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Category: Great Women

L’Chaim! A Celebration of Grace Paley

| August 27, 2007

First the factual stuff—Because some people care about that sort of thing, she would have said, So a person should try to act polite even if they’re a writer maybe especially if and even though factual stuff never tells what really went on, which was plenty. Raising children. Picketing. Teaching. Making soup. Arguing. Showing up.

So this next part will be factual stuff. Meanwhile, she might have said, Sit, drink your coffee We’ll get to the real stuff in a minute Or you could skip down a paragraph if you’re the impatient type.

Grace Paley, one of America’s most beloved writers, was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1922, and died last week, on August 22, at home in Thetford, Vermont. A self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist,” Grace was a lifelong activist in social-justice movements: civil-rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, feminist, whatever needed revolution. Her books of short fiction and essays include The Little Disturbances of Man (1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974); Later the Same Day (1985), Long Walks and Intimate Talks (with Vera B. Williams, 1991); and Just as I Thought (1998)—a collection of articles and talks “representing about 30 years of political and literary activity with a couple of occasional glances over my shoulder into disappearing family and childhood.” She wrote several volumes of poetry, including Leaning Forward (1985), New and Collected Poems (1991), and Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000). Her Collected Stories (1994) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She and her husband, Robert Nichols, compiled their poems and stories in Here and Somewhere Else, published earlier this year by The Feminist Press at CUNY. She taught for 18 years at Sarah Lawrence. Among her numerous honors was a Guggenheim, awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts (for a lifetime’s contribution to literature), the first Edith Wharton Citation of Merit, and being named the first official New York State Writer and poet laureate of Vermont.

There. That’s the factual stuff. There’s also a good interview on Salon in which her funny, wise voice comes through sharp as freshly grated horseradish.

Now for the real stuff.

I loved her. In this, I was part of another mass movement.

She was one of the great story-tellers. But what the literary tributes won’t necessarily mention is that Grace knew the personal was political before feminism did, and was holistic before new agers were born: fierce atheist, fierce Jew, fierce radical traditionalist feminist wife mother grandmother artist. If anybody had a problem with the seamlessness of that cloth or tried to inflict contradictions on it, how silly: a shrug and loud crack of the ever-present chewing gum at them.

What the political eulogies won’t necessarily mention is how generous she was to younger writers—Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin (both also gone, alas), numerous others; I can personally testify to that. She was also unfailingly supportive of small literary ventures (like the recent founding of an online literary journal by older women, Persimmontree), and small presses: The Feminist Press, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and many more, including her own venture with Bob Nichols, Glad Day Books (named for a William Blake etching). What the obituaries cannot mention is how hilarious an experience it was to edit her; I can testify to that, too. When I was editor of Ms. in the early 1990s, I published Grace as often as possible. I never touched her deceptively simple poems or superbly honed fiction (though she always asked me to “Please fix anything stupid, Honey”–an opportunity that never presented itself). She would apologize for her “messy” copy, typescript (no computer, no print-out), all the x-outs and scribbled write-ins evident—Sorry, Toots, rushing to a demonstration, no time to retype. How could she realize my delight in tracking those breadcrumbs of her revisions as clues to the brilliant exercise of her craft?

Editing her nonfiction is where the hilarity came in.

First, she’d be late on deadline. I don’t mean late the way all us writers are late: The cats peed on my draft My computer crashed My grandfather died (again). I mean really late. So I’d nag. She’d apologize: I feel so guilty Honey, my grandkids were visiting, tomorrow, I swear. A few days later, I’d nag. She’d apologize: Oh I’m a bad person no don’t you apologize for nagging it’s a woman’s art-form besides I come from a nagging people Jews survive by nagging the world.

But eventually, Grace would appear, essay not in hand but in shopping bag. Fragments would emerge, to be spread across desk or table or even the floor: half-page typed bits; a post-it or twelve; a paper napkin with a few ink-blurred lines; the back of a grocery list sporting two paragraphs in pencil. She would grin and crack her gum. There! she would beam, Arrange ‘em how you like. I would reply Grace, as calmly as I could, Grace. You’re a literary lion, also a pal, I wouldn’t dare “arrange” your work. Dare schmare, she’d shrug—the least pretentious anti-diva I ever met—You’ll see, Toots, maybe they’ll fall into place, I trust you, do whacha want. Then she’d ask after my son, hug me, scurry off. And of course, I learned that if you studied the highly sophisticated shards of this Linear B closely enough, they inevitably “fell into place.”

This ritual repeated itself not long ago when I asked Grace to write the essay on peace for my anthology Sisterhood Is Forever. Here’s an excerpt from “Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue”—which once lay, a paper carpet, fluttering across my study floor:

“Patrimony and matrimony do not say what they mean. . . . Patrimony is what you inherit from your father. Matrimony is the state of being in a marriage. Now men live in it—marriage—as well as women and it is therefore a little joke for men that this word is used about a condition in which women and families have often suffered the strongest patriarchal oppression. Matrimony is not what you inherit from your mother, probably because in history she didn’t own much of anything. This was true at least 500 years ago, sounding a little more French. If marriage and its historic condition has been what women leave to their daughters and sons, what is it that men leave? Wars, of course.”

Grace was my neighbor, too, a decades-long Greenwich Village denizen. When I’d find her leafleting on 6th Avenue—for lesbian marriage, Palestinian rights, whatever—I’d stop to chat or join her. Passers-by rarely recognized the 4-foot-10-inches-tall, age-84 “little old lady in tennis shoes” as a titan of American literature. Once, while I skimmed a leaflet’s jargon, she whispered sadly, “I didn’t write it.” Obvious, but her wordsmith’s standards leaked, though she quickly added, “Lissen, so what, it says what’s needed.” Her own lovely work feeds our lives, and I wish we had more of it than we do. But she honored her choices without regret, sometimes “settling this morning for a responsive eatership,” as in these lines from her poem, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative”: “I was going to write a poem/I made a pie instead it took/about the same amount of time/of course the pie was a final//draft a poem would have had some/distance to go days and weeks and/much crumpled paper//the pie already had a talking/tumbling audience among small/trucks and a fire engine on/the kitchen floor//everybody will like this pie/it will have apples and cranberries/dried apricots in it many friends/will say why in the world did you/make only one//this does not happen with poems.” We live in fearful times. Powerful men build walls against immigrants and fuel our fear of the Stranger. Nothing and nobody was Other to Grace. Her art gave voice to the Outsider: “a literature that chants the disappearance of tongues” (from her poem “The Immigrant Story”). That voice is rich and moist with the past but heartcrackingly eager for the crisp future promised and betrayed in the New World. Her characters are people who smell of onions, yell at each other, mourn in darkened kitchens. A reader might laugh out loud recognizing the small cruelties of merciless family love, but that laughter rises through a lump in the throat.

Intensely present, she loved life and lived it well. And not even death was Other to Grace. In “Therefore,” she knew:

“When I am old/I will not be surprised . . . for I have built my Ship of Death . . . I will live though I die old/in passion like a fool . . . this window makes such light it is/the natural law as any child/would know of moon and love and night.”

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