When Judith Arcana first approached short story author and activist Grace Paley about writing her biography, Paley said no. “She said she didn’t think there should be a book just about her” Arcana writes, “that her life was no big deal, that she didn’t want to be lionized.” Prepared for this response, Arcana told her that, “I wanted to write about her not as exemplary, but as an example: Here’s a woman, she’s a mother, she’s an activist, she’s a writer—and here’s how she does it.”
To this Paley agreed. And after years of interviews and research over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, the first edition of Grace Paley’s Life Stories was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1993. But the book soon went out of print and remained so for the past two decades, until the end of last year when local political publisher Eberhardt Press teamed up with Arcana to release a new edition. “It’s not that I’m responsible for or to Grace, but there’s no other biography of Grace Paley,” Arcana says. “Which shocked me, because I thought there would be others after me. I looked before doing a new edition, because I thought, ‘Oh, surely somebody’s taken care of this.’ But no.”
Born in 1922, to Ukrainian Jewish refugees in the Bronx, Paley began writing stories in the 1950s while raising two children on a slim budget in Greenwich Village. Over the course of her unconventional writing career, she became arguably one of the most influential short story writers of the 20th century. In her singular, voice-driven prose, Paley wrote stories about friendships between women, motherhood, community relations, family dynamics, and gendered power imbalances. Her stories are odd, playful, rule-breaking, and often gloriously open to interpretation.
There are many reasons why this moment makes sense for a Grace Paley biography: the growing acknowledgement of her place in the literary canon since her death in 2007, the recent popularity of some of Paley’s core themes in literature, the 60th anniversary of her debut story collection. But Arcana says that “the decision to reprint the book was largely politically motivated.” When she looks back, she finds that the issues the biography considers—how to be a parent, artist, and activist—and the political issues Paley dealt with in her stories and activism are all more relevant than ever.
The issues the biography considers—how to be a parent, artist, and activist—and the political issues Paley dealt with in her stories and activism are all more relevant than ever.
In her life, Paley published just three story collections. Though also a poet and essayist, her fiction was the focus of her creative life, and a common question of fans and friends alike was, “Why do we have to wait so long between books?” In large part, the answer was her dedication to political activism. Life Stories is as much a political biography as it is literary biography, and it covers Paley’s work as a community organizer, anti-war activist (she was part of a group that held a Vietnam protest every weekend for eight years), her many arrests (including one on the White House lawn), and her travels in various political roles—peace advocate, negotiator, and delegate to Vietnam, Russia, China, Chile, Israel, and Palestine.
As she promised, Arcana didn’t write about Paley as a flawless being. “I was balancing my respect for her, and my growing sense of her importance as I worked on the book, with things I didn’t agree with,” Arcana says. In the process, she saw Paley was always doing this too: questioning and rethinking her own decisions and ideas. “She was possessed of strongly held opinions, and argued them passionately,” Arcana writes in the new edition’s preface. “Nevertheless, she kept on learning, beginning again when she understood differently or better; when she realized she’d been wrong; when she knew she had to go deeper. This was, for Grace, a necessity.”
Arcana views Paley as a crucial example for this current moment, when so many people are wondering how best to effect political and social change and so many artists are trying to balance multiple roles or identities. “I think of Grace every day and wish I could talk to her,” Arcana says. “Not just because I cared about her, but to hear the way her mind would be working through what’s going on in the world. I believe that in her stories and in her street action—and in our reading about it now—she’s providing answers and new useful questions for 2019.”