- Paule Marshallborn Valenza Pauline Burke to parents who had recently immigrated to New York from Barbados, raised in a close-knit West Indian community. She has taught at Yale, Columbia, Cornell and Oxford Universities, has won numerous prizes and awards, including in 1992 the MacArthur Prize Fellowship. Author of Praisesong for the Widow, Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Chosen Place and The Timeless People.
- Grace Paleya passionate activist and one of the country’s most revered story writers, known for her highly acclaimed collections, The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Later the Same Day, and The Collected Stories.
- Nawal El Saadawileading Egyptian feminist, socialist, medical doctor, and novelist. She was dismissed from her post as director general of health and education in Cairo in 1972 for her political writing and activities, imprisoned by Sadat in 1981 for alleged crimes against the state. Author of The Naked Face of the Arab Woman and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.
This is Women’s History Month, and today we bring you a discussion with three women writers: Paule Marshall, Grace Paley and Nawal El Saadawi. They gathered last Saturday at an event sponsored by the Brecht Forum in New York. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we are going to celebrate Women’s History Month with a wonderful conversation amongst three women writers. It occurred, actually, just after Patrick Dorismond’s funeral in New York on Saturday at New York University. It was an event sponsored by the Brecht Forum in New York, three women writers.
Paule Marshall, who is a Caribbean American writer, she immigrated — her parents immigrated to New York from Barbados. She was raised in a close-knit West Indian family. West Indian dialect and culture are prominent in Marshall’s writing, as are the conflicts that face Caribbean American immigrant families. Paule Marshall’s work emphasizes the need for black Americans to reclaim their African heritage. She’s taught at Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Oxford University and New York University. Her work includes Praisesong for the Widow, Brown Girl, Brownstones and The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, as well as Daughters.
Grace Paley is a passionate activist and famous for her belief that everything you do is screamed at by what you haven’t been doing. She was born in the Bronx. Her humor-filled stories peer into the lives of ordinary people concerned with the personal struggles and pervading politics of their daily lives. She’s one of the country’s most revered story writers, wrote The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Later the Same Day, as well as Collected Stories.
And we begin with Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Egyptian feminist, socialist, medical doctor and novelist. She was the former Director General of Health and Education in Cairo. She was dismissed from her post in 1972 for her political writing and activities and was unable to practice in the medical profession. In 1981, she was imprisoned by Anwar Sadat for alleged crimes against the state and was not released until after his assassination. Her works include The Naked Face of the Arab Woman, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, as well as Women at Ground Zero.
These women gathered last Saturday. We begin with Nawal El Saadawi.
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Writing is like breathing, you know. It’s when you breathe and when you want to express yourself. It’s very natural. So when I started — when my mother started to teach me how to write the alphabet and how to write my name and how to write her name, so I started to write. And what really made me write stories, the fact that I started writing Nawal — that’s my name — and Zaynab — that’s the name of my mother. So I wrote Nawal Zaynab.
So when I went to school, so the teacher told us you have to write your name on your notebook, on your classroom book. So I wrote “Nawal Zaynab.” So the teacher, he came and he very — he was very angry with me. So he omitted the name Zaynab, and he said, “You shouldn’t write the name of your mother. Write the name of your father and grandfather.” So I was very — and he took the — he erased the name of my mother with a lot of anger and hatred. And I was very young. I was six years at that time, or seven.
And then I put the name of my father and grandfather, El Saadawi. El Saadawi, that’s my grandfather who died before I was born. I didn’t know him. So this anger made me write, you know. I started to write, so I wanted to express my anger, why this teacher erased the name of my mother, whom I loved, whom she taught me how to write, and then I have to put a name of a man who was a foreigner to me. So that’s how I started writing.
PAULE MARSHALL: I suspect I started writing out of a sense of frustration. On one hand, growing up, I was very lucky, in that I grew up among a group of women, small group of women, who were superlative talkers, masterful storytellers. And I pretty much had to spend most of my time, since I was a little girl and little girls were not allowed to run as freely out on the street and playing jacks and potsy and double dutch, and so on, I was stuck in the kitchen with my mother and her friends. And their way of entertaining each other was to talk.
Language was, for them — you know, there were stories. They did a lot of gossiping. They reminisced about home, because the women came from the small Island of Barbados, so they were, in a sense, immigrants, foreigners. So they reminisced a lot about home. They also, because they were women who talked about everything under the sun, they talked about the economy and how that was impacting on them as immigrant women, black women.
They had their heroes. Certainly Marcus Garvey was their political hero. Roosevelt, whom they felt had come and rescued the country from the Great Depression, even though they soured on Roosevelt once he placed Japanese Americans into the internment camps, they didn’t want anything more to do with Roosevelt.
But all of this was the content of their talk. And there I was sitting there absorbing it all, listening to these stories, which weren’t told in just any old kind of way. They brought an understanding of structure and development to the stories they told. Their characters came alive to me. People I had never met — they did a lot of stories about the women they worked for, because most of them were sort of day workers or household help. I mean, they would describe these women that I had never seen, but I saw them clearly in my mind’s eye by the time they got through with it.
And so, here was all of this wonderful sense of literature going on in this kitchen with me sort of there helplessly in jail, having to listen. And I began, vaguely, as I stopped resisting it so much, I began to hear other things under what was being said. They would, for example, acknowledge one in the group who was a great talker. They would dub her a Mouth King. A mouth, like a king’s mouth.
And they used — so they not only used language, very colorful language, as a creative expression; these women had a desperate need to express themselves. And they didn’t have very many options.
They also began using language as a weapon. They couldn’t bear the thought that they were almost invisible in the society. They were far more invisible than Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, because they were black, they were women, they were working class, and they were immigrants. Totally marginalized. And for women with such a strong sense of self, they really couldn’t bear that. And so, one of the things — one of the ways they used language was a kind of weapon. After they got through criticizing endlessly the government, the president, the wars, the economy, they would congratulate those that did it best, by saying solely, “You’ve got to take your mouth and make a gun.” They saw language as a weapon.
And so I was frustrated when I thought, in my very secret place, of maybe I’d like to be a writer, because I sensed that they had something there in their use of language that I’d like to have. But I knew I could not, just sitting around the kitchen table as they did, create art, not writing a word down. There’s nothing of that wonderful poetry, which was so inherent in their speech, which was ever written down. And so, that was a sense of frustration on my part. How was I going to do it? I know that I wouldn’t have the gift to just sit and express it verbally, that I would have to kind of perhaps look to writing.
And very slowly, in fear and trembling, I began around age twelve to write poetry, very bad poetry, poetry that had to do with the trees that grow in Brooklyn — well, apple trees; well, you know there are no apple trees in Brooklyn — and kings and queens and so on. But one of the things that was helpful is that I realized — I was enough of a writer then to realize that poetry was not my thing. It would take me many, many years before I would get the strength to try my hand at fiction.
AMY GOODMAN: Paule Marshall, and now Grace Paley.
GRACE PALEY: I just want to say that Muriel Rukeyser always said — she said every writer was once a little girl, in this case — or boy, but in her case a little girl — who is sitting under the kitchen table or under the piano listening. And I think that’s probably true for all of us who — if — I used to say to students, you know, if you can’t listen, forget it. Go into another business. So it’s that listening that seems to be — really that paying attention. And yet, when we first begin to write, we really — we don’t really — or many of us don’t, or at least we don’t and probably you don’t, pay attention really — use what we’ve been listening to right away, in the sense when you said writing poems that you seemed too horrible at. When I began to write first very seriously — and I come from the Bronx, and I come from a neighborhood that was very solidly Jewish and Eastern European in every way — but when I began to write poems I wrote just like W. H. Auden. I think something he tried to point out to me — I mean, I seemed to write in British for at least three or four years, you know.
And it wasn’t until — it’s as though you have to practice —- like there’s two things. I always say there’s two ears, you know. It’s—-and your neighborhood ear is there, but it’s as though you also for some reason want to practice the language, some kind of traditional language or that exists in English literature that you don’t even know yet, but it’s there. So there are these two different languages that you have. You have — we have the talk of home, and then you have this other one. So for a long time I just used this very literary — very literary English.
And it wasn’t really — it wasn’t until I began to realize that the primeness of the language of the street and homes, that I got these two things together and began to be able to write, to write more of what I wanted to write, because you come to that point where you’re all of a sudden you’re writing what you what to write, not want you’re imitating or fooling around with or — that’s where you go to school, to make mistakes and do stuff like that.
But I’m very interested in the family always telling stories and all of that, that people did not tell stories in my family. They kept a lot of things secret, but they talked a lot. At the same time they managed to talk a lot, so — but it was very hard to get a story out of them about what happened in the old country. And they didn’t want to talk about it too much. In the book that I have that’s a collection of essays and reports and stuff like that, non-fiction, so to speak, I persuaded the editors to put in a story my father wrote later on when he was about seventy years old about what had happened to him when he had been arrested in Russia in 19-something, '04, ’05, something like that. And that was really one of the few stories he told. But I think it's the talk that gets to you.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Paley, Paule Marshall and Nawal El Saadawi, three women, three writers, three cultures. We’ll continue with this conversation in just a minute here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, President Bill Clinton met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, met in Washington to discuss ways of reviving the Middle East peace process. But perhaps the best way to foment peace in the world is to listen to each other.
And today we’re listening to three women talk to each other, three women from three different cultures. Paule Marshall, who is a Caribbean American writer, her family is from Barbados. She has written the books Praisesong for the Widow, Brown Girl, Brownstones, Daughters, among other books. Grace Paley, a passionate activist, author of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, The Little Disturbances of Man, and other books. And Nawal El Saadawi, who is a well-known Egyptian feminist, unyielding in her demands for women’s rights, has mobilized women throughout the Middle East. A former doctor, she is now a writer, imprisoned under Anwar Sadat, released only after his assassination.
As these three writers talk about how they make time for their craft and just what creativity is, Nawal El Saadawi.
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, I think all of us had this urge to write — I think everybody in this room — because when I hear the question, why you started writing, I think that we all write. It’s like somebody ask you why you started breathing, you know. I wanted to write, because I wanted to live. I wanted to express my feelings. In fact, I prefer to play music than writing. But we were poor, so my father could not buy a piano for me. So it was cheaper to have a paper and pen. You don’t need an instrument. But I loved music. I wished that I can be a musician, because to me music was more, more of a language that everybody can understand.
You know, I write in Arabic. That’s my language, Arabic language. Though the Arabic language is very musical, very, very musical compared to other languages, because it’s very, very old language, but I prefer music to language, to words. And I wanted very much to play music and to dance. I think dancing also — how the body can express your feeling. I love — I wanted to be — I dreamt of being a dancer, but dancing was a taboo in our family at that time in our society.
But writing was not yet at — was not very taboo. It was a little bit, you know, a little bit, that if you write — especially if you write about love or sex or religion or God, because I remember that, in fact, the first letter I wrote in my life was to God. I wrote to Him a letter when I was seven years of old — when I was seven years of age. I had a brother who was one year older than me, and he was very bad at school. Every year he failed. But he was rewarded for his failure by playing around and having a very good holiday. I was rewarded for being excellent in school by staying in the kitchen and cooking for the family.
So usually I asked my father and mother, “Why this? Why?” They said, “Because he’s a boy, and you are a girl.” I said, “But I cannot be convinced like that.” They said — when I asked many questions, then at the end they say, “Well, that’s what God said, you know. And you have to obey God.” So I went to my room very angry, and I took a pen and paper, and I wrote a letter to God.
So I told Him, “Well, God, I don’t know where are you, I don’t know your address, but still I think you are justice,” because I had a grandmother, my grandmother who was illiterate and a peasant, and she told me God is justice. She didn’t read the Koran, but she felt that God must be justice. So I told Him, “Well, you must be justice, or you will never be God. God means justice. So if you are not just and if you do not treat me and my brother equally, then I’m not ready to believe in you.”
Of course, I burnt this letter. Nobody saw it, and also He never received the letter. And then I started to write to my father, because I felt that there is a relationship, very, very vague relationship between my father and God, so I started writing to my father. That’s how — and I think many — almost everybody did that, because I think that we are all born creative. Creativity is not specific for a certain group of people who are writers or creative writer. Creativity — we are all born creative, but somehow we lose our creativity for different reasons. How I kept my creativity, that’s a very big question. I don’t know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How?
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: How? Well, I can answer the question, but maybe I can ask Grace. How did you keep your creativity? How — because I feel that, especially women, since we are born ’til we die, there are many obstacles that prevent us from expressing our self truly and writing. So how we keep our creativity, it needs —- it needs a lot of effort, and also it needs certain circumstances in at home and in the society. So there must be some conditions that help you to keep your creativity. I can—-we can discuss that.
AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, speaking with Grace Paley.
GRACE PALEY: Yes, [inaudible] because I lose it all the time, so — but I think for women who work and have families, I think one of the — I mean, there are so many interesting distractions in life, and some of them are so worthwhile, that for my part I’ve just allowed myself to be pulled in a lot of different ways. And when I am pulled in that way, I allow it, because I don’t have enough strength of character not to. But then I pull back, and that lack of strength works in that case.
But when I — I remember coming home as a kid and my — in the afternoon, and my father, who had very long days, would maybe be taking a rest and/or maybe he’d be working, or whatever it was, and my mother, like everybody’s mother probably in this room, would say, “Shhh, Papa’s busy,” or “Shhh, Papa’s tired,” you know? And nobody ever really said that for her. You know, “Shhh, Mama’s busy.” So it’s one of those things that I really press as hard as I can on my women students, that one of the — since a lot of them have — are older and have children and have all kinds of responsibilities and work is that one of the first things they have to learn how to do is to get Papa to say, “Shhh, Mama’s busy.” And it’s a kind of an extension of a room of your own. It’s also a head of your own that you need. So — and that’s very important for young women writers, especially. And I guess, for myself, I never really learned to say that. That’s how come I know how important it is.
And it’s not so much that you’re creativity goes away. I mean, you don’t have to have it on hand day and night, you know? It’s that you’re called upon for many other things. And there are different kinds of writers. I mean, there are writers, women and men, who really never, never, you know, never move away at all from their dedication and their work and their determination to write certain things. I’m just not one of those people. And it’s not a virtue at all. It’s really a flaw, and it has prevented me from doing some of the work I want to do, you know, that I’ve been called easily.
I guess Yeats had that great line — what is that great line? “All things can tempt me” — I got it. Just by asking you, I found it.
“All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman’s face, [or] worse
_The seeming needs of [my] fool-driven land.”_
So the seeming needs of this fool-driven land have really wiped me out every now and then and taken me away from the work I wanted to do. As far as a woman’s face or a man’s face, I’ve been kind of lucky in that my man is in the same boat I am, both of us trying to work and both of us trying to do political work at the same time. So that’s luck.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Paley, and now Paule Marshall.
PAULE MARSHALL: I suspect that in my case there is, at a very deep and fundamental level, my commitment to be a creative person, a writer. And in order to sort of accommodate that, to honor that, I’ve had to make all sorts of accommodations with the rest of my life. It hasn’t been easy. And one of the interesting reactions on my part, when life starts closing in, family and children and so on, I can begin feeling the resentment mount and mount and mount. So I’ve had to deal — I’ve had to learn how to deal with resentment and know that these people around me would like to have some more of my time. And I would like to give it to them, but it means that I really won’t get the work done. I’ve never been able to very successfully compartmentalize my life so that one section is nicely and neatly given over to the writing, then I can switch off and be the mother, I can switch off and be the partner or the wife, and so on. So I’m still sort of working that out at this late date and, in the meantime, just going ahead and writing my books and really sort of underscoring the fact that I really can’t please everyone. And I would like to, but if it’s going to really kind of get in the way of my writing, which I see as my way of communicating with the world, then maybe I have to, in some instance, disappoint.
The very first short story I ever wrote, all the way back in 1953, when you babes in the room weren’t even born, it was called, that short story, “The Valley Between,” my first published story. It came out in a journal called The Contemporary Reader. It was a story about a young woman, married, just had a baby, and she wanted to work out some way by which she could go back and sort of finish her college work. Her husband couldn’t understand why she would want to do that. She had this lovely baby. They had managed to get this little house. The marriage seemed to be going along fairly well. What was this need on her part to take classes, to be away from the baby?
And so, poor Cassie, I remember her name, really tries to stand up to Abe — I remembered his name, Abe — stood up to Abe, until it came to pass — lovely biblical term — it came to pass that the baby fell ill, got a cold. Abe, the husband, used this to browbeat her into really, in a sense, canceling going to school, so that she capitulated. She did not go to school. But I just wanted to, in the story — and it was an interesting story, because all the characters were white, and I had to do that, because I was talking a lot about my own situation, so I had to find some masks. I had to mask it, in case my husband read it. But, you know, that was a very real story, which worked well fictionally. It was real fictionally, but it was also very real in the lives of many young women at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Paule Marshall, Grace Paley and Nawal El Saadawi in this Women’s History Month special: three women writers. And we’ll continue with Nawal El Saadawi and Marshall and Paley when we come back.
AMY GOODMAN: As we celebrate women writers today on Democracy Now! Nawal El Saadawi is a well-known Egyptian feminist, a writer, an academic, a medical doctor. She was the former Director General of Health and Education in Cairo. Paule Marshall is a writer who has won many awards and prizes for her work. She writes about the need for black Americans to reclaim their African heritage. Her works include Daughters, Brown Girl, Brownstones, Praisesong for the Widow, as well as other books. And Grace Paley, a passionate activist and writer. Her books, The Collected Stories, The Little Disturbances of Man. She is known also for her activism in the feminist movement, in the war against the war in Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement and the resistance to the Gulf War.
We go back now to Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, talking about how she does her craft.
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: It’s really very difficult. I don’t know, maybe here in the States you have more freedom, maybe personal freedom, political freedom, economic ability. But for me, as a child that was born in the village in a poor family and female, and to think of being a writer, you know, I was dreaming of being something. I don’t want to be a mother or a wife or — I don’t want to be like my mother, staying at home. And that’s my life, because they told us, you know, you feel satisfied and you feel happy as a woman, and all your creativity is put in your motherhood, in children. And if you have children, you have a husband, that’s it. You will be realized, and you will be happy. I was never convinced when I was a child, and I felt, no, I want to do something else. Yes, I want to have children, I want to marry, I want to have love and sex and everything, but this is all secondary to my desire to express myself in writing or in music or something. I don’t know from where this idea came to me, but that’s what I felt, that it’s not — it will never be enough to have children, even if I have twenty children. It will never be enough.
So I started writing. And I was writing all the time. When I was thirteen years of age, I wrote my first story, and it was a composition. The teacher in school, he told us, “Write a composition. Write a story from your life.” So I sat down, and I wrote a long story, and I called it “Memoirs of a Child Called Soad.” Of course, it was my memoirs. But I changed the name, because I was afraid to write about myself. So I called the girl Soad. And then the teacher, he took my story, and after one week he came and he gave me zero. And then he wrote a comment, and he said, “You need to strengthen your belief in religion, in Islam, because your belief is very weak. And you need to strengthen your — you must have morals, morality, because there is very little morality in your piece.” He wrote a very bad report, and he gave me zero. I was thirteen years of age. And then he said, “How such ideas come to a girl of thirteen years? What these ideas, very odd ideas that come to you?”
So I took the story with the comments of the teacher, and I put it in a very, very secretive place, because I was afraid that my mother or my father will find it. And, of course, I decided not to write at all. This is the end of it. I will never be a writer. But I was lucky. That’s why I was asking the question, how we keep our creativity. I think many events in our life can destroy us totally, and many events can build us. So what happened? I was lucky that my mother found this story. She was cleaning my room, and she found the story, and she read it. And she came to me, and she said, “This is a very beautiful story, and I wanted to write it myself when I was a child. And this teacher is stupid.” So she saved me. I think she saved me. I think she saved me because of that.
And you asked me about prison. I think in prison — I tell you something, writing is very dangerous. And that’s why when you have a political system or a family that is very, very traditional, they will prevent you from writing. So in prison, before prison, you know, I married three times. And I had to divorce two husbands because of writing, because they didn’t like me. They didn’t like my writing.
I remember my second husband, he came to me one day — he was a man of law — he came to me one day, and he said, “You see, you have to choose between me, between me or your writing.” So I said, “My writing.” And we were divorced. We were divorced because of that. And in prison also, every day the jailer comes and inspect my cell and tell me, “If I find a paper and pen in your cell, it’s more dangerous than if I find a gun.” Can you imagine? A paper and pen is more dangerous than a gun.
So what I did, I decided to have a paper and pen, by any means. And I got it, bcause we were in a political cell and our neighbors were the prostitutes’ cell. And, you know, the administration of the prison, they allowed the prostitutes to have paper and pen and radio and everything and newspaper. But for our cell, the political prisoners, they were not allowed to have anything, anything. So one of the prostitutes, who read some of my work and loved it, so she smuggled toilet paper, toilet paper. And a little eyebrow pen that she used to do her eyebrow. And I wrote my memoirs in prison on toilet paper with her eyebrow pen in the prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi and Grace Paley.
GRACE PALEY: — [inaudible] the experience of writing in prison or writing it on toilet paper in prison, but I recognize it, because my father had that experience in his time and was telling me about finding toilet paper and being able to write. I don’t know what he wrote. He didn’t tell me what he wrote. But he wrote and used that, although I don’t know what they used for toilet paper. Anyway, we’re getting too close to the bone here.
AMY GOODMAN: And Paule Marshall.
PAULE MARSHALL: Being a woman has helped in this regard, that when I finally, after sort of resisting over the years, but finally decided that I was going to be a writer and that the commitment would be total, that I was going to be in for the long haul no matter what happened, then I got the sense of a sort of mission — and I don’t mean to put it in that kind of grandiose term — but a sense that as a woman I would have a chance for the first time, and especially writing as early on as I did in the early '50s, for really sort of putting women on the literary map, that so many of the stories I read — and I was a great reader — but all of that European literature that was — you know, it's not that I didn’t like it and enjoy it, but it was of a particular world. And I noticed in all of that European literature that women didn’t figure very prominently in so many of the stories, stories that I liked. And I began to understand, too, that the women who were so central to my life, those women I tried to describe before who were wonderful storytellers, who had a great sense of the world, who were active politically in the Garvey movement and so on, that those women, nobody had told their stories.
And I decided that — and you don’t do this very consciously. I mean, a writer doesn’t do this consciously, but you have a sense of where you want the writing to go. And for me, that was to put some of these women center stage, to tell their stories, to put them on the literary map, because whoever had heard of them, these obscure women living in a tight little island in Brooklyn, miserable jobs, invisible, marginalized, and yet women who had such a consummate sense of what art was? If I could get down on paper some of the wonderful, magical things they did with language — I mean, it was poetry. They created poetry. Sitting around in the most casual way, having a glass of cocoa or tea, they created poetry. They would say perhaps about one of the people they worked for, a woman they might not particularly like, “Oh, look at her. She has a face like an accident before it happened.” Huh? Wonderful sense of the poetic and the imagery. And, you know, that deserves to be put on paper. And so, I saw then that maybe it was helpful for me to be a woman, to have been that little girl closeted in that kitchen, hating it every minute of the day, but yet that was where — that was the source of my art, and that I could take that vernacular, that sort of Black English West Indian style they spoke, and I could put it on paper. I could say that this, too, is valid. This, too, is heroic. And so that was certainly a very positive thing. That’s the way I really sensed that being a woman helped me.
Now in the marketplace, it was another story. One cynic said about my stuff, “You know, all Paule Marshall has to do is, you know, to get her work, so that her work gets more attention and so on, all she has to do maybe is to take the 'e' off of that 'Paule.' Just take the 'e' off. That would help her cause tremendously.” And, you know, he was really expressing, certainly when I started publishing in the '50s, how difficult it was for a woman writer to be taken seriously. And he was, you know, I think maybe he was even trying to help me, you know, just don't bother with that 'e,' and maybe that will help your cause.
Then there are people like the gentleman at the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who doesn’t like Paule Marshall’s work because it’s too political, as he sees it. And so, that’s another thing that you encounter, as you know, Grace, when you are a writer who’s not only interested in telling a first-rate story at that first level, because I’m a storyteller to begin with. But if you look beneath the surface, there are all kinds of other interesting things going on. And unfortunately, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was perceptive enough to read below the surface and didn’t like a lot of the political content there. So, you know, that’s something you have to contend with.
One of the hindrances, one of the limitations being a woman writer is that your day job, which in my case for the past twenty years has been teaching, that you’re not paid as well in your day job as your other colleagues. So that has to be contended with.
And then there is the matter of the hindrance of a family, of children. I don’t think — my son is only now sort of getting around to forgiving me for not being always available to him. Writers can’t help that. I mean, even though they’re in households with partners and husbands and children and so on, yet they sense that there is a part of you that is really not available to them. And especially with a young child, that can be very, very difficult. My son once declared, in his terrible teens, “Why did I have to be stuck with a mother like you: a writer mother?” A writer mother. And so that is, you know, part of built into the complexity of the woman writer’s life.
AMY GOODMAN: Paule Marshall, Grace Paley, and Nawal El Saadawi, speaking together as they and we all celebrate Women’s History Month. They were speaking at an event sponsored by the Brecht Forum and the Marxist School in New York. If you want more information on that group, you can go to the web at www.brechtforum.org.
Paule Marshall — that’s Paule with an 'e' Marshall — has written a number of books, including Daughters and Brown Girl, Brownstones. Nawal El Saadawi will be joining us again on Monday live on Democracy Now! before she leaves the country. Her books, among them, her autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, published by Zed Press, and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, translated from the Arabic, that from University of California Press. And Grace Paley, well known to many, passionate activist, involved with the antiwar, civil rights and women’s movement. She has just published a book, The Collected Stories. The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are her books.