The Legacy of Grace Paley: Art & Justice

I met Grace Paley in the early 80’s when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. At the time Grace and I were both members of the Upper Valley Committee Against Registration and the Draft. The last time I saw Grace was in 2004 around the publication of the paperback of my second novel when I did a reading at Dartmouth. There was a faculty dinner afterwards at which I had the honor and pleasure of sitting next to Grace. I don’t think we actually ever saw each other between those two times, but in the intervening years I became a huge fan of hers—she was in my literary pantheon as well as in my list of activist righteous souls. There was not much overlap between those two lists, so Grace had a special place in my heart and I thought of her as a model of what I aspired to be.

Here are two lines from Grace’s short story “Wants” that exemplify what I admired in her fiction:

“He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear, down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.”

And here are three lines that exemplify what I admired in Grace as activist.

“We were adamant about not letting the park be cut into for real-estate interests. One of the things I learned was stubbornness. And I’ve thought more and more that that’s the real meaning of nonviolent civil disobedience—to be utterly and absolutely stubborn.”

I was invited to be at this Grace Paley Legacy Event—Speaking Truth to Power as a representative of CODEPINK Women for Peace, an utterly and absolutely stubborn, women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement that works to end wars and occupations and to redirect our nation’s resources to life-affirming priorities such as health, education and housing. CODEPINK is known for its use of creative non-violent direct action in an effort to break through the sound bytes and narratives prevalent in the mainstream media with a message of peace. You might have seen CODEPINK’s Desiree Fairooz holding up hands covered with red paint towards Condi Rice’s face as Des said, “The blood of Iraqi civilians is on your hands.” You might have seen CODEPINK’s Jodie Evans or Medea Benjamin as they were hauled out of the 2004 Republican National Convention and again out of the 2008 Republican National Convention.

These kind of high-profile actions by CODEPINK activists—including banner drops, die-ins, sit-ins, disruptions, and attempted citizens arrests of war criminals—have empowered women across the country to stand up and say no to the wars in and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes our loud interventions have been called rude, but when polite political discourse countenances the killing of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, then perhaps rudeness, along with utter and absolute stubbornness, is what we need.

In addition to encouraging American women to raise their voices against war and occupation, CODEPINK has also helped to amplify the voices of women from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where U.S. foreign policy has a huge negative impact on the lives of women and their children. We have sent delegations of women to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to speak with people in those countries, fostering people-to-people ties and then bringing back to our communities the stories that we heard. In March 2005, we brought a delegation of Iraqi women to the States and sponsored their cross-country speaking tour. This past fall we co-sponsored the speaking tours of Zoya, a representative of The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and of Malalai Joya, the Afghan parliamentarian who was kicked out of government because she spoke out against the warlords and drug traffickers who are running and ruining her country.

Last year during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, CODEPINK felt compelled, while watching U.S. produced and funded weapons raining down on the Palestinians of Gaza, to finally take on the often-polarizing issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We sent a delegation to Gaza via Egypt for International Women’s Day to witness the devastation left behind by Israel’s punishing assault and the ongoing privation caused by the two-plus year blockade of Gaza. More delegations went in June—and the one that attempted and failed to get into Gaza from Israel instead met with activists from the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace and visited the village of Bilin during the weekly non-violent protest against the Annexation Wall. We launched our Stolen Beauty boycott campaign against the settlement products of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories with a bikini brigade protest at the Ahava store at the Tel Aviv Hilton. This past fall we partnered with Jewish Voice for Peace to sponsor a tour by two young Israeli refuseniks. Maya and Netta, two very brave and articulate nineteen-year-old women, traveled from coast to coast explaining why they chose jail time over army service in what they view as an illegal occupation.

When Maya and Netta first started their speaking tour, they had to be persuaded to speak about their own lives in Israel and their own first-hand experiences of the Occupation. They had come prepared with a power-point presentation—maps of the shrinking Palestinian territories, photos of the Annexation wall, and a string of details about the dispossession and daily violence visited on the Palestinians under the Occupation. But what had even more power than these facts were the stories that these young women had to tell about what they themselves had witnessed. It was the moral authority of their particular, embodied stories that had the most profound impact on their audiences.

At first, they had a resistance to telling just “their” stories – they believed that the objective facts about what was going on in Israel/Palestine were enough, and they didn’t want to egocentrically put themselves at the center of the story. But the facts alone are never enough to connect people to causes – what is always needed, as Grace taught us so well, is the connective tissue of narrative, and the ability to bring to the public commons not just stories but storytellers the mainstream culture would rather not hear. Watching Maya and Netta grow into their roles as such storytellers was a powerful experience.

When we celebrate Grace’s legacy of “speaking truth to power,” I think not only of Maya and Netta’s careful, reasoned responses to those who disagreed with them, but also of Malalai Joya, the Afghan parliamentarian whose truth telling has resulted in at least four assassination attempts against her. I had the honor and pleasure of hosting Malalai at our apartment for two nights of her visit to New York City in October. She was a genteel and gentle mouse of a house guest, padding around in slippers and flannel pajamas, but after she left, I read her memoir. I learned that this tiny, pretty, polite young woman was also a lion who raged against the men who are destroying her country and causing the suffering of women and children across Afghanistan.

In her book, entitled RAISING MY VOICE in its UK edition, Malalai wrote of her country, “A staggering 70 percent of Afghans survive on less than two dollars per day. And it estimated that more than half of Afghan men and 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. In the past few years, hundreds of women have committed self-immolation—literally burned themselves to death—to escape their miseries. This is the history I have lived through, and this is the tragic situation today that I am working with many others to change. I am no better than any of my suffering people. Fate and history have made me in some ways a ‘voice of the voiceless,’ the many thousands and millions of Afghans who have endured decades of war and injustice.’”

As Grace wrote in her essay “Of Poetry, Women and the World,”

“But what art is about—and this is what justice is about, although you’ll have your own interpretations—is the illumination of what isn’t known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden.”

It is this lesson – the unity of art and justice – that Grace’s work and life impart to us. It is why Code Pink will always work to create the political space for stories and their tellers that the powers that be try to keep silent.

“The Legacy of Grace Paley: Art & Justice” by Nancy Kricorian, from a panel discussion “Celebration of Grace Paley: Speaking Truth to Power,” Barnard Center for Research on Women and Gender, 12/11/09

December 11, 2009