Speaking of writers who don’t write novels: Grace Paley is dead. Sad news for many of us. A friend with whom I constantly exchanged books back in the early 1980s introduced me to her stories by lending me The Little Disturbances of
A few years later, I discovered how wrong I was. Paley gave a reading in a large auditorium in Kane Hall on the
Since I was struggling with my first efforts at writing short fiction at the time, I was particularly struck with her replying (impatiently!) to a question from the audience about how of course every story is really two stories. I’d been paying close attention to Isak Dinesen’s stories at the time, and this matter-of-fact assertion confirmed my own thoughts on short-fiction structure. And to my delight, Paley talked also of political issues, particularly about the malign effects of
After attending Paley's reading, I heard her so-distinctive voice in my head every time I read a story or poem of hers or an interview, imagining they rhythm of her sentences and the intonations of her voice as I read her words on the page. Today, paging through Conversations with Grace Paley (1997), edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine Hall, I heard her voice again. Here are a couple of excerpts from her interview with Barry Silesky, Robin Hemley, and Sharon Solwitz for Another Chicago Magazine in 1985:
RH: In the story “Somewhere Else” in Later the Same Day and in other stories in this book, the politics seem like this nice gentle undercurrent informed by your wit, and that seems to me to be what makes it so digestible in a way. That you’re not strident about any political message.
GP: What I’m trying to write about is ordinary life as I know it, which involves politics. But it also involves ordinary life. So I tend to show politics as part of ordinary life. I tend to show it as arguments between the son and the mother, you know in the last story (“Listening”). Or among the women in the way they talk about that while they’re also talking about the kids. And I guess one of the things you try to do when you write is to write the story you feel like reading somehow. So when I began to write about women early on it was because they seemed to be missing from what I was reading. In lots of literature, it’s like unless someone’s working with very specifically heavily political people like Marge Piercy does, it’s as though nobody does any politics, as though nobody think at all, and it’s not true. I mean in many ways a lot of that stuff enters people’s thoughts.
BS: What do you think about the contemporary state of feminism? One of my colleagues at work, a woman from
GP: Here again, I think it’s an American effort, despite her being European, to refuse the politics of history and the history of politics—the way in which their own lives are influenced by political currents. They say, “I’m not part of this wave, it has nothing to do with me,” and I think it’s painful. It’s terrible when it’s with older people because they really should know better. But with the kids, it’s understandable because kids don’t have a strong sense of history.
BS: I think part of it in her case, as well as with others is a reaction to what they see as the stridency of the more visible aspects of the feminist movement.
GP: Well, any movement is strident if it’s a movement. That is to say, since there are so many noises around it in the society, it’s got to talk louder or it wouldn’t be heard.
BS: Are you actively involved in any feminist work now?
GP: I’m really involved in a lot of feminist anti-militarist work. I’ve linked things together with my anti-war stuff. Many feminists don’t see it that way, by the way. There are a lot of divisions. Women say that’s not feminism; feminism is equal rights, day care, battered women, abortion. But they don’t see the connection between the patriarchy of militarism and the patriarchy of ordinary daily life. They don’t like that patriarchy but they don’t seem to mind so much the patriarchy of intervention in
I think the women’s movement has done a lot for young men. I’m not telling you that because you’re young or anything. Do you think so? What do you think?
SS: I had a boy friend once who was an ardent feminist. He thought that women did see men as economic objects and that was one of the things that sullied male-female relationships. He was an abstract thinker and put everything in terms of polemic. He clearly thought that feminism had done a lot to benefit men.
GP: I just see among my son’s friends. I see the men with their kids, they’re all guys in their thirties, and they really are a wholly different bunch. And I think it’s wonderful for them too. I don’t think it’s just nice for Mommy.
BS: Different in the sense that they’re much more involved with the kids?
GP: They’re really interested. It’s not just that they’re doing it out of duty. They’ve really gotten into that process, which is a process of extreme patience that does them a lot of good.
BS: So you don’t necessarily agree with Nora Ephron’s comment that the one tangible achievement of the women’s movement in the sixties was the Dutch Treat?
GP: That’s a smart ass reply. I would have said, doing dishes. You can have really a very serious dinner party and not to your amazement any more, three guys will get up and do the dishes.
SS: We’ve been talking about politics and your interest which is more organic than intellectual; was there a time when you didn’t think much about politics and there was a sort of an awakening or were you from a family where it was part of the dinner table conversation?
GP: My parents didn’t do any politics. They did when they were young. They’d done a lot of stuff in
Hillel Italie’s obituary of Paley for the AP quotes from a 1994 interview with her: "I thought being Jewish meant you were a Socialist," Paley said. "Everyone on my block was a Socialist or a Communist. ... People would have serious, insane arguments, and it was nice. It makes you think the rest of the world is pretty bland."
What she said.