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Sep 1, 1976
32 Min read time
Writer, teacher, and political activist.
NBR: You are a writer, teacher, political activist, wife and mother. How do you manage so much?
Paley: I remember somebody once asking that and I gave my usual wise-guy remark: pure neglect. You know, something like that. But really, I think that any life that’s interesting, lived, has a lot of pulls in it. It seems to me natural that I’d be pulled in those ways. When you’ve got children, you don’t want to just hand them over to somebody. It’s interesting how children grow and you deprive yourself if you give too much of it away. I don’t mean that you don’t want to be free, you do, you want all that. But that’s again a pull, you’re pulled, and it’s only one life for Christ’s sake. And you are privileged somehow to do as much as you can. I wouldn’t give any of it up. And I’ve talked a lot about this with women’s groups because I think that in whatever is gained, that everything, that the world should be gained. But that nothing should be given up. I think a good hard greed is the way to approach life. (Laughter).
NBR: Do you think that’s possible for women with small children?
Paley: I remember talking about this at a women’s symposium in Bryn Mawr to women who were earnestly wanting to write or to do other things, all sorts of things, and then their children were holding them back, and what they owed their children. Well, you know, the whole idea—and this is really where the women’s movement is very sharp and really good—but this really has been put over on them, this idea that that’s a profession, taking care of children, and that you have to do it perfectly: you have to get them to the right school, and you have to get them to the right nursery school. Well, you don’t. First of all, you fool yourself if you think that you’re so goddamn important, you know? You’re just not that important. You’re important, but the world is bringing them up and insofar as the world is bringing them up—so that if you have a boy, he’s liable to be sent off and murdered in Africa or someplace like that—you better pay attention to the world too. It’s all related. That is not a profession for grown-up people, to bring up one child, it’s a joke. That’s part of your life, but not big specialization. So those are the pulls, but they’re just life.
NBR: Do you feel some conflict between political activities and writing—that you should be out doing instead of writing?
Paley: No, I don’t think it’s that so much.
NBR: I was wondering what political activities you’re involved in now?
Paley: Since the war I’m not so narrowly focused, if you want to call it that. But things that concern me very much still . . . first of all, I still think a lot about Vietnam. I was there in ’69, in Hanoi, and also I traveled through all of the North from the DMZ, and so I saw an awful lot of it and I felt the people very much. I was at that time very involved in dealing with American POWs. I don’t think in my life I’ll ever get over those concerns and the injustice of the United States not simply acting out its responsibilities to Vietnam. Those things are not over for me. And the question of amnesty . . . they’re related. But I’m not as active. I act when I’m called upon. I guess I began to think of myself as more of a pacifist, which is sort of funny when you think that I was very strongly on the side of the really very fierce North Vietnamese and Vietcong. But still, I think disarmament is a tremendously important issue. So I’m really responding in many ways. I still work with the War Resisters’ League and with Resist, which operates out of Boston.
NBR: Have you taken a leave of absence to work on something specific?
Paley: Well, I took a leave of absence to work . . . naturally on some things. I had a very hard working year at school and other things last year, so I think it was hard for me to work at all. I just get very involved with school and with the kids, with the life of whatever I’m doing, so that’s what suffers, the writing generally suffers. So I’m taking a leave and I expect to do a lot of work. I have a lot of stuff in mind. I have a lot of material half and three-quarters done, one third-done.
Paley: I never know, you know. Yeah. Well, certainly at least for that, let’s put it that way. Maybe for something longer.
NBR: Are you thinking you might write a novel?
Paley: If it turns out to be a novel, then I will have wanted to write a novel. (Laughter). But if it turns out to be stories, it’ll turn out that that’s what I wanted to do.
NBR: Do you think that a novel could do something that stories couldn’t?
Paley: Well, I wouldn’t want to put it that way because I really am in love with the form, the story form, so I can’t say the novel will do something a short story can’t. I would just say they probably do something different. And I’ve never been really clear about it. Every now and then, I get an illumination of what one does that the other doesn’t, and if I’m in a classroom, it’s lucky, then I can say it to a lot of people. But then it sort of blurs for me . . . For me, somehow, the short story is very close to the poem in feeling and not so close in feeling to the novel, although it’s about the same people that a novel would be about. But what it tries to say is the poem of those lives.
NBR: Have you written poetry?
Paley: I always did, yes. I wrote poetry until I wrote fiction, which wasn’t till I was past thirty.
NBR: Do you still write poetry?
Paley: Yeah, pretty much. I go through periods of writing a lot and then I don’t for a few months and then I write a lot again. I’m not such a hot poet, so—I mean, I’m good enough, but it serves me more than I serve it. I keep my language hand in or something like that.
NBR: Were you able to write when your children were small?
Paley: I guess I must have. I always wrote poetry. You can’t really go by me on that stuff because I’ve never really been that ambitious . . . in that sense. I mean, I had some deeper ambition, let’s put it that way, but none that would really permit me to run away, or try to wipe out other parts of my life. I think it was very hard when my kids were small, and in those days we were really very poor, so it was hard. I guess when I began to write fiction they must have been in nursery school or in school. When you have babies, if you have a few of them, it’s pretty goddamn hard. You have to be pretty fussy also about the person you live with, man or woman or whatever. Whoever your adult partner is, you’d better be pretty picky because you’re in trouble otherwise. If you’re living with someone who says, “I want my supper at five-thirty and none of this crap, and put the children over there, and why’s that child crying? smack him!”—if you live with someone whose attitude that is, it’s very hard. I think most people require very regular hours to work.
NBR: Do you work systematically? Do you write some each day?
Paley: I try to.
NBR: How do you feel about teaching writing? Do you feel it’s something you can teach?
Paley: Yeah, well, you can only teach learners. You can’t teach any subject to anybody who isn’t there to want to know. And you have to begin with work—the work is the work. And if they’re working, you can just sit down and talk with people. Mostly I like people to develop in the class a community among themselves. What I try to develop is that sense of people paying attention to one another’s work because this is part of paying attention to the world, which is what I think a writer must do. If they can only hear their own voice, it doesn’t mean they can’t write, it just means I’m not interested, you know? You don’t have to be interested in every kind of writing, and I’m really not interested in the person who only hears her or his own voice. They can go off and whistle to themselves for the next fifty years, I don’t care, it’s nothing to me. What I‘m interested in working with—because as a writer, as a literary person in a sense, naturally I have certain ideas about the way I want literature to go—well, I really want it to go in some way back to hearing people and giving it back to them. Back to attention—to others, really, and away from the private, single voice.
NBR: Whom do you like to read, past or present?
Paley: Well, my favorite writer, the writer that I loved the most for a long time, was Isaak Babel. First of all, I was doing short stories then I began to read him—I hadn’t read him—and I felt, Oh my, it’s just what I want to do. He’s really writing about things he doesn’t exactly know and yet he’s trying to understand, he’s using writing to try to understand the world and that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I do. I write about things I don’t know all that well just to try and understand them. The act of writing is an investigative, learning act.
NBR: Yes, in an article that appeared in Ms. several years ago, you mentioned learning about people by taking their voice.
Paley: Yes, well, I did that to begin with when I first began to write. I did that a lot. I guess I have done that, more even than I know, thinking about it.
NBR: You use a lot of voices. It does seem as though you already know, as though the learning process has already happened.
Paley: Right. But it’s not true. It really hasn’t. In one of the first stories, which I’ve read lately, the first story in my first book which I’ve been reading aloud—after years of not —“Goodbye and Good Luck,” it’s a lot of fun to read. And people called me up and said, You know a lot about the Yiddish theater and all that. And you know, I don’t know the first goddamn thing about it. I just learned with her, in a sense, I learned with Rose who is telling the story. As she learned, I learned. I met an actor much like that guy and talked to him and with her I learned a little bit about it. And a couple of Irish stories were from my whole life on 15th Street, when I lived over there in that building, and I learned about those characters. That’s how I learned, by trying to be them in some way. I think that’s what happened, I’m not sure.
NBR: Does a story go through a lot of drafts?
Paley: Well, it could. Some stories I’ve done very fast. Some of the very short ones, I think about it a lot and then I write it. But most of them take a long, long time.
NBR: Was “Wants” done quickly?
Paley: Yes, I wrote “Wants” very quickly. That was done quickly, and a couple of others. There’s one story, “The Immigrant Story,” of which I’d written one page, the first page of the story, and I put it aside—as they say in recipes, “reserve.” And I’d been thinking a lot about the subject of the story because it had happened when I was a young woman. I was sitting with this guy and talking—I knew him very well, I knew his parents very well—and he’d been telling me how disgusted he was with his mother. And I’d always been very angry at him from the time I was about 22 on, I was furious with him, but I didn’t know why and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Because I knew them, and they were very sad people. I really thought about it twenty-five, twenty-eight years, and one day I was reading this first page I’d written—“reserve”—and I realized that it was very related to what was on my mind. And then I was able to write that story.
NBR: In one of your stories you say, “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.” Do you have some clue as to the process in yourself, what happens for a story to get told?
Paley: Well, I think all art, all these stories that people write, happen when two amazing facts come together in some way, or two amazing events, or two amazing winds, or whatever it is, come and the surprise of this meeting is the story. And you can just really sit around a long time—I mean, I can. Not everybody else has to do it. A lot of people can just go (snaps fingers).
NBR: You don’t feel pressure though? Do you have the sense of needing to have this click?
Paley: Well, sometimes I do, I really do. If I’m very close to finishing or if I have five pages of something, it really is annoying. I have a story now that as far as some people are concerned, it’s finished. It’s four pages, it’s a very small story. And I finished it about eight months ago, the four pages. I read it to my class. A lot of people think its finished. I know that it’s not finished, you know? So I haven’t sent it out. I know it’s not finished and I know there’s more to be said on this subject, and that if I send it out, I won’t do it, and I don’t seem to have that kind of pressure—to appear or not to appear, to publish or not to publish.
NBR: The outside pressure. I was also wondering about the inside pressure.
Paley: I do, I have that damn inside pressure about this thing. I mean, I’m not dying of it, but I really spent a lot of time on these lousy four pages, thinking about what comes next and what to do. I had that experience with another story. It’s called “The Burdened Man,” in the second book. It begins with “The man has the burden of the money. It’s needed day after day . . .” Well, I wrote two or three pages, I liked them, I thought, “oh well, it’s done, I have a cute little story.” But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s not done at all, but what comes after is different, that is the form will be different. Well, it was six more pages that finally came after and then it was done, then I knew. So I have the same problem with these four pages.
What you develop in time about-certain problems, not the real enormous ones but certain everyday problems—problems in writing, whether you get to the grocery or not, will you make dinner—you get confidence. I mean, I know that I’ll work out those four pages at some point. So I’m not dying. But it’s got to be right. And I haven’t got it right yet, I just know it. So I’m not going to do anything with it. Read it to a couple of people, see if I can get the end, if something they say will illuminate the whole thing. Which is not likely. It’s possible.
NBR: Can you work on other things in the meantime?
Paley: Yes, I can. Which a lot of people can’t. My husband can’t. When he’s stuck, he walks around as though he really has something gnawing at his vitals. But I can. I don’t know that it’s good, but I can. I think pushing—for me, pushing my head just makes my head very stubborn. It just pushes right back. Not today, Jack. I’m doing something else. I’m out. I’m out walking.
NBR: Do you usually read to people what you’re writing?
Paley: No, I usually don’t read until I’m really done, until I’m as finished as I can be. I don’t like to. As a young woman and as a kid, by the time I was 15, I never read anything to anyone unless I felt it was as good as I could get it. And sometimes I felt hardly anything was as good as I could get it. I didn’t read it.
NBR: Do you have trouble letting go of a story or do you really get a sense, this is finished?
Paley: Well, I’ll go over it. Let’s say I think I’m finished, and somebody says, “Send us a story.” I’ll go over it and as long as I can find something wrong with it, I’ll keep it. I will. But it’s not that I can’t let go of it. Something I’ll sometimes do with a class is to show them a first draft, to show them how bad it is. That’s one of the things about teaching writing: kids will have their work and they’ll show it to you and you’ll say, “Well, I like what you’re doing, I like your approach, I like your language, but you know, this guy’s all wrong. I think this person must be thirty-two, not sixty-five.” And a student will take that as, well, the story’s no good. And they haven’t even done any work on it. They haven’t even gone through the problems. So I like to show them a draft which is really pretty fucked up because I also have screwed up in the beginning because the person which I want to be sixty-five is acting like he’s thirty-two. Or do I want them to do that? Or is the language correct? You know, the language is so important. Keeping it clean, in a way. Your first draft will sometimes tend to have a lot of adjectives you don’t want, you should take those out. It’s work, it’s all work. I think a lot of writers get to love that, that work, they get to love that honing because it’s quite a beautiful thing once you really get into it. You’re done almost, you have it, and now you’re making it really beautiful.
NBR: A lot of kids think a story comes out right the first time.
Paley: Right, and they should be encouraged to know that everybody is as rotten as they are. I think more people would do really beautiful work if they realized how much work was involved. Their work would begin to shine and they’d be surprised. The thing is that your language at some point in your life is clear and simple and truthful, and if you wrote it down, it would be beautiful—beauty’s truth, truth’s beauty, I always say that that’s true (laughter)—but what happens is that most people, most middle-class people especially, go to school and their language is immediately spoiled, if their parents haven’t already spoiled it for them. The written language is immediately taken away from the spoken language. But if people don’t go too far away from their own true language, they can really write. But mostly people do. And then it’s a question of going back. That’s why children’s writing is so often so beautiful, because it’s so close to their own true tongues. On the other hand, it’s very boring because they have no experience in life. Who cares what this five-year-old’s got to say, right?
NBR: Were you a storyteller as a child?
Paley: Well, I was a cross between talking an awful lot and being very quiet. Muriel Rukeyser has said that most writers when they were little girls sat under the piano listening to the grownups talk, and it’s true. I talked a lot, I’m not trying to say I didn’t, but I was absolutely entranced by stories and by family conversation. And I was the youngest. And the mystery of it all, it used to set me trembling, you know, the mystery of life, this life I was going to lead one day. And I listened a lot. And I listened in the street a lot, in our Bronx neighborhood. I wrote an article for Esquire , they called it “Mom”—I didn’t call it “Mom,” I called it “Other Mothers,” and I did listen a lot. But I think a lot also. I think that for a lot of women—who really like being women—what you miss was boyhood in a way, all the freedom and the excitement of boyhood. So for a lot of girls, you would try to have that life too. You try to invent some kind of risky, boyhood life for your girlhood—which creates imagination, which means imagination. That’s what my little four page story is about, these two little girls sitting and talking to each other. One of them says, “Don’t you want to be a soldier?” And the other one says, “No.” (Laughter). But it’s an argument between two little girls, or parts of one girl, whatever.
NBR: Did your father tell stories a lot?
Paley: Yeah, my father . . . He meant a lot to me. Yes, he was a storyteller. He really told stories at the table. He was the grand storyteller. He was a doctor; he had a very large neighborhood practice. But he retired when he was about sixty and that’s pretty young, and he became a painter and he wrote a lot of stories. Some of them were really marvelous. But he really was sort of the grand humorist patriarch storyteller of the family. The head of the whole family. A very witty man.
NBR: Is “A Conversation With My Father” autobiographical?
Paley: Yeah, it’s not that it happened, but that it could have happened. And parts of it did. It’s close to what happened. It really is the body of our running argument on art and the possibilities of life.
NBR: What about your mother?
Paley: My mother died when I was about 22 or so, so she’s been dead a long time. My mother got sick when I was in my teens. And I had terrible differences with her. She was a very puritanical woman. But she was very fine; she was a first-class person. My sister suffered with her through my really mean adolescence. I just wouldn’t recognize what was happening to her. So that’s a pain to me, that I never really dealt with that. But I was with her the last few months before she died. I haven’t really dealt much . . . enough . . . with my mother.
They were both very political people. They were both exiled. My father was sent to Siberia when he was about nineteen or twenty, and she was exiled to Germany. And then everybody under 21 was pardoned. And so they came back, and they married and came here immediately, as soon as they could.
NBR: Did they continue being political?
Paley: Well, they didn’t. My feeling is that the struggle here was intense and hard. It was awful. They don’t think of it that way because after all they weren’t sent to prison or anything. Their struggle was to really be Americans, the typical Russian-Jewish operation—“he should go to school, he should be a doctor, the children should all go to school, they should all become something, and all the little branches of the family should be cared for”—an act of family service. That’s what they did. Coming here at twenty, twenty-one, learning the language, going to medical school, reading absolutely everything you could think of in the English language . . . it took up life. Used it up.
NBR: Have you based your characters on your family?
Paley: Well, parts of it have come into it, where you see sisters and relatives. But I haven’t done a lot of it.
NBR: Are the characters based in general on people you’ve known.
Paley: Some of them are. Some of them are based on people I’ve known very well, but a lot of them are just invented.
NBR: Sometimes I get the feeling you and I must have ridden the same subway and heard the same conversation. Do you do that, do you take snatches of things you hear in the street?
Paley: Yeah, sometimes it’s just the right remark somebody’s making.
NBR: Do you see New York as a character in your work?
Paley: Well, why not? I believe in place, that place is really important. I believe that people are from someplace and that that’s an element. That’s another thing that students do, they’ll write out into the air as though nobody came from anywhere, or as though we all came from that announcer’s voice that we used to hear on the radio which never came from anywhere. They try to write literature that way. And it can’t be done. Everybody comes from someplace, earns a living somehow. I have a lot of feeling about New York, but it’s not that it’s the only place in the world. It’s my hometown, it’s my place.
NBR: Does it provide special challenges?
Paley: Oh, I think every place does. Listen, I was in western Michigan and a guy said to me, It seems so interesting to me where you come from and you have something to write about; here I live on this farm and you know, there’s nothing. So I said to him, “My God, do you know what’s going on in the agricultural world these days? The farms that are being wiped out? The people that are being kicked around?” I got so excited about the cows, the farms. I said, “I’d write about it, if I was there, that’s just what I’d write about. My God, seasons! Jesus, I never see a season.” (Laughter).
NBR: Do you think it’s a question of energy?
Paley: Well, you know, you write about problems, and if he’s as content as anything, and if he doesn’t see a single problem on his farm, well then there’s nothing interesting to him to write about.
NBR: Do you think that New York provides special themes of survival, of how to overcome all the obstacles that are placed before people?
Paley: Yeah, but I think that exists everywhere. I really don’t think it’s special. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the energy of people and survival and overcoming and all of that, and fighting back. And the way they do it, and they do it in different ways. In some ways, it doesn’t seem as though they have really fought back. But in general they do. But that’s true everywhere. I really mean it when I think about farms. I’m in Vermont a lot now and I see the life of the people there which I could never overcome, you know?
NBR: Who’s failed, among your characters?
Paley: Well, I don’t know who’s failed. I’ll tell you, looking historically at things, like the story “An Interest in Life,” if I were writing about Ginny today, I think she would have done different things. I think she might have. I don’t know if I’m just doing something I didn’t do with her. I did not impose my feelings, my own life on her, and it may be that she just would get the hell off the block and go somewhere else, maybe she’d leave the kids. I’m just trying to think if she were twenty-six now, where she was twenty-six, twenty years ago, maybe what she’d do is just dump the kids on the old lady, or someplace. She might have done any number of other things. Which is no goddamn . . . which might not be a solution in twenty years from now. But what she did was right for her then and it’s probably right for lots of women now.
NBR: In a way Ginny has the ability to flow with life. Do you see the ability to flow with life as a virtue or a failing?
Paley: Well, there we are. Now we talk as women to one another in another way. If you have four children, as she does—since I saddled her with those four children, I gave her a hard life (laughter)—she’s very young, she has four children, right? But she has a lover, she was a lively sort of girl in her neighborhood, she still lives in her own neighborhood. She lives—in a funny way, she lives pretty much as she wants to. In terms of her own life, she’s not really flowing with people in that building. They don’t think too much of her. She talks about how they don’t talk to her anymore. And she’s really, really pretty isolated in a funny sort of way. She’s not exactly flowing with things. But she’s not about to dump the kids, she’s worried to death about them. And what she’s decided to do is use this guy. That’s really what it amounts to. She doesn’t want to be alone, he’s helpful to her, he comes around, he makes her life more interesting. She’s allowed herself to have her kids a little cared for until something better happens, which she hopes will be the return of her husband obviously. Which she knows won’t be so hot either. So I don’t think it’s a virtue. I think you do both all the time. You have to. There are extraordinary and outstanding people. Emma Goldman never flowed for a second. But those are great lives. I’m not even interested in those lives. They exist and they have autobiographies and they’re all heroes, heroines. But I’m really more interested in how people live everyday. And I always was. Even as a kid, it wasn’t to big stories of heroism that I listened but to the everyday people on my block more than anything else. Since I thought of my father and mother as somewhat heroic in their early years, what interested me tremendously was how this whole other world of people living every day, how they lived their lives. I think most people are heroic to a degree, they’re heroic in caring for the lives of the people around them and not dumping each other or dumping on each other. The husband’s the big rebeller, he took off, so what’s so great about him? He couldn’t stand it anymore, big deal. So I think you have to do both. I think that you should live your own life wherever you are and not give in, in a sense. I try, I’ve always tried to do that. I guess it would just go back to the fact that I myself like everyday life. And it involves a lot. I just don’t think of it as more than what has to be done.
I think sometimes when people write, they don’t really write about all of life in a way. They’ll write about some guy who’s all fucked up, and who cares? We know all about all those fucked up people. And to me, they’re not interesting any more. I mean, people in pain are, but not people who are so totally in their own pain that they don’t notice any pain around them at all.
NBR: In almost all of your stories, the fathers leave. I was wondering why you’ve done that?
Paley: One of the things that interested me in those days, when I was writing the first book—well, I got stuck with some of the themes because I had Faith living like that—but that interested me very much. The point is, I knew a lot of women who were alone. And I spent time with them. But I was not; I was married to the same guy for over twenty years. I just didn’t understand their lives. I had to learn about them.
NBR: Did you see the absent fathers as a problem?
Paley: I don’t think of things that way. I was just interested in how those women were living. I don’t know, those kids turned out just like my kids; they’re all the same. Some of them were better off when their fathers left, some of them were worse off, some of them should have gone with their fathers, some of them shouldn’t, you know?
NBR: Most of your stories are about male-female relationships.
Paley: Yeah, well, I’m interested in it. (Laughter)
NBR: In “A Subject of Childhood,” Faith says, “What is man that woman lies down to adore him?”
Paley: Oh, I hate that line when I read it now. Oh, I die. Every time I read it. I didn’t read it for a long time, and the last time I read the story, I didn’t even read that. I was so mortified by it. I was so angry at that. I said, “Jesus Christ, what a drip you are, to that Faith.”
NBR: Do you like your characters?
Paley: Sure, I like them all.
NBR: Do you create people that you don’t like?
Paley: I really like people. If I have people I don’t like, I usually get into arguments. I really can get into a lot of arguments to try to improve them. No, I don’t think the job . . . I think one of the jobs of the artist is justice, too. And that there’s no justice if you dislike the people you’re writing about because then you’re really trying to nail them, you know? Trying to show them at their worst. So it’s not even a question of like, it’s just that I’m curious about those people and therefore how can I dislike them? I want to know more about them.
There’s a lot I haven’t written about. I haven’t written about political stuff.
NBR: Do you want to?
Paley: Yes, I do.
NBR: Do you see that as taking time?
Paley: It already took time. If I did it now, it already took plenty of time. (Laughter).
NBR: How do you see bringing politics into the stories?
Paley: I’d like to do some fiction around Vietnam, and around—I went to China. A lot of very interesting things happened which I’d like to investigate more thoroughly, the people involved and what happened there. I’ve made a lot of stabs, but I haven’t speared anything yet. I have pages . . . but I don’t know how to do it.
NBR: But you’d like to put it in a fiction context rather than essays or a journal?
Paley: Well, I’ve done some stuff like that. I wrote a very long piece on Russia. It took me half a winter to write it. It wasn’t that long, it was twenty-five, thirty pages. So I’ve done that. But that’s different.
NBR: Where do you see yourself in the women’s movement?
Paley: Well, as a follower certainly. I hadn’t really written about women. I remember thinking—this was just after the war—that men’s lives were very exciting and that my life wasn’t very interesting. But then that was what I was interested in: women. I’m really very happy to be part of it in any way that I can be useful. But I don’t feel that I have any leadership in it. I think the women’s movement is wonderful, a great thing. I hate to see some of the mean struggles within it, but I don’t see how it could exist without it. Everybody should try to be as honorable and truthful and fierce as they can be.
NBR: In your article in Esquire, you talk about the role of the mother, do you see feminists as having trouble with that?
Paley: I think they’re coming out of it. I think in the beginning some women not only weren’t charitable to their sisters, they were really uncharitable to their mothers. That was the problem with my own mother, she was so goddamn puritanical, she made me awful nervous. I could get pretty angry at her. But you know, if you don’t think in terms of history—if you don’t think history, you’re not thinking. You’re just not thinking if you cannot see a generation back. And if you do not think about the circumstances in their lives, then you don’t know what you’re thinking about. There’s no truth in the present moment. Now simply doesn’t exist without then at all.
NBR: In what directions would you like to see the women’s movement go?
Paley: I would like to see women hanging on to a strong feminism no matter what, and at the same time, becoming part of, or making, or leading in world change, which I think they can do. The women in Ireland—a bunch of Protestant and Catholic women—they just said, “We’ve had it.” A couple of thousand women. I see that as the role. I see women simply changing the fucking world.
You know, when we went to China, a couple of our people would say, “What do you mean men don’t take care of the children?” Well, in a way, there you have an example of having no sense of history at all. These Chinese women have come in one generation from having their feet bound, their brains destroyed, mushed up, from utter slavery, they’ve come about 500, 1,000 years, and a bunch of American women start questioning them who’ve come ten years in one. But the Chinese women were marvelous. They listened very carefully and said, yes, they thought that we were right and that it would take time to train the men, but they thought soon men would be good enough to take care of children. (Laughter).
NBR: Do you see the material that women write about as different?
Paley: Yeah, it seems to be. But that doesn’t have to continue. I used to think that it would have to continue, that that’s the way that it would be. But I don’t think so. Whatever your life is about, you write about; as it changes and varies you write about that. You move. Wherever your life is, whether it’s in the playground, or in a factory, or in Congress, wherever it is, it’s interesting, and you write about that.
Originally published in the Fall 1976 issue of Boston Review
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