Critical Mass

Remembering Grace Paley

By Jane Ciabattari

“That eye with which any artist looks at life is really dumb in a lot of ways,” Grace Paley told Paul Wilner of the New York Times in 1979. “Some people prefer to call it innocent because that makes it classier, in a little way, but it's really just dumb. I'm an ear believer. I think the ear is smarter than the eye.”

I had the gift of studying with Grace Paley as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence and later as a graduate student. I was in the classroom when the Times came to take Grace's photograph that day in 1979. Looking back to those college days, I realize that even the thought I could ever write anything even resembling a novel was remote and ridiculous to me for many reasons. Besides a total lack of skill and self-confidence, the door to my memory room had become unhinged by an increasing loss of visual reference points both within myself and among the people who would receive my work. My Jewish great grandmother, grandmother, and mother were all born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a multicultural Palestine of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Most potential readers, I thought and perhaps still believe, wouldn't even know there had been a world before the state of Israel was formed in 1948 or that this world included Jews, including many non-zionist Jews who coexisted peacefully with their Arab neighbors.

For Grace, the years-long struggle of the marginalized and the not yet heard to bring their voices to the literary soundstage was a rite of passage that built the inner strength a writer needed to develop anyway. Grace was the master of telling stories about the marginalized, so good that “marginalized” became for me not an awful word, but a special place of privilege.

The news about Israel and the war there was constant throughout my lifetime, but after the first Infatida in the 1980s, bombings and death were graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless and repeated reportage. Because Grace was political, Israel began to gain prominence in her own life. I phoned her daily, telling her stories, sharing the intimate scnees of sitting around the dinner table in 1963, in early Jerusalem when my mother took me there to visit as a child. These stories seemed to illuminate a forgotten Jerusalem, not so besieged and terrifying.

Eventually, my first novel “Edges, O Israel, O Palestine” got written. In May, 2005, even more miraculously, Grace Paley herself, at the age of 82, edited and then published it through her own Glad Day Books, a publishing house her husband, Robert Nichols started in order to bridge the gap between imaginative literature and political articles and criticism which have been fixed under the labels of “Fiction” and “Nonfiction.” This split, Grace said, diminished literature and it usefulness to society. Grace, terribly ill then with cancer, even lugged the manuscript to the printer, going over every word with her pitch-perfect ear.

The last conversation I had with Grace, only two weeks ago today, included telling her that Caroline Leavitt had adapted the novel into a script. Grace and I decided that what we wanted to do with some of the proceeds was start an archive at the Jerusalem museum of first-person accounts from other families, Arabs and Jews, whose lives, like mine, were full of erased stories of friendship and affinity.

Grace died on August 22 at her home in Vermont. Letting her own voice enter through our ears again, this was among her last poems:

'Drowning (I)

Grace Paley

If I were in the middle of the Atlantic
Drowning far from home
I would look up at the sky
Veil of my hiding life
And say:

Then I would sink

The second time I'd come up I'd say:
These are the willful waves of the watery seas
Which is drowning me
Then I would sink
The third time I'd come up: it would be my last
My arms reaching
My knees falling
I'd cry oh oh
First friend of my thinking head
Dear flesh
Farewell –NBCC member Leora Skolkin-Smith

Read Leora Skolkin-Smith's appreciation of Grace Paley in the Washington Post here. For tributes from PEN president Francine Prose and others, see the PEN Grace Paley tribute website here.

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