An encounter with Grace Paley’s short stories can feel less like an act of reading and more like an act of close listening. Her characters seem propelled forward not by linear plot, but by the cadence of their own voices, by a shift in the rhythm of their inner thoughts, by the musicality of dialogue within New York neighborhoods. Her work teems with many voices and many languages. Paley, born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, noted in a Paris Review interview, “I’ve been surrounded by music for most of my life. Always classical. But I think the most powerful sounds are those voices, those childhood voices. The tune of those voices. Other languages, Russian and Yiddish, coming up smack against the English.”
Paley died in 2007, and the claim that her voice lives on through the voices she channeled in her poetry and prose seems almost to go without saying. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the emphasis on voice in her fiction also translated so seamlessly to her work as an educator. Paley, a co-founder of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative and the author of the manifesto written at T&W’s creation, sought to ensure that children learned to make their own voices heard as well as to listen—or to learn to want to listen—to the voices of others. At a symposium in 1996 on Educating the Imagination, she explained how this aim made its way into T&W’s mission. “Our idea,” Paley said, ”was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”
Inventing and re-imagining the world in language, then, was linked in Paley’s mind with an ability to effect change. This link manifests not just in her fiction and her efforts in education, but in the political activism for which she was also known. Paley, put in prison several times for her protests against the Vietnam War, wrote and spoke out against social inequalities, nuclear proliferation, and warfare throughout her life. She sometimes suggested that the volume of her literary output was so slight because activism drew her attention elsewhere.
But her short stories, while not polemical, do not seem completely divided from her efforts to make change in the world. Often they connect or parallel the creation of fiction with the creation of a more just society. In “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator struggles to tell a tale her sick father will admire, a story with “a plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away.”
In the end, the narrator, Faith, can’t tell that story, even if it’s the one her father wants to hear. Faith can’t shake the belief that infused Paley’s writing, her activism, and her teaching. “Everyone,” Faith tells us, “real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
Lee Conell lives in New York. Her writing has appeared in the Chronogram, on Women’s Studio Workshop Blog, and in The New York Times.
We have important tasks to teach the children
that the people are the collective masters
to bear hardship
to instill love in the family
to guide the good health of the children (they must
wear clothing according to climate)
-from "That Country" by Grace Paley