January 3, 2007

Author and Feminist Press Adviser Tillie Olsen Dies at 94

From Tillie Olsen’s obituary in The New York Times, written by Julie Bosman:

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.”

Olsen won 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, according to the Times.

Less than two months ago, the author Scot Turow discussed on NPR his great admiration for Tillie and why “Tell Me a Riddle” remains one of his favorite stories: “[A] revelation on two levels: because of its insight and evocation of lives I knew, and because it demonstrated to me how a subject near-at-hand could be elevated to great art.” An excerpt of “Tell Me a Riddle” follows Turow’s piece.


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