January 14: Tillie Olsen
Tillie Olsen, the author of Tell Me a Riddle (1961), was born in Nebraska on this date in 1912. Olsen’s parents were radical Jewish refugees from the failed 1905 revolution in Russia. Olsen became a left-wing union organizer, and while she was in jail for her political activities she landed a contract from Random House to write a novel at the age of 22 — but that book, like much of her creative productivity, would be delayed for forty years by her activities as a mother (she raised four children), worker and homemaker. Tell Me a Riddle, a collection of four stories (the title story received the O. Henry Award), became a feminist and college-curriculum staple. She also wrote Silences, an analysis of writers’ block and non-productivity, especially among women and working-class artists.
“She did not write for a very simple reason: A day has twenty-four hours. For twenty years she had no time, no energy and none of the money that would have bought both.” —Margaret Atwood