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Grace Paley: How to Be A Great Writer While Spending Half Your Life Picketing, Leafleting, Sitting In, Teaching Out, and Getting Arrested

A new documentary spotlights the celebrated writer/artist/activist, inspiration to all.

For those of us who followed the art and life of writer/activist Grace Paley, it is hard to believe she has been gone almost four years. A year of memorials all around the country replayed her spirited activism and arrests, her wild and wise stories, and her remarkable face, which maintained into age and infirmity a child's quick smile and mischievous gaze.

Then, as the year of memorials ended, yearly memorial celebrations began sprouting throughout the country, and promise to continue. Now Lilly Rivlin's vibrant film Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, which premiered in July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and has screened to sold-out audiences since, picking up festival awards along the way, celebrates Paley again. Fittingly, Rivlin's film bounces with the voice and image of Grace and family, friends and colleagues reminiscing about the Grace they knew—small, playful and adorable but an inimitable powerhouse, whose art and activism shook up the world of letters and the halls of power.

Collected Shorts is clearly partisan, an homage infused with the affection and awe of a friend and co-activist. So we are spared figures up on the screen complaining, as some critics have, of Paley's divided self, squandering her time as an artist on politics or sullying her art with political themes, combing her texts for the line where art ends and polemics begin. The people in Rivlin's film all get Grace (as she is widely called, even in her NY Times obituary). They know that for Grace Paley, art and social consciousness and activism were more largely indivisible. She never liked the words, “I want to be a writer,” she says in one scene. Rather, like her friends from youth on, she wanted to do something of “use” to the world. And she did in different forms with equal dedication and passion.

Social justice in Paley's stories is never cant but felt experience. In “The Long-Distance Runner,” Faith Darwin, the central character in many Paley stories, realizes her ignorance and assumptions about black people living in what was once her old Jewish neighborhood, opening her eyes and learning “as though she were still a child.”

In “Zagrowsky Tells,” the bigoted Jewish protagonist confronts his own racism when his disturbed daughter gives birth to a black baby, who is left in his care and whom he learns to love and defend: “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's going on. Life is going on.”

In “Living,” Faith sums up the condition of women in her life, telling a dying friend that she's dying too, and it's no big loss: “Life isn't that great...We've had nothing but crummy days and crummy guys and no money...and cockroaches and nothing to do on Sunday but take the kids to Central Park and row on that lousy lake....”

But for the most part, her stories challenge exploitation not by taking it up as a subject directly, but by revealing the originality and energy of everyday people trying to get by. Her gutsy, candid characters, especially women characters, was unheard of in the late 1950s, when her stories blasted through the thick walls of white, male-dominated publishing.

Paley's sense of justice and humane sensibilities, about race and class in particular, are rooted in her own family 's secular Jewish radical ideas and personal experience. Escaping the Czar's wars, and jailings for their socialist activity, her parents, Isaac and Manya Goodside (pre-Ellis Island Gutseit) arrived in 1905 when they both were 18, a child bride and groom quickly producing their own children and raising them with few resources. But Grace appeared much later. The film shows Grace speaking of being born into a middle-class family, while her brother and sister, 14 and 16 years her senior, were born and raised in a family that was decidedly working class.

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