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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 13, 2019 by

The Relevance of Grace Paley in the Trump Era

In the late spring of 2016, writer Judith Arcana began to reckon with the probability of Donald J. Trump ascending to the US presidency. “As I watched the emergence of Brexit in the United Kingdom, I was electrified,” Arcana told Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in mid-August. “I understood how—and why—Donald Trump could become president.”

This conclusion frightened her; nonetheless, Arcana found solace in thinking about activist-writer Grace Paley (1922-2007), the subject of her 1993 biography, Grace Paley’s Life Stories. “Grace’s life is a model for us right now, in the streets and on the page,” Arcana wrote in the Preface to the recently-released second edition of the book (Eberhardt Press). 

Indeed, it’s impossible to read Grace Paley’s Life Stories and not be inspired by her energy, optimism, and fortitude. Add in her literary output—essays, poems, and three short fiction collections—The Little Disturbances of Man (1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1975), and Later the Same Day (1985)—stories that showcase the everyday interactions of working-class men, women, and children, and it is clear why Paley’s work remains relevant years after her death.

Eleanor J. Bader: What was it about Grace Paley that drew you to become her biographer?

Judith Arcana: My first two books required a lot of interviews. The first book was on women’s relationships to their mothers and the second was about women raising male children.  I wanted to use my interviewing experience to write a biography, asking questions about one life

So I made a list of three or four possible women, and Grace was at the top of the list. There were a number of reasons for this. First, as a writer, I was blown away by her ability to get voice onto the page. Second, I was Paley-struck—as a woman, as a Jew, as a mother, and as someone who shared her politics.

I know this sounds hokey, but one day I saw a poster advertising a symposium in Evanston, Illinois. I was living nearby, in Chicago. It was 1984 and the symposium, called The Writer in Our World, was being sponsored by Northwestern University’s literary magazine. The focus was on political writers and Grace was one of the scheduled speakers. When she showed up in what was, figuratively speaking, my neighborhood–and coincidently at my alma mater– I felt it was bashert.

Still, the first time I approached Grace about writing her biography, she said no. But when I explained that, rather than make her exemplary, I wanted to use her as an example, showing one way a woman might live in this world, this was something she could accept. We began working on the book in 1985.

EJB: How did the second edition of the book come to be? Is it different from the first? 

JA: After Grace died in 2007, I told myself I should get the book back in print, but I was working on other things and it just couldn’t happen. Then, in 2016, when I realized that Trump becoming president was an actual possibility, I contacted Eberhardt Press in Oregon.  The publisher has tremendous skill and a great attitude and after some discussion, he agreed to get the book back into circulation six or seven months after the newly-edited manuscript was finalized.

I did make changes to this second edition, but given the urgency of getting it out, I did not open it up for major revision. I felt fortunate to be able to write a new preface for the second edition and also include the original preface to give readers some perspective.

EJB: By the time you finished the book in the early 1990s, you knew Grace pretty well. Did you ever feel compromised by your friendship with her?

JA: When I started the research process, we were strangers. In those first years we were not yet friends, though she was always kind to me. At one point, early on, when I was coming to New York to interview her, I asked her if she could suggest a place I might stay. Her response was, ‘What do you mean? You’ll stay with me.’ So, I stayed in her apartment. I slept on a single-size cot about 10 inches off the floor, in a small room with a typewriter and desk. As soon as I put my head down, I noticed a piece of paper on the floor — a handwritten page from one of Grace’s stories. I felt so fortunate. Here I was, with personal access to her workspace!

Still, it was only after the book came out that we became friends. One sweet time I could be of use was in the mid-1990s, when Flight of the Mind women’s writing workshops in the Oregon woods asked me to encourage Grace to teach workshops there, which she did, with much pleasure!

EJB: You present Grace as prioritizing politics over literary output. Did she struggle to integrate being a wife and mother with activism and writing?

JA: Grace did indeed struggle, and sometimes made choices that her kids and their father, Jess Paley, were not happy about. And yes, she probably gave more time and energy to political action than to literature. Her son and daughter may have sometimes felt shortchanged, but they supported her activism; they were always proud of her.

EJB: Grace was not religiously observant, yet Judaism is evident in her writing. How would you characterize her relationship to Judaism?

JA: Grace loved being a Jew and was always out as a Jew, but God and the Bible were not touchstones for her. Wisdom and learning, yes; she cited ancient rabbis with pleasure. When she was a small child one of her  ”jobs” was to walk her grandmother to a neighborhood shul near where they lived in the Bronx. Jewishness was an integral part of her life from childhood on. 

EJB: Grace came to feminism later than many other activists. Why is this?

JA: Grace started out focused on pubic schools and neighborhood parks and moved quickly into the peace movement. She didn’t think women’s lives were fine as they were, but her attention and energy went to ending the US war in Vietnam and other elements of the peace movement’s agenda.

She was involved in the Women’s Pentagon Actions in the early 1980s, joining feminists who opposed nuclear weapons. She’s also always had close women friends, and those friendships helped her develop a feminist consciousness as she began to see women’s lives in political terms. Her friendship with Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), though it eventually floundered, was another important influence.

EJB: Actually, that relationship surprised me.

 JA: Grace was totally ignorant of queer life, though she certainly had lesbian friends in the peace movement. Her friend Karl Bissinger (1914-2008) of the War Resisters League, who was himself gay, described her frankly as completely clueless about what it meant to be a ”woman-loving-woman.”

 EJB: Were you surprised about any aspect of Grace’s life or work?

JA: I was surprised by her indifference to the “rules” for wives and mothers, for example, housekeeping: Her place was always a mess, littered with books, papers, maybe half a sandwich from yesterday sitting on a plate. Cleaning up wasn’t just low on Grace’s to-do list. Though it had to be done at some point, it was of zero importance to her. 

EJB: What most impressed you about her?

JA:  Grace gave an enormous amount of attention to friendship; it was her personal inclination and she understood that authentic connection is a necessity. I wanted Grace Paley’s Life Stories back in print because Grace is one of our great teachers; she believed that righteous action creates goodness. We can learn from her in our struggle to resist the horrific Trump administration.

 

 Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer living in New York City.