Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Intimate Struggles, Global Politics
GRACE PALEY: COLLECTED SHORTS
Lilly Rivlin Productions, 2010
Review by Elizabeth Rosner
Viewers of Lilly Rivlin's inspiring film Grace Paley: Collected Shorts are in for much more than a portrait of the artist. Whether you are being introduced for the first time or being given the chance to become reacquainted with a much-beloved writer, this richly quilted narrative offers multiple views of a woman extraordinary and exemplary in her authenticity. Grace Paley is vastly more than a sum of her parts: poet, mother, teacher, and activist.
Rivlin's documentary effectively breaks down Paley's life and work into segments, with quotations from the author as well as from her many friends (including luminaries like Alice Walker), and her husband, daughter, and granddaughter. Yet the net effect is to see how the different areas of Paley's life joined in a vivid and unified whole. For her, clearly, there was no contradiction between feminism and marriage, between a life devoted to protest and one devoted to family. Even as Paley worked introspectively to write about her most intimate struggles, she also showed dedicated support of women's rights on a global scale. In the film, images of her participation in numerous demonstrations are seamlessly interwoven with clips of her reading aloud from her beautifully crafted and unforgettable stories.
Grace Paley's fearless conviction invites me as a writer to remember the power of words to make a difference in the world. For her, storytelling was truly a worthwhile endeavor; art and activism could be, without any doubt, mutually inclusive. She explains that through writing purely in the voice of her "Aunt Rose," she found her own voice; eventually the stories of women and their difficult lives "pressured" her to give them "the open destiny" of life on the page. "That's what I was doing during the women's movement," she says at one point in the film, "writing stories about women." The comment is offered as a kind of belated revelation, in recognition of this significant contribution to what she called "the most important movement in the world."
Standing tall at five feet one inch, Paley expressed determination and purpose through her bearing as well as her speech. Called a "Jewish prophet" by one of her fellow members of PEN, she insisted on incorporating the death-sound of "Chernobyl" into her poetry. Political from the start -- she joined a socialist organization at the age of nine -- it was no surprise that, years later, she traveled to Vietnam in 1969 as a representative of the anti-war movement, or that she spent a week at the Women's House of Detention. Paley dared to be political in this way not only because "everything was a story," but also because, as she once admonished a young woman in the process of getting arrested (and who would eventually become a rabbi), "You just can't get out of your responsibilities."
When asked for the core of her political wisdom, Paley replied, "You sit down and you stay down." This simple phrase seems to embody both Paley the writer and Paley the irrepressible political activist. Lucky for us, she also did much more than use her body as a weapon in the struggle for justice. She also used her pen and her voice "to keep an eye on this world and cry out, like Cassandra, but be listened to this time." As a novelist, essayist, and poet with a fervent belief in writing as a political and humanistic endeavor, I am taking her words to heart.
Novelist, poet, and essayist Elizabeth Rosner is the author of Blue Nude and The Speed of Light. Her work has appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, and Hadassah Magazine.
Source Citation: Rosner, Elizabeth. 2011. Intimate Struggles, Global Politics. Tikkun 26(1): 86