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We read books to find out who we are.
When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.
–Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s been almost thirty years since I first met and interviewed the great doyenne of science fiction and fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin. I was a young reporter then and still in the pinch-me stage upon meeting people whose work I had long admired. I had long admired hers. She was gracious and tough. She was argumentative and witty. She was brusque and endearing. She was one of the most feminist feminists I’d ever met and I left her feeling as if I’d attended a graduate seminar in the art of making women matter in fiction and in letters. She made me want to write.
There is no better influence than that.
Le Guin was in no way sentimental about her own work nor the import of feminism nor the confluence of both. These were incontrovertible facts to her that didn’t need discussing, merely expansion. She said that women are often forced to choose between books and babies and that burden is never placed on men. She asserted that men liked it that way–with women thinking they could only have one and not the other. She said that pressure had kept women from the work they wanted to do as well as the joys of having children if they chose books instead. Her succinct “they aren’t babies forever” likely sounds harsh in our current Zeitgeist, but when she said it she meant women could indeed have it all if they wanted it and if they wanted it, they should demand it.
In a speech titled “Prospects for Women in Writing,” given in Portland, OR in 1986, Le Guin said, “If you want your writing to be taken seriously, don’t marry and have kids, and above all, don’t die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They [men] approve of that.”
Le Guin’s death, announced January 23 by her son Theo, was not unexpected. She was 88 and had been in failing health for some time, although she’d been sharing incisive tidbits on Twitter up until two days before her death. There was never a time when Le Guin wasn’t talking about writing and the role of books in our lives. She took on everything from male supremacy to the intrusions of Google and Amazon into the lives of writers and spoke out against censorship in all its myriad forms.
As with the passing of all literary lights that shone with the brightness of midday as she did, a dark pall fell over the world of letters with her passing.
Neil Gaiman, whose work was influenced by Le Guin, wrote on Twitter on January 23, “I just learned that Ursula K. Le Guin has died. Her words are always with us. Some of them are written on my soul. I miss her as a glorious funny prickly person, & I miss her as the deepest and smartest of the writers, too.”
Gaiman speaks for us all when he says she was “the deepest and smartest of the writers,” for she was that. Quite simply, there were none like Ursula Le Guin. She was a true iconoclast. She didn’t just create a body of work, she created an entire new genre within a genre. She created a new world in fiction that hadn’t existed before her, but which has since spawned a new generation of writers, like J. K. Rowling. (Of Rowling Le Guin said with her characteristic bluntness, since Rowling was influenced–and some would say borrowed liberally from–Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea, “she could have been more generous” in Rowling’s acknowledgment of the 1968 novel.)
The genre of science fiction/fantasy that Le Guin devised was one women and LGBTQ people were aching for: a world in which women were ascendant, a world in which gender was as fluid as times necessitated, a world in which there was only strength in being female and gender non-conforming. Before Le Guin, women were peripheral to science fiction and fantasy. There were few such books by women and fewer still for women. Le Guin herself explained her earliest work was male-centered and her influences were all male.
A voracious reader as a child, I read hundreds of science fiction books between grade school and college. Women barely register in the work of the greats like Asimov and Bradbury, Heinlein and Dick, Huxley and Orwell. Le Guin was a revelation.
Women and gender non-conforming individuals were highlighted by Le Guin, whose name is often the sole female one on lists of the best/greatest science fiction/fantasy writers of the 20th century. Hers is the work that included people–the majority of people–who had been excluded from the genre since its inception.
Le Guin said, “I eliminated gender to find out what was left.”
Oh, how we had waited for Le Guin–for those words, those stories, those worlds in which we could be ourselves, and perhaps, for the very first time, see a place for ourselves and within that place, be whole and strong and free.
Ursula Le Guin gave us respite and a place to breathe. Of women, Le Guin wrote, “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”
Le Guin changed the literary landscape as we had known it.
On January 24 New York Times reporter John Leland was on NPR’s Fresh Air talking to Terry Gross about his latest book, Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old. Among the women and men Leland spent a year with, reporting and learning about life after eighty, after the age of our respective life-expectancies, was John, a 90-year-old gay man.
One of the things Leland told Gross was that among the “oldest old” there is knowledge and memory that is outside the purview of those of us who are younger. John’s memories of gay life–a life spent for 60 years with the same man–were different from his younger gay cohort. If we reach that pinnacle of oldest old, we may have no one to share those memories with because there is no one left who also experienced those times.
Le Guin experienced those times. Born in 1929, she experienced those years–those many years–when she was the only woman doing what she did, thinking the thoughts she thought.
As I listened to Leland, I thought about Le Guin–herself among the oldest old. Le Guin began publishing in earnest in the early sixties, having been graduated from Radcliffe College and earning an MA from Columbia at a time when only ten percent of American women were attending college and even fewer went on to graduate school. She won a Fulbright to continue her studies in French and Italian literature, but chose not to pursue her Ph.D.
What she did instead was create worlds in fiction and in poetry, as well as write about what was missing in the world we inhabit with regard to women and gender-non-conforming people. In addition to raising three children, Le Guin was incredibly prolific, compiling an immense catalogue of essays on feminism, as well as more than a dozen works of poetry, short story collections, a screenplay, a libretto, a series of children’s books and a remarkable translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, among other translations.
She won dozens of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy Award, PEN/Malamud, ALA, Pushcart Prize, National Book Award and a host of other science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction awards. In 2000, the Library of Congress made Le Guin a “Living Legend” in the writers and artists category. She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Her last book was the 2017 collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016,” for which she won another Hugo Award.
Gender and race predominate in Le Guin’s work. She told me and others in interviews over the years that she wanted to reflect what was true: that the world was majority female and non-white. In her groundbreaking 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, for which Le Guin won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, she gives us a world beyond gender–a world in which gender is so fluid among the ambisexual Gethenian inhabitants of the planet Winter, it is not needed for survival or even convenience.
This novel, which solidified her as one of the great writers of the genre, staked out new ground. This story went well beyond Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, to a wholly new and different–and for some, discomfiting–place. What does it mean if men are allowed to be effeminate and women masculine? What does it mean if anyone can become pregnant–a state men have been grateful to have avoided for millennia? What does it mean if gender does not drive a people or a planet and there is no endless war?
Even raising these questions was stunning; but to assert it would mean a better, more productive, more peaceful world? That was extraordinary. Yet nearly 50 years since Le Guin published that amazing novel, these very issues are in the political foreground on a daily basis and have become a staple in American politics.
At the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness is a relationship that is, from our vantage point, gay. Genly Ai and Estraven–two men in exile from the worlds they know–are pushed into the howling arctic-style terrain to end their respective exiles. It is a three-month journey of the harshest possible kind. A nuclear winter of sorts that pre-dates Game of Thronesby decades. In a landscape barren of anything sustaining, they are reliant upon and thus begin to love each other.
Inside their encampment there is this: “The enduring moment, the hearth of warmth … Outside, as always, lies the great darkness, the cold, death’s solitude.” And there is also Genly Ai’s detailing of the experience of that love, as he writes, “I’m not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.”
Joy. Between two men sharing love that is not platonic. As I noted, iconic.
In her foreword to the 40th anniversary reprinting of The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin acknowledges she didn’t achieve exactly what she wanted: an excision of gender altogether–but what she did accomplish was far greater than she was able to admit. Le Guin wrote, “I did the best I could, working at the hinge point, the moment the change was happening, when what I wrote was part of the change that was happening.
A decade ago, Le Guin published what some consider another masterwork, Lavinia. In my review of the novel for the Baltimore Sun, I wrote, “There are few classics to rival Virgil’s massive Aeneid, and LeGuin has written a worthy companion volume with Lavinia, covering –or rediscovering–the last six books of Virgil’s masterpiece. In The Aeneid, Lavinia has no lines. She is described as nothing more than ‘a silent, shrinking maiden.’ And yet she becomes a figure of tremendous import in the final books of Virgil’s epic work. Still, she is only that: a figurehead. Lavinia’s personage has import, but no corresponding voice. Le Guin, ardently feminist in all her work over the years, gives Lavinia her voice in this mesmerizing first-person narrative.”
I described the novel in all its impressive imagining and ended with this:
Lavinia is a beautifully crafted paean to one of the greatest writers who ever lived and his masterwork. Lavinia is equally a paean to the importance of women in the founding of Western civilization. An extraordinary, haunting and keenly wrought tale of love, vengeance and redemption, Lavinia captures–stunningly and unerringly–an era so far removed from our own as to be unimaginable. And yet Le Guin, who has imagined so many other worlds over the years for readers, brings it to vivid, startling life. A work of immeasurable merit, Lavinia ranks with Robert Graves’ inestimable I, Claudius as a perfect tale of a vastly imperfect time. Brilliant.
I’ve re-read that novel several times since and taught it in a few classes. My opinion hasn’t wavered. Le Guin’s feminist re-telling of a classic is a work of genius as much for its imagining as for its writing.
The aspect of Le Guin’s genius that has never been fully appreciated (although there have been more than a dozen dissertations registered about her feminist oeuvre) is how she brought women out of the shadows and gave them voice in the world of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction.
In 2014, Le Guin told Smithsonian magazine that the pull of science fiction and fantasy was great, because “Anything at all can be said to happen [in the future] without fear of contradiction from a native. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”
Le Guin’s method was taking a female lens to a genre which had previously been scried only through men’s eyes. Le Guin’s method was holding men accountable for shutting women out of the literary world. In 1975–at AussieCon, the world science fiction conference in Melbourne, Australia, Le Guin looked around the mostly male audience and said, “I’d like to ask the men here to consider idly, in some spare moment, whether by any chance they’ve been building any walls to keep the women out, or to keep them in their place, and what they may have lost by doing so.”
In The Dispossessed, Le Guin wrote, “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
Ursula Le Guin gave us new tools for revolution. Let us take her words and make our own.