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Finally, the Main Character in Her Own Story

Grace Paley Wrote About Her Decades of Activism the Only Way She Knew How: by Spinning Tales


When Grace Paley was growing up in the Bronx in the early 1930s, her Aunt Mira gave her a piece of advice about going to the May Day parade: "Darling . . . don't carry the flag. . . . The one who carries the flag is sometimes killed. The police go crazy when they see [the Bolshevik] flag."

That admonition, like so many things in Paley's life, has its roots in a story. Mira's brother Rusya was murdered at 17 during Russia's failed 1905 Bolshevik revolution for "carrying the red banner of the working class." But, as in many Paley stories, there's a complication: Despite her aunt's warning, it was in Rusya's footsteps she chose to walk.

Even in junior high school, where she was "practically suspended" for wearing a black armband during the Spanish Civil War, Paley was a standard-bearer. On the back of her new book, "Just as I Thought," she is pictured at a demonstration, wearing a homemade sackcloth emblazoned with "Money, Arms, War, Profit, Wall Street."

At 76, Paley may be the world's least likely looking dissident. She seems more like a traditional grandmother--"a short, chubby, gray-haired lady," she says with typical candor--informal, comfortably mussed. Beneath that nonthreatening exterior, however, beats the heart of an activist who's been involved in most of the major political issues of her time.

From her childhood membership in the Falcons, a socialist youth group in the Bronx, to her long-standing engagement with feminist issues and her antiwar activities from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, Paley's history parallels that of the American Left in this century.

But, unlike many of her contemporaries, she's never considered backing down.

"More than some steely ideal, I have always been interested in the way society is constructed, goodly or badly . . . how people live on this Earth. If you look at some of these old radicals who have lost their interest in life--forget it. If you're not paying attention and you're not interested, you're not useful anymore."


Paley was in Los Angeles to talk about "Just as I Thought," her first book of nonfiction, a collection of more than 40 years' worth of essays and journalism, much of it addressing her political life. It's fascinating not only for its unregenerate radicalism, but also because Paley is known primarily as a writer of short stories. She dismisses such distinctions as semantic, arguing that virtually everything she writes involves storytelling.

"I don't like the words 'fiction' and 'nonfiction.' In almost any talk I give or any of the so-called articles, I tell it in terms of stories. Because that is the way I think. It's the way I can think. I don't really think until I'm doing the work."

Certainly, this book interweaves poetry and bits of fiction to illuminate its larger points. Even more significant is the consistency of Paley's voice, her offhanded, almost vernacular use of language, which evolved from her need to balance the requirements of literature and life.

"When I began to write stories," she says, "I began to get my whole language in, my street language, my home language, my mama and papa and my children language, together with the literary language." The same aesthetic informs "Just as I Thought," giving it a quality of testimony.

If the bulk of Paley's writings are what she calls "witness stories," such intentions seem especially fundamental to this book. In accounts that range from a 1969 visit to North Vietnam to her experiences protesting New Hampshire's Seabrook nuclear power plant, the material is less filtered than her short stories, more polemical, not so much about art as agenda, like a series of news photos taken through the refining lens of Paley's mind.

The logic is simple, as Paley suggests in "Introduction to a Haggadah," in what might stand as a defining principle for the entire collection: The nature of testimony is "to tell the story again and again--that we had been strangers and slaves in Egypt and, therefore, knew what we were talking about when we cried out against pain and oppression. In fact, we were obligated by knowledge to do so."

She feels a social responsibility, for example, to tell what happened in the '60s "because that period is so misread and maligned in so many ways. What I'm interested in is the way this stuff is reported in the news now, the way that whole period is seen as a period of heavy drugs and terrible things, whereas I think that a lot of the best things in this country really came from that period--not from my generation, but from the youth."

It's curious to hear Paley discuss the '60s because, despite her involvement in the antiwar movement, her political coming-of-age really took place a decade earlier, when she and her first husband, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, lived in New York's Greenwich Village with their two small kids. She became a committed "localist," working to improve parks and schools, and once participated in a sit-in to protest the banning of music in Washington Square Park.

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