Remembering Tillie Olsen-“writing what happens with the people who are not ever written about”

[It seems appropriate that this post follows Holden’s shoutout to the Koufax Best Series nominations. I don’t think Tillie Olsen would mind, so woo hoos and huzzahs all ’round to Scout and Holden, and all the nominees (with a personal nod especial to Austin homies Twisty Faster, Amanda Marcotte and Norbizness for, respectively, Public Cans of Austin, Feminists for Life and Ax da President.) ]

To the business at hand:

Tillie Olsen is internationally known and honored for her powerful,
brilliantly crafted, poetic writing depicting the lives of working-class
people, women and people of color with respect, profound understanding
and deep love. Her books, Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondio from the
Silences and her essays and lectures have been translated
into twelve languages. Her works are considered by many to be central to
working class literature, women’s studies, and the understanding of creative
processes and the conditions, which permit imagination to flourish.

Olsen, who passed away on New Year’s Day, will be honored at a memorial this weekend in Oakland.

In San Francisco, Tillie became a familiar and passionate presence in the community on picket lines and at demonstrations throughout the Bay Area – for labor, against apartheid and racism, as part of anti-war movements, on behalf of women’s rights, to create a strong public education and public library system, and for the protection of the earth. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Tillie was a familiar figure in the Western Addition and Tenderloin, handing out leaflets or posters, taking brisk walks, and stopping to talk with homeless people. When she would offer a few carefully folded dollar bills to “help out”, her response to “Thank you and bless you” was inevitably, “Don’t bless me – curse the system!”, always punctuated with a kiss.

From an online interview with Olsen:

Q: Are writers still silenced by
their economic circumstances as they were when you began your career?

OLSEN: Yes, of course, the
silences go on. The first silencing is the inequality of the educational system.
We still have a strong class system in this country. Look at what’s happening
with most public schools. Think of the future writers who are being lost all
along. Future writers. In Yonnondio, the kids really hate school, and
their mom wants them to get a good education, but instead they are turned
against it. And as I write in there, “For was it not through books they had
been taught that they were dumb, dumb, dumb?”

That process is exactly what is
happening in the public schools now for many children–the doing in of bilingual
programs, for instance. I’m enraged by charter schools. Every school should be a
good school. We are just setting up more educational class systems.

The second silencing is the workload so
many have to carry, the problem of time. You may use spoken speech marvelously,
people love to listen to you. Or you are a great gossiper, or somebody who is
empathetic to what others are thinking and feeling, but none of that gets

Q: A lot of your fiction uses
language as it is spoken.

OLSEN: Think about all that
we’ve lost that has been said orally because nobody was taking it down. I feel
very fortunate to live in a time where we have so many different voices. We have
a much richer literature than we’ve ever had, and we can know our country so
much better.

Tolstoy was so excited, absolutely
thrilled, when Maxim Gorky began to publish because he was writing working
class. When he met Gorky, Tolstoy told him about the time he’d had this great
night in Petersburg. It’s winter, freezing, but he’s had a night of gypsy music
and women. He comes out, dressed warmly in his army great coat and fur hat,
striding along, to use Thoreau’s expression, “inhabiting his body with
inexpressible satisfaction.” He feels this tug at his coat. Here is this
filthy little bare-legged kid trying to pull him back and pointing to this
half-naked woman, vomit all over her, lying unconscious in the gutter. He
brushes that kid aside. He has no intention of touching her, freezing to death
though she may be. His beautiful mood is spoiled. Again the little boy, looking
imploringly up at him, pulls at his coat. He pushes him away hard.

By this time, Tolstoy is crying, and he
puts his arms on Gorky’s shoulders, looks into his eyes.“And you,”
Tolstoy says, “you must keep writing what happens with the people who are
not ever written about. Or else that little boy will follow you with his eyes
all of your life as he does me.”