whereas you are really a kind of medium-level worker in one tendency in the nonviolent direct-action left wing of the antiwar movement”), and to Nicaragua and El Salvador, where she met the Mothers of the Disappeared. Have I mentioned the Greenwich Village Women’s House of Detention, to which she was sentenced for sitting down to impede a military parade, and where she spent six days reading William Carlos Williams while bonding with prostitutes? “If there are prisons, they ought to be in the neighborhood, near a subway—not way out in distant suburbs, where families have to take cars, buses, ferries, trains, and the population that considers itself innocent forgets, denies, chooses to never know that there is a whole huge country of the bad and the unlucky and the self-hurters, a country with a population greater than that of many nations in our world.” Nor ought I to neglect the actions against missile sites and nuclear power plants like Seabrook and Shoreham; in upstate New York towns like Waterloo, where she was greeted with signs that said: NUKE THE BITCHES TILL THEY GLOW. THEN SHOOT THEM IN THE DARK.
“The slightest story,” she tells us, “ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults.” All the while that she wrote hers, opposing people made of blood and bone to connections made of oil and gold, all the while she was teaching her students to read the biographies of Emma Goldman, Prince Kropotkin and Malcolm X, and the fiction of Isaac Babel and Christa Wolf (“Send those words out, out, out into the airy rubbly meaty mortal fact of the world, endless love, the dangerous transforming spirit”), she seems seldom to have missed a meeting of the Clamshell Alliance, the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s Strike for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Ploughshares, SaneFreeze, even PEN. And she seems always to have found a community where somebody says: “This is where my trouble is; this is where it hurts. And then someone answers, Me too. And listen. This is what I did about it.” Except for Studs Terkel and Joan Baez, I don’t know where the rest of us went instead. Maybe, wearing Heidegger safari jackets, Foucault platform heels, Lacan epaulets and Walter Benjamin boutonnieres, we were on the barricades at a Paris Commune faculty meeting, writing a campus speech code.
First they make something, then they murder it. Then they write a book about how interesting it is.
(“The Long-Distance Runner”)
“If you’re a feminist,” she says, “it means that you’ve noticed that male ownership of the direction of female lives has been the order of the day for a few thousand years, and it isn’t natural.” Besides: “It seems to me that privilege is obligation, that if it’s easier to go to jail, so to speak, or more possible, then direct actions that may lead to arrest are exactly what we ought to undertake when that is what’s called for. … Some of this will probably seem naïve to some people. It’s a naïveté it’s taken me a lot of time and thinking to get to:” Then, a kind of coda: “There are things about men and women and their relations to each other, also the way in which they relate to the almost immediate destruction of the world, that I can’t figure out. And nothing in critical or historical literature will abate my ignorance a tittle or a jot. I will have to do it all by myself, marshal the evidence. In the end, probably all I’ll have to show is more mystery—a certain juggled translation from life, that foreign tongue, into fiction, the jargon of man.”
That honorableness should be so straightforward comes as a cattle-prod shock to those of us who rode away from the sixties on the tricycles of our careers. In Paley, life, literature and politics converge—nonviolently, of course—in a cunning patchwork quilt of radiance and scruple, witness and example, nurture and nag, subversive humor and astonishing art: a Magical Socialism and a Groucho Marxism. Just listen to bits and pieces of what her stories teach us, better than Buddha:
My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.
I cradled him. I closed my eyes and leaned on his dark head. But the sun in its course emerged from among the water towers of downtown office buildings and suddenly shone white and bright on me. Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black-and-white-barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.
Don’t put yourself on a platter. What are you—a roast duck, everything removable with a lousy piece of flatware? Be secret. Turn over on your side. Let them guess if you’re stuffed. That’s how I got where I am.
Wherever you turn someone is shouting give me liberty or I give you death.
Then for a little while she talked gently as one does to a person who is innocent and insane and incorruptible because of stupidity.
It’s a terrible thing to die young. Still, it saves a lot of time.
Though the world cannot be changed by talking to one child at a time, it may at least be known.
Hindsight, usually looked down upon, is probably as valuable as foresight, since it does include a few facts.
I am trying to curb my cultivated individualism, which seemed for years so sweet. It was my own song in my own world and, of course, it may not be useful in the hard time to come.
It’s very important to emphasize what is good or beautiful so as not to have a gloomy face when you meet some youngster who has begun to guess.
As if to punish us for our Mayor, Citizen Paley has left the city she made so vital on the page that provincials like me could imagine no other capital or homeland—a Galapagos of jazzy thought, passionate conviction, republican virtue, smart mouths and odd birds. I know she’s up there bothering Vermont about dairy farmers and river polluters, disrupting meetings of zoning councils and school boards, causing trouble for the czar. But we need her more here now in Mussolini meantime—as beautiful as blue Van Allen belts, more forgiving than Jerusalem—than we ever did back when she was Falconing. “Let us go forth,” she writes, “with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” Ashamed of myself in her moral corona, I look for Faith in every tree.
SOURCE: “The Challenge of Writing as a Form of Social Activism,” in Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1998, p. E6.
[In the following review of Just As I Thought, Linfield commends Paley's remarkable insight, but finds the collection to be of uneven quality.]
A critic once compared Grace Paley’s fiction to that of Isaac Babel—one of her heroes—noting that their “taut prose hits you in the face like seltzer.” Indeed, in her short stories and novellas, Paley is a master (mistress?) of the terse phrase that reveals a world of fiercely contradictory emotion. When the young wife in Paley’s 1959 story “An Interest in Life” states simply, “My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right,” we are instantly invited into the complex world of a stubbornly disappointing marriage.
But this minimalist, suggestive style can easily lose power when used in the nonfiction essay. Many of the pieces in Just As I Thought—a collection that would have benefited from a far more ruthless editor—seem spotty. Paley’s riffs on Christa Wolf and Kay Boyle, for instance, are confusing (if you don’t know anything about these writers) or misleading (if you do), in either case, the pieces are simply too sparse to do justice to the complicated political, moral and (in Boyle’s case) sexual lives of these women.
For decades, Paley has been an unflagging activist in the antiwar, anti-colonial, civil rights, feminist and environmental movements, and the mainstay of her activism is the firm conviction that these movements are inextricably entwined. (So are socialism and Judaism, she believes.) Precisely for this reason, the most fascinating piece in this collection is “Conversations in Moscow” (1974), in which Paley’s belief in the organic nature of oppression is sharply challenged.
The article, alternately (and perhaps inadvertently) hilarious and heartbreaking, recounts Paley’s visit to the 1973 World Peace Congress in Moscow. Along with other American radicals like Noam Chomsky and Daniel Berrigan, Paley distributes a statement condemning the Soviet government’s persecution of dissidents while simultaneously calling on the dissidents themselves to speak out against such crimes as the right-wing coup in Chile. “We could not divide our concern for Russian poets and generals in madhouses … from our concern for political prisoners in all countries,” Paley writes.
But the Russian dissidents certainly can. They like Nixon. They like American capitalism. They aren’t particularly interested in their Vietnamese brothers, and sisters in South African apartheid or in Chilean fascism. “Thank God for the United States,” exclaims Yelena Sakharov, much to Paley’s horror. The American leftists meet with the dissidents several times for impassioned discussions. “[W]e had three languages, German, Russian, and English, and two kinds of voices: public, discursive voices and private voices—for friendly or infuriated remarks,” Paley notes. Of course, the vast differences in experience, history and ideology cannot really be bridged. Paley knows that the Americans speak with “the typical arrogance of safe persons.” Still, she insists—notwithstanding her respect for the dissidents’ integrity, bravery and suffering—on “another analysis of events, another look at who the wardens are in this world and who the prisoners.” Despite Paley’s lack of introspection—despite, that is, her unwillingness to rigorously interrogate her own beliefs—“Conversations” is fascinatingly rich in political ambiguity.
Not surprisingly, Paley has some excellent and sensible things to say about writing and how to teach it. She posits that criticism grows out of knowledge, while fiction stems from mystery. The novelist attempts to explain life to himself, “and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. … In other words, the poor writer … really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about.” To aspiring writers, Paley advises, “Stay open and ignorant.” More specifically, she proposes that in areas “where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness. Some people can do both [criticism and fiction]. Edmund Wilson, for instance—but he’s so much more smart than dumb that he has written very little fiction.”
Finally, suggests this acute observer of the human condition, the writer should forget about herself—at least for a while—and watch others. “When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring. … When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.” And, despite the shortcomings of this collection, she always is.
SOURCE: “The Saint,” in The New Republic, June 29, 1998, pp. 35-9.
[In the following negative review of Just As I Thought, Wolfe condemns Paley's “stubborn” activism as hypocritical, dishonest, and, at worst, immoral. As Wolfe concludes, “Paley’s sentimental and sanctimonious book inadvertently exposes what went wrong with the American left.”]
In an interview in 1984, Grace Paley was asked about her youthful experiences with civil disobedience. Recalling how she and her neighbors refused to allow buses through or real estate development around Washington Square Park in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Paley responded: “One of the things I learned was stubbornness. And I’ve thought more and more that that’s the real meaning of nonviolent civil disobedience—to be utterly and absolutely stubborn.” The title that she has given this collection of essays, stories, speeches, introductions, poems, and remembrances confirms that this is a writer who is proud of the fact that, in the course of a long and productive life, she has never changed her mind.
“My family was a rather typical Socialist Jewish family,” Paley relates about her childhood in the Bronx. Other children fought over sports or clothes, but the children in her world fought over Stalin and Trotsky. Although her parents were not religious—her father refused, to attend synagogue—the family thought of itself as Jewish in an ethical and cultural sense. Jews, as Paley writes, “were supposed to be better” than others. And the political outlook that she absorbed from her extended kin was remarkably akin to this kind of abstract, moralistic, ecumenical Judaism.
Despite hearing tales of family conflicts between anarchists, socialists, and communists from the old country, Paley was never sectarian in the ways of the City College intellectuals of Alcove I and Alcove II. As a child she had no doubt—and she continues to show no doubt—that her idealistic, romantic, and proudly impractical leftism makes her a better person than those war-making, planet-destroying, female-hating, violence-prone, money-making men whom she is determined to confront. Paley’s early demonstrations at Washington Square were inspired by the same tenaciously held beliefs that motivated her later feminism and her attacks on America’s involvement in the Persian Gulf: power is bad, the downtrodden are good, and the duty of the left is to speak for the truth of the latter against the hypocrisies of the former.
A society such as America’s ought to admire folks who stand back and resist, and Paley clearly offers her book to be admired. Compared to the sterile theoreticians of the tenured class, Paley’s lack of pretension is certainly refreshing. When she criticizes leftists who send their children to private schools, who can doubt that she sent her own children to public schools? She is not that kind of “progressive” whose denunciation of power masks a craving to exercise it. Paley’s radicalism is of the old-fashioned sort: anti-materialist, a bit Puritanical, committed to action. Dividing her time between Greenwich Village and Vermont, she carries forward a tradition of dissent shaped by the bohemian radicals who gravitated to the former and by the pacifists such as Scott Nearing who made the latter his home.
Yet the adjectives that Paley uses to describe her stubbornness—“utterly,” “absolutely”—give pause. Can we ever be completely sure that our positions are the correct ones? Ought we to admire absolutism in politics, no matter how idealistic its motives? Surely stubbornness is not among the most attractive or the most elevated of human qualities. The stubborn person is often an ignorant person, and willfully so. Here I stand and nothing will move me: it sounds like passion, but what about all the discordant data of the lived world? Dogma cannot be defeated dogmatically.
To be stubborn, moreover, is all but to proclaim one’s hostility to democracy, for the resister intentionally chooses not to listen to the persuasions of others. Most serious of all, though, for a person whose reputation is based upon the writing of poetry and fiction, is the mental limitation that stubbornness represents. To prize stubbornness is to diminish development, to deny variety, as if it were not important, or not the duty of a really serious mind, to correct or to put aside the beliefs of one’s youth in the light of what one learns through exposure and experience. Fidelity must never be mindless. Mules are not the best role models for human beings, especially for those who take it upon themselves to lecture others in the ways of the world.
Since she is so defiantly resistant to change, Paley tells her readers far more about her version of left-wing politics than she intends. She views herself as a prophet railing against the injustices of the world around her. Yet her book can be read as a demonstration of why the kind of leftist politics she embodies is so unappealing to the majority of Americans.
The Bronx of Grace Paley’s youth no longer spawns aspiring Jewish writers. Greenwich Village is too expensive to be the center of any kind of radicalism. The nonconformists of Vermont have left Ben and Jerry’s do-goodism behind to fight furiously over the distribution of property taxes. All this can be lamented; but before shedding too many tears over the fact that America destroys its radical breeding grounds, we ought first to recognize the benefits of having fewer writers and intellectuals as complacently convinced of their righteousness as Grace Paley.
“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” Paley’s words come from one of the first talks that she ever gave, a mid-’60s effort to explain her craft to aspiring women writers. Whatever one thinks about her literary point—my own taste in writers leans toward those who are also critics—it offers an explanation of her career as a political activist’. For the activist, unlike the writer, is a critic, of society rather than of literature. Should the critic, like the writer, live in the world? Paley’s unambiguous answer is that she should not. For the world is unjust, and any effort to accommodate oneself to it, even by trying to understand it; threatens one’s moral purity.
The dangers in such a rejection of the world are obvious, though they are not obvious to Paley. One of them is the likelihood of getting reality wrong. Is it really true that one in three women in America will be raped in the course of her lifetime? Are there really “gangs of politicians and medical men” in this country who are prepared to sterilize women for “the country’s good”? Do “tens of thousands of American women live much of their lives in cages”? Was it correct to say in 1986 that “the objective facts of world events right now are worse than at any other time”? Did the House of Representatives truly receive a “terrible shock” when Vermonters elected a socialist to join their ranks? Are the elderly truly discriminated against in America?
All these questions have factual answers, but the radical critic is not interested in knowing what the factual answers are. Why should she, if things are just as she thought? Defiantly cut off from the world, the radical critic is also cut off from any obligation to make statements about the world that can be verified. I appreciate the art of a great storyteller when I am reading a work of the imagination, but social and political criticism is not entirely, or even mainly, a work of the imagination, and stories are not really what I want from someone who is trying to instruct me about what is wrong with the world.
Paley does not generally understand the difference. She begins and ends many of her talks with stories or poems, often in ways that make it hard to distinguish between what is offered as timeless insight into the human condition and what is offered as an account of a particular historical reality or an analysis of a concrete condition. One such effort is called “A Midrash on Happiness,” originally delivered at a conference organized by Tikkun magazine. (“I don’t think this is really a midrash,” she breezily announces, “but I called it that.”) The main character of the story, Faith, is torn between her personal happiness and the ugliness of the world around her. Faith desperately wants women friends with whom she can discuss
on the widest, deepest, and most hopeless level the economy, the constant, unbeatable, cruel war economy, the slavery of the American worker to the idea of that economy, the complicity of male people in the whole structure, the dumbness of men (including her preferred man) on this subject.
All this is told by way of introduction to Paley’s autobiographical reminiscences about her beginnings in the Bronx. No doubt her sympathetic audience loved the story; but I could not help thinking that Paley was taking the liberty of using an imaginary situation to offer a rhetorically overloaded and generally incorrect analysis of America.
Alas, Paley’s version of leftist radicalism has become little more than a story itself. In this work of the imagination, America and all that it stands for is bad and all the countries that challenge its power are good. Only a storyteller could write in Paley’s gushing terms about the idyll of North Vietnam. “Water spinach,” she exclaims, is “a wonderful vegetable.” And only a fabulist could write about her fellow writer Christa Wolf and never discuss her work for the East German secret police.
It is fitting, if also sad, that it takes an imaginative writer such as Paley to illuminate so many of the reasons for the left’s failures in America. For it is clear that people who think like Paley are far more comfortable telling stories to each other—they live, as Paley piously puts it, in literature—than they are dealing with reality. Still, there is one interesting story in Paley’s life, though she never tells it in this book. Her family’s roots were in the socialist left, not the communist left; and socialists have been our most effective truth-tellers about communism. Yet Paley, reared in this honorable tradition, somehow succumbed to precisely the sort of double-standard approach to other countries that so thoroughly discredited communism as a moral force in American life.
The impolite word for this sort of thing is lying. I do not think that Grace Paley intentionally distorts the truth, but I do think that she embodies a variety of radicalism that has consistently placed its cause before any obligation to be scrupulous about its motives, its analyses, and its plans. In a charming little piece from 1973, Paley announces her ideological opposition to cookbooks. This comes as no surprise, for cookbooks codify rules, and rules are anathema to the anarchistically inclined. The only problem is that Paley offers her admonition against cookbooks in a preface to a cookbook. It is a trivial example, but in its way it is a revealing illustration of how the American left has come to raise itself above the consideration of its own inconsistencies and inadequacies. Cookbooks, of course, are not evil; and neither, by the way, are rules. How much more honest it would be for the left to admit that it actually likes things (cookbooks, for example) that the rest of America also likes! But then it would have to surrender its condescension, which it mistakes for a critical standpoint.
Paley, no doubt, would protest my depiction of her as indifferent to if not actively contemptuous of, obligations to truth. “It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power … to learn truth from the powerless,” she ringingly advises younger writers. In the various plots that Paley offers, the dissenter is invariably sustained by her conviction that power corrupts, and so she, the opponent of power, occupies the ethical high ground. About her own thinking, you see, there is no occasion for skepticism. Everything is just as she thought. She is the complacent enemy of complacency.
In 1982, a group of female peace activists decided to demonstrate at the Pentagon, and Paley was called upon to write the “Women’s Pentagon Action Unity Statement” that defined their objectives. Of all the materials collected in her book, this is the most detailed in its contrast between the purported evil of America’s policymakers and the purported goodness of those who contest them. War planners, bankers, and corporate executives are connected by “gold and oil,” Paley wrote, while feminists, ecologists, and pacifists “are made of blood and bone … of the sweet and finite resource, water.” “We know there is a healthy, sensible, loving way to live,” the statement concluded, promising, in typical Paley fashion, that “if we are here in our stubborn thousands today, we will certainly return in the hundreds of thousands in the months and years to come.”
It never occurs to Paley that her views may not be quite as moral as she thinks, even when direct evidence of their possible amorality—even, on occasion, of their possible immorality—is presented to her. A moral person, confronted with choices all of which are compelling but not all of which are right, searches for an appropriate way to distinguish the one from the other. But Paley has little taste for that kind of reflection.
Consider her essay about an abortion that she had back in the days when they were illegal. Reflecting her admirably pre-Yuppie brand of radical politics, Paley admits to not liking the slogan “abortion on demand,” for it trivializes what she acknowledges is “a very serious thing to undertake.” The real question, she continues, is the stage of your pregnancy; treating abortion as just one more surgical procedure to be demanded or not demanded as the consumer sees fit ignores the fact that a six-month pregnancy is morally different than a one-month pregnancy. But after introducing these important points, Paley goes on to endorse … abortion on demand. “Not that I think if a woman goes to a clinic and wants to have an abortion, she shouldn’t have it when she needs it,” she writes. “It’s just that there’s a lot to think about.” But none of that thinking is done here: Moral reasoning must never interfere with feminist solidarity.
An even more striking example of Paley’s political approach to morality involves her truly bizarre position on the question of whether Americans ought to have been permitted to adopt Vietnamese children whose parents had been killed or lost in the war. Thundering with righteousness, she denounces the fact that “handicapped, war-mutilated children had been taken from a country where it would be the responsibility of family and community to keep them functioning in the ordinary life of the world.” Not only were they uprooted from their natural home, “they were brought into a society which specializes in institutions, dumping grounds for the handicapped and the old, whose own Vietnam veterans are hidden in the recesses of Veterans Administration hospitals, whose black or handicapped orphans are unadoptable.” It galls Paley that “children who might be subjected to racial prejudice were being sent to the United States, the center of that pathology.”
Everything that is wrong with Paley’s worldview is nicely represented in this diatribe. Her father, she writes, was happy to come to America, which he viewed as a land of freedom, but Paley, growing up here, can only describe her society in the most negative of terms. Her weird notion that there are hidden veterans in America betrays a conspiratorial mentality that differs little from those conservatives who believe that there are American soldiers still closeted away in Vietnam. Her romanticization of wartime Vietnam, as if that devastated society still had flourishing families and communities, reinforces the reader’s uneasy feeling that Paley was against the airlift of Vietnamese children to the United States for no other reason than that the communist government of North Vietnam was also against it.
“I must say that I don’t believe women could have invented the insane idea of transporting these children,” Paley writes. This makes it all the more striking that, after her article was published, one Suzanne Dosh of Lakewood, Colorado responded in a letter (which Paley reprints) that she was “appalled by the misinformation and lopsided reporting” in Paley’s account of the issue. Dosh pointed out, quite sensibly, that these children were totally abandoned through no fault of their own. As many as 80 percent of those left behind died, and the rest of these children were consigned to orphanages. Would Paley have abandoned a nine-year-old boy half-killed by American bombs, a half-black infant with severe nerve damage, a sick asthmatic boy, or a Montagnard girl so sick that she was left for death? All four of those children, Dosh told Paley, happen to have been adopted by her. It is women, by and large, who love and care for such children, Dosh concluded. “Their reverence for a single human life crossed national, cultural, racial, social, religious, political and economic boundaries.”
It is not very difficult to establish the real moral heroine of this tale. For Paley’s support of a lawsuit designed to stop the airlift of the Vietnamese children—an action that would have condemned countless numbers of children to death or poverty in the faint hope that the parents from whom they were separated might not really be dead, at a time when a sanctuary and a better life in America were available to those children—strikes me as immoral in the extreme. A person moved by moral considerations, moreover, would have been ashamed by Dosh’s response, and would have promptly apologized for her mistaken analysis.
But Paley does no such thing. After professing admiration for Dosh’s “extraordinary generosity,” she replies to her letter simply by repeating her main points, among them this one: “The Orphan Airlift was a cynical political game played by the government in the hope that drama and sentiment would persuade Americans to give military aid to Saigon and continue the war.” For Paley, a political statement always seems to take precedence over a moral statement; or, to put it differently, she is dead to the difference between them.
It is precisely this moral tone-deafness that renders Paley’s account of her meetings with Soviet dissidents so pathetic. A true revolutionary tourist, the homes that she visits in the Soviet Union remind her of her home in the Bronx. After a number of visits, she comes to love Moscow. She is delighted by GUM, which she describes as “the lively, mobbed Macy’s of Moscow.” She quotes a Russian dissident’s observation that he is treated better by the Moscow police than he would be treated by the police in America.
Paley views herself as an American dissident, and so it is essential that she should talk with Russians who oppose their own government. She imagines that they are her counterparts. Yet what results—or what should have resulted—is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. “Thank God for the United States,” Elena Bonner exclaims to Paley when she tries to bring up America’s role in Chile; and Mrs. Sakharov also praises the anticommunist Senator Henry Jackson, and even expresses the hope that he will become president. Over and over again, the Soviet Union’s courageous dissidents try to explain to their bewildered American visitors how little they understand. So what’s an American dissident to do? Well, Paley could have joined these people on one of their demonstrations. She allows that the thought crossed her mind. But she was in Moscow as a delegate to the World Peace Congress, and there were so many meetings to attend. … Even from her own self-serving account, the reader is left in little doubt that Paley, however much she was fooling herself, fooled her Russian friends not at all. Knowing full well that any delegate to the World Peace Congress had chosen to side with the Soviet state, they treated her as the ugly American that she was.
Paley’s morality knows one point and one point only: everything that America does is immoral. Her thinking about the United States is utterly definitional. How do you feel about Nicaragua or El Salvador? people ask her. “Well, first I don’t judge them. I don’t judge other people, other nations that our government and their own have pressed beyond bearing. In the second place, how can I judge them in the position they’re in when I myself, without such experience of oppression, have lived with all the abstractions of war in my own head.” In her determination not to act as a thinking person capable of judging the behavior of people different from herself, Paley is not only tendentious and selective in her sympathies, she also underscores the extent to which the left in America has happily chosen the easy path of political sentiment over the difficult business of moral reckoning. Who else but an American radical could offer a voice of conscience unexercised by the rigors of conscience?
I know nothing about Suzanne Dosh other than the letter that she wrote to Grace Paley, but I think of her as the sort of American moved by religion and altruism to do the right thing. Most Americans would kindle to the likes of Ms. Dosh and ignore the likes of Ms. Paley. They would be correct to do so.
“Most of the pieces in this book were written because I was a member of an American movement, a tide really, that rose out of the civil-rights struggles of the fifties, rolling methods and energy into the antiwar, direct-action movements in the sixties; cresting, ebbing, as tides do, returning bold again in the seventies and eighties in the second wave of the women’s movement—and from quite early on splashed and salted by ecological education, connection, and at last action.” It is not surprising that someone who values stubbornness as a personal characteristic would see the world as stubborn. Thus, for Paley, the left of her lifetime is all of a piece. Since the left contains good ideas, and since it is populated by good people, it stretches in one unbroken line from the 1950s to the 1990s. A left is a left is a left.
Yet the evidence for a radically different interpretation, according to which the recent history of the left is not the story of one movement but of many movements, noble and cynical, is contained in Paley’s own book. I have no doubt that Paley’s early involvement with social and political protest was authentic and idealistic. Motivated by a desire to do good, she can be easily pictured standing relatively alone, holding her placard, offering herself as a witness against injustice and hypocrisy. In the 1950s and 1960s, there really was what Paley calls “an American movement,” an incipient, religiously inspired, uncorrupted outburst against racism at home and imperial ambitions abroad; and she was among its finest representatives.
But something happened to that movement in the late 1960s. Corrupted by its anger, fractured into its many constituents, seduced by its dreams of power, the American left put aside its goal of moral witness. Some urged violence. Others opted for careers in politics. Still others found solace in the championing of their identity. Yet no honest observer could conclude that political radicalism as it manifests itself in the late 1990s has much in common with the innocent anarchism and the sweet pacifism of the early 1960s. No longer committed to being the voice of truth, skeptical of morality, hostile to the ideal of a common humanity, apologetic about violence, suspicious of religion, self-absorbed, selective in its response to oppression, contemptuous of its own country’s ideals, the left for which Grace Paley tries to speak today bears little if any resemblance to the left in which Grace Paley grew up.
Now here is a story which cries out for a great storyteller. But Paley fails to tell it, and her failure to tell it suggests that she may not be so stubborn after all. Someone true to the radicalism of her youth would have produced a very different book than this one. That other book, the one that Paley did not write, would have been just as committed to pacifism and the hatred of injustice as this one, but it would have expressed the voice of someone for whom truth and morality still mattered. In so doing, it would have understood, as this book does not understand, that an American movement is a part of America, that both the country and its dissenters have their spots of pride and their spots of shame, their good people and their bad people, their stories worth celebrating and their stories worth condemning. And so Paley’s sentimental and sanctimonious book inadvertently exposes what went wrong with the American left. Since she is sure that everything is just as she thought, she has nothing to teach about how the left can be set right.
SOURCE: “Practicing the Art of the Possible,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 2, November, 1998, pp. 19-20.
[In the following review, Randall offers a positive evaluation of Just As I Thought.]
Just As I Thought is just the way it was, for Grace Paley and for many others loosely included in her generation. Paley herself describes the book as “a collection of articles, reports, and talks representing about thirty years of political and literary activity, with a couple of occasional glances over my shoulder into disappearing family and childhood.”
Paley is the quintessential storyteller. Her short stories have deepened our understanding of what it is like to grow up in a Jewish socialist immigrant family in the Bronx, seek justice as naturally as breath, and stand on all the rebel front lines of our time. Just As I Thought is their connective tissue: poems, articles, talks given at pivotal junctures, introductions to books published or not. Paley reminisces about the father who spent time in one of the Czar’s prisons, young neighborhood mothers, the cops sent to contain her, jobs she has held, the old Women’s House of Detention, bringing POWs home from Vietnam in 1969, tea at the home of a Russian dissident, the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment, life in Vermont and wise appreciation for writers such as Christa Wolf, Isaac Babel, Donald Barthelme, Barbara Deming and Kay Boyle.
In her introduction, and with her signature ability to cut to the chase, Paley sets her tone:
I haven’t unsettled my views of the American war in Vietnam, war in general, racism in particular, and as time increases its speed, I am more of a feminist than ever.
… [C]ertain national and international events decided the work and friendships of my daily life. … Of course I didn’t realize it at the time. It just seemed like more bad news. (p. xi)
Most of the pieces in the book, she tells us, were written because she was a part of an American movement that rose out of the civil rights struggles of the fifties, carried over into the anti-war and other direct-action movements of the sixties, and returned more boldly in the seventies and eighties on the second wave of feminism. By the late seventies, she says, those committed to social change in this country began to recognize the connections between and among these struggles for justice, peace and a living planet. Paley sees this connection-making as important, while recording its inherent contradictions: “some feminists were sometimes racist, some African Americans were sometimes misogynist, some Jews did sometimes act as though they were in charge of suffering, and almost everybody arrived too slowly at the reality of the destruction of species, water, and air.”
The juxtaposition of events is one of Paley’s great strengths, providing continuity and a many-layered sense of history. The book’s initial section, “Beginning,” includes the extraordinary “Traveling,” in which her quiet but determined mother refuses to move to the white section of a New York-Virginia bus when it arrives in our nation’s capital. The year is 1927. Paley describes the palpable silence of others on that bus, whites as well as blacks. And her mother’s persistent refusal.
From this scene, she moves to another, fifteen years later. It is the summer of 1943 and now she is the one riding the bus, from New York to Miami Beach. Segregation is still the law of the South, and she is sitting in the last white row. No one will give up their seats to a black mother and large sleeping baby. She tries, but the black mother refuses. Finally she takes the baby, cradling him against her body. A white man declares loudly: “Lady, I wouldn’t of touched that thing with a meat hook.” Paley stares into his eyes. The black mother, frightened, places her hand on her child’s head, protecting. Paley is unable to look into her eyes. At the end of the piece, she is with her sister, remembering the story about their mother and adding her own.
Paley admits to growing up with a certain vanity about being Jewish. In “Like All the Other Nations,” she remembers an event she describes as among the most striking of her life. Back when her family’s kitchen table was just below eye level, her mother turned to her father and said: “Zenya, it’s coming again.” From that memory she moves to the biblical story in which Samuel goes to speak to God and tells him his people want a king. God tries to convince him they will be miserable, but he insists. But the people too insist; they “want to be like all the other nations and have a king.” Paley thinks of those lines again and again: “We want to be like all the other nations and have a king.” And she adds: “and have great armies … and have nuclear bombs.”
Then she moves again, seamlessly, into a story about Israel. She is visiting a kibbutz settled by South African Jews. An old-timer—his daughters working, his son in the army—tells her: “I think we should talk to the PLO, and I really think we should get out of the territories.” He says he would not have said such a thing a few years earlier, but doesn’t like what’s happening to his son. Paley argues that they are in danger, that perhaps “the Diaspora is a kind of backup world for Jews.” The man looks at her and says: “Ah, but who said that the Jews have to continue?” She is stunned, and insists “We have to.” Two years later, in “Like All the Other Nations,” she wonders, “Yes, but how. …”
Just As I Thought’s second section, “Continuing,” contains some of the book’s strongest pieces. Paley writes about what she defiantly calls the American War in Vietnam and her mid-seventies experience in the Soviet Union. She visited North Vietnam in 1969 as part of a seven-person delegation from the US Peace Movement. “We had not come to sightsee, but we did see the terrible topography of war from Hanoi to the Ben Hai River …” She offers effective statistical poetry (“a village of 1,654 households / 1,007 air attacks”), describes bringing an American pilot home and speaking on the phone with the parents of another who cannot be found, a woman prisoner in the tiger cages, a meeting with Pham Van Dong: conversations transcribed hurriedly “in order to get the verbs and nouns right.”
In the sixties and seventies, peace workers and other progressive people saw their share of international conferences and forums. “Conversations in Moscow” details Paley’s experience as a delegate from the War Resisters League to the World Peace Congress in Moscow. She renders the complicated Congress politics in ways that evoke the struggles of the times, yet remain useful. Particularly moving is her description of time spent outside this Congress with a group of Russian dissidents, among them Andrei Sakharov. In the dissident’s home, they talk over tea and sweets, rebels from the United States and the then Soviet Union discussing politics, memory, language and the information that is available to them or not.
“More” is the section that brings the war home. Paley relives a variety of home turf struggles, from those waged against nuclear plants in the mid- and late seventies, through the 1979 Women and Life on Earth Conference, the Women’s Peace Camps and the era of Central American wars. “A Few Reflections on Teaching and Writing,” “Later” and “Postscript” pull together themes as diverse as the Gulf War, Paley’s approach to teaching, living in Vermont and the Bread and Puppet Theater, upstaging time as one grows older, her father at 85 and then again at 89. None of these pieces is separate, but all can stand alone.
Just As I Thought is the best sixties/seventies/eighties memoir I have read to date. It humanizes political engagement and points out the political underbelly of human relations, in a language that does justice to the immensity of the contradictions.