Saturday, January 24, 2009

Author's Voice Gets a New Life

Barbara Hodgson hears how the work of a late New York writer is living on in Newcastle.
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.
"When I write I try to create an authentic voice," she explains, and mentions her delight at one reader telling her that hers was the first book they’d ever read through to the end. "And I like experimenting with different forms. Different ideas can attract different forms." And because she finds it’s the initial idea for a piece of writing that directs whether she writes a poem or a novel, she again finds herself taking a new direction. She’s in the middle of a first-hand account of her own journey in tracing her biological father in Nigeria."It was such a strange and bizarre experience, I saw no point in making it up. It’s a true story; like the old saying, ‘truth is stranger than fiction’."
She discovered her father is a born-again Christian and her current working title for her story is Tracing. But next week, it’ll be Grace Paley’s story that Jackie will be helping to relate to audiences at Culture Lab in Newcastle University.Over the afternoon and evening of next Saturday, January 31, there will be readings, a film screening of an interview with the author and a dramatisation of one of her stories.
Jackie will read extracts of Paley’s work and her own, joining fellow writers and admirers Naomi Alderman, Kasia Boddy, Lennie Goodings, Peter Reynolds and Ali Smith. "We’re celebrating the woman and what she gave the world," she says.
"She didn’t produce that much, as half the time she was involved with political activity and in the peace movement. She lived her life."If not a household name, Paley is certainly remembered by those who knew her best as a good neighbour and friend, says Jackie, who hopes the event will give Paley more of the recognition she says she deserves. "She’s a writer’s writer, and a writer of the people: it’s quite interesting to be both."
For tickets to The Transatlantic Short Story: The Grace Paley Celebration on January 31, contact Melanie Birch at or on (0191) 222-7619. The event runs from 2pm to 6pm, then the 7pm session includes readings from the authors. Visit for more information.

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