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Grace Paley, Writer and Activist, Dies at Age 84

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Grace Paley, Writer and Activist, Dies at Age 84

Remembrances

Grace Paley, Writer and Activist, Dies at Age 84

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One of the great American short story writers has died. Grace Paley died yesterday at the age of 84. She had breast cancer.

Paley was born in New York City. She died in Thetford Hill, Vermont, the home village of her second husband, playwright Robert Nichols. Paley served as state poet laureate of both New York and Vermont.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY: Grace Paley's childhood streets in the Bronx were filled with immigrant Jewish families arguing about politics and gossiping in English, Russian, Yiddish and Polish.

Ms. GRACE PALEY (Writer; Poet): The word gossip, which is considered so terrible, is really - it's just another way of storytelling and it's what women tell stories, and it's kind of denigrated because it's women who do it, you know?

ULABY: In an NPR interview, Paley said the informal, vital rhythms of gossip informed her writing and deepened her pleasure in characters and stories.

Poet Robert Pinsky knew Paley for over than 20 years and loved her poetry and short fiction.

Mr. ROBERT PINSKY (Poet): They're completely lucid. They take the materials of a life and make those materials immensely beautiful — that's art.

ULABY: Through her art, Grace Paley illuminated a world she shared - New York in the second half of the 20th century. A city smart, shabby, bustling with opinionated left-wing women chatting about kids, middle-aged lovers, and aging parents.

In 1985, Paley read from a short story called "Love" on WHYY's "Fresh Air."

Ms. PALEY: From half a block away I could see the kale in the grocer's bin, crumbles of ice shining the dark leaves. In interior counter view, I imagine my husband's North Country fields and the late-autumn frost and the curly green. I began to mumble a new poem.

In the grocer's bin the green kale shines, in the North Country it stands sweet with frost, dark and curly in a garden of tan hay and light, white snow. Light, white? I said that a couple of questioning times.

ULABY: Paley's fiction and poetry was at a piece, as was her parenting and political involvement. She said she could have helped the peace movement more with her writing, but she liked being out on the streets.

Paley told her students at Sarah Lawrence College that writers need two ears -one for the literary canon, the stories and poems you study in school.

Ms. PALEY: But the other ear, which is one of the most influential ear - one of the two most influential ear is that which there are only two - is the ear for the voice of the family and the language of childhood, the language of your streets, and very specifically, the ordinary language of your time, which, though I use the word ordinary, is really always extraordinary, I think.

ULABY: Grace Paley's voice was ardent, delicious, idealistic and funny, says poet Robert Pinsky, who remembered whenever people told Paley they loved one of her stories, she would say, so, what's wrong with the rest?

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: You'll find more of Robert Pinsky's remembrance of Grace Paley and hear the author read from her own work at npr.org.

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