Just as I Thoughtby Paley
This rich and multifaceted collection is Grace Paley's vivid record of her life. As close to an autobiography as anything we are likely to have from this quintessentially American writer, Just As I Thought gives us a chance to see Paley not only as a writer and "troublemaker" but also as a daughter, sister, mother, and grandmother. Through her descriptions of/i>… See more details below
This rich and multifaceted collection is Grace Paley's vivid record of her life. As close to an autobiography as anything we are likely to have from this quintessentially American writer, Just As I Thought gives us a chance to see Paley not only as a writer and "troublemaker" but also as a daughter, sister, mother, and grandmother. Through her descriptions of her childhood in the Bronx and her experiences as an antiwar activist to her lectures on writing and her recollections of other writers, these pieces are always alive with Paley's inimitable voice, humor, and wisdom.
It always amuses me when conservatives denounce the left as "anti-family." For if ever a group of people acted like a noisy, multigenerational household, it would be the left's sprawling cohort of socialists, anarchists, pacifists and other congenital rebels. It is not, for the most part, a happy clan. Some members won't speak to the rest -- except to yell. And at times the ideological fault lines run right through families in the ordinary sense. (Allen Ginsberg's father was a socialist and his mother a communist; so for a whole epoch of the poet's childhood, Mom considered Dad a "social fascist.") In recent years, we've adopted all these postmodernists, forever "performing an anti-essentialist critique of late-capitalist patriarchy." Kids these days, with their crazy lingo -- nobody understands what the hell they're talking about.
More lucid, by far, is Grace Paley -- the laureate of radical family values. In her poems and stories, scenes from ordinary daily life, written in luminous but plainspoken language, sit side-by-side with tales of the struggle for a peaceful, just world. Her new book, Just As I Thought, assembles a few dozen essays, speeches and literary odds and ends from decades past. It is a literary and political miscellany: a nonfiction companion to recent editions of Paley's collected poetry and short fiction.
There are memoirs of growing up in a socialist household, getting an abortion in the '50s, going to Vietnam, meeting dissidents in Moscow, opposing the Gulf War. There are pages written in admiration of Isaac Babel and Christa Wolf, and to mourn the death of her friend Donald Barthelme. Many of the articles were (so to speak) written on the way to a demonstration, or just after. None was composed for posterity. Yet they are, I think, very much of a piece with the author's other work -- and not simply at the level of ideological commitment. Paley is an anarchist and a pacifist. Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), displayed a marked feminist sensibility. But neither theory nor polemic interest her as much as the language and situations of everyday life; and this comes across even in the most engaged bits of activist prose.
Some years ago, in an interview with the Threepenny Review (not reprinted here), Paley expressed her distaste for the "fiction/nonfiction" distinction: "I mean you're either a storyteller, an inventor in language or event ... a poet of storytelling -- or you're not." She is especially concerned with the storytelling that takes place -- or should, anyway -- within families. In a set of lecture notes, she urges young writers to spend less time on journals ("When you find only yourself interesting, you're boring") and more on listening to the tales available if you go looking: "At Christmas time or Passover supper, extract a story from the oldest persons, told them by the oldest persons they remember. That will remind us of history."
Good advice -- if also somewhat anachronistic in a consumer society that undermines all sense of the past, then sells you tickets to Colonial Williamsburg. But it has worked beautifully for Grace Paley. Readers of her fiction may recall a character whose uncle died in pre-revolutionary Russia, killed in a demonstration while carrying a banner. One of her essays recalls the origins of that story in a conversation, years ago, with an aunt:
"Darling, she said, I know you want to go to the May Day parade with your friends, but you know what? Don't carry the flag. I want you to go. I didn't say you don't go. But don't carry the flag. The one who carries the flag is sometimes killed. The police go crazy when they see that flag.
"I had dreamed of going forth with a flag -- the American flag on July 4, the red flag of the workers on May Day. How did the aunt know this? Because I know you inside out, she said, since you were born. Aren't you my child, too?" -- Salon
The pieces, written from the mid-'60s through the mid-'90s for magazines as diverse as Ms. and Esquire, are often slight, dated or predictable. Among the notable selections are her frank discussion of her two abortions, her 1974 meeting in Moscow with dissident Andrei Sakharov, her loving appreciation of Russian writer Isaac Babel's short stories and an account of how her mother, traveling by bus to Virginia in 1927, insisted on sitting in the section reserved for blacks. Also included are a polemic against the Gulf war, tributes to such writers as Donald Barthelme and Clarice Lispector, on-site war reportage from North Vietnam and autobiographical sketches about growing up radical in the Bronx during the Depression with socialist Russian Jewish migr parents.
One comes away with the impression that Paley's long-time grass-roots involvement in diverse movementsfeminist, antinuclear, environmental, antiwarreflects a unitary struggle for social justice.
Paley writes with disarming frankness and humor, especially when her subjects are women, childrenwhich, as she points out, include menand herself. The reader sees her as child, married woman, housewife, mother, employee (phone answerer, typist, babysitter, secretary, teacher)but through it all, first and foremost, Paley is a writer. She has been arrested more than once for civil disobedience, had an abortion, served in a delegation to Vietnam and, representing the World Peace Congress, to Moscow, taught writing, written poetry, become a grandmother, become an older womanbut she has not become old. In her work Connections, she puts a personal face to war, AIDS, racism. Her words ring true when she writes, "I don't see any reason in being in this world actually if you can't in some ways be better, repair it somehow." Paley's stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly; her poetry includes Leaning Forward (LJ 2/1/86). In 1994 she was the winner of the National Book Award for The Collated Stories (LJ 3/1/94).
--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Indiana
The London Review of Books
The 50 essays, articles, interviews, and talks that make up this collection take Paley from her Bronx childhood, as the daughter of Russian-Jewish socialists, in the 1920s and '30s to her current role as an elder stateswoman of the American literary left. Although she claims for the book a strong focus on the dark days of the 1950s (the cloud of the Red Scare hangs in the background of much of the book), it might be argued more convincingly that this is a volume with its feet firmly planted in the 1960s, the decade in which Paley's political activism began its fullest flowering and a decade whose legacy of nonviolent activism is clearly brought to fruition in her subsequent antinuclear, feminist, and antiwar activities. Paley reflects on her life experiences, ranging from work at a series of uninspiring day jobs to abortion, from being arrested at peace marches to sharing thoughts with comrade sisters like Kay Boyle and Barbara Deming, with the same feisty spiritedness and wry, dark humor that characterize her best fiction. She has an unerring ear for the way people speak on the New York streets and a luminous, humane warmth that animates her writing with its generosity. Some of the Vietnam-era political pieces feel a trifle dated, and some might accuse Paley of political naivet� but that is a refreshing change from the ugly cynicism of many of her opponents.
A book to be dipped into repeatedly, if not read cover-to-cover, but a fine companion to Paley's memorable fictions.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.81(w) x 8.58(h) x 1.17(d)
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