When Gemini Ink Executive Director Nan Cuba received a phone message that read, "Tillie Olsen called," she was speechless. When she finally did speak, the person who had taken the message didn't know who Olsen was. Neither did several of the younger writers who work and volunteer at the literary center. But when Cuba told Gemini's University Without Walls Director David Rutschman that Olsen was coming, he literally fell to his knees. Indeed, for those who know and love her work, Olsen's name is often spoken like a prayer. According to Cuba, "Tillie Olsen is one of those rare artists whose work is a penetrating representation of the human condition. With unbounding grace, she reveals the nuance, complexity, and depth of life. Her writing moves beyond art to its place as a cultural touchstone. Hearing this American icon is an experience one later tells children and grandchildren."
There is a reason that her visit as a part of Gemini Ink's Summer Literary Festival is being written as a news story instead of an arts piece. Olsen has never separated the art made from the life lived. Okay, it may not be "the second coming," but it is most likely the last coming to San Antonio for the revered 90-year-old writer, scholar, and activist who will be teaching a class as well as giving a free public reading with Rosemary Catacalos, a San Antonio native and former Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Literature Program Director. Anyone who believes in literature, in social justice, in women's rights — and in humanity itself — has a responsibility to be there.
In Olsen's short story, O Yes, 12-year-old Carol and her mother are the only white people in her friend Parialee Phillips' church. The service, full of praise, writhing worshippers, and speaking in tongues overwhelms Carol and she faints. Once outside, Parialee's mother says, "You are not used to hearing what people keeps inside, Carol." The story follows the friendship between the two young girls, one white and one black, as they enter the world of junior high already ripped with racial distance. Near the end, Carol asks her mother, "Oh why is it like it is and why do I have to care?" The passage continues with a mother's meditation, "Thinking: caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched ..."
Olsen's work is truly a literature of immersion. The daughter of working-class Russian Jewish Immigrants who were deeply involved in the Socialist Party, she grew up poor but in a house full of ideas, words, and activism. It was a world she seamlessly merged into her work. In a 1999 interview with The Progressive, she cites inspiration in Leo Tolstoy's advice to a young writer "to keep writing what happens with the people who are not ever written about." According to Catacalos, now an affiliated Scholar at Stanford University's Center on Women and Gender, "I can't say how many women, few of them writers, many not regular readers, have told me of being transfixed and transformed by hearing snippets of Tillie's I Stand Here Ironing over the radio. Women of all classes, colors, and ages having to pull off the road and weep because they felt, perhaps for the first time, seen, recognized, their lives honored."
Although Olsen had some early success, publishing part of what would become her novel Yonnondio in the Partisan Review in 1934, she spent most of her life raising four children and working at what she calls "everyday jobs" to support them. For nearly 20 years she wrote on the streetcar or when the children slept, what she called any "five to keep writing alive," in a environment not unlike that described in, I Stand Here Ironing. Although she never attended college and was thus technically ineligible, the story won her a 1955 Wallace Stegner Fellowhip at Stanford University. After the fellowship ended, she returned to long days of labor until a Ford Foundation Grant came "almost too late." She finished and published Tell Me A Riddle in 1961, the title story winning the prestigious O. Henry Award for Best Short Story of the Year. Beginning in 1962, she held various teaching appointments at universities including M.I.T., Amherst, and Stanford. Finally, after putting aside Yonnondio for 40 years, she revised it and published it 1974.
Hers is not a tremendous literary output, but it is one that feels carved into the page with intensity. It is important also to recognize how often such literature coupled with social commentary is done badly. Unlike stories that heighten into diatribes against "the man" or dissolve into weepy puddles for "the victim," Olsen's work never flinches at the harshness of a situation while fully realizing the immense and complex interior lives of those who live with it. It is a mastery of craft directly linked to her personal commitment to the power of human resistance. She has said, "... There comes a time when changes are made. The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act, is a fact which every human being should know about."
Unlike young Carol in O Yes, Olsen has spent her life thinking about "what people keeps inside" and more importantly why. The dedication to her non-fiction book Silences reads, "For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday, essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made — as their other contributions — anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost." According to Catacalos, "Most ironic is that Tillie's work is not ubiquitous among younger writers, since I think anyone who picks up a pen today has automatically been greatly enriched by her thinking. Quite a claim, I admit, but I believe a strong case can be made for Silences having improved the lives of all writers, not only women, by hugely expanding general understanding of the writerly vocation. Certainly publishing and academia were positively influenced by the book's appearance. It was very much a force in widening the field of who gets published and who gets taught."
So what's important about Olsen coming to San Antonio? The work itself is enough, but for those in need of more convincing, Catacalos provided an additional list of reasons reprinted here verbatim:
Because she carries copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights around to give to perfect strangers.
Because parts of Yonnondio first appeared in only the second issue of Partisan Review, which began publishing in the early 1930s.
Because she still refers to her late husband, Jack, a union organizer, as "my guy."
Because we learn so terribly much about who we are when she tells of the smell of burning human flesh from a lynching and riot she witnessed as a child.
Because she knows Dickinson better than anyone alive, because every year she shares a meal with old friends at the reunion of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
Because her children are among her major works.
Because she is blessed with the writer's perfect pitch, that ability to hear and render the widest range of common speech.
Because she notices everything and lives surrounded by flowers.