Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, February 7, 2004
by Susan Ives
It started in the late 1950s, when New York was thinking about routing buses through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Grace Paley should have been basking in the glowing reviews of her first book of short stories, “The Little Disturbances of Man.” But can you believe it? Buses right through the park, where the children play! So Grace and her friends, all PTA moms, organized a protest and put an end to that bit of foolishness.
She loved it. The writing, the home and family, the activism, the teaching, the whole schmear.
Knowing that Paley will be in San Antonio conducting a public reading on Feb. 19, it took me two weeks to work up the courage to interview her.
I told Grace that I had good notes on her political activities through the first Gulf War: Organizing protests at City Hall against the air raid drills that terrified her daughter and against the strontium-90 fallout that was finding its way into her children’s milk.
Helping start the Greenwich Village Peace Center, becoming one of the earliest protesters against the Vietnam War.
Standing at the corner of Sixth and 11th for decades, handing out leaflets, ears a-twitching as she absorbed the language of the streets that would find its way into her stories.
Traveling — to Vietnam, China, Central America, peace conferences in Europe.
Getting busted for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn — six nights in jail.
At a big anti-war protest in Washington in 1990, Grace wrote many of the Vermont contingent’s signs herself: “A Kinder, Gentler Bloodbath.” “War Is Good Business: Invest Your Son or Daughter.” “Bush Is Having A Wargasm.” “Give Estrogen A Chance.”
She describes herself as “somewhat of a combative pacifist and a cooperative anarchist.”
“So, what have you been involved in lately?” I asked.
Not much, she replied.
I kicked myself. Here I was, bullying an 81-year-old woman, a famous writer yet. What have you done lately? As if she didn’t deserve a rest.
She’s living in rural Vermont now, she explained, and misses the rough and tumble of urban politics.
“It’s easy going here,” she said. “Even the Republicans — you can talk to them.”
Well, she is working on a town meeting warning, Vermont’s equivalent of a city council resolution, about genetically engineered food and seeds. And she’s campaigning to get “Democracy Now” on the local public radio station.
She does speak a lot, she added, giving readings like the one coming up in San Antonio. Someone always asks about her politics and she jumps right in. She’s the state poet of Vermont — “a great opportunity to talk,” she said.
Before this war started, she was active in vigils.
“It gives me great hope,” she said. “For the first time, whole countries and peoples organized to prevent a war from happening. That’s never happened before.”
Since she’s from Vermont, I asked her if she is supporting former Gov. Howard Dean. Maybe the state poet has insider information.
“(Dennis) Kucinich,” she answered. I could feel her leaning into the phone, grabbing the teachable moment, the elder passing on political know-how to the next generation of women.
“Kucinich informed Dean. Dean informed Kerry. Kerry would never be taking the stands he is taking if it weren’t for Kucinich.”
And, oh yes, she’s mainly working against the occupation of Palestine — writing about it, mostly.
She said, “I’m Jewish, you know.” I knew.
“I feel responsible for the occupation since so many of them are from New York.”
“The settlers?” I ask. Yes, the settlers, she clarifies.
I tell her I just returned from the West Bank, and we chat about my trip. You’ll find her signature on a Tikkun petition calling for peace in the Middle East and on another asking that Congress investigate the death of Rachel Corrie, a U.S. student killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza last year.
Not much, she says. Thank you for doing more than your share, Grace, I reply.