I first met Grace in January 2005 when I made my second visit to the Under the Volcano writers’ workshop in Tepoztlan, Mexico. Because I’d studied her work in graduate school in the ’70s and again for my MFA, I was nervous about meeting her. I needn’t have been. She was a tiny, gentle woman and she and her husband Bob Nichols were instantly friends with everyone in our group. That year we spent a week together, hours each day sitting in the garden talking about literature and, inevitably, politics, and it was one of the most pleasurable weeks I’ve ever spent.
I saw Grace again this January in the same setting. I was studying this time with Chuck Wachtel but to be honest I was there because of Grace. I knew she was not well, but a tribute to her was planned and she had been determined to come. She was frail, and wore a wig, but she was as sharp as ever, and as interested as ever in the work of the students. She didn’t have to do it, but she sat in on the workshops daily, and she contributed. And at the end of the week, everyone got a hug.
I thought of Grace this week when I was reading the Francine Prose interview in The Writer’s Chronicle. Prose was talking about revolutionary figures in writing, and she really was.
“For me, Grace Paley was almost the most revolutionary because she was writing about a world I knew about but hadn’t seen in literature before: New York, women, moms, playgrounds. I first discovered her work in college, and no one had ever said that those subjects were interesting enough or worthwhile enough to put on the page. Suddenly, that urban, smart, female voice was accessible in writing.”For me, I think the writing isn’t only revolutionary for the subject matter, but also for the voice, the spare language, and especially for the liberal sensibilities.
I have all her books. I’m going to read some Grace Paley today.
(Update: here's a recent interview with Grace in Vermont Woman)