Monday, October 02, 2000

Just As I Thought by Grace Paley

I want to talk to you this morning about a truly great writer, social critic, and thinker—Grace Paley. Although she has been publishing since the 50’s, not many people (not even many leftists) know of her, and that is too bad. However, ask any lit prof about her, and you almost certainly will get a glowing report along with heartfelt regret that she has not published more. Indeed, though she is nearly eighty years old and has spent her entire life as a social activist, writer, and teacher, she published only three volumes of short stories and now, finally, this collection of articles and essays that span a lifetime. It is especially appropriate to talk about her now, at the beginning of the Jewish holidays, for she is very much a Jewish activist, and, incidentally, one of the funniest writers I have ever read.

I chose to talk about her today because of her relatively new collection of essays entitled Just As I Thought, but I have to add that I think it would be a real mistake to begin your reading of her by reading these essays. In my opinion, she is one the best, if not the best, short story writers of all times. When I mention that she is a short story writer, I get blank looks from people, plus the almost universal response that they don’t read short stories—that they want books with character development and they feel short-changed by short stories. I understand that response; indeed, I have often said roughly this about collections of short stories. However, you should make an exception in this case, and not only because she is among the very best writers of short story, but also because there is a voice that emerges from her writing that remains consistent, and it is a voice that you will want more and more of. I would recommend that you begin with her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, first published as a collection in 1956, though all or nearly all of the stories had already appeared in magazines (e.g., The New American Review, Esquire, The Atlantic, and more recently, Ms). The little disturbances she has in mind are the disturbances of love, especially the disturbances that accompany the loves that women have for men. This less than two hundred page volume will, I promise, leave you wanting more, and it may also remind you rather forcefully that feminist voices were there to be heard in the fifties, well before the new wave of the late sixties and early seventies.

I think it would be best to go directly from this collection to another, also too short, called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and then to Later the Same Day (published in 1985). If you are anything like the other readers of her works that I know, you will wait as anxiously as they for anything else that she writes—for the novel promised but as yet undelivered, and for any bit she does for the feminist and leftist press.

From what I can gather, she was reluctant to gather together the articles that make up this collection. Partly because she is a humble person, partly because she felt that many of the pieces were outdated, or needed a historical context to make sense. There are pieces about writing, about her own parents, about Jewish activism, about the Viet Nam War, El Salvador, The Gulf War—pieces about being in jail, about abortion (both illegal and legal), about the civil rights movement, about nonviolence as a tactic “and a way to live in the dangerous world.” None of the pieces seem outdated to me; perhaps because we are close enough together in age, because we saw the struggle for civil rights flow into the struggle against the Viet Nam War and the second wave of feminism, saw the connections between eco-disasters and unrestrained global capitalism. But I’m confident that younger readers will also find a right-now relevance to her pieces.

I don’t think I will try to entice you into reading her by taking out juicy tidbits from her stories or even by reading off a list of titles of collected articles, though I considered doing both and think both methods should work. Somehow, extracting even very funny or very insightful passages from her stories seems wrong; you need to hear her voice, get a feeling for who she is as a person, see how wonderfully well humor can be used to bring out of concealment even the starkest and most horrible of truths. You need to hear and feel her cadences, sense that these stories that seem simply to trip off the tongue are, in fact, tightly woven and meticulously constructed. After all, along with being a mother and an activist, it has taken her a lifetime to write these stories; they only appear to be light and quickly drawn, only appear to be simply conversations overheard.

Paley dedicates this volume of essays and articles to men and woman, black and white, who have preceded her in the fight for social justice. In particular, to “... the women who preceded me in the last-half-of-the-century women’s movement. They were early in understanding and action, so that it was easier for me and others to cross the slippery streets of indifference, exclusion, and condescension.” On the cover of this book (still out, I think, only in hardback, but you can find it remaindered in bookstores, and therefore reasonably priced—often enough, hardbacks are remaindered just before a paperback edition comes out, so we can hope this will happen soon); at any rate, on the cover, Paley is called a wonderful writer and troublemaker. And that she is; she writes in order to stir things up, in order to incite, in order to trouble us right into action. She, herself, is one of the little disturbances of man.

Let me end by quoting just a bit of her own introduction to this volume. Perhaps that will be enough to make you want to hear more of this splendid voice.

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.

Probably by the late seventies, movement people, that is folks from leftish to left, began to understand the connection between and among these essential struggles for justice, for peace, and for a living planet.
Better than most, Grace Paley understands the connections between the personal and the political, between socialism and a true commitment to social justice, between capitalism and the rape of the earth and destruction of its people. She is a great person, a great writer, and a great activist. And on top of all of this, you will love reading her.

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