Sunday, January 07, 2007

RIP Tillie Olsen, a woman who inspired generations

Below is the AP copy of the obituary of famed feminist writer Tillie Olsen, who died recently.
Olsens "Silences" was required reading in my freshman lit class at Clarke College (which was an all womens college at the time) and I remember weeping after reading it, and rushing to the library to find a copy of "Tell Me a Riddle" which was also an emotional, powerful book for me. She was a brilliant writer, and her grandaugher, Ms Ericka Lutz, is on the SF Writergrrls listserve that I subscibe to. Trina R, a cartoonist also on the SF list actually met Olsen and has books signed by her, something I find awesome and that fills me with envy for never having the opportunity to meet Olsen. She must have been an amazing woman, as her birthday is the same as my grandmothers, Alta Gayle Semler, and my dear friend Monica is also a January 14 baby.
Go with God, Tillie Olsen. Give em heck in writers heaven!

Eric Risberg/Associated Press, 2001
Tillie Olsen
Readers’ Opinions
Forum: Book News and Reviews
Ms. Olsen died after being in declining health for
years, her daughter Laurie Olsen said.

A daughter of immigrants and a working mother starved
for time to write, Ms. Olsen drew from her personal
experiences to create a small but influential body of
work. Her first published book, “Tell Me a Riddle”
(1961), contained a short story, “I Stand Here
Ironing,” in which the narrator painfully recounts her
difficult relationship with her daughter and the
frustrations of motherhood and poverty.

At the time of the book’s publication Ms. Olsen was
heralded by critics as a short story writer of immense
talent. The title story was made into a film in 1980
starring Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova.

Ms. Olsen returned to issues of feminism and social
struggle throughout her work, publishing a nonfiction
book, “Silences,” in 1978, an examination of the
impediments that writers face because of sex, race or
social class. Reviewing the book in The New York Times
Book Review, Margaret Atwood attributed Ms. Olsen’s
relatively small output to her full life as a wife and
mother, a “grueling obstacle course” experienced by
many writers.

“It begins with an account, first drafted in 1962, of
her own long, circumstantially enforced silence,” Ms.
Atwood wrote. “She did not write for a very simple
reason: A day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no
time, no energy and none of the money that would have
bought both.”

Tillie Lerner was born on Jan. 14, 1912, on a tenant
farm in Nebraska. She was the second of six children
born to Samuel and Ida Lerner, Jewish immigrants from
Russia, socialists whose political and social beliefs
heavily influenced Ms. Olsen. Her father, a
paperhanger and painter by trade, was the state
secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party.

After completing 11th grade, Ms. Olsen dropped out of
high school. She immediately took on working-class
jobs, including stints as a waitress, a hotel maid, a
packinghouse worker, a secretary and a factory worker.

It was during the Depression that Ms. Olsen began work
as an activist for social and labor causes, joining
the Young Communist League and organizing packinghouse
workers in Kansas and Nebraska. She contracted
pleurisy and tuberculosis working in a factory, and
while recovering, began to write her first book,
“Yonnondio: From the Thirties.”

In 1933 she moved to San Francisco, where she would
live for more than 70 years, and resumed her pro-labor
activities. During the 1934 San Francisco general
strike, she was arrested, and promptly chronicled the
strike in The New Republic and The Partisan Review.

During the strike she met a fellow protester named
Jack Olsen, whom she later married. They reared four
daughters, Karla, Julie, Kathie and Laurie. Mr. Olsen
died in 1989.

In addition to her four daughters, Ms. Olsen is
survived by a sister, Vicky Bergman, of Pembroke
Pines, Fla.; eight grandchildren; and three

Ms. Olsen received numerous awards, including a Ford
Foundation grant in 1959, the first year it was
awarded; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975; and a
citation for Distinguished Contribution to American
Literature from the American Academy and National
Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976.

Beginning in the early 1970s, she was an adviser to
the Feminist Press. At her suggestion the press began
reprinting feminist classics that had been lost,
starting with “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca
Harding Davis. Over the years, Ms. Olsen recommended
many of the books the Feminist Press reprinted.

She also occasionally worked as a teacher in the 1960s
and ’70s, at Stanford University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and the University of

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