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Saving Grace

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This week on the Granta blog, we close the online edition of The F Word with one last feature on feminist bibles. Yuka Igarashi considers Grace Paley’s short stories and the relationship between art and activism.

When I moved across the Atlantic from New York to London last year, I brought my bike, my rice cooker and one paperback: The Collected Stories of Grace Paley.

This book is the closest thing to a bible I’ll ever have. I keep it at my desk, as if it were a reference text; I thumb through it for quotes, for inspiration, for comfort; I rely on it to calibrate my worldview; it remains my touchstone for good prose.

For many decades, Paley was a vocal feminist and pacifist. She organized pro-choice rallies, demonstrated against the Vietnam War and was once arrested for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner (‘No Nuclear War – No Nuclear Power – US and USSR’) on the White House lawn.

By her own account, social action was the central project of Paley’s life. When the Paris Review asked her why she had written so little in her lifetime (she published three slim volumes of stories as well as some collections of poetry and essays), she told them that ‘art is too long and life is too short.’ There were a lot of things to do besides writing.

But before she was an activist, Grace Paley was a wife and mother, spending her days in the small apartments and neighbourhood playgrounds of New York. And it was this life she chronicled when she began to write in the fifties. Her stories from this time are manifestly domestic: brief, sad, funny portraits of harassed women, neglected wives, exhausted mothers. One of her best-known pieces is about a woman returning a library book. Another one begins with a husband buying his wife a broom.

In Paley’s life and work, you can see a neat trajectory from art to activism, from the private to the public. Her stories showed that ‘everyday life, kitchen life, children life’ (as she herself puts it in the introduction to her collection) could be literature. She found this voice at precisely the right moment to ride feminism’s second wave – and then she turned from home toward politics.

There’s only one thing that complicates this satisfying story, and it’s that the brooms are better. As much as I admire Paley the political figure, the Paley I come back to time and again is Paley the writer. Not only that, it’s the one who wrote while still at home, trapped in her circumstances, conflicted and droll and resigned. Here’s a passage from the broom story, ‘An Interest in Life’:

Happiness isn’t so bad for a woman. She gets fatter, she gets older, she could lie down, nuzzling a regiment of men and little kids, she could just die of the pleasure.

And here’s one from ‘Wants’, in which the narrator meets her ex-husband in the street on her way to return a library book:

Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-
seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement.

Neither of these can be mistaken for feminist rallying cries, but both have helped me know myself and understand the world in a way that a manifesto can’t. Life is short; art is long. ■

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Also on The F Word Online:

Granta Audio, The F Word in Norwich: Maja Hrgović, Urvashi Butalia and A.S. Byatt reading for The F Word and Norwich Wriers’ Centre.

‘Poor women bear the brunt of the difficulties Haitian women face’: an interview with Edwidge Danticat.

‘The End of the Discussion’: Some tender last words from Patrick Ryan’s Aunt Sue.

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