Tillie Olsen was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1912. The daughter of Russian immigrants, she was raised in a working class, socialist environment. Growing up during the Depression she did not go to college, but early on got caught up in the struggle for survival at whatever jobs she could find.
Her novel about the Depression, Yonnondio was begun when she was 19. A portion of the manuscript appeared in 1934 in the second issue of The Partisan Review. In her biography for the magazine, she listed her occupations as tie presser, hack writer, model, housemaid, ice cream packer and book clerk. The novel was never finished and thought irretrievably lost. However, remnants were found among some old papers, pieced together and published in book form in 1973.
She is the author of the short story collection, Tell Me A Riddle , the novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties , a book of essays, Silences . She is the editor of Mothers and Daughter: That special quality  and Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, A Daybook and Reader .
The conflict between the demands of daily existence and the fulfillment of human potential is a theme that permeates Tillie Olsen's work. For twenty years, she was "silenced" as a writer while working to earn a living and single-handedly raising four daughters. "These are not natural silences, that necessary time for renewal," she said. "They are the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being but cannot."
Tillie Olsen was fifty years old when her first book, the short story collection Tell Me A Riddle, was published. The title story won the O'Henry Award and the story has been anthologized 72 times. Four of the stories have been adapted into stage productions, three into films, and one into an Opera.
In citing Olsen's work, the 1994 Rea Award Jurors Charles Baxter, Susan Cheever and Mary Gordon said,
"With her collection, Tell Me A Riddle, Tillie Olsen radically widened the possibilities for American writers of fiction. These stories have the lyric intensity of an Emily Dickinson poem and scope of a Balzac novel. She had forced open the language of the short story, insisting that it include the domestic life of women, the passions and anguishes of maternity, the deep, gnarled roots of a long marriage, the hopes and frustrations of immigration, the shining charge of political commitment. Her voice has both challenged and cleared the way for all those who come after her."