Entertainment » Movies

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts

by Sue Katz
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Aug 6, 2010
Writer and activist Grace Paley is the subject of a new documentary
Writer and activist Grace Paley is the subject of a new documentary  

If you aren't a fan of Grace Paley, you are likely to become one after seeing this film. Director Lilly Rivlin succeeds in capturing Paley's life, one that was deeply immersed in writing, activism and community. Using old photos, archival footage, interviews and literary readings, this documentary showcases a woman who is both complex and every day, both talented and modest, and who has figured out how to embrace art, politics and love in one set of determined arms.

We learn that Grace Paley (1922-2007) was born to intellectually curious immigrant parents in the Bronx and made her final home in rural Vermont with her second husband Robert Nichols. A lifelong progressive who was arrested many times and who spoke out on the broadest range of issues, Paley was best known for her profound talent as a writer of both prose and poetry. She embodied the real complexity of modern life: she was a secular Jew who opposed the occupation of Palestine, a quintessential New Yorker whose brilliant stories resonated with that urban sensibility but who wrote poetry when she resettled in Vermont, and a feminist devoted to family.

Her short stories put her in league with the greats. Her first collection of eleven New York stories, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), established her as a writer to watch and her subsequent collections--Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985)--cemented her reputation among the stars of contemporary writing. Her characters spoke "Yinglish," the Yiddish/English inflections Paley grew up with, and her stories focused on the daily struggles of working class women.

A teacher at a variety of colleges, she was a mentor or colleague to many American writers. Interviewees such as Alice Walker and E. M. Esther Broner offer heartfelt testimony about Grace's ability to combine her lifelong work in social justice with her award-winning writing. She told her students to "Write what you don't know about what you know," just as she and her comrades used what they knew (knitting) to shut the Pentagon doors with yarn during the 1980 national women's march in Washington D.C.

She protested in outrage when Norman Mailer invited the Reagan administration's George Schultz to speak at the 1986 P.E.N. conference. She was not the only writer to feel it was inappropriate to invite a supporter of apartheid to a gathering of an organization which identifies as the "oldest international literary and human rights organization." (Responded Mailer: "I didn't bring the Secretary of State here to be pussy-whipped by you.")

Grace Paley's unique combination of talent and principles endeared her to generations of activists and writers. This well-made documentary rewards its viewers with her poetry, both literal and metaphorical.

Sue Katz is a "wordsmith and rebel" who has been widely published on the three continents where she has lived. She used to be proudest of her 20-year martial arts career, her world travel, and her edgy blog Consenting Adult (suekatz.typepad.com), but now she's all about her collection of short stories about the love lives of older people, Lillian's Last Affair.


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