Animating Grace Paley

12/18/2014

Last Sunday, Steve Costa stood in the rain, guiding cars into the parking lot of the Presbyterian church with a patient, bemused air. “Now I can add parking attendant to my resume,” he cracked as he embraced a guest. Behind him, a large Monterey pine had crashed through the fence, toppled by the recent storm. The tips of its tallest branches had fallen just a few feet shy of the church. 

Inside, Naomi Newman, wearing a long black skirt and an Indian pattern beneath a black cardigan, peered with large eyes at the nearly full room, then stood out of sight behind the doorway until her cue. She spotted a few old friends in the audience gathered to witness her one-woman show, Becoming Grace. 

In January, Newman will be the first recipient of the Regina Barnes Fellowship and a resident of the Mesa Refuge, a writer’s retreat in Point Reyes Station that has sheltered authors such as Michael Pollen, Rebecca Solnit and Lewis Hyde.

Newman’s work tells the life of Grace Paley, a political activist and short story writer from New York, partly through Paley’s own writing. “We have had a great many artists, more of them women than not, recording the tragedies of repetition, frequency, weariness and little disturbances,” the British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote about her stories. “What distinguishes Grace Paley from the mass of these is the interest, and even more, the inventiveness which she brings to her small world.” 

Paley transcended and helped transform that “small world”—first through fiction, by helping to broaden the purview of literature as a female writer with a gift for rendering complex emotion through the seemingly banal—and later through her resistance to the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation.

But for all her talent, she was not prolific, owing in part to the time consumed raising a family in New York:

“I was working part time. I was hanging out a lot. I was kind of lazy. I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven. I took them to the park in the afternoons. Thank God I was lazy enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. I say lazy but of course it was kind of exhausting running after two babies… If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories. That’s pretty much how I lived. And then we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.”

 

Even Paley’s smallest works are unfussy yet refined, and resourcefully crafted. The strains of tragedy and regret are redeemed, though never resolved, through laughter. New York was her world, and she is better known on the East Coast than the West. By combining excerpts of her writing with monologues pieced together from interviews and biography, Newman, who knew Paley before her death in 2007, aims to change that.

With a presence at once gentle and sharp, Newman has the bearing of a grandmother and the stance of a performer. Raised in Detroit, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she began her career as a concert singer. At 23, she moved to New York with her poet husband, who mixed with Frank O’Hara’s now legendary social circle. “Oh, I knew Frank very well,” Newman said. “He worked at the MOMA when I did, but in a higher position.” He was an assistant curator; “I worked the front desk.”

Later in life, Newman returned to Los Angeles and began a career in theater. In 1978, she co-founded the Traveling Jewish Theatre with Albert Greenberg. In 1982, the project relocated to the Bay Area and, over the years, became a respected incubator of experimental theater. While serving as its artistic director, Newman also became a practicing psychotherapist, which must have served her writing well. Her plays focus on recurring themes of memory, motherhood and loss, and shed light on the language we create to navigate suffering and draw meaning from it. 

Two years ago, the theater closed. Her life’s work, it seemed, was over. “It was tragic. It was really hard. I was very depressed and sad. I was lost about what I wanted to do, and how to go on.” 

Before a loving audience on Sunday, Newman was back in her element. Through gesture and accent she inhabited the irrepressible Paley, recounting her transition from mother and housewife to poet and activist. The author’s voice magnified Newman’s presence, which was lit up by unceasing energy—even in quieter moments (of which there were perhaps too few). Passages that read as barbed observance and dry wit on the page were cause for rolling waves of laughter through the audience, and sharper observations stirred up nods and knowing smiles.

In “Six Days, Some Rememberings,” Paley recalls how she languished for six days in prison after a protest:

A black woman about a head taller than I put her arm on my shoulder. It ain’t so bad. What’s your time, sugar? I gotta do three years. You huh?

Six days.

Six days? What the fuck for?

I explained, sniffling, embarrassed.

You got six days for sitting down front of a horse? Cop on the horse? Horse step on you? Jesus in hell, cops gettin crazier and stupider and meaner. Maybe we get you out.

No, no, I said. I wasn’t crying because of that. I didn’t want her to think I was scared. I wasn’t. She paid no attention. Shoving a couple of women aside—Don’t stand in front of me, bitch. Move over. What you looking at?—she took hold of the bar of our cage, commenced to bang on them, shook them mightily, screaming…

 

Then, Naomi Newman, her thin fingers clinched into fists, stood at the pulpit of a small, rural church, and yelled: 

Hear me now, you motherfuckers, you grotty pigs, get this housewife out of here!

 

Jordan Bowen is a native of Texas who recently migrated from New York City to West Marin. He studied European literature and film at Columbia University and currently coordinates marketing and operations at Osmosis Day Spa, in Freestone.