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“A Conversation with My Father” by Grace Paley

“A Conversation with My Father” by Grace Paley


“A Conversation with My Father” is a short story that depicts the dialog between a father and a daughter. The author of the literary piece Grace Paley connects one story with another, raising an important topic. Thus, the writer shows the topical theme of misunderstanding and disagreement between parents and their children, specifically the gap that exists between generations. The narrator of the story is a female writer who discusses the style of story writing with her aged father. The latter asks the daughter to write him a simple classic story that will be recognizable and familiar to every reader.

Nevertheless, the narrator does not agree with her father because she has different views on the way the story has to be told. Thus, the conflict between generations emerges, showing dissimilar visions of reality. Moreover, the story is full of arguments, disputes, and conflict, leading to the cognition of the truth. At the same time, the narrative demonstrates the writing style of Paley as well as the cultural context that helps the audience to understand the particular literary work. Therefore, an analysis of Paley’s cultural context, influence on other writers, formation of her writing style as well as the creation of literary theories reveals the fact why “A Conversation with My Father” remains a topical story nowadays.

Cultural Context

Grace Paley is a daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who have settled in New York in the 20th century (Parini 219). While her parents spoke both Russian and Yiddish at home, the writer was nurtured within two cultures. Later, Paley transferred her experience to the literary works she wrote. Thus, the author underwent the influence of the two worlds, namely the old one and the new one. Paley employed her heritage as well as her surroundings as the material for her short stories. Hereby, combining her experience with perceptions of street life in New York, the writer created humorous and touching works.

Furthermore, Paley’s perception of justice and humane sensibilities were shaped by the radical ideas of her family (Taylor 18). The fact that her mother and aunt worked in garment factories also impacted the author’s attitude to race and class. Being reared in the family of immigrants, many of her works expressed the appreciation people felt coming to another county. With respect to this, Paley drew attention to the political themes, stressing the problems of grassroots working-class mothers. At the same time, female sexuality as well as gender conflicts were always characteristic to the writer’s literary works. In addition, many of Paley’s stories resembled women’s diary writing because they were usually fragmented and fact-focused.

In fact, Paley’s cultural heritage supports the understanding of “A Conversation with My Father. While her parents represent the old world, similarly to the main male character of the story, the writer herself is an example of a new generation. Therefore, the gap between parents and children becomes obvious. In her narrative, the father follows the norms he is acquainted with, whereas his daughter attempts to try a new style of writing. Moreover, the male character requires the narrator to write a story based on a classical model. For the daughter, this demand is perceived as a joke because she considers such writing style a relic of the past. At the same time, Paley’s family emigrated from Ukraine to a country of new perspectives and opportunities, but it kept the Jewish radical views. Therefore, in her story, Paley shows that parents have to allow the new generation to leave according to contemporary norms and try to accept them.

Influences among Writers

Paley underwent the influence of many writers as well as made an impact on the literary masters who came after her. In the early years, the writer experienced the influence of Wystan Hugh Auden. Attending the night class at the New School for Social Research where Auden was teaching, the author learned many important lessons. Apparently, the one lesson Auden taught Paley was to find their own voice and be honest rather than imitate (Denes). At the same time, Paley influenced other writers. One of such writer was Ali Smith who stated that the author made an impact on her writing of short stories.

Smith noted that Paley’s literary works could be hardly attributed to any category because they were specifically organized and shaped (Denes). Moreover, another writer, Antonia Susan Byatt, experienced the influence of the author’s writing. Byatt stated that Paley “reminds me also of my mother at her best, who told terrible stories deadpan, ironing out the awful and the banal into one string of story” (Denes). Therefore, Paley inspired other writers as well as was impacted by the writing style of her colleagues that helped her to invent her own writing technique.

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Paley’s Writing Style

The main distinguishing features of Paley’s literary works are its verbal constructions and the distinctive voice of the writer. The author depicts her characters rather through conversations than actions. In her stories, Paley portrays different dialects such as Jewish, Irish, and African American in order to show the character’s peculiarity. The author ponders on the complexities of women’s and men’s lives as well as the human struggle for life. At the same time, cultural context greatly impacted on the writing style of the author. In her literary works, the author depicts the inhabitants of a boisterous city, paying great attention to such details as sounds and descriptions of streets (Aarons 37). Paley’s characters are ordinary people in unexceptional situations demonstrating how to handle the challenges of life. Many Paley’s literary works have an open ending, and sometimes, they are actionless (Aarons 39). Furthermore, Paley refers to the political themes, specifically the theme of war, writing antiwar pamphlets and traveling abroad as an antimilitary activist to show her protest against the Vietnam War. According to Carolyn Alessio, “her poetry has tended to be more baldly political than her fiction and sometimes more limited in scope. But some of them display the verve and innuendo that energize her fiction” (qtd. in Parini 221). Therefore, Paley’s writing style is a combination of postmodern features, finely honed language, fragments, ellipses, complex metaphors, and dialogs, which make her a unique writer.

In Paley’s story “A Conversation with My Father,” the peculiarities of her writing style can be perfectly seen. Thus, the female character is an example of modern writer, while her father depicts the previous era of authors. With respect to this, the writer sees present writers as an alternative to the old-fashioned writing style of the modern era. At the same time, the author referred to the topical theme of generational conflict. In the story, Paley depicted a character’s battle for the life and recognition incomprehensible to the representative of a new generation. Although the world Paley portrays is limited, she provides the readers with an opportunity to ponder on the importance as well as the senseless and variability of life. While the father reminisce about his past life making the last efforts, the narrator shows that the time for something new has come. Although Paley’s short story lacks revelation, it allows readers to create their own vision of the situation. Therefore, “A Conversation with My Father” combines observations of life as well as a primordial conflict of parents and children eventually leaving the audience with their own thoughts and conclusions.

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Paley’s Theories about Literature and Writing

The writer had a specific literary theory that perfectly found its display in “A Conversation with My Father.” Thus, Paley’s theory focused on the personal voice, which was usually silent, inconsequential, and individual. Moreover, the author liked to leave the ending of her stories opened and anti-linear. Paley also showed her characters and their feelings instead of describing them. At the same time, writer’s theory had much in common with Feminist Literary Theory (Taylor 43). In this regard, Paley dedicated many of her works to such themes as gender issues, challenges of working-class women, and problems immigrant women faced. In her short story, the narrator is a female and also a representative of a new generation. It is obvious that the female character is in favor. Moreover, the latter can be compared to the author herself because they both share similar visions of writing and style. Containing the personal voice of the writer, the short story is also anti-linear and even anti-Aristotelian (Taylor 62). The author objects the principle of a narrative arc provided by Aristotle and followed by many male writers. In fact, Paley considered it a male-dominated language. For the author, literature and writing had a feminine nature because she was confident that women possessed pleasure, sexuality, and truth while remaining quite modest. In this regard, many of Paley’s characters are women who struggle for their rights and principles. Therefore, Paley’s theories about literature are unique because they show the specific writer’s vision of the writing style and language.

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Critical Reception of “A Conversation with My Father”

In 1972, Paley’s literary piece was published in the New American Review. Later, the narrative was included in the author’s second collection of short stories and issued in 1974. On the one hand, Paley’s story is about the parents-children relationship. In the narrative, the father’s request for the story becomes a matter of life and death. The male character refers to the narrator, “I would like you to write a simple story just once more…the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write” (Paley 233). Moreover, the man reproaches his daughter for not creating straightforward stories. The father encourages her to follow the principles of the writing of nineteenth-century writer. Although the daughter attempts to do so, the father rejects her ending. On the other hand, Paley’s work is about storytelling, combining narratives about stories and story writing.

“A Conversation with My Father” can be regarded as one of the most critically discussed stories of the author. Originally, the story was favorably received by critics who stated that it was one of the most well-aimed narratives about storytelling (Denes). Moreover, many reviewers perceived Paley’s work as an explanation of her own fictional processes and purposes (Aarons 40). The story was also commended for its consideration of feminist themes. In her book, Jacqueline Taylor noted that critics who did not succeed in understanding Paley’s work simply failed to recognize the feminine voice of her story (67). Taylor reflected on “A Conversation with My Father” as a comic, individual, and compassionate story. In addition, Taylor observed Paley’s story as an example of the author’s dispute with conventions of male narrative (70). Nowadays, a particular literary work does not lose its topicality. The readers find it a thought-provoking and challenging story that will not leave the audience indifferent.

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Grace Paley was an amazing woman who succeeded in combining many occupations. She was a skillful writer, poet, and political activist. The cultural heritage and experience of the writer greatly impacted on the formation of her writing style. Paley’s literary works have inspired many readers and writers, providing them with food for thought. At the same time, many of Paley’s literary works represented her unique writing style as well as her feminine and anti-linear literary theories. “A Conversation with My Father” can be regarded as one of such thrilling and thought-provoking stories. Moreover, the narrative unfolds a topical conflict between parents and children. The language of the author, dialogs, and portrayal of characters are characteristic to Paley’s style of writing. Thus, Paley remains the celebrated writer whose works do not lose their topicality till the present day.