Books, though generally docile, sometimes end up altering us entirely. Curious about the nature of life-altering literature, Cellar Door asked several English faculty members to reflect on a book that’ changed their lives or selves. In our first segment in ‘A Book that Changed Me,’ Professor Eavan Boland writes on Tillie Olsen’s ‘Silences’.
Tillie Olsen’s Silences was published in 1978 when my second daughter was a few months old. This isn’t a book I read as a teenager; it’s not a transforming childhood text. By the time I read it I was in my thirties and open to an unsentimental, passionate enquiry into the ways we talk about and think about writing. This is that book.
Olsen was born in 1913. Over a long life –she died at 94 –she was activist, mother, novelist, essayist and polemicist. She spent a little time in prison in the thirties; and a lot of time on the picket line in the forties. And not least, at the age of 42, she received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and published her first fiction work.
“Silences” is about its title: the way writers fail to write. But more than that, it’s about the way we’ve constructed a myth of creative expression which suggests that inspiration trumps circumstance and talent will always emerge. Not so, says Olsen. Age, illness, circumstance, class, fatigue, too many children, too little money, too much care –they can all stifle the act of writing. By her insistence and humanity, and the wonderful writing in this book, Olsen reminds us that writing –or the silence which infers it – is a human act above all.