By Jerusha Joy EmersonMay 31, 2017
A Grace Paley Reader by Grace Paley
I know that feeling. I am like a runner at the starting blocks, waiting for someone to pull the trigger. I think I could change the world if someone would just pull the trigger … What I wouldn’t give for a little Scotch in my tea on a morning like this.
I pick up Grace instead.
The new A Grace Paley Reader, edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley and introduced by George Saunders, makes accessible the writings of a woman who lived a life of tenacious and peaceful resistance. Divided into three sections, Paley’s stories, essays, and poems convey distilled wisdom gained from a lifetime of fighting for what she believed. Many readers are familiar with the work of Grace Paley — her writings have been a staple among the socially conscious for decades — and yet I find that her voice is an especially important one now. The issues of her time are the issues of our time.
Paley was born into a legacy of social activism. She knew from her Jewish parents what it was to be an outcast; they had come to the United States from the Ukraine, barely 20 years old and already in exile. Grace’s nine-year-old self struggled with this legacy in her essay “Injustice”:
Prejudice was particularly sad, since it meant not liking people for no reason at all except the color of their skin […] We ourselves had known prejudice — well not us exactly. In Europe, that godforsaken place, our parents and grandparents had known it well. From a photograph over my grandmother’s bed, my handsome uncle, killed at seventeen because of prejudice, looked calmly at me when I sought him for reminders sake.
Paley employed storytelling as a form of remembering and of retelling: “I felt a strong obligation as though remembering was in charge of the existence of the past. This is not so.” Her writing is not a passive exposition so much as an abrasive reimagining. As the child tells in her story “The Loudest Voice,” “There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. ‘Mrs. Abramowitz,’ he says, ‘people should not be afraid of their children.’ ‘Ah, Mr. Bialik,’ my mother replies, ‘if you say to her or her father, “Ssh,” they say, ‘In the grave it will be quiet.’” Readers encounter the remembering and the retelling in the words of the grocer: “Please, Shirley, be a little quiet,” but, Shirley hears, “In that place the whole street groans: Be quiet! Be quiet! But steals from the happy chorus of my inside self not a tittle or a jot.” Paley is not quiet. A decade after her death, she continues to demand answers to her query: are we content with the state of the world?
Paley leads her characters through changes that challenge readers to question their own degree of emotional engagement. In her story “Faith in a Tree,” she introduces a single mother, Faith, who is holding a business meeting with her colleagues, a meeting conducted from the strong upper branch of a sycamore tree: “I can only see Kitty, a co-worker in the mother trade — a topnotch craftsman. She is below, leaning on my tree.” They are passing the day, these women, in dialogue about life, child rearing, sex, and politics. The conversation is clipped, interrupted, and unadorned.
Faith, however, has also revealed that something more is happening on a mundane afternoon in the park, because in the midst of that business meeting, she is aware that God is watching:
What a place in Democratic time! One God, who was King of the Jews, who unravels the stars to this day with little hydrogen explosions, He can look down from His Holy Headquarters and see us all: heads of girls, ponytails riding the springtime luck, short black bobs, and an occasional eminence of golden wedding rings. He sees south into Brooklyn how Prospect Park lies in its sand-rooted trees among Japanese gardens and police, and beyond us north to dangerous Central Park […] But me, the creation of His soft second thought, I am sitting on the twelve-foot-high, strong, long arm of a sycamore.
According to Paley, God sees, but this God seems to keep to His Holy Headquarters. He is a distant God, a distracted God, a divine figure who makes women as a “creation of His soft second thought.” Yet Paley also writes that he is a God who is the King of the Jews, juxtaposing a distant God with Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, a tax collector named Zacchaeus meets Jesus, a man claiming to be the Son of God and later referred to as the King of the Jews. Zacchaeus is a tax collector who has cheated his own people and sided with Rome, the oppressor. Zacchaeus leaves the tree, a changed man: “Look, half of my possessions […] I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Inspired by this son of God, he is ready to stop siding with the oppressor.
Faith, safely perched in her sycamore tree, removed from what is below, watches as a parade enters the park. Young parents with toddlers in wagons are carrying antiwar posters: “The grownups carried three posters […] the third poster carried no words, only a napalmed Vietnamese baby, seared, scarred, with twisted hands.” Faith stays in her tree. A local police officer breaks up the parade: “‘Signs on sticks aren’t allowed. In case of riot,’ he explains to his regular park crowd, the cohort who have been sitting around all morning. ‘It’s for their own protection too. They might turn against each other.’” Another son, Faith’s son, Richard, who has been skating, stops to watch the scene unfold. As the parade is forced to disperse, Richard, who is nine, perceives injustice:
Richard shouted, “Ha! Ha!” and punched me. He also began to grind his teeth, which would lead, I knew, to great expense. […] In a fury of tears and disgust, he wrote on the near blacktop in pink flamingo chalk — in letters fifteen feet high, so the entire Saturday walking world could see — WOULD YOU BURN A CHILD? And under it, a little taller, the red reply, WHEN NECESSARY.
Faith watches: “Directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.” Faith has suddenly seen — in a revelation facilitated by a son — that her passivity has been siding her with the oppressor.
Seeing injustice is only the beginning of the change, and here I am struck with my own privilege: I have the option of sitting in the tree. If I am going to make a move, I have to be willing to see. In order to see, I need faith. Faith is the evidence for things that are not seen. Once I can see, I must do, because faith without doing is not faith.
Paley addresses “the doing” as an exercise in empathy, a desire to reach toward the other:
What we need right now is to imagine the real. […] [W]e ourselves have to imagine the lives of other people. […] We have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not simply refer to it all the time. What happens is that when you just keep referring to things, you lose them entirely.
While the imagining can be problematic — in as much as it presumes understanding that cannot be actualized — imagining is a good first step toward empathy.
If faith gives me the ability to see, where to find the ability to act? How to believe in justice, to see justice done? How to “imagine the real,” enough that we are compelled toward the other: “[W]anting something different for them, that is what some of imagining is about.” I am challenged by the notion that imagination defies the expectation that action must look a certain way. The imagining moves us toward the other, but we cannot do this and retain our anonymity. It is so much more comforting to remain above it all, safe in our tree, but to remain in the tree is to betray each other and to side with the oppressor.
I’m still thinking that Scotch sounds good.
In her essay “Of Poetry and Women and the World,” Paley fleshes out this pursuit of justice:
We’ve talked about whether art is about morality or — I don’t even understand some of these words, anyway. But I do understand words like “justice,” which are simpler. And one of the things that art is about, for me, is justice […] and this is what justice is about, although you’ll have your own interpretations — is the illumination of what isn’t known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden.
Once the lighting up has happened, once there is light, however dim, darkness cannot exist. Paley’s writing shines light, and this light illuminates a blueprint for persistent resistance. Her stories portray flawed, loud, and resilient characters getting on with living. They are not careful, with themselves or with their loved ones, but they are tenacious. Paley’s essays reveal the retelling of her own tenacious resistance through the lives of women who placed themselves between the inevitability of war and the children who had yet to imagine another path. Paley’s poems speak with a kind of prophetic resonance in a voice that is unconcerned with the opinions of men.
Again and again, Paley is available, imposing, interrupting, reaching toward the hustle of humanity, and reaching without need or judgment. She has something to offer in her writing that she knows is of value: a kind of truth. Take her poem that is simply titled “News”:
although we would prefer to talk
and talk it into psychological the-
ory the prevalence of small genocides
or the recent disease floating
toward us from another continent we
must not while she speak her eyes
frighten us she is only one person
she tells us the terrible news we
want to leave the room we may not
we must listen in this wrong world this
is what we must do we must bear it
Paley draws the reader into the conversation of the poem. The reader becomes part of the “we,” and though “we / want to leave the room we may not.” We cannot, because we, as we read, are pinned by the phrasing, by the disjointed sentences. We are bound to hear. We are roused by the familiarity of the threats: “disease,” “the terrible news,” “this wrong world” … and we are told that we must bear it because the truth is that we cannot climb back into our tree.
We hear in Paley’s poetry, the sounds of an internal life, lived in the city, lived with others, lived in tension.
From the theoretical ideas of faith and truth and justice to the literal implementation of action on behalf of these ideas, the conversation and life get messy, and we — those who have engaged injustice and become tired — are tempted to just stay in our sycamore tree and watch the moment pass by.
How did Paley do it so well for so long?
Addressing the perpetual challenge of speaking the truth, she also acknowledges the strength of not acting alone, such as in “Sisters”:
but this is not what I meant to
tell you I wanted to say that
my friends were dying but have now
become absent the word dead is correct
I have not taken their names out of
conversation gossip political argument
my telephone book or card index in
whatever alphabetical or contextual
organizer I can stop any evening of
the lonesome week […]
and rest a moment
on their seriousness as artists workers
their excitement as political actors in the
streets of our cities or in their workplaces
the vigiling fasting praying in or out
of jail their lightheartedness which floated
above the year’s despair
“Sisters” highlights Paley’s reverence for being part of a sisterhood of resistance: single moms, working women, community members, political actors. That kinship became like a living blessing, one that she passed to her children, to their children, and to her readers. In the short story, “Friends,” she muses, “But most of the women in our P.T.A. were independent — by necessity and disposition. We were, in fact, the soft-speaking tough souls of anarchy.” She wrote these resisting women as familiar, as women that her readers might know. They are the mothers and teachers and writers who show up with kids in tow and still get the job done. Paley made her way in an obdurate world of nuclear threat, war, racism, poverty — and these problems persist. I am reminded of my friend, the one who persists and engages through burnout and with daughters in tow. She, like Paley, is making her way as sustainably as she can, with humor, anger, and tenacity.
A Grace Paley Reader contains a sampling of the wisdom that one woman gleaned from not taking the easy way out. As Paley once said in an interview, “I just think, you shouldn’t be afraid of [tension] because your life is interesting. It makes your life very interesting.” That advice is also what she offers between the lines of her toughest short stories and her hardest poems. Don’t be afraid. Get going.
Jerusha Joy Emerson is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. She is currently writing a novel for the feature film production company Hydra Entertainment.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Matt Sandler on George Saunders's debut novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo."
Steve Paulson interviews George Saunders about writing, Buddhism, the Civil War, and “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!