Tillie Olsen cannot forget that newspaper story.
“I was nursing a baby,” the author recalls, “and I was reading this little feature about how in Nagasaki everything that could give light, the public things, had been destroyed (by the atom bomb). And the light at night came from radiating bodies burning.”
It was the end of World War II and Olsen was living in San Francisco. She had done some writing years earlier, but had since given birth to four children.
Olsen, now 89, has tears in her eyes.
“And, uh, something about that contrast between this baby at my breast and that feeling of everything that has to be for a human being to grow up. ... And I just couldn’t bear it. I had to get back to writing.”
If most authors are called to the page by their own lives, it is typical of Olsen that she would answer to the lives of others.
Politically active, class conscious, joined to the world as if every soul were a soul mate, Olsen counters the very core of American writing. She does not immortalize the cowboy or the outlaw, but the woman who stays home and irons. For Olsen, the open road does not equal freedom, but a bumpy ride to the next job.
She has published just two works of fiction — “Tell Me a Riddle” and “Yonnondio” — but she is well known among writers, teachers and feminists, her fans including Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Grace Paley. Because of the opening line, “I stand here ironing,” from the story of the same name, she remains the amused, grateful recipient of the occasional iron sent by an admirer.
Tributes come in other forms, too: She is taught in courses throughout the country, and is looked upon as an artist who lives her art.
“She’s been on the picket lines. She’s been arrested. She’s struggled on behalf of the vulnerable,’’ says Robert Coles, author of several books on children and a professor of social ethics at Harvard University. Coles has often assigned Olsen’s work to his classes.
Short and sturdy with curly white hair, Olsen welcomed a reporter to her home on a recent sunny morning with a fond kiss on both cheeks and an apology. “I usually dress like her,’’ she says, pointing to a friend standing nearby in jeans and sweats.
Olsen is wearing a silk gray blouse and dark pants, fancy clothes for a working man’s daughter from Nebraska. Her outfit, you might say, is a costume, put on for the reporter’s benefit, like a rebel dressed for church. Only her face remains in true character: open and unmade, light eyes unclouded, smile warm and inquiring.
She is a longtime resident of San Francisco who now lives in a small converted stable in the back of her daughter Laurie’s house.
Stucco covers the outside, but at times you wish it were gingerbread. There’s something magical about the whole setting — the narrow lines of shells and stone that run parallel in the driveway, the vines that embrace the home’s exterior, the orange trees that peek in the windows.
Inside, her great loves — family, activism, literature — all announce themselves. The desk and mantels hold postcards and family pictures. To one side of the door is a yellowing card containing the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome.” To the other side is a fresh-looking bumper sticker that reads “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”
It is a pleasant place to stop and rest, even for books. They don’t simply occupy the shelves. They stand, lean, recline and lay about.
They look like a gang of party crashers who had such a good time they decided to move in.
“Tillie’s not a scholar, she’s a reader,’’ explains Florence Howe, a close friend and founder of the Feminist Press, a nonprofit publisher that has issued books recommended by Olsen. “She’s read everything.’’
Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1912, Olsen is the second of seven children of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father, Samuel Lerner, was a farmer, factory worker and paper hanger and an official in the Nebraska socialist party.
When Tillie wasn’t reading, she was learning about politics. She has childhood memories of singing protest songs at socialist Sunday school and presenting red roses to the radical leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
Educated in the “school of literature,’’ Olsen never went to college. By age 18, she had joined the Young Communist League and by her mid-20s, she had moved to San Francisco and married fellow activist Jack Olsen, who died in 1989.
For much of her early life she was worker, wife, mother and journalist. She was arrested three times for union activism, even spending several weeks in jail after passing out leaflets to meatpackers.
“The charge was making loud and unusual noises,’’ Olsen recalls with a laugh.
But Olsen’s theme, her cry, her fear, is silence, the potential unfulfilled, the dream only dreamed. She feels this firsthand. After beginning a novel in the 1930s about a migrant family, her writing career was delayed 20 years for sheer lack of time. She saddens at the thought of all the stories never told.
“Well, I’m going to be one of those unhappy people who dies with the sense of what never got written, or never got finished,’’ she says.
Reading about Nagasaki made her want to write, but for a long time all she could do was work at night after the kids were asleep or hurry to fit in some passages as she stood on the streetcar to go to work. Only in the mid-1950s did she really get the chance. She received a fellowship from Stanford University, at first not believing the news because author and fellowship director Wallace Stegner called to congratulate her on April Fool’s Day.
“Tell Me a Riddle’’ was published in 1961. Collecting three short pieces and the title novella, her book begins with a mother ironing. It mourns and celebrates an interracial friendship, and celebrates — and mourns — an old, unhappily married couple.
The book did not sell a lot of copies, but the title piece won an O. Henry Prize for short fiction and those who read “Tell Me a Riddle’’ seemed to urge others to do the same. It is now a standard text for feminist studies and other college courses and an inspiration for believers that literature can co-exist with social commentary.
“She has the capacity to create a kind of interior life, where the harshness of life is represented but the person is never reduced to a victim,’’ says Olsen’s friend, Janet Zandy, a professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“When I first read it,’’ adds Howe, “it was the first time I had read anything that approached my own life. I was a working class kid and my mother taught me to iron when I was 5 because she hated ironing.’’
Meanwhile, Olsen finished other books. “Yonnondio,’’ the novel she started working on as a young woman, was finally published in 1973. “Silences,’’ a nonfiction work about the struggle of Olsen and other writers to create, came out in 1978.
Olsen proved especially active in promoting works by others. As a girl, she was greatly moved by “Life in the Iron Mills,’’ a Dickensian novella about a factory town published anonymously in the 19th century. She couldn’t stop thinking about that book, whose author turned out to be Rebecca Harding Davis. When Howe started the Feminist Press 30 years ago, her friend was ready with suggestions.
“She came to see me in New York and handed me a very tattered copy of ‘Life in the Iron Mills’ and said, ‘Don’t read it at night.’
So, of course, I read it at night and I stayed up all night and wept,’’ Howe says.
Davis’ book was published by the Feminist Press, as were other titles Olsen recommended: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper’’ and Agnes Smedley’s “Daughter of Earth,’’ a novel about class, gender and politics Olsen was especially determined to have Howe read.
“Once, I got very sick with some kind of flu and I was in Tillie’s house and I asked her to call a doctor,’’ Howe recalls. “And she said, ‘First you have to have read this book. I’ve given you this and told you must read this and you haven’t done so.’ I said, ‘Tillie, you call the doctor and I’ll read it.’’’
Olsen spends more time these days organizing her papers than actually writing, but she remains an activist. She participated in a protest against a local retailer, demanding better wages for employees. She joined the fight a few years ago to stop the San Francisco Public Library from cutting support of books in favor of computers.
In January, she attended a protest in San Francisco against the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
“You had people of every skin color there. You had well-dressed people and people dressed in casual clothes. It was wonderful,’’ she says.
“I’ve had that happen many times — that heady feeling when you’re with so many others who share what you’re feeling.’’