Grace Paley

American writer and activist

Grace Paley (December 11 1922August 22 2007) was a Jewish American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist. The 1994 edition of her Collected Stories was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.


  • Every day in our neighborhood there were whole apartments, beds, bureaus, kitchen tables out on the street. We understood that this was because of capitalism, which didn't care that working people had no work and no money for rent.
    • "Injustice" (1995)
  • people think that they have to use their brains to figure out how best to retaliate or how best to make war. And it brings us to total hopelessness.
  • even when my kids were smaller, you had three — people like me had three things to do. They had the family to take care of and to worry about. And they had our political lives to lead — I mean, I should say the business of the war or whatever it was. And then we also had our work, our life work, which for me was literature, which I — which was my great good luck that I had that, because it enabled me to think in another way than a lot of other people.
  • when people say, “What can poets do?” I often say, “Just what any other working group could do to get anything accomplished, and that is to organize.”
  • That’s the thing about writing. You can bring a lot of stuff together.

The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)


Short story collection

  • We made for him a great dinner of honor. At this dinner I said to him, for the last time, I thought, "Goodbye, dear friend, topic of my life, now we part." And to myself I said further: Finished. This is your lonesome bed. A lady what they call fat and fifty. You made it personally. From this lonesome bed you will finally fall to a bed not so lonesome, only crowded with a million bones.
    • "Goodbye and Good Luck" (1959)
  • Peter sighed. He turned the palms of his hands up as though to guess at rain. Anna knew him, theme and choreography. The sunshiny spring afternoon seeped through his fingers. He looked up at the witnessing heavens to keep what he could. He dropped his arms and let the rest go.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • Like a good and happy man increasing his virtue, he kissed her. She did not move away from him. She remained in the embrace of his right arm, her face nuzzling his shoulder, her eyes closed. He tipped her chin to look and measure opportunity. She could not open her eyes. Honorably he searched, but on her face he met no quarrel.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • In no time at all his cheerful face appeared at the door of the spring dusk. In the street among peaceable strangers he did a handstand. Then easy and impervious, in full control, he cartwheeled eastward into the source of night.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • I thank you, Papa, for your kindness. It is true about me to this day. I am foolish but I am not a fool.
    • "The Loudest Voice" (1959)
  • I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated.
    • "The Loudest Voice" (1959)
  • I am ambitious, but it's a long-range thing with me. I have my confidential sights on a star, but there's half a lifetime to get to it. Meanwhile I keep my eyes open and am well dressed.
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • My last girl was Jewish, which is often a warm kind of girl, concerned about food intake and employability. They don't like you to work too hard, I understand, until you're hooked and then, you bastard, sweat!
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • With a few grasping, kind words and a modern gimmick, she hoped to breathe eternity into a mortal matter, love.
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • I sighed in and I groaned out, so as to melt a certain pain around my heart. A steel ring like arthritis, at my age.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • I was happy, but I am now in possession of knowledge that this is wrong. 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. But men are different, they have to own money, or they have to be famous, or everybody on the block has too look up to them from the cellar stairs.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • It is still hard to believe that a man who sends out the Ten Commandments every year for a Christmas card can be so easy buttoning and unbuttoning.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • He settles in the kitchen because the children are asleep all over the rest of the house. I unknot his tie and offer him a cold sandwich. He raps my backside, paying attention to the bounce. I walk around him as though he were a Maypole, kissing as I go.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • I thought of praying for divine guidance in line with the great spiritual renaissance of our time. But I am all thumbs in that kind of deciduous conversation. I asked myself, did I, as God's creature under the stars, have the right to evade an event, a factual occurrence, to parry an experience or even a small peradventure.
    • "An Irrevocable Diameter" (1959)
  • The organization of his ideas was all wrong; I was drawn to the memory of myself -- a mere stripling of a girl -- the day I learned that the shortest distance between any two points was a great circle.
    • "The Floating Truth"

"Some Notes on Teaching" (1970)

  • I need to stay as ignorant in the art of teaching as I want them to remain in the art of literature. The assignments I give are usually assignments I've given myself, problems that have defeated me, investigations I'm still pursuing.
  • Literature has something to do with language. There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what's on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you'll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren't a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of school-teachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.
  • A first assignment: to be repeated whenever necessary, by me or the class. Write a story, a first-person narrative in the voice of someone with whom you're in conflict. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don't understand. Use a situation you don't understand.
  • No personal journals, please, for about a year. Why? Boring to me. When you find only yourself interesting, you're boring. When I find only myself interesting, I'm a conceited bore. When I'm interested in you, I'm interesting.
  • Stay open and ignorant.
  • People like myself who must begin again and again in order to get anywhere at all.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974)


Short story collection

  • She remembered that he was a person who had killed.
    • "The Burdened Man"
  • That was Janice, a political woman, conscious of power structure and power itself.
    • "Northeast Playground"
  • Plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.
    • "A Conversation with My Father" (1972)
  • Jack asked me, Isn't it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person's sorrow?
    • "The Immigrant Story"
  • She was trying to make him feel guilty. Where were his balls? I will never respond to that question. Asked in a worried way again and again, it may become responsible for the destruction of the entire world. I gave it two minutes of silence.
    • "The Immigrant Story"

Interview with Boston Review (1976)

  • I think that any life that’s interesting, lived, has a lot of pulls in it.
  • things that concern me very much still . . . first of all, I still think a lot about Vietnam. I was there in ’69, in Hanoi, and also I traveled through all of the North from the DMZ, and so I saw an awful lot of it and I felt the people very much. I was at that time very involved in dealing with American POWs. I don’t think in my life I’ll ever get over those concerns and the injustice of the United States not simply acting out its responsibilities to Vietnam. Those things are not over for me. And the question of amnesty . . . they’re related. But I’m not as active. I act when I’m called upon. I guess I began to think of myself as more of a pacifist, which is sort of funny when you think that I was very strongly on the side of the really very fierce North Vietnamese and Vietcong. But still, I think disarmament is a tremendously important issue. So I’m really responding in many ways. I still work with the War Resisters’ League and with Resist.
  • For me, somehow, the short story is very close to the poem in feeling and not so close in feeling to the novel, although it’s about the same people that a novel would be about.
  • you can only teach learners. You can’t teach any subject to anybody who isn’t there to want to know.
  • I write about things I don’t know all that well just to try and understand them. The act of writing is an investigative, learning act.
  • I think all art, all these stories that people write, happen when two amazing facts come together in some way, or two amazing events, or two amazing winds, or whatever it is, come and the surprise of this meeting is the story.
  • children’s writing is so often so beautiful, because it’s so close to their own true tongues. On the other hand, it’s very boring because they have no experience in life.
  • Even as a kid, it wasn’t to big stories of heroism that I listened but to the everyday people on my block more than anything else. Since I thought of my father and mother as somewhat heroic in their early years, what interested me tremendously was how this whole other world of people living every day, how they lived their lives. I think most people are heroic to a degree, they’re heroic in caring for the lives of the people around them and not dumping each other or dumping on each other.
  • I think the women’s movement is wonderful, a great thing. I hate to see some of the mean struggles within it, but I don’t see how it could exist without it. Everybody should try to be as honorable and truthful and fierce as they can be.
  • if you don’t think history, you’re not thinking. You’re just not thinking if you cannot see a generation back. And if you do not think about the circumstances in their lives, then you don’t know what you’re thinking about. There’s no truth in the present moment. Now simply doesn’t exist without then at all.

"Seneca Stories" (1983)


In A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry

  • A great deal has been written about that hostility at Waterloo, as though a country that refuses to pass something as simple as the Equal Rights Amendment would not have pockets of vicious misogyny, as though a nation with tens of thousands of nuclear bombs, Army bases, weapons factories in the midst of unemployment would not be able to raise a furious patriarchal horde.
  • we asked: wouldn't it have been wonderful if hundreds, thousands of Germans had sat down before gates of the Krupp gas-oven plants and troubled the contented hearts and minds of the good German people?
  • The woman on the other phone is young and in tears. She's saying, "Mom. Ma, please, it's my world they're gonna blow up." Then some silence. Then: "Ma, please, I have to do it. It's not terrible to get arrested. I'm all right, Ma, please listen, you got married and had us and everything and a house, but they still kept making nuclear bombs." More tears. "Listen, listen please, Ma." I wanted to take the phone from her and say, "Ma, don't worry, your kid's okay. She's great. Don't you see she's one of the young women who will save my granddaughter's life?"

Later the Same Day (1985)


Collection of short stories

  • The elderly woman's husband said, What is in his mind? He thinks because he was once a poor boy in a poor country and he became very rich with a beautiful wife, he thinks he can bend steel with his teeth.
    • "In the Garden"
  • But I do like this language -- wheat and chaff -- with its widening pool of foreign genes, and since I never have had any occasion to say “comestible,” it was pleasurable to think it.
    • "The Story Hearer"
  • Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language, though the subject, which is how to save the world--and quickly--is immense.
    • "The Story Hearer"
  • [He] had invented a pinball machine. When we saw it, we said, George! This is not a pinball machine alone. This is the poem of a pinball machine, the essence made delicately concrete, and so forth.”
    • "This Is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor"
  • No, George said, you don’t understand. The pinball machine--any pinball machine you play in any penny arcade--is so remarkable, so fine, so shrewdly threaded. It is already beautiful in necessity and sufficiency of wire, connection, possibility.
    • "This Is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor"
  • Thank God for the head. The head is the only place you got to be young when the usual place gets used up.
    • "Zagrowsky Tells"
  • It’s hard to stand behind a people and culture in revolutionary transition when you are constantly worried about their irreplaceable and breakable artifacts.
    • "The Expensive Moment"
  • [Wild] with a dream of wildness.
    • "The Expensive Moment"
  • What is this crap, Mother, this life is short and terrible. What is this metaphysical shit, what is this disease you intelligentsia are always talking about.
    First we said: Intelligentsia! Us? Oh, the way words lie down under decades, then the Union of Restless Diggers out of sheer insomnia pulls them up: daggers for the young but to us they look like flowers of nostalgia that grew in our mother’s foreign garden. What did my mother say? Darling, you should have come to Town Hall last night, the whole intelligentsia was there. My uncle, strictly: the intelligentsia will never permit it.!
    • "Listening"
  • People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they're getting older they look at each other's face a little ashamed. It's clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn't mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once. I didn't want to remind you, my dear friend, of our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life. To which, most of the time, the friend's eyes will courteously reply, My dear, it's nothing at all. I hardly noticed.
    • "Friends"
  • Well, a wish, some wish, Ruth said. Well, I wished that this world wouldn’t end. This world, this world, Ruth said softly.
    • "Friends"

Interview (1985)


In The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology edited by Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

  • Well, it meant to be a socialist. Well, not really. But it meant to have social consciousness. It also meant that we were related to those generations of the Jewish Bible. We had common history. Our neighborhood was solidly Jewish. Next door there could be somebody who wasn't. That would be a very exotic person. The whole block didn't have more than two people who weren't Jewish. So my idea of the world was that it was totally Jewish. And the people to be worried about and pitied are the ones outside. So there is a sense that the stranger is the one to be remembered. The reason that it's repeated in the Bible so many times that we were strangers in Egypt is really to make us behave decently. This seemed to me very much a part of being Jewish. And it wasn't a matter of hospitality, which is as American as apple pie, so to speak. It wasn't hospitality; it was a normal sense of outrage when others were treated badly, and along with that the idea that injustice not be allowed to continue.
    • What was your sense of what it meant to be Jewish when you were growing up?
  • Well, since I think a lot about politics, it had an effect on me. But it didn't have a jolting or a changing effect. It wasn't so much a surprise as a new reason for sorrow and disgust. I was pleased at the services that year that this young fellow really spoke out very strongly. Sometimes I think that the Left has really made some terrible mistakes. I was talking about it the other day-the way the people in Nicaragua can separate the people of this US from the government. And that is partly a result of a decision by the Left. It's not just a strategy decision, it's true. It's a decision which the Left made in Vietnam, which was to divide the country. A very sensible, simple thing to do, to see us as opposed to the government. True too. It did not weaken the people of Nicaragua or Vietnam. So, I've never understood why my sisters and brothers on the Left haven't been able to do the same in relation to Israel. And if they'd done it a long time ago, I think things could have been different. If they had pointed out again and again: the people and the government, I mean, the difference at that time. A big majority of the American people were not yet against the war in Vietnam when the Vietnamese said, "We know you're not the government." There were maybe nine people on assorted street corners in '62, '63, '64 and the Vietnamese were already talking like that, right? So it's not as if you would have had to say the majority of the people in Israel are against this. Enough of them were in opposition. Why it wasn't done I-I know why it wasn't done. (Why?) Anti-Semitism. (Has that changed at all with the Left? Gotten worse? Or do you think it's the same?) No, I think in some ways it's better. In the women's movement press, too. You were really both very useful and really strong and influential. And I think a lot of women began to think seriously about anti-Semitism. Just because women started to stand up, others suddenly realized they had legs.
    • A lot of people we've talked to said that Israel's invasion of Lebanon in '82 was a real jolt. People who for years hadn't thought about their Jewishness were sort of forced to start thinking about it in relationship to Israel. Did that have an effect on you?
  • You know in my lifetime, Jews have been very close to Blacks, really have had very close relations, and I just happen to be reading this book When and Where I Enter (by Paula Giddings).
  • If you I live long enough you really become patient. People improve. If they're already wonderful, they become slowly more wonderful.
  • You can't talk about anything without bringing in the world. It's out there.
  • That word identity has been hard for many women who live secular lives and maybe harder for religious women and also feminists. But the women's movement has made a big difference. I don't know who it hasn't helped in this world. It's given a lot of Jewish women courage to stay Jewish and fight.

"Of Poetry and Women and the World (1986)


In A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry

  • I have to say that war is man-made. It's made by men. It's their thing, it's their world, and they're terribly injured in it. They suffer terribly in it, but it's made by men. How do they come to live this way?
  • When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women.
  • that, I think, is really where lots of literature comes from. It really comes, not from knowing so much, but from not knowing. It comes from what you're curious about. It comes from what obsesses you. It comes from what you want to know.
  • writers who are young or maybe just young in writing. To tell them that no matter what you feel about what you're doing, if that is really what you're looking for, if that is really what you're trying to understand, if that is really what you're stupid about, if that's what you're dumb about and you're trying to understand it, stay with it, no matter what, and you'll at least live your own truth or be hung for it.
  • one of the things that art is about, for me, is justice. Now, that isn't a matter of opinion, really. That isn't to say, "I'm going to show these people right or wrong" or whatever. But what art is about-and this is what justice is about, although you'll have your own interpretations-is the illumination of what isn't known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden. And I think people feel like that who are beginning to write.
  • We were accused of having been doomstruck the other day. And in a way we should be, why shouldn't we be? Things are rotten. I'm sixty-one and three-quarters years old and I've seen terrible times during the Depression, and I do think the life of the people was worse during the McCarthy period. I just want to throw that in extra. That is to say the everyday life, the fearful life, of Americans was harder in that time than this. But the objective facts of world events right now are worse than at any other time. And we all know that, we can't deny it, and it's also true that it's very hard to look in the faces of our children, and terrifying to look into the faces of our grandchildren. And I cannot look at my granddaughter's face, really, without shading my eyes a little bit and saying, "Well, listen, Grandma's not going to let that happen." But we have to face it, and they have to face it, just as we had to face what was much less frightening.
  • the possibility is that what we need right now is to imagine the real. That is where our leaders are falling down and where we ourselves have to imagine the lives of other people. So men-who get very pissed at me sometimes, even though I really like some of them a lot-men have got to imagine the lives of women, of all kinds of women. Of their daughters, of their own daughters, and of the lives that their daughters lead. White people have to imagine the reality, not the invention but the reality, of the lives of people of color. Imagine it, imagine that reality, and understand it. We have to imagine what is happening in Central America today, in Lebanon and South Africa. We have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not simply refer to it all the time. What happens is that when you just keep referring to things, you lose them entirely. But what if you think in terms of the life of the people, you really have to keep imagining. You have to think of the reality of what is happening down there, and you have to imagine it...that's one of the things that's most encouraging to me: to think that some of these young guys have been listening, and imagining the lives of their daughters in a new way, and thinking about it, and wanting something different for them. That is what some of imagining is about.

"Midrash on happiness" (1990)


In A Grace Paley Reader (2017)

  • For happiness, she also required work to do in this world and bread on the table.
  • By in love she meant the acuteness of the heart at the sudden sight of a particular person or the way over a couple of years of interested friendship one is suddenly stunned by the lungs' longing for more and more breath in the presence of that friend
  • everywhere vast public suffering rose in reeling waves from the round earth's nation-states-hung in the satellite-watched air and settled in no time at all into TV sets and newsrooms. It was all there. Look up and the news of halfway round the planet is falling on us all.
  • sometimes walking with a friend I forget the world.

Interview with The Paris Review (1992)

  • we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.
  • it was kind of exhausting running after two babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I began to know women very well—as co-workers, really...If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories.
  • Writers often write about what they want to read or haven’t seen written.
  • there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something . . .
  • A lot of them (my stories) begin with a sentence—they all begin with language...Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant...The sound of the story comes first.
  • I read it (my story) aloud a lot, and that helps me. It’s not so useful for a writer of novels, but for me reading aloud as I work helps me know if it’s right.
  • what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. I think men can write about women and women can write about men. The whole point is to know the facts. Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.
  • I liked Norman Rush’s last book, Mating. The main character is a very smart woman, very intellectual, very interesting, and very unlike many of the women many women write about.
    • Are there any men you think write particularly well about women?
  • I read poetry all the time. Probably the poets everybody read then. Very catholic taste. I even loved Eliot then whom I later grew not to love. I knew lots of poems by memory and walked around mumbling them. Yeats, Rilke, Keats, Coleridge. I liked Milton a lot, for some reason. And then there were the Oscar Williams anthologies of 1942 and 1943 with those pictures of the beautiful young poets.
  • Russian is very dear to me because it’s a family language, but I am Jewish-Russian, which is a little different from Russian-Russian. My family ran away in 1905 from the Russian-Russians.
  • 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. I think you hear that a lot in American literature.
  • I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there. Meanwhile, the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie Olsen was more like a cupful.
  • There’s hardly a woman writer who doesn’t receive some kind of support from the women’s movement. We’re very lucky to be living and writing now.
  • the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.
  • In 1959 it was absolutely insane for Ken McCormick to say, yes, he was going to publish a book of short stories. Now everybody in the writing world is reading and writing short stories.
  • a lot more women are writing. A lot of people who wouldn’t have written are writing. When a couple of black women speak, the throats of many are opened. Somehow or other they give courage and sound to their sisters.
  • You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write...The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice.
  • I hate the American expectation of violence. I’m not going to play into any of that. When I must write about violence, I will, but I’ll do it straight, not add and add because the level is higher every year.
  • art comes from constant mental harassment.
  • It’s a different life (being a parent). Another creature is really dependent on you. I think it’s good for a writer, though. I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich, you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day care from the time they were three years old.
  • I always say that racism is like pneumonia and anti-Semitism is like the common cold—everybody has it.
  • The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

Conversations with Grace Paley (1978 to 1995)


Collection of interviews, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine Hall (1997)

  • Writing poetry, which for me was then saying how I felt about this and that, didn't help me to understand the world I lived in. I developed a definition-which I think becomes less and less accurate as poetry moves into the world-that poetry was a way of speaking to the world, but fiction was a way to get the world to speak to me. (1978 interview)
  • ("Do you write when you have to? Or when do you write?") GP: I write all the time, in a way. I'm not a very disciplined person. I write. I wrote yesterday, a little. Writing is a habit, among other things, and if you're a writer you'd better get into the habit. A lot of people don't realize that. When I'm writing a story then I'm really writing all the time, wholly involved in it. When I'm not writing a story, I'm still thinking....Susan Sontag once said that she can't wait to get to a typewriter so she'll know what she thinks! And that's true for most writers, that you really have gotten this habit of thinking on paper. Until you do that all you have is a lot of junk in your head, a lot of stuff swirling around, and the paper is the place where you really begin to think. (1979)
  • I don't see television the way most people do. I see it as a destroyer of concentration rather than of language. There's dead language everywhere. We're cut off from the truth of our tongues. (1980)
  • all the arts feed each other (1980)
  • (Why didn't you stick with poetry?) GP: I write a lot of poetry. I just never get good. Poetry is too literary a thing which comes from my love of literature rather than from my love of people, my feeling for people. (1980)
  • Concentration is really a problem for me. To seize something. But when I really have a story I'm working on, I can work on it sitting in a train, going to Washington, any place, anywhere. It's totally absorbing. (1980)
  • I think a lot of what influences a writer is what you hear in the street, the language you hear, the way people talk, the way, the rhythms, the song, the language of your childhood. (1980)
  • the world may not last. Just the other day Ronald Reagan said that the arms race is necessary. He has to be insane. INSANE! And all the people listening. They have to be insane too. (1980)
  • I never think about marriage. I never write about marriage. I do think a lot about family. I think about love and family (1980)
  • People move around too much, and they become afraid to speak their own language. (1980)
  • I think people have writer's block because they don't really write things down. Their minds are too linear. You have blocks when either you have nothing to write about or you are just going dead ahead. If you just write, if you realize what your mind is and that it's always working, you're always wondering, you're always curious, you're always thinking about things. (1980)
  • you're in love many times in your life, several times in one's life. And romantic love is very... a lot of fun, I don't want to knock it. With all the troubles that come afterward, and it may all be a lie and imposed on us, but falling in love is peachy. And if it can happen to you, boy, that's great. And if it doesn't, then by all means, you should stick to your friends. (1981)
  • Someone like Mary Daly doesn't even know how people live-but other women, I think they come from suburban lives or something like that, and no family. That's a certain kind of life but it's not general female life. (1981)
  • All of art is political; if a writer says this is not political, it's probably the most political thing that he could be doing. That's a statement of an alienation problem. I would say that my interest in ordinary life and how people live is a very political one. That's politics; that's what it is. (1982)
  • I'd been writing poetry until about 1956, and then I just sort of made up my mind that I had to write stories. I love the whole tradition of poetry, but I couldn't figure out a way to use my own Bronx English tongue in poems. I can now, better, but those early poems were all very literary; they picked up after whatever poet I was reading. They used what I think of as only one ear: you have two ears, one is for the sound of literature and the other is for your neighborhood, for your mother and father's house. (1982)
  • One of the horses history rides is language. Fifteen years ago, maybe ten, in my fifties, I wouldn't have noticed the word mankind at all. And here in 1986, a six-year-old person heard the word in all its meaning. (1985)
  • My generation really grew up at a very scary time. This time is probably twice as scary, but since we didn't know this time was coming-the Second World War was coming, the Spanish Civil War was happening when I was in high school. Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia and made all those idiotic statements that are famous to this day. Like how beautiful it was to bomb the Ethiopians. The Italian kids in my school were in heaven, they were so delighted and proud they were fainting with joy. It was a scary time. Hitler was coming inch by inch by inch. I remember my parents talking about it. (1985)
  • I'm really involved in a lot of feminist anti-militarist work. I've linked things together with my anti-war stuff. Many feminists don't see it that way, by the way. There are a lot of divisions. Women say that's not feminism; feminism is equal rights, day care, battered women, abortion. But they don't see the connection between the patriarchy of militarism and the patriarchy of ordinary daily life. They don't like that patriarchy but they don't seem to mind so much the patriarchy of intervention in Central America. (1985)
  • I always think that the writer's role is to get off her or his ass and to get on the street and do something. But that answer does not satisfy people. But to me that's a very important thing. (1985)
  • I begin every class, for instance, with the reading of poems, of something somebody thinks is beautiful. Like sort of a ritual, like saying grace, or thank you God, or something. Somebody comes in and picks up a poem and reads a poem by George Herbert or reads a poem by almost anybody. Somebody read two pages of Faulkner yesterday. I want them to read something they love. So at least two poems are read at the beginning of class-or fiction. (1986)
  • poems, in a class, it seems to me, should be read aloud four times. You have a poem, you don't get it, read it again. You have a poem, you don't get it, read it again. Poems, which are after all, most of them, like a page long, especially the short ones, should really be just read three, four times for the-you notice what I'm doing with my hand-for the rhythm, for the chant, for the music, if there is music in it, which often there is not, but there should be. (1986)
  • I'm a writer but I'm also a person in the world. I don't feel a terrible obligation to write a lot of books. (1988)
  • We keep being mean-we're still mean to Vietnam. Mean to Cuba. Mean to Haiti. That kind of meanness is more discouraging to me than almost anything. You can put it in economic terms, you can make a high-class theoretical discussion about it, but there is so much mean revenge and malice against the victories of ordinary people. (1993)
  • I can't see me writing an autobiography. I mean it seems so stupid. [Laughter.] You have to feel like you are telling the world something. I feel I'm doing it when I write the way I write. (1995)

Interview with War Resisters League (2000)

  • People say the Vietnamese won the war. They did not win the war, the U.S. won the war, just by leaving and starving them to death. You don’t say somebody won the war in a medieval town which is under constant siege. Until the U.S. is certain that the Vietnamese lost the war, until they’re absolutely certain that their condition is totally hopeless, we’re not gonna help them.
  • I’d never known pacifists before. My parents were very peaceful people and socialists, and they were always against all wars, but pacifism was not a Russian socialist idea. Somebody invited (peace and civil rights activist and WRL staffer) Bayard Rustin to talk, and Mary Gandall and I listened to him with our mouths open. We were both so impressed—it was like the good news, as they say about Jesus. We were getting very good news about how to think about the world.
  • probably the education in nonviolent direct action couldn’t have been learned without a war. It had to take a war for people to learn that things could be defied and resisted. I think that was a very important legacy of the peace movement.

Interview with Poets & Writers (2008)

  • I think the world is worse, but the people are better. I think this has to do with the revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s and the work we all did in that period. The important thing to remember about the Iraq war is that the whole world protested against it. For the first time in history, the whole world, not just me and my husband Bob, but the whole world came together to try to stop a war before it started. That had never happened before. I have a book with pictures of those protests from all over the world, from Africa, from Asia, from all over Europe. In every country people said, “No, no, don’t do it, don’t do it.” Whatever happens now, this fact is in the world. I think with those protests, we made maybe a couple of inches of progress. Some light flared there for a minute and that minute may be carried on. That’s why I say the world right now is a little worse, mostly because of what our country is doing, but the people are better because almost everywhere in the world there are people who are really thinking that they have some responsibility to make a peaceful world and to live decently. We’ll see what the next generation can do.
  • everybody should be involved, not just the artists. Carpenters, teachers, everybody.
  • I’m an American. I don’t feel national pride or anything like that, but on the other hand I’m very interested in this country. I’m very interested in the history of it, and I feel that it does have some valuable ideas that really have transformed many people. Certainly this is true when I think of my own parents coming here and all the other immigrants who have come here. They came for a reason, and they were satisfied, one way or the other.
  • these old time immigrants are not standing up enough for the newer immigrants—the Latino people who have been coming across the Mexican border and others.
  • I still remember my mother reading the newspaper at the table when I was a kid. Apparently the Nazi party has just gotten itself together, and Hitler is in power. It must be around 1939, maybe a little earlier. My mother says to my father, “Look, Zenia, it’s beginning again.” Those words— “it’s beginning again”—have reverberated in my ears all my life. It’s beginning again. The fear you hear in those words. As a person who has never really suffered any prejudice, I remember those words.
  • I read a lot. In poetry, I liked W. H. Auden more than anyone. I loved British writers and the novels I grew up with, Twain, Dickens, and so on. I was not influenced say by Walt Whitman or anyone like that. His freedom was not my freedom, and so it didn’t affect me. But Saul Bellow had begun to write already. He freed the Jewish voice in some ways that I didn’t even recognize, but his work was all about men. Still, for Jews who are crazy about the English language, he was the one.
  • Tillie Olsen and I didn’t know it, but we were part of a movement.
  • (What advice do you give to younger writers?) Have a low overhead. Don’t live with anybody who doesn’t support your work. Very important. And read a lot. Don’t be afraid to read or of being influenced by what you read. You’re more influenced by the voice of childhood than you are by some poet you’re reading. The last piece of advice is to keep a paper and pencil in your pocket at all times, especially if you’re a poet. But even if you’re a prose writer, you have to write things down when they come to you, or you lose them, and they’re gone forever. Of course, most of them are stupid, so it doesn’t matter. But in case they’re the thing that solves the problem for the story or the poem or whatever, you’d better keep a pencil and a paper in your pocket.
  • I think that’s what literature is about; it’s the struggle for truth. It’s the struggle for what you don’t understand
  • If you look out that window, it’s so amazing, and the countryside is being murdered. People don’t understand what is being done to their countryside. In some parts of the world, they seem to understand it better than here. Here we don’t seem to get it that the fields are being wrecked by poisons and the air is close to the end of breathable. There is a great effort in America to stay happy and not worry and not understand and not do anything about it.
  • I want people to look at the world and see what’s happening to it and take some action. This planet is so lovable. It is so various and so lovable, including all sorts of parts of the world that I’ve never seen, and I’ve seen more than most people. Just in what your eyes see, and how people live on the earth, it’s amazing, but it’s going to end if we don’t get our leaders to pay attention.
  • Human beings come from several million years of development, which is quite wonderful. I have a lot of regard for what human beings have become. It took us a million years to learn how to speak to each other, and we did it. It took us another million years to work with each other, and we did it. I think the human race is remarkable…Until we live in a world where we stop abusing each other and the other creatures, we will not have reached our perfection.

Quotes about Grace Paley

  • (Q: Grace Paley suggests that it's good for a writer to have children, even though other writers argue otherwise. What do you think?) Erdrich: I think, obviously, it's best to do what's best for children. It was certainly best for Grace Paley's children that Grace Paley was and is their mother. On the other hand, I can think of a number of writers who probably shouldn't reproduce.
  • Her peers have praised her publicly. Philip Roth called her a "genuine writer of prose," and Herbert Gold, "an exciting writer." Susan Sontag, perhaps selling short Paley's deliberate artistry, called her "a rare kind of writer"-a "natural." Donald Barthelme said simply she was "wonderful."
    • Blache Gelfany article (1980) in Conversations with Grace Paley
  • On the literary front, Grace Paley is the nation’s — one of the most acclaimed writers in the nation.
  • All over the world, she is read as a master storyteller in the great tradition: People love life more because of her writing.
  • (Whom do you consider your literary heroes?) Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, Emily Brontë, Ray Bradbury, all for different reasons, all adored...I had the extreme honor of reading with Grace several times. On one occasion there was the potential of some political differences with the audience. Nervous, I asked Grace what we should do if we were heckled. She said, “Honey, we’ll just sink to their level.” Then she stood on a box because she was too tiny to reach the microphone and quickly made everyone fall in love with her.
  • things are in motion. Grace Paley has said, when people stand up, other people discover they've got legs. While there are limits to this kind of analogy (not everyone can stand, or has legs for that matter), the motion is unmistakeable.
  • people joke about leaflet prose, but I've been writing and reading leaflets and I challenge my sister and brother writers to try to write a leaflet that moves people to action. I've seen it done. The Women's Pentagon Action statement, written in 1980 by Grace Paley in collaboration with dozens of women, actually inspired a lot of us to take action.
    • Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz "While Patriarchy Explodes: Writing In A Time Of Crisis" in The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance (1992)
  • Grace Paley's outrageously wise story, "Zagrowsky Tells."
  • Grace Paley says, "By the third line, I know whether it's going to turn into a poem or a story. With poems, I talk to people. In stories, they talk to me."
  • "Can you think of a writer (besides Chekhov) who is holy and an artist?" "Grace Paley." She (Mary Gordon) smiled. "Well, yes." Obviously.
  • if you’re going to be involved with the Left, you’ve got to start thinking about Israel. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and I became very committed to supporting the Women in Black in ‘87. I formed a group here, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO) with Clare Kinberg and Grace Paley. We wanted to be identified as Jews protesting.
  • who does the world need more these days than Grace Paley? I’m fudging, of course, because these two stories were published originally in different books, but The Collected Stories by Grace Paley is as good a manual as I know of what fiction can accomplish on the page and in the world.
  • Grace, guide us! What is politics to you?/You are such a brave activist!/How do we live, what do we do?/Politics is simply the way human beings treat/one another on the earth.
  • It is, as Paley has said elsewhere, not the I" but the "we" that is important.
    • Clara Claiborne Park, "Faith, Grace, and Love," Hudson Review (Autumn 1975), in The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism: Twentieth-Century American Literature, Vol. 5, Harold Bloom, ed. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 3034
  • Poet Robert Pinsky knew Paley for more than 20 years, and he loved her poetry and short fiction. "They're completely lucid," he said. "They take the materials of a life, and make those materials immensely beautiful — that's art."
  • At the age of 62, Grace Paley has published just three collections of stories, a total of 45 tales. But nearly all of them are remarkable for their clarity, their sense of place, their sympathies. As Philip Roth has said, Paley's stories display "an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness, and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike"...Paley is a genuine article, unpretentious, funny, and wise. In the words of her neighbor and colleague in fiction, Donald Barthelme, she is a "wonderful writer and troublemaker." Paley's second-floor living room is vintage Village. Bookshelves crammed with Babel and Chekhov and Marx, records piled into a Hellman's mayonnaise box, a sad rag rug, artifacts of politics, woolly pillows strewn on the floor, three empty light sockets in the ceiling. The lived-in look.
  • What I love most in Grace Paley's poetry is her unquenchable sense that the artist's life is not somewhere at the margins of community, that a dialogue is necessary between the poet and her people. The North American enterprise has injured this dialogue. Paley's exuberant, heartbreaking, committed poems call it back to health.
  • she tells her sad/funny stories and wry parables, in a wisecracking, ironic New York voice that sounds like no other-except, amazingly, Isaac Babel...Paley can do for time what astrophysicists do for space: whether stretching or shrinking it, they deepen the mystery with every advance in describing it...With its vision of universal reconciliation, Paley's sensibility simply cannot be restricted by the ordinary boundaries of space or time. Paley has sometimes been criticized for allowing her passionate commitment to politics to "interfere" with her art, but the two feed each other, are in fact one. Paley is as political as García Marquez or Camus. In story after story she demonstrates the inseparability of "private" and "public" passions-especially the passion to save the children, which she implicitly equates with saving the world. In Paley's universe children ("babies, those round, staring, day-in-day-out companions of her youth"), the ever-precarious next generation, are the raison d'être of political action. When Faith asks herself, recalling the PTA struggles of a bygone time, "Now what did we learn that year?" her answer is "The following: Though the world cannot be changed by talking to one child at a time, it may at least be known."
    • Alix Kates Shulman, "The Children's Hour," Voice Literary Supplement (June 1985), in The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism: Twentieth-Century American Literature, Vol. 5, Harold Bloom, ed. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 3030
  • Grace Paley makes me weep and laugh-and admire. She is that rare kind of writer, a natural, with a voice like no one else's: funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute.
  • Grace funny and poignant, a writer of great power and great delicacy. She is one of our finest-and most original-poets.
  • Fiction for me is a way of "writing what you don’t know about what you know," to quote Grace Paley.
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