Somewhere Else by Grace Paley, 1978
The magic trick:
Making a similar point in two different sections in order to make one larger point
“Somewhere Else” is set in two radically different locales: 1970s China and the South Bronx. She doesn’t even attempt a seamless transition between the two places in the story. She just moves from the first section (China) to the second (New York). And why not? She is the author, after all. It’s her story.
Anyway, the connection between the two places and sections in the story is thematic. In both sections, Paley is skewering her white, liberal characters for thinking they have the right to claim ownership over these places and their populations. They feel they are allowed to capture all they see and then re-spin the narratives as they see fit, and they justify this behavior by noting their own liberal credentials of charity and big-mindedness. It recalls yesterday’s SSMT blog about the Langston Hughes classic, “Slave On The Block.” (Yes, indeed there is a method behind the madness of how I schedule these things!)
Paley, we know from her biography and other work, is without question one of these white liberals herself. So she is in on the joke. Or maybe not joke. She is in on the critique. This story carries with it nothing of the anger and severity of the Hughes story. But the nod toward self-awareness is still there. The two sections add up to a larger idea, warning against the temptation to co-opt other cultures and lives. Good advice to a writer too. And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.
I had an awful uncomfortable feeling about including them in the long pan. In fact, I can’t remember – did I, or did I stop short? I may have wanted to include them – because I hate those typical exposes, you know. It could have been right – correct – to show the energy those guys sometimes have in the early evening, not just the nodding-out residents of the famous South Bronx.