‘Wants’ by Grace Paley

“Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years so I felt justified.” A woman runs into her ex-husband on the way to return two Wharton novels that have been overdue for eighteen years. (She checks them out again after paying the fine because she read them so long ago.) They reminisce a little. “But as for you,” the ex says, “it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.”

He had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.

And she sits back down on the library steps to consider her wants. That’s it. That’s the whole story. But contained within it are a few lifetimes, a critique of state bureaucracies, a philosophy of breakfast, self-acceptance, change, continuance, and several more unforgettable lines.

Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974

‘Conversation with My Father’ by Grace Paley

Ars poetica in the form of an argument, one I’ve often had with myself. “I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” says the narrator’s father from his hospital bed, “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and write down what happened to them next.” And so she tries, and (according to her father) fails, due to jokes and a too firm commitment to the possibility of change. “Tragedy!” he shouts in the final lines, “When will you look it in the face?” (I sometimes walk around my house saying this to myself, but it makes me laugh so the narrator wins after all.)

Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974

‘Love’ by Grace Paley

This story made me think it was possible to marry someone who would say, “What a good idea,” when I announced I had written a poem, and who would discuss whether government policy looks more like a floor or a ceiling. (Reader, it was possible.) I think maybe once a week, with great longing, about the scene where the narrator sees her former friend Margaret in the market and, taken off guard, they forget their enmity and smile at one another. The narrator takes Margaret’s hand as she passes, kisses it, and presses it to her cheek, a gesture of love that is not—as her husband suggests later—truly for Margaret, but for Louise, who Margaret took with her and who the narrator misses even more. How many different kinds of love can you get into one five page story? So many. 

Collected in Later the Same Day, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985

‘In This Country but in Another Language My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Man Everybody Wants Her To’ by Grace Paley

Only two pages long, but isn’t the title already a story unto itself? The man is never mentioned. Indeed, the story is mostly about what is not there. The aunt refuses to tell the narrator about the terrible things the grandmother has seen. The grandmother and the father tell the aunt she has not lived. The horrors of war and revolution flare up in a sentence or two, go on humming in the background. I cannot separate this story from ‘Conversation with My Father.” I think of it as the matriarchal counterpoint. The final lines: “My grandmother said to all our faces, Why do you laugh? But my aunt said, Laugh!”

Collected in Later the Same Day, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1985

‘Friends’ by Grace Paley

This story is a masterclass in dialogue and an experiment in creating a collective narrator. Paley based the structure on her own female friends whose lives were so intertwined. In the story they exist as a many-voiced entity in which each knows the thoughts of the others, or believes they do. Faith, the first person ‘narrator’, Susan and Ann, are on a five-hour train journey home from visiting their friend Selena, who is dying. The milestones of life are filtered through their responses to Serena’s illness at the end of a complicated life; discovering she was an adoptee, the death of her daughter, the love of a married man. “A few hot human truthful words” are desired by Ann to wipe away the messiness they are left with, but the story doesn’t allow for clean conclusions.

First published in The New Yorker in 1979 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Later the Same Day, 1985 and the Collected Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2018

‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley

Chosen by Alanna Schubach
Shirley Abramowitz is a girl who knows how to project. Her booming voice grates on her mother, the grocer, the whole block of her New York City neighborhood, but at school, it’s treasured by Mr. Hilton, who is overseeing the Christmas play. Shirley is conscripted to narrate the production, despite knowing very little about the holiday. That she and her mostly Jewish classmates are performing the story of Christ’s birth stirs up a range of opinions among their parents—debate and argument being central, after all, to Jewish-American culture. Shirley’s mother laments that their family “came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants” only for their children to “learn a lot of lies.” But her father sees Christmas as their holiday now, too: “What belongs to history,” he says, “belongs to all men.” 
Like all great Christmas stories, ‘The Loudest Voice’ is full of warmth and good humor. Take, for instance, its hilariously defamiliarized rendering of the nativity: 

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd’s stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Mart Groff took his place, wearing his father’s prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered round Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued.” 

There’s poignancy, too, in how Shirley recounts this particular Christmas from a great distance, as an adult looking back, full of gratitude for her family’s attempts to understand their new world. 
In my opinion, the best way to experience the story is to listen to Paley read it herself—ideally on Christmas morning. 
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, FSG, 2007. * Alanna Schubach’s novel, The Nobodies, is out now. You can read her other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.

‘A Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

Allan Gurganus read this story aloud to his graduate fiction workshop in the fall of 1988, and because I read It Had Wings, I was there to hear it. Some lines resound in his voice, in my memory. A woman visits her father in the hospital; he asks her for a story. She tells it twice. How to explain the worlds contain herein? The jokes, the disappointments between generations, the imaginary literary magazines, the deep humanity that is everywhere in Paley. Certain turns of phrase in this story have become part of my vocabulary. My favorite Paley story is actually ‘Gloomy Tune’, but it’s so deeply peculiar – an inexplicable short story, in its way – that if you hated it I would understand, and I would also never forgive you. Only a fool wouldn’t love ‘A Conversation With My Father,’ though it, too, is mysterious.

First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here

‘Mother’ by Grace Paley

A story for January
I could have chosen any number of Grace Paley stories, but I’ve selected ‘Mother’ to kick off my list as it’s set on New Year’s Day and the tone of reflection we often have as the year turns. A writer, teacher and peace activist, Paley’s stories are filled with people, vivid scenes, and city life. Her work has a bright, fast energy. ⁠
‘Mother’ has a typically distinctive voice from the start (“I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway”) and humour (“She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty?”), with a sense of the past haunting the present (“They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they’d just come over on the boat.”) 

First published in Later The Same Day, FSG, 1985; included in Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Peregrine Smith, 1986 and available to read online here

‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley

‘The Loudest Voice’ is the only story I know of about being Jewish at Christmas time. Shirley Abramowitz, growing up in a secular Jewish family in the 1930s, is called upon to narrate her school’s nativity play because her “voice is the loudest”. It’s hard to describe what a revelation the story was for me when I first read it. Like Shirley, I grew up in a secular Jewish immigrant family in New York. My parents were ambivalent about Christmas, religious identity, the mythology of America… almost everything; they sometimes approved of celebrating Christmas and sometimes didn’t. 
Every time I thought I found a book or TV show about people who didn’t celebrate Christmas (The House Without a Christmas Tree, a Hallmark Special), it turned out to be about people who stopped celebrating because of a trauma instead of because of cultural reasons, and the trauma was always addressed and the Christmas tree erected and decorated before the show was over. But Christmas in ‘The Loudest Voice’  isn’t magical or redemptive – it appears simply as one kind of cultural practice in a multicultural society.  “The teachers became happier and happier. Their heads were ringing like the bells of childhood,” Shirley observes, as the children decorate the school for a holiday many of them don’t celebrate. I recently found a recording of the story that Paley made for Vermont Public Radio in 1998. Hearing it so many years after I first read it, I was struck by how deftly and perfectly Paley conjures up a working class New York neighbourhood where it is a good thing to have the loudest voice: “There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.”

First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Virago Modern Classics. You can hear Grace Paley read it for Vermont Public Radio here

Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction including This Way to Departures, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The Guardian said Departures “exposes the cracks in the facade of the American dream.” Linda’s stories have appeared in Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. She divides her time between London and Berlin. You can read Linda’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.

‘Goodbye and Good Luck’ by Grace Paley

The life that lives behind all of Paley’s stories shines through in every sentence, every fragment – and this is so apparent even in this first story in her first collection. Sixty years have passed since it was first published and it still rings a bell of truth as soundly as it did then.

First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 1994

‘A Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

Once a week I facilitate a reading group in some sheltered housing where we read one short story, out loud, together, stopping every paragraph or so to talk about what’s happening. It’s a therapeutic thing more than a critical or literary thing, but I still try to pick stories that work in both ways. The narrator is sitting with her father, 86 years old and confined to his bed for health reasons. The father says, I would like you to write a simple story, just once more, like Chekhov or Maupassant. And then they start to have a deeper, more critical conversation about what that means, with her attempting to do what he asks, using neighbourhood characters as her material. As she tells and retells the neighbour’s story to her father, adding and subtracting detail, the actual hard work of fiction in defining what we think of as ‘character’ is laid bare. After listening to the whole thing, one of our group member’s Polish carer, who’d come in to push her wheelchair and help her drink a cup of tea, piped up “This story is like a Matryoshka doll!!”. At which point you know the story has won: smiley face emoji. 

First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here

‘A Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say I left art school because of Ian McEwan. I applied to do a Literature BA at UEA instead, and in my first class I was introduced to this Grace Paley story by a young lecturer called Rosemary Jackson. I fell in love with both of them. Paley was a generation older than McEwan, a New York Jew, a lifelong anarchist, activist, feminist, and her voice couldn’t have been more different from his: sassy and wise, sorrowful, exuberant. I read everything she’d written, and spent the next three decades regretting there wasn’t more. But as she said, “Art is too long and life is too short.” The enduring appeal of this story, and most of her stories, lies in its rejection of plot, the tidy tales her father enjoys. Paley’s fictional alter-ego wants to please him, but she despises plot – “the absolute line between two points” – because “it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

First published in New American Review, 1972Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Virago, 1979 and Collected Stories, Virago, 1984

‘Friends’ by Grace Paley

Grace Paley’s stories should be in the birthing pack for new mothers, along with the muslins and nappy wrap. No one else is as a good at the way women talk to each other, especially in the mothering-places like the playground and the park. Her women are difficult, funny, fantastically diverse, frank and above all resilient, making the best of some hilariously bad jobs. The talk seems to go on through the stories, one to the next, in a never-ending stream, but I’ve picked ‘Friends’ because its ending – “I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments” – has become a sentence that lives in my head, like Harriet’s eating or Mansfield’s budding girl.

First published in The New Yorker, June 1979. Collected in Later the Same Day (1985) and the Collected Stories (FSG, 1994/Virago Modern Classics, 2018)