A tribute to American writer Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen wrote in snippets while meeting the demands of motherhood, housekeeping and jobs

Tillie Olsen wrote in snippets while meeting the demands of motherhood, housekeeping and jobs

It was during a particularly turbulent time in my life as a mother that I read Tillie Olsen’s story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Told in the first person, this story of a working-class single mother has the richness and intimacy of an interior monologue. It begins with the narrator receiving a call from his daughter Emily’s school counselor.

“I wish you could find the time to come and talk to me about your daughter,” the counselor said. “I’m sure you can help me understand her. She is a young person who needs help and whom I would very much like to help. These words trigger a spiral of reflections in the narrator about her difficult past, the years when she was torn between motherhood and the tragic daily life of poverty during the Depression.

Although the story is apparently about Emily’s problems, we see pretty quickly what it’s really about: the heartbreak of being a parent when you’re poor and single, the guilt that corrodes your soul like acid. , the shame of having failed a test that no one is supposed to erase. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that sparkle of an opening line, what the narrator says to the counselor in her head, “I’m standing here ironing, and what you asked me tormented moves back and forth with the iron. ”

strangely familiar

Over the past decade and a half I have read and re-read this mostly autobiographical story because it feels so eerily familiar and because I am convinced that Olsen speaks directly to me, even though I am neither from the class worker nor single. But hey, I’m a mother and in me there is a great need for stories about difficult parenting.

An American writer born to Russian Jewish emigrants, Olsen dropped out at the age of 15 to enter the workforce. Subsequently, she worked as a waitress, housekeeper and meat trimmer. At some point, she joined the Communist Party of America and was imprisoned for organizing a union of packing plant workers. She had an eventful life lived with grace and self-awareness, a life she describes in her book, Silences. Nevertheless writing, his hope, was “the air I breathed, as long as I breathe at all… In such time spans, I wrote what I did in those years, but there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much of a distraction for writing. I lost the madness of endurance.

Contrast this with Rilke’s statement on the conditions necessary for creative work: “Without homework, almost without external communication, a boundless solitude that takes each day as a life, a space that places no limits on vision and in the midst of which infinities surround”. But then, of course, Rilke was a man.

Dark of silences

At one point, Olsen was granted eight months off work. She writes about how difficult it was to return to a writing practice. “The time given,” she comments, “does not necessarily coincide with the time that can be most fully utilized.” Olsen was 49 when his first book, a collection of four short stories, tell me a riddle, has been published. ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ is the opening story. Olsen has to his credit – and I use this cliched expression deliberately – an unfinished novel Yonnondio. Started when Olsen was 19, the novel was later dropped. Nineteen is also the age when she had the first of four daughters.

What I find most remarkable about Olsen – aside from her mastery of the craft – is her tireless advocacy of the work of other women writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, who had disappeared from public view. She was always lucid about exclusions and how they happened. In Silence, she writes:

“Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some silences for years by our recognized great; a few hidden silences; some stop publishing after the publication of a work; some never come in book form.

These silences, Olsen argues, are mostly female silences.

It is deeply ironic that Olsen, as brilliant as she was and as generous in her support of other writers, is no longer part of the public discourse. But why don’t I find this surprising?

K. Srilata is a freelance writer and scholar who is currently writing verses that reinvent the Mahabharata.