Lately I’ve been re-reading the stories of Grace Paley, and no matter how many times I’ve read them, they’re hard to put down. She’s one of my favorite writers, a woman who weaves stories from what she views around her and captures how the most mundane, brief moments (a walk with a friend, moms watching kids in the park) contain everything we need to know about people and the world. Paley was born in 1922 in the Bronx and began writing as a young mother and community activist in the 1950s. Her stories, which focus on women’s lives and insist on the value of conversation and of attention to local issues, presaged the feminist slogan of the late 1960s that “the personal is political.” I always include her short stories when I teach courses on women’s writing, and she’s usually the class favorite.
But she also deserves acclaim as an important Jewish writer, as my friend Dan recently pointed out in a great article calling Grace Paley one of the most important and original American Jewish writers. He calls attention to the ways that her social conscience, her focus on the process of storytelling, and the multiple and shifting voices in her stories, reflect modern Jewish life.
I would also point out Paley’s importance as an activist – on urban neighborhood issues, peace issues, and human rights. And she also manages to write about activism without being preachy, which is an unusual accomplishment.
Because Paley has written “only” 3 short story collections (The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day – now available in one volume as The Collected Stories) as well as poetry and essays, she’s not as well known as she should be. Some of my top Paley recommendations: “A Midrash on Happiness,” “Wants,” and “A Conversation with My Father.” Definitely check her out for a shot of Jewish and feminist wit and wisdom.