There is a short story by Grace Paley that I have thought about, at odd moments, for years. The story is called “Mother,” and in it she hears a song, titled “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” She says to herself, “By God! I understand that song.”
Who knows why we are constantly and unexpectedly driven into strange fits of memory like this? But Grace Paley is a master at capturing these sudden and instinctual flashes.
This story, less than eight paragraphs long, makes me long to see my mother in the doorway for reasons nothing like those of Paley. Regardless of the contrast, the above example exemplifies the universality and timelessness of Paley”s prose, two of its most redemptive qualities.
Born in 1922 to Russian immigrant parents, Paley was raised Jewish and socialist. In the first chapter of her most recent book, a collection of her non-fiction, she describes her experience in the Falcons, a socialist group for children under 12.
These aspects color her writing, which is rich in both politics and ethnic family culture.
Paley, primarily a teacher, has worked at several colleges in the New York City area: Columbia, Syracuse, City College and Sarah Lawrence. She began as a writer of poetry, but is most known for her short fiction. She has published numerous books in the last half of the 20th century, including three collections of short stories, “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959), “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (1974) and “Later the Same Day” (1985), as well as several collections of poetry.
Paley is said to have once described herself as a “combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist” and was deeply involved with the anti-war, anti-nuclear power and feminist movements.
In another non-fiction piece, she recalls six days that she spent in the jail of her Greenwich Village neighborhood following an arrest for civil disobedience during the war in Vietnam.
It seems that almost all of Paley”s writing is somehow political, though her fiction could never be mistaken for schooling. Instead Paley”s characters, like her, live life with conviction and their politics are simply another aspect of their ever-important system of beliefs. Politics appear to be part of this inherently human and very basic style that her prose takes on. Plot is secondary in her stories, and frankly she”s made it quite unnecessary.
Dialogue is powerful in her work, and she is a master of it. Her lack of quotations and potent use of dialect bring vitality to her work despite the lightness of plot.
Her characters are often Jewish, leftist women living in New York City, but there is something all-inclusive about her writing. This stems, perhaps, from her fascination with the comedy and beauty of the smallest interactions between people.
Paley”s characters, both hardy and pitiful, are funny, quirky and life-like. Many of her short fiction pieces closely examine women”s relationships as both friends and lovers and their elemental sexuality.
Paley, a mother of two and now a grandmother, realizes the true importance of motherhood this is a topic of discussion and a focus in much of her fiction. Often, she refers grievously to “that beloved generation of children murdered by cars, lost to war, to drugs, to madness.” This seems to be the era of her own children, and she adduces the idea in visible ways.
Perhaps it is Paley”s discussion of topics so fundamental that gives rise to the folkloric quality of her tales. She is a real storyteller, and claims to be a big fan of the oral tradition, having drawn on numerous events, stories and jokes told during her childhood. Her pieces are packed with small wisdoms and an efficiency of language not often found in prose.
Paley has been the recipient of numerous honors including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1961, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970 and a Senior Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in the spring of 1987. She has also been the New York State author.
Presently, Paley divides her time between New York City and Vermont. She visits Ann Arbor today, offering students a glance at political issues across generations, and at a very important time.