AMHERST, Mass.—On Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books (8 Main St.), family members will read from and discuss Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works(University of Nebraska Press), a new edition of collected writings by the late author, activist and educator Tillie Olsen (1912–2007).
The event is free and open to the public, with sponsorship from Amherst Books and from the Department of English and Creative Writing Center at Amherst College, where Olsen was a pioneering faculty member.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Nebraska, Olsen dropped out of high school at age 15, worked low-paying jobs, became a union organizer and political activist, raised four children and eventually held fellowships at Stanford University and the Radcliffe Institute. She published her first book, the collection titled Tell Me a Riddle, to critical acclaim in 1961. She is also known for the novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, the nonfiction volume Silences and an influential feminist suggested-reading list she assembled in the 1970s.
In 1969–70, Olsen was a visiting writer at Amherst College—the first woman to hold the position. She brought to Amherst’s English department a much expanded and inclusive awareness of British and American literature: literature by women, by forgotten writers—working-class, African American, Latino and Asian American—and by indigenous peoples from all over the world. To the entirely male, predominantly white and mostly affluent Amherst student body, she offered courses on “The Struggle to Write” and “The Literature of Poverty, Oppression, Revolution and the Struggle for Freedom.” Olsen also played an important role in the emerging women’s movement in the Valley. The college awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1998.
(More information about Olsen’s life and lasting legacy at Amherst can be found on the college’s website and in the book Tillie Olsen and Amherst College: Conversations, thanks to Annemarie Iker and Katie Allyn. In 2011, while they were students at Amherst, Iker and Allyn were inspired to complete an extensive research project on Olsen after learning of her writing in a course taught by Barry O’Connell, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of English. O’Connell has helped to organize the upcoming Amherst Books event.)
Dorothy Parker described Tell Me a Riddle as “enough to make [Olsen’s] name a truly important one in writing,” and Julian Moynihan, presenting Olsen with the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, called the book “a great work of literary art, [which] will be read as long as the American language lasts.” The new edition of the collection features the title novella; the short stories “I Stand Here Ironing,” “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” and “O Yes”; the haunting “lost” story “Requa I”; and four pieces of Olsen’s journalism from the 1930s. It also includes an introduction by Olsen’s granddaughter, the poet Rebekah Edwards, and a foreword by her daughter Laurie Olsen.
Julie Olsen Edwards, another of Olsen’s daughters, will be among the readers at the Amherst Books event. She will talk about her mother’s life and work, both as a writer and as a radical activist, and will sign copies of the new book.