How might successful literary fiction contain a sense of political purpose? For Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, Grace Paley’s short, generous stories manage to concern politics, and achieve a broadly activist spirit, without ever preaching. By reading Paley—especially her classic story, “Wants”—Antopol learned how to write about political people without isolating the reader, and she fell in love with the imaginative generosity Paley grants opposing points of view.
This ability to imagine others—across language, generations, and culture—was crucial for The UnAmericans, Antopol’s debut. In eight stories with settings that range from Israel to Belarus, Kiev to Brooklyn, the author explores elements of her Jewish and Eastern European Heritage, absorbing foreign settings so completely that the book achieves the authentic feel of oral history. As she explained in our conversation for this series, it was Paley’s ability to fully imagine other people—and her subversion of the advice she'd heard early on, “write what you know”—that gave Antopol the courage and creative license to try inhabiting a series of voices so radically different from her own.
Molly Antopol teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was recently a Wallace Stegner Fellow. She received the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award, and her writing has appeared on NPR’s This American Life, as well as magazines like One Story, Ecotone, and Esquire. She spoke to me by phone from her home in San Francisco.
Molly Antopol: I first read Grace Paley in a college American Literature seminar. By then, I already knew that I loved short stories, and that I wanted to write fiction—but I’d never encountered anything like her work. Her stories are so funny, so smart, and just incredibly compassionate; I was blown away by the emotional generosity she demonstrates towards all her characters, even the ones who behave badly. As much as anything, though, I was amazed to encounter her people on the page. These were characters I knew from life: a certain type of Old-World, lefty Jew whose family talks politics around the dinner table. I’d never seen anyone write so intimately about the background I come from. She captured the voices I’d grown up hearing, but had never before read.
Paley's voice made me think of my grandparents' generation: their idealism, their contradictions, and especially their politics. I know the world she chronicled—my grandfather, who was very active in the Communist Party, might have been one of her characters. Politics was a central part of his life, something his children inherited, in part, because the political arena entered his home—their house was always being monitored by the government. Even before I started writing, I used to try to imagine what it had been like for my mom and for her siblings to grow up under surveillance, to know that all her most peaceful and private moments were being recorded and catalogued.
Paley herself devoted a great deal of time to activism. She was involved in many political groups, traveling often to advocate for issues she cared about, at the same time she was writing stories, poetry, and political essays. In interviews, you can sense how frayed she sometimes was: as if, with politics, and being a mom, and writing, her life was cluttered with too many good things. She seemed tired in the way you might feel exhausted after a day that’s incredibly full. But the political world she portrays so vividly is one of the things that, for me, greatly enhances her fiction.
“Wants,” a story I love for its power and compassion and brevity, is a great example of the subtle ways Paley’s political orientation manifests in her fiction. The narrator, a woman who owes an insane amount of overdue fines for library books, is finally going to return them—when she runs into her ex-husband on the steps of the library. I love how she greets him:
Hello my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
They have an incredibly intense and heartbreaking conversation about what he’d wanted out of life and marriage versus what she’d wanted. The man wanted the trappings of success—good meals, nice things, a sailboat (which he claims he might still one day buy). “I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better,” he says, “but you always wanted nothing.” The accusation knocks her flat. As he walks away, she defends herself against his charge by detailing her own set of wants, totally different from her ex-husband’s:
I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center. I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.
So “Wants” juxtaposes two contradictory measures of success—civic and material—and though it’s clear why these two grew apart, Paley treats both points of view with understanding and respect. In a page and a half, we get the full lives of these two people, a penetrating sense of who they were and what they want to be, and maybe a sense of the irreconcilability of humanitarian engagement and financial comfort.
I love how Paley’s stories, in this way, start off with intimate domestic situations that spin out effortlessly into a more global arena. In her work, it all begins with kitchen-table politics, or living-room politics, and moves from there out into the world. And because politics feel like an essential part of the makeup of her characters, I never feel like Paley’s being preachy; in “Wants,” the narrator wants to do all this organizing, and she’s upset with the gentrification in the neighborhood, but it never feels didactic because the political identity is so deeply embedded within the character. It’s the difference between writing about people who live political lives, and writing “Political Fiction” with a capital “P.” That’s an important distinction. Politics are as important to Paley’s characters as family, as ingrained in their personalities—and so their politics inform how they act and how they speak and what they care about. But these characters feel like complex, lifelike people, and so their views—and Paley’s own concerns—never feel message-y or heavy-handed.