in memoriam Grace Paley, 1922-2007
"It is very easy to react to what happens before your eyes,” observed the Vietnamese poet and translator Nguyen Ba Chung at a memorial for Grace Paley. “It is very hard to react to something that happens a thousand miles away.”
Chung was thanking Paley, who died this past August, for her activism during the American war in Vietnam. The occasion at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was organized by Kevin Bowen, of the William F. Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, together with Ruth Perry. Other speakers included Howard Zinn, Taylor Stoehr, Monroe Engel, Fred Marchant, and Gish Jen, along with Paley’s daughter and Paley’s husband, the writer Robert Nichols.
Grace Paley was one of a handful of American writers not only able but determined to weave political discourse seamlessly into their fiction. In this way, as well as with her diminutive stature and warm, humorous combativeness, she sometimes reminded me of Norman Mailer.
In the final story of her third collection, Later the Same Day, Paley’s alter ego Faith Darwin emerges from a church basement carrying leaflets she and her friends have just finished mimeographing which bear the headline “U.S. Honor the Geneva Agreements.” Stopping to eat at a nearby coffee shop, Faith sees a young man in uniform at the next table:
When he leaves or if I leave first, I’ll give him a leaflet. I don’t want to but I will. Then I thought, Poor young fellow, God knows what his experience has been; his heart, if it knew, would certainly honor the Geneva Agreements, but it would probably hurt his feelings to hear one more time about how the U.S.A. is wrong again and how he is an innocent instrument of evil. He would take it personally, although we who are mothers and have been sweethearts—all of us know that “soldier” is what a million boys have been forced to be in every single one of a hundred generations.
That “I don’t want to but I will” gets at the heart of a familiar ambivalence. Theory facing practice thinks twice before acting. The armored warrior shown shooting gooks or towelheads on television looks a lot more evil than the buff, blushing mama’s boy longing for love and some brisket. Who then is the enemy? Who is the antiwar activist addressing? What power transports a young man from his ordinary high school into jungle or desert terrain inhabited by an ancient culture someone has labeled “enemy”? Who do we hold responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or millions? Do we indict the leaders or those who did their bidding? Identity is contingent, endlessly changing as circumstances change. Truly “I” is an “other,” and who that other is we may never know. Still . . .
The incident gets at the heart of a discomfort that has lately become pandemic. Anyone who has survived into his thirties knows how pliant eighteen-year-olds can be. Yet our insistence on genuflecting before “our men and women in uniform” undermines our commonplace notions of individual responsibility. “Hitler killed only one person in his lifetime: himself,” observes Mark A. Goldman. “All the other atrocities that are attributed to him were carried out by people who were only following orders.”
While the confrontational tactics of protestors in the sixties only cemented or heightened internal divisions within my generation, the conciliatory approach we have adopted since then infantilizes soldiers. The blame for this lies of course with our leaders and those who serve them unreflectively, including the current director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Most troubling in our stance of automatic support for our “men and women in uniform” is that it rises on a foundation of fear. We don’t want to talk frankly to our fellow-citizens in uniform—I know I don’t—because we fear what we might say, and their reaction to it. We fear our fellow-citizens in uniform because we know what they’ve been trained to do. Additionally, some might worry about being called “unpatriotic”—though the national consensus against the war probably mitigates this chilling effect, even in the face of a president who believes in the virtue of torture.
That cold, light-soaked February afternoon at the Paley memorial, it was impossible to ignore the implications of Chung’s remarks. His presence triggered another set of associations, as I imagined the Iraqi writer who might be standing in his place forty years from now—who will surely wonder what this slaughter was about. Paley recognized the human trap in which we found ourselves, and did not skirt writing about it. In my half-dozen meetings and conversations with Grace and her husband, himself an utterly original writer, I was always moved by how eager both were to listen and to extend themselves to a near-stranger. Fitting then that a tribute to one of our great fiction writers should reach beyond her personality and her work, out into the world that was the object of her loving, feisty, funny, honest, and eloquent meditations.
Askold Melnyczuk’s new novel, The House of Widows, was published this March. (4/2008)