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Former Stegner Fellow Tillie Olsen, muse to many women writers, dead at 94

Julie Olsen Edwards Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen, left, marching in protest with other opponents of apartheid in support of full divestment in South Africa by the University of California.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen

BY BARBARA PALMER

Writer and activist Tillie Olsen, who mined her own working-class background to create a handful of lyrical, searing short stories on themes of race, class and gender and broke new critical ground with a nonfiction work, Silences, died Jan. 1 in an Oakland hospital. Olsen, 94, had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Author of the widely anthologized stories Tell Me a Riddle and I Stand Here Ironing, Olsen as a young woman had abandoned a book contract for a novel under the pressures of working full time and raising children. In 1956, when she was awarded a Stegner Fellowship from the Creative Writing Program, Olsen was a quarter of a century older than the other writing fellows, she later wrote. But at Stanford, given "the enabling gift of circumstance," she "made the mysterious turn and became a writing writer."

Critics in both the academic and mainstream press praise the technical brilliance and emotional power of the four short stories collected in the volume Tell Me a Riddle, published in 1961. And the 1978 Silences, which describes the political, cultural and personal circumstances that hinder creative expression and questions why some voices, including those of women, historically had been silenced or become lost, is regarded as a foundational work in the fields of women's studies and feminist criticism.

"Tillie Olsen helped change the way we read and the way we write," said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and an editor of a book of essays, Listening to Silences, published in 1994. Olsen spearheaded the movement to recover and value writers who were neglected or devalued in the past due in large part to their class, gender or race, Fishkin said.

Olsen "helped American women in particular claim their place at the artist's table" and inspired innumerable 20th-century writers to become writers themselves, Fishkin added. Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Genny Lim and Alice Walker are just a few of the writers who have expressed a conscious debt to Olsen, she said.

Born on a tenant farm near Omaha, Neb., on Jan. 14, 1912, Olsen was the second of six children born to Ida and Samuel Lerner, Russian immigrants who fled the country after participating in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. Deeply influenced by her parents' social activism, Olsen joined the Young Communist League after dropping out of high school. In Omaha, Olsen embarked on what her daughters describe as a lifetime odyssey of low-paying jobs, including working as a hotel maid, trimmer in a slaughterhouse, linen checker, waitress, laundry worker and secretary.

Olsen moved to California in the early 1930s as a young single mother and came to national attention as a writer for a first-person account of being jailed for her participation in the 1934 general strike in San Francisco. A short story published in the Partisan Review in 1934, which became the first chapter in her novel, Yonnondio, published unfinished 40 years after its inception, was lauded as "a work of early genius."

Olsen had three daughters with Jack Olsen, a union waterfront warehouseman, union organizer and educator, whom she married in 1944. She continued to scribble notes on scraps of paper while standing on the bus or before work, many of which are preserved in the Tillie Olsen Collection archived in the Stanford University Libraries' Department of Special Collections. But for two decades while she raised her four daughters and worked full time, "the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist," Olsen wrote in Silences.

The numerous honors and writing prizes given to Olsen during her lifetime include eight honorary doctorates and the Rea Award for the Short Story. Olsen was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and also held visiting professorships at Amherst College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts and Stanford. Olsen was a passionate public speaker, impressing her audiences with her intense belief "that there were wrongs in the world that were self-evident and it was our moral obligation to confront them and try to repair them," said Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Women and Gender.

"Tillie was like a volcano overflowing, a tsunami," Yalom recalled. Invited to speak at a class Yalom was teaching on women and literature, Olsen "came into the class, sat down and talked for two hours nonstop," Yalom said. "She had a lot to say. She was like a stream that had been dammed up—once it was opened, it just poured forth."

Yalom recalled that once while walking across the campus with the writer, Olsen remarked that Stanford is a very privileged place. Then, Olsen added: "There's nothing wrong with privilege. But it belongs to everyone."

Olsen's husband, Jack, died in 1989. She is survived by a sister, Vicky Bergman of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; four daughters, Karla Lutz of Larkspur, Calif.; Julie Olsen Edwards of Soquel, Calif.; Kathie Olsen of Jacksonville, Ore.; and Laurie Olsen of Berkeley, Calif.; and eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Olsen's family requests that on Olsen's birthday, Jan. 14, people whose lives have been touched by the writer gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together. Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush St., No. 500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

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