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At 89, Tillie Olsen remains an activist

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Tillie Olsen cannot forget that newspaper story.

"I was nursing a baby," the author recalls, "and I was reading this little feature about how in Nagasaki everything that could give light, the public things, had been destroyed (by the atom bomb). And the light at night came from radiating bodies burning."

It was the end of World War II and Olsen was living in San Francisco. She had done some writing years earlier but had since given birth to four children.

Olsen, now 89, has tears in her eyes.

"And, uh, something about that contrast between this baby at my breast and that feeling of everything that has to be for a human being to grow up. . . . And I just couldn't bear it. I had to get back to writing."

If most authors are called to the page by their own lives, it is typical of Olsen that she would answer to the lives of others.

Politically active, class conscious, joined to the world as if every soul were a soul mate, Olsen counters the very core of American writing. She does not immortalize the cowboy or the outlaw but the woman who stays home and irons. For Olsen, the open road does not equal freedom but a bumpy ride to the next job.

She has published just two works of fiction — "Tell Me a Riddle" and "Yonnondio" — but she is well known among writers, teachers and feminists, her fans including Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Grace Paley. Because of the opening line, "I stand here ironing," from the story of the same name, she remains the amused, grateful recipient of the occasional iron sent by an admirer. Tributes come in other forms, too: She is taught in courses throughout the country and is looked upon as an artist who lives her art.

"She's been on the picket lines. She's been arrested. She's struggled on behalf of the vulnerable," says Robert Coles, author of several books on children and a professor of social ethics at Harvard University. Coles has often assigned Olsen's work to his classes.

Short and sturdy with curly white hair, Olsen welcomed a reporter to her home on a recent sunny morning with a fond kiss on both cheeks and an apology. "I usually dress like her," she says, pointing to a friend standing nearby in jeans and sweats.

She is a longtime resident of San Francisco who now lives in a small converted stable in the back of daughter Laurie's house.

Inside, her great loves — family, activism, literature — all announce themselves. The desk and mantels hold postcards and family pictures. To one side of the door is a yellowing card containing the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." To the other side is a fresh-looking bumper sticker that reads "The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend."

It is a pleasant place to stop and rest, even for books. They don't simply occupy the shelves. They stand, lean, recline and lay about. They look like a gang of party crashers who had such a good time they decided to move in.

"Tillie's not a scholar, she's a reader," explains Florence Howe, a close friend and founder of the Feminist Press, a nonprofit publisher that has issued books recommended by Olsen. "She's read everything."

Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1912, Olsen is the second of seven children of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father, Samuel Lerner, was a farmer, factory worker and paper hanger and an official in the Nebraska Socialist Party.

When Tillie wasn't reading, she was learning about politics. She has childhood memories of singing protest songs at socialist Sunday school and presenting red roses to the radical leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.

Educated in the "school of literature," Olsen never went to college. By age 18, she had joined the Young Communist League and by her mid-20s, she had moved to San Francisco and married fellow activist Jack Olsen, who died in 1989.

For much of her early life she was worker, wife, mother and journalist. She was arrested three times for union activism, even spending several weeks in jail after passing out leaflets to meatpackers.

Reading about Nagasaki made her want to write, but for a long time all she could do was work at night after the kids were asleep or hurry to fit in some passages as she stood on the streetcar to go to work. Only in the mid-1950s did she really get the chance. She received a fellowship from Stanford University, at first not believing the news because author and fellowship director Wallace Stegner called to congratulate her on April Fool's Day.

Olsen spends more time these days organizing her papers than actually writing, but she remains an activist. She participated in a protest against a local retailer, demanding better wages for employees. She joined the fight a few years ago to stop the San Francisco Public Library from cutting support of books in favor of computers.

In January, she attended a protest in San Francisco against the inauguration of President Bush.