Wednesday, February 21, 2007


By Hannah

A quick email from Gail Konop Baker mentioned she returned from Tillie Olsen’s memorial, and with that I wiped away today’s first draft. Wow, I wish I had gone. I read Tillie Olsen as an undergraduate in Western Massachusetts’ Happy Valley twenty-five years ago. The stories in Tell Me A Riddle were challenging, demanding, and gave so much in return. Stories about people different from anyone I knew, yet familiar in little ways; the use of language breaking the rules I was taught for powerful effect. How did she know these things?

Years later I read five non-fiction books, one after the other: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing A Life; Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing A Woman’s Life; and Olsen’s Silences. After reading them, I re-read them, in bits and pieces, about the complexity of life and of being a woman and unspoken guidelines nobody ever tells women, women writers, or anyone who needs to create space and prioritize, as Amy touched on here so beautifully yesterday.

In that meeting between life and the written word, Tillie Olsen’s Riddle and Silences were special, and I cannot do the justice to her that John Leonard did in The Nation after her passing:

“…see how it's done: First what Cynthia Ozick calls "a certain corona of moral purpose." And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or Pascal. Memory, history, poetry and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.”

Tillie Olsen’s books will continue to love us all back.

(Speaking of the meeting of real life, women's lives and writing, Gail’s very personal column, Bare-breasted Mama, is at


Therese said...

I haven't read Tillie Olsen in years--you've done a great job of re-whetting my appetite.

Oh, if only there were twice as many hours in the day!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Gail's mention of Tillie really brought me back. As for insufficient time, that does seem to be worse as of late. Am hoping that as it seems to be a two steps forward, one back sort of thing, perhaps we are due for our two steps soon?


Therese said...

Hannah, from your lips...