A Tribute to Grace Paley

Last night, PEN American Center held a beautiful tribute to long-time member Grace Paley in the nearly-full Great Hall at Cooper Union.

The evening began with remarks by current PEN president Francine Prose, who was blown away by Grace’s stories in college, and later was a colleague of hers at Sarah Lawrence. Prose hated the job. But while walking with Grace across campus, she saw that the “sullen brats” she was teaching became the “radiant children that they were” in Grace’s presence.

One of Grace’s own children, Nora Paley, spoke next. Noting the illness of her mother’s last years, she said that Grace’s “interest in the world did not diminish with her red blood cells.” Happiness, she said, was her mother’s “default position.”

Victoria Redel recalled a reading late in Grace’s life, which Grace began by saying how wonderful it was to be there with so many of her friends—“and two of my enemies.” (“Grace, you old showgirl,” Redel thought at the time.) Scott Spencer read her first published story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” about a young Russian-American woman who takes a job at a Russian theater on 2nd Avenue. Richard Price read “The Burdened Man.” There were murmurs of recognition when Gerry Albarelli read Grace’s poem, “The Hard-Hearted Rich.” (Grace, Albarelli said, taught him that history takes a long time to make up its mind.)

Sonia Sanchez said that Grace’s life was about “what it means to be human,” a line she repeated—and even sang a little. Grace called her, she said, after Sanchez's last arrest, which followed a visit to an army recruiting center. (“Take us,” Sanchez and her fellow activists told the recruiters, “not our sons and daughers and grandchildren.” When a reporter from NPR asked her what she would do if the army actually accepted her, Sanchez said she would go to the training camp and do her push-ups—“push-ups for peace.”)

Michael Cunningham spoke about Grace’s literary voice—as indelible, he said, as Austen’s or Faulkner’s. She was the “master,” he explained, “of the plain-but-not-plain sentence.” He read the wonderful and hilarious story, “The Loudest Voice.” Walter Mosley said that Grace was one of our greatest short story writers, along with Isaac Babel and Flannery O’Connor and a few others. She had a “bluntness” that he saw in her personal manner as well as her work, naming the things she saw flatly as she saw them.

Katha Pollitt read from the amazing essay “Six Days, Some Rememberings” (which appears in PEN America 5: Silences) about the time Grace spent in a women’s prison in Greenwich Village. (The threat of jail became familiar to the devoted political activist.) Eve Ensler read “Midrash on Happiness,” in which a woman defines happiness—and several subsequent terms—in dialogue with a friend: “By silence she meant refusal to speak; by stupidity she meant refusal to listen.”

Ensler saw Grace as a voice of “the corner,” out on the block, “telling stories.” “Now we have blogs instead of blocks,” she lamented, inviting—urging—everyone to “meet me at the corner,” where “we’ll gather,” she said, “until the world finally changes.”

To close the evening, Vera Williams spoke about her friend, that “beloved busybody,” and read “The Unity Statement,” which Grace wrote along with the other members of the Women’s Pentagon Action. They took the statement with them to Washington in 1980. The Great Hall became nearly silent as Williams read: “We understand all is connectedness.” “We will not allow these violent games to continue.” As she continued, the reading was punctuated by calls of “Amen!” and “Here here!” When she finished, there was shouting, and many people stood to applaud.

1 comment:

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