Guest Post: Amy Bloom on Tillie and Grace

Ever since its first issue, which included tributes to Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, PEN America has paid homage to the great writers of the 20th century, publishing essays and talks about them by some of the great writers of our own day. Extending that tradition to our blog, we're excited to share this tribute by Amy Bloom, author of the critically-acclaimed and best-selling Away, among other books, to two writers who left us this year: Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. As Bloom notes, both were not only groundbreaking short story writers, but devoted political activists who embodied the mission of PEN.

Az mir leben, muz mir tuun.

As long as we live, we must do the work.

To lose Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in one year is a bad year, even if a lot of people didn't know it at the time, Tillie Olsen would have said, and she would have been right. To have had them both for so long was a privilege, even if a lot of people didn't know it, Grace Paley would have said. And she would have been right.

If there were ever two people, and not coincidentally at all, two women, who epitomized PEN's goals: advancing literature, defending free speech and fostering connections betweens writers everywhere, Tillie and Grace were it.

I knew Grace Paley, for about seven short years, but I only knew Tillie Olsen by her work and by her life. I knew Tillie Olsen's husband lost his job for his labor organizing work and I had read that Tillie herself was accused of being a Stalinist working to infiltrate the city's school's through the PTA (and she had been a Young Communist and for all I know she was a Stalinist, but I do like the image of Grace and Tillie together as they never were, Nebraska and the Bronx, happy to be out of jail for civil disobedience, happy to be back with their kids, unpacking sandwiches on the playground benches, chatting up a couple of other young mothers and bringing about the Revolution. They did try.)

They were both revolutionary writers, writers who told the stories not only about people no one had seen on the page, but in language no one had constructed before. And they were both women who lived their lives in accordance with their political principles and built their lives, as best they could, around the people they loved: Grace and her Bob and her son and daughter and her beloved grandchildren, Tillie and her handsome Jack, her four daughters and eight grandchildren. And so, they didn't have quite as much time to write as some other people. And they didn't have such large advances. And you never saw their names in glossy magazines, or in a fashion ad, modeling turtlenecks, or writing fiction to promote a new martini. They wrote about the hard lives of working class women: hotel maids, secretaries, salesgirls; and they wrote about all of the world's outsiders; and they wrote about human rights and the obligations of fairness and decency; and they both wrote with language that came from the mouths of real people who struggled; and they wrote durable, innovative, poetic and celebratory sentences, both of them. And as much as Ray Carver and Norman Mailer shaped American fiction and were known for it, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley shaped the American short story, as if they were God and it was clay, and however much or little known they were for much of their writing lives, the short story itself is now different than it was, because of them, and we know better how we should live and write, because of them.

-- Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom, a member of PEN American Center, has published two novels, two story collections, and a non-fiction book on gender (Normal). The recipient of a National Magazine Award, she has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications. She is a practicing psychotherapist and teaches at Yale University.

1 comment:

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