I met Grace Paley only once, when, like a crazy person, I ran up to her at a rather large and very literary function. I wanted to touch her hem, only touch it. And tell her, as I have wanted to tell few others, that her writing had meant a great deal to me.
I wish I could say she looked at me kindly, but, what with me trying to grab at her clothing, and the surely wild look in my eyes, I do think she backed away. “It’s okay!” I said. “I know your neighbor!”
What? I have no idea why I approached her with such animal ferocity, or why I believed in that moment that my knowing her neighbor would assuage her fears, but I do know there was something physical I wished to take away from her. Subsequently, as I toured for my novel that employs a Paley quotation as an epigraph, writers often approached me on the subject of Grace. More than four—four!—women writers told me on separate occasions that they have the distinct honor of having been bestowed her glasses.
There is much metaphor to be made in the coveting of a great writer’s spectacles, in relics of any kind, and if these stories are true and not part of the mythmaking writers so often subscribe to, what I find most interesting is that we all want in some way to feel touched by grace.
I came to Grace Paley’s work rather late, in graduate school when a fellow student, frustrated with re-reading a scene I’d revised several times to ill effect, handed me Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974). “She’s really good with dialogue,” he’d said. The subject matter of the stories certainly spoke to me—I was at work at that time on a book about Jewish immigrants on the East Coast. I ate that story collection in a single day, and then devoured her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), and then the last, Later the Same Day (1985). I stuck on certain lines:
Just when I needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.So begins the story, “Faith in a Tree,” and I often thought about this sentence and others as I walked the snowy streets to class.
Though it was the late nineties then, and here we are already into the early part of the twenty-first century, still nobody writes dialogue like Paley. The stories took root. I say this as a proud novelist, mind you, but the most excellent stories have a power of reduction, as in a French sauce, all the richer to taste. But there were only those three collections to swallow.
While Paley’s life outside of her work—her protest against American militarism, her support of nuclear disarmament—are much documented, most recently in the documentary, Grace (2010), the work on the page is also political in its attention to race and class, always filtered through the lens of women’s lives. These stories, comprised of voices I recognized, are the same ones we overhear on our streets and in our kitchens. When Paley published her first collection in 1959, writing about women’s domestic concerns was a radical act.
And is it not now? The concerns remain immediate, as do her formal considerations. In an interview in The Paris Review—a piece I assign to my students each semester—Paley responds to how she begins her stories. “A lot of them begin with a sentence—they all begin with language,” she says. “It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant. A story can begin with someone speaking.” Later she states, “… everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines.”
While I wouldn’t call Paley hugely experimental in form, her attention to language, the way her prose acknowledges that a sound can begin a story, and likely end it, and that this sound can be the often-silenced sound of women talking to each other, seemed revolutionary and it was a relief to me as a writer to discover.
Politics is in everything we do, and yet fiction that is overtly agenda driven does not interest me. Even if its “cause” is one I believe in wholeheartedly, if I can see the gears turning, a discernible agenda revealed behind parted curtains, I would rather read the paper. Politics in art is a subtle and nuanced affair. In her stories, Paley documents lives overlooked—women, immigrants—placing them smack in the center of her stories. That chorus of voices sounds like her, captured, and all these years later, still, it sounds like us.Writing about her first novel, Golden Country (2006), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Adam Langer wrote “Sharp and funny, Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel roller-coasters through the first half of the twentieth century, showcasing not only her intelligence, her wit, and her intimate knowledge of Jewish culture but also an uncommon depth and humanity.” Gilmore’s second novel, Something Red (2010), was not only a New York Times Notable Book of the Year but a finalist for Salon’s Good Sex Award. “Sharp and contemplative,” were Susann Kokal’s words for it in The New York Times Book Review. “Gilmore has pulled off a remarkable feat: not of fusing the personal and the political but of showing why they’re so difficult to reconcile.” Gilmore currently teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her third novel, The Mothers, will be published by Scribner in 2013.
Also of interest:
- Other “Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Lev Grossman, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emma Straub
- Grace Paley reads several poems and stories at Boston University, 2007: