Culture

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.

By the time Grace arrived, her mother and aunt's years of work in garment factories had put her father through school, allowing her to be born a doctor's daughter. Paley speaks of her sister, Jeanne, how she named her Grace, read her poems, praised her child's poems (while her own poems stayed hidden in a drawer) and all in all how one sister “watered” so the other could “flower.” In “The Immigrant Story,” a character asks how it feels to know that your life was advanced in “the shadow of another person's sorrow.” So much of Paley's work expresses that indebtedness and appreciation, her bond with what another character in the story calls “ancestral grief.”

Collected Shorts shows us Grace's more direct activism as well. Friends like Dave McReynolds and Esther Broner reminisce about the “combative pacifist” and “cooperative anarchist,” as Grace described herself, a Village fixture at her regular table at 6th Avenue and 13th Street, strewn with peace literature and petitions. Grace's daughter, Nora Paley, remembers her pride when her mother was jailed in the Women's House of Detention for civil disobedience during the Vietnam War—making her a star among the other Village kids.

As Paley's involvement with the women's movement grew, her peace activism transformed, as did that of so many women pacifists, not only in its ideas but in its forms. Protest, in these women's hands, became an art form of its own. The film shows Grace and hundreds of women at the 1980 Women's Pentagon Action, weaving the doors of the Pentagon closed with yarn, only to have the police snip the weaving before the women weave once more. Rivlin shows us scenes of this impromptu art in which the agents of the male military machine become performers, destroying the women's weavings to end war and save life—and then rough up the women before hauling them away. But not before Grace read the Women's Unity Statement she had composed for the event: The Pentagon and the multinationals and banks it serves are connected by “gold and oil.” The women there were connected by other things--"of blood and bone...of the sweet resource, water.”

Besides footage and still photographs of Paley in different places and times. Rivlin blends in period photos showing Jim Crow, sexism, poverty and war, amplifying our vision of the world in which Paley's sensibilities and work developed. Extraordinary watercolors by Vera B. Williams, the Caldecott illustrator and author (A Chair for My Mother), and a longtime friend and political co-activist, enhance the visual background. Williams' images (all but one which she painted for the film) come from Long Walks and Intimate Talks, a book the two friends published in 1991. Williams' paintings echo Paley's poems and stories and vice versa, with images of women chained to kitchen sinks, immigrant men working in garment factories, children bouncing with joy. As Paley wrote in the introduction, the work (and the War Resisters' League date book it drew on) was intended “by its happiness and sadness" to “demonstrate against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters and all destroyers of days.”

Grace Paley began and ended her literary career with poetry, and Rivlin's film begins and ends with Grace reading from her poem, “The Responsibility of the Poet." Art and activism are one here, joining to fix a world broken by injustice, war, greed and cruelty. It is a fierce poem, putting the future of the world in the hands of brave women and men with the courage to protect life as women do.

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric….

It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
powerless
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice….

There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

At the recent screening at the NY Jewish Film Festival I attended, many in the audience were Grace's old New York friends. Like characters in Paley's stories, they were a vocal lot. The lights were hardly back on when they started talking, telling stories to the audience, in the formal Q&A and in lively asides too, about this arrest and that action, stopping only when forced to, because they were holding up the next film's screening. The talk continued in the lobby and on the street, and, I imagined, on the subway rides home, and on the phone later, and at some meeting or rally, before too long.

There were young people in the audience as well, and it is fair to say that the Grace recorded in Collected Shorts will inspire generations to come to find their own daring voices to render the joys and sorrows in their lives, and to discover the courage to speak truth to power and to the haters and poisoners who would destroy all our days.

Go to the film Web site for upcoming screenings around the country or to purchase the DVD.

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Nora Eisenberg's work has appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Guardian UK. Her most recent novel, "When You Come Home" (Curbstone, 2009), explores the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War.