There are some stories that don't translate into any other medium. They should stay in their books to surprise us, leaping from ambush. When she wrote Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, like William Blake, covered paper with words "for the angels to read."
At the time, I was too young to know anything important about poor people, black people, women or history. But we enter into books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark. How dark it was, how dark. I could feel the darkness with my hands.... and as I journeyed upward after him, it seemed I heard a mourning: "Mama Mama you must help carry the world." The rise and fall of nations I saw. And the voice called again Alva Alva, and I flew into a world of light, multitudes singing, Free, free, I am go glad. Suddenly, we hear a different music.
08 January 2007
"For the Angels to Read"
John Leonard on Tillie Olson: