San Francisco Writer Tillie Olsen Dies

Poet, writer, activist and longtime San Francisco resident Tillie Olsen died earlier this week. Olsen was best known for her poetry and writing, which depicted the hardships of ordinary working people.

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Poet, writer and activist Tillie Olsen died earlier this week in Oakland, California, just two weeks before her 95th birthday.

As Judy Campbell from member station KQED reports, Olsen was internationally known for her humane portraits of working people.

JUDY CAMPBELL: Tillie Olsen was born on a tenant farm in Nebraska, one of six children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Though Olsen dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, she was always a veracious reader. She spoke about it to KQED's Scott Shafer in 2001.

Ms. TILLIE OLSEN (Poet, Writer, Activist): I began to be aware that the world in which I lived, the kind of human beings I knew, they were never in the books I loved so. I wasn't intimidated. It gave me a sense that I had something to write about.

CAMPBELL: Tillie Olsen's stories and poems revealed the lives of working class women and men as few other writers ever had before her. After Olsen dropped out of high school, she cycled through backbreaking jobs - packinghouse worker, laundry worker, hotel maid - and her work is an intimate and impassioned portrait of people in struggle. This is Olsen four years ago at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts, reading a poem about garment worker she wrote in 1934.

Ms. OLSEN: Women up north, I want you to know when you fingered the exquisite of handmade dresses what it means this working from dawn to midnight. On what strange feet the feverish dawn must come to Maria, Catalina, Ambrosia. How the malignant fingers twitching over the pallid faces jerk them to work.

CAMPBELL: Over decades of union activism, Olsen was jailed three times, including on Bloody Thursday, in San Francisco's 1934 general strike. Olsen's daughter Laurie says her mother felt injustices deeply.

Ms. LAURIE OLSEN (Daughter): So I spent much of my childhood on picket lines and tagging along on meetings because she didn't have childcare. She had four daughters. So part of being Tillie's daughter was really inheriting that legacy of both understanding that the world isn't just and must not be allowed to be anymore. But she also had this incredible belief that people could change history.

CAMPBELL: Lorry Olsen said her mother also had an amazing capacity for joy and laughter. And, of course, there was her power as a writer.

Ms. L. OLSEN: It's just the sheer beauty of Tillie's words, that the way she uses the words touch your heart and rip it wide open.

CAMPBELL: Tillie Olsen's story "Tell Me a Riddle" won the O. Henry Award for best short story in 1961. It's the story of an older couple, whose lives together had become bitter.

Mr. SCOTT TUROW (Author): Every line is measured, compressed, resonant, stripped bear so that paragraph after paragraph achieves the shocking brevity and power of the best poems.

CAMPBELL: That's how author Scott Turow, speaking on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, describes the writing in "Tell Me a Riddle." Lorry Olsen says she reread that book during her mother's final days, particularly this section about an old woman dying.

Ms. L. OLSEN: Jeannie came to comfort him and in her light voice she said, Granddaddy, granddaddy, don't cry. She's not there. She promised to me. On the last day, she said she would go back to where she first heard the music, a little girl on the road of the village where she was born. She promised me. It's her wedding and they dance, while flutes so joyous and vibrant trembled in the air. Leave her there, granddaddy. It's all right. She promised me. Come back, come back and help her poor body to die.

CAMPBELL: At Tillie Olsen's bedside, Laurie also sang the songs of her mother's youth.

Ms. L. OLSEN: I don't know what she was experiencing as she died, but I do know that she really responded to that music from her childhood. I was singing her "Tumbalalaika," which is a beautiful old Russian song, and she just out of this heavy breathing and this sort of glassy-eyed delirium she was in, she started to sing - Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika.

And we were all startled, you know, to hear her being coherent. But that was the last we heard from her.

CAMPBELL: For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.

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