Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Performing Invisibility: Dialogue as Activism in Grace Paley's Texts

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Performing Invisibility: Dialogue as Activism in Grace Paley's Texts

Article excerpt

One of the things that art is about, for me, is justice. ... What art is about--and this is what justice is about ... --is the illumination of what isn't known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden.

Grace Paley, "Of Poetry and Women in the World," 1986

Without question, Grace Paley's political activism proved central to her life and work. An ongoing activist for peace and equality, she gave countless talks, wrote numerous reports, and was arrested several times during demonstrations. In 1969 she and three other antiwar activists were chosen to travel to Hanoi in order to bring home three American prisoners of war. (1) Upon returning she published "Report from North Vietnam" (1969) as well as several other articles documenting her observations from the trip. In 1976 she wrote "Conversations in Moscow" after visiting the Soviet Union as a delegate to the World Peace Congress. Representing a diverse body of women activists who came to demonstrate at the Pentagon, she composed the "Women's Pentagon Action Unity Statement" (1982), which was one of the earliest manifestos to draw explicit connections between issues such as violence, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, the global capitalist economy, the nuclear arms race, and the environment. She was outspoken in her protest against the Gulf War, giving frequent talks across the country. Many of these reports and talks, along with additional nonfiction and fiction pieces, were compiled in Paley's later collection Just As I Thought (1998). More recently she published "Why Peace Is (More than Ever) a Feminist Issue" in the 2003 anthology Sisterhood Is Forever. In it she writes:

  Today's wars are about oil. But alternate energies exist now--solar,
  wind--for every important energy-using activity in our lives. The
  only human work that cannot be done without oil is war. So men lead
  us to war for enough oil to continue to go to war for oil. I'm now
  sure that these men can't stop themselves anymore--even those who
  say they want to. There are too many interesting weapons. Besides,
  theirs is a habit of centuries, eons. They will not break that habit
  themselves. For ourselves, for our girl and boy children, women will
  have to organize as we have done before--and also as we have never
  done before--to break that habit for them, once and for all. (2)

As this polemical passage demonstrates, Grace Paley, aged eighty at the time of publication, adopted radical suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton's lifelong promise that she would not grow conservative with age, and all of her work serves as a testament to this commitment.

In this article I examine the ways in which Grace Paley's texts embody her political work as they employ narrative strategies that politicize and perform ongoing dialogues between contradictory voices. While I use the word dialogue because Paley's texts consistently present these tensions as conversations or interactions between people, I do not mean to suggest that these difficult debates are always worked through to satisfactory resolution. Instead, I show how such difficult dialogues perform a kind of ongoing dialectical process that never fully reaches a final synthesis.

Paley's difficult dialogues perform the necessity of this process over and over so that as many contradictory voices as possible can be heard and considered. In such dialogues with one another, these voices present often irresolvable debates that perform the very tensions surrounding access to voice and power. Furthermore I argue that Paley's texts enact her political activism through the use of several innovative narrative strategies, such as disrupted boundaries between fiction and reality, narrative interruptions and multiple versions of "truth," and complex dialectical debates between voices that ultimately reveal previously invisible perspectives.

Such innovative narrative strategies become performative, I argue, in the way they cultivate difficulty for readers. …

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