Culture: Author's Voice Gets a New Life; Barbara Hodgson Hears How the Work of a Late New York Writer Is Living on in Newcastle

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Hodgson

WHEN opinionated New York poet and short story author Grace Paley died in 2007, at the age of 86, she left behind a surprisingly small collection of work.

The simple reason was that, as a political activist, she had so many other things going on in her life. Yet her writing made a lasting impression on many people - not least Newcastle University lecturer Jackie Kay who is taking part in a celebration of Paley's work next week.

Jackie, herself a well-known writer and recipient of an MBE in 2006 for her services to literature, says Paley has greatly influenced her ever since she first discovered the American's work during her 20s.

"Her short stories are so full of voice," says Jackie, now 47, "and it's very real, about real people and real lives."

Paley, who grew up in the Big Apple in a Jewish immigrant family, wrote humorous, meandering stories and was considered one of the great practitioners of the modern short story, creating a unique style by blending different voices and a modernist, self-consciousness of form.

As well as having a great deal of her time tied up in activism during and after the Vietnam War, she was known to put family and friends before her art.

Between 1959 and 1985, she published three collections of stories: The Little Disturbances of Man; Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Later the Same Day. A winner of several awards, she was elected to the Academy of American Arts and Letters and was named New York's first state author in 1986.

Jackie, who lives in Manchester but works in Newcastle, lecturing in English, first discovered Paley's work while also reading other US women writers Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Vivid and detailed, they were "very refreshing" to her.

"I was very excited to see what they were doing with language," she remembers. "It felt like a living language, not a written language."

She adds: "Grace Paley had this way of using her own political vision, her own ideas and her own life, and transforming that entire story.

"I really liked how she did that. The stories seemed very articulate to me."

It's something Jackie herself tries, and clearly achieves, in her own work.

Born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Jackie was adopted by a white couple at birth and was brought up in Glasgow, then read English at Stirling University.

Her experience and childhood search for a cultural identity inspired her first, award-winning, collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers, in 1991, which uses the different voices of an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter.

Since then, she's won several awards, with work inspired by topics such as Afro-Caribbean history, blues-singer Bessie Smith and the life of musician Billy Tipton, and branched out into writing for the stage and television, poems for children, short stories and novels, again using different narrative voices. …