Guest Post: Amy Bloom on Tillie and Grace

Ever since its first issue, which included tributes to Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, PEN America has paid homage to the great writers of the 20th century, publishing essays and talks about them by some of the great writers of our own day. Extending that tradition to our blog, we're excited to share this tribute by Amy Bloom, author of the critically-acclaimed and best-selling Away, among other books, to two writers who left us this year: Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. As Bloom notes, both were not only groundbreaking short story writers, but devoted political activists who embodied the mission of PEN.

Az mir leben, muz mir tuun.

As long as we live, we must do the work.

To lose Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in one year is a bad year, even if a lot of people didn't know it at the time, Tillie Olsen would have said, and she would have been right. To have had them both for so long was a privilege, even if a lot of people didn't know it, Grace Paley would have said. And she would have been right.

If there were ever two people, and not coincidentally at all, two women, who epitomized PEN's goals: advancing literature, defending free speech and fostering connections betweens writers everywhere, Tillie and Grace were it.

I knew Grace Paley, for about seven short years, but I only knew Tillie Olsen by her work and by her life. I knew Tillie Olsen's husband lost his job for his labor organizing work and I had read that Tillie herself was accused of being a Stalinist working to infiltrate the city's school's through the PTA (and she had been a Young Communist and for all I know she was a Stalinist, but I do like the image of Grace and Tillie together as they never were, Nebraska and the Bronx, happy to be out of jail for civil disobedience, happy to be back with their kids, unpacking sandwiches on the playground benches, chatting up a couple of other young mothers and bringing about the Revolution. They did try.)

They were both revolutionary writers, writers who told the stories not only about people no one had seen on the page, but in language no one had constructed before. And they were both women who lived their lives in accordance with their political principles and built their lives, as best they could, around the people they loved: Grace and her Bob and her son and daughter and her beloved grandchildren, Tillie and her handsome Jack, her four daughters and eight grandchildren. And so, they didn't have quite as much time to write as some other people. And they didn't have such large advances. And you never saw their names in glossy magazines, or in a fashion ad, modeling turtlenecks, or writing fiction to promote a new martini. They wrote about the hard lives of working class women: hotel maids, secretaries, salesgirls; and they wrote about all of the world's outsiders; and they wrote about human rights and the obligations of fairness and decency; and they both wrote with language that came from the mouths of real people who struggled; and they wrote durable, innovative, poetic and celebratory sentences, both of them. And as much as Ray Carver and Norman Mailer shaped American fiction and were known for it, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley shaped the American short story, as if they were God and it was clay, and however much or little known they were for much of their writing lives, the short story itself is now different than it was, because of them, and we know better how we should live and write, because of them.

-- Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom, a member of PEN American Center, has published two novels, two story collections, and a non-fiction book on gender (Normal). The recipient of a National Magazine Award, she has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications. She is a practicing psychotherapist and teaches at Yale University.


Baumbach on Baumbach: "The Return of Service"

At the close of the inaugural PENultimate Lit event on November 11, an audience member asked Jonathan and Noah Baumbach a wonderful question: “Is there a moment in the other’s work,” he asked, “that each of you particularly admires?”

Noah-- whose new movie, Margot at the Wedding, opened over the weekend; Jonathan's latest novel is out next week-- mentioned his father’s short story, “The Return of Service,” which I hadn’t read before this weekend, though it has been collected and anthologized multiple times. Here’s how it begins:
I am in a tennis match against my father. He is also the umpire and comes to my side of the court to advise me of the rules. “You have only one serve,” he says. “My advice is not to miss.” I thank him—we have always been a polite family—and wait for his return of the opposing side. Waiting for him to take his place in the sun, I grow to resent the limitation imposed on my game. (Why should he have two serves, twice as many chances, more margin for error?) I bounce the ball, waiting for him—he takes his sweet time, always has—and plan to strike my first service deep to his forehand. And what if I miss, what if ambition overreaches skill? The ordinary decencies of a second chance have been denied me.
Fans of The Squid and the Whale may recall that it, too, opens with father and son (and mother and younger son) playing tennis against each other. (Noah cited his father's story as an inspiration of sorts for this scene.) Christian Lorentzen noted the movie's opening line back when it was still in theaters: "It's Mom and me against you and Dad."

“The Return of Service” uses the metaphor in a less straightforward fashion—the story is dreamlike rather than realistic. But it still packs an emotional punch: after the son wins the match, he hears from a friend that his father is off crying somewhere. This moment surprised Noah Baumbach—as he explained to the audience at Southpaw the other day—and moved him.

My own favorite moment in the story is at the end:
The ball is arriving. Before I can ready myself, before I can coordinate arm and racket, before I can coordinate mind and arm, the ball will be here and gone, a dream object, receding into the distance like a ghost of the imagination. The first point is lost. And so the game. And so the match. Waiting for the ball's arrival-- it is on the way, it has not yet reached me-- I concede nothing.


Day of the Imprisoned Writer

On November 15 each year International PEN stages the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. PEN members do what they can to "raise public awareness of the plight of their colleagues worldwide," writing protest appeals, staging events, and calling attention to imprisoned writers around the globe. Five writers in particular are selected "to represent the global spread of the problems as well as to illustrate the types of attacks."

This year, PEN is focusing on these five writers:

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana Well-known comedian and poet among the many arrested in recent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators

Cuba: Normando Hernández González

Cuba: Normando Hernández González Journalist imprisoned under crackdown on dissidents in 2003 and since held under dire conditions

Gambia: Fatou Jaw Manneh

Gambia: Fatou Jaw Manneh Journalist on trial and facing a heavy sentence on charges of sedition for her articles criticizing the Gambian president

Iran: Yaghoub Yadali

Iran: Yaghoub Yadali Novelist given a one-year sentence for his fictional characterization of the ethnic minority of which he is himself a member

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov Journalist who has covered human rights abuses and written critical articles, and who has been held in psychiatric detention for over a year


“I haven't got your shoulders”

Norman Mailer was president of PEN American Center from 1984 to 1986. In that last year, he “used all his powers of persuasion and charm,” as Salman Rushdie recently recalled, “to raise the funds that brought more than 50 of the world’s leading writers to Manhattan to debate, with almost 100 of America’s finest, the exalted theme of ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’” According to Rushdie—who was, he confesses, “more than a little awestruck”—the “atmosphere” at this grand PEN congress was “electric from the start.”
Much to the chagrin of PEN members, Mailer had invited Secretary of State George Schultz to speak at the opening ceremony, at the Public Library. This prompted howls of protest by the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Sipho Sepamla, who accused Schultz of supporting apartheid. Other writers, including E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Irving and many more, also disapproved of Schultz's presence, protesting that writers were being set up “as a forum for the Reagan administration,” as Doctorow put it.
Rushdie goes on to quote Mailer’s welcoming remarks, in which he spoke of New York: “If it is one of the great cities of our civilization, it is, like that civilization, in peril from above, from below and on the flank.”

Links to interviews and remembrances of Mailer have abounded on literary blogs over the last few days, and here’s one more: Hilton Als recalling the unusual, combative friendship between Mailer and James Baldwin in PEN America 2. (The title of this post comes from a remark-- ironic? sly, surely-- by Baldwin, directed at Mailer, in his 1961 essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”) As Als notes, the written exchanges between Baldwin and Mailer were charged with questions not only about race but about sexuality.

There is something remarkable and even inspiring about the willingness of both men to so publicly engage with each other on these fraught, personal subjects. Among the many public relationships in Mailer's long and varied career, this one is certainly worth remembering.

(Photo of Mailer by Doug Elbinger, Elbinger Studios; photo of Baldwin by John "Hoppy" Hopkins.)


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.


A Few Friday Notes

The Chinese government finally frees Ven. Ngawang Phulchung (left), one of the leaders of the Drepung printing group, a dissident Tibetan publishing collective, and an Honorary Member of PEN American Center.

Saadi Youssef eulogizes fellow Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos (in Laila Lalami’s translation): “He stood against occupation because the poet, by necessity, stands against occupation.”

Those in NYC, don’t forget: Grace Paley tribute this Tuesday, in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.

And next Tuesday (11/13): M Mark introduces PEN America contributor Sarah Messer befor a reading at NYPL. Stellar Kim and Beth Woodcome will also be reading.

More amusing Proust.