After the death of science fiction pioneer Ursula K. Le Guin, ACM asked four writers about her work and what she meant to them.
Mary Anne Mohanraj
The only time I met Ursula K. Le Guin, she was mean to me.
She was a little sharp, though, acerbic, which I gather was not uncommon for her. I was a young writer, halfway through an MFA at Mills College, attending a reading in Berkeley given by my literary hero. I had gathered up all my courage to ask a question. I’d spent a few years writing and publishing explicitly about sex, fighting through my own hesitations and society’s disapproval – my parents were tremendously upset with me for writing under my own name, another writer at a writer’s gathering accused me of being a nymphomaniac, and I even received hate mail from men in India, furious that one of their women was writing about sex.
Of course, Le Guin was writing daring stories decades before me, stories of women who loved women, of four-person marriages, of people without gender. Her stories offered possibilities that most of society hadn’t even imagined in the late 1960s; I knew she must have faced similar societal disapproval. So I wanted to know why she faded to black for her sex scenes. “There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.” (“Coming of Age in Karhide”) There was plenty of sex in her books – sometimes tremendously important sex — but Le Guin didn’t dwell on the details.
When she took questions after her reading, I stood up from my spot in the back of the room and asked Le Guin why she didn’t talk explicitly about sex, hoping for I’m not sure what — some response that would both justify the work I’d been trying to do and connect it to her own work, that I so admired. Instead, Le Guin gave a curt answer about those details not being that interesting. I said, “Oh.” And “Thank you.” I sat down, and tried not to be crushed.
There was nothing actually wrong with her answer. Le Guin didn’t know me, or anything about my writing; if she wasn’t interested in something, why shouldn’t she say so? What I should have done, what I wish I’d done, was follow up. I could have sent a letter, an e-mail; I’ve learned since that she responded graciously, generously to many such letters. I could have tried to take a class with her at Clarion. I could have argued with her, and maybe even changed her mind. I had a chance to actually learn directly from one of the best writers of our time, and instead, I went away and sulked. I was very young.
Le Guin loomed so large, is the thing, and I wanted too much from her. Her fiction and essays and poetry covered an astonishing range, artistically and politically, from young adult fables to lyrical poetry, from a rendition of the Tao Te Ching to essential critical essays (“From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”). It’s unfair to expect that anyone, certainly any writer, should write so well, and also be able to read a young writer’s mind, to tell her exactly what she wanted to hear. Though I have been reading tributes for days, and it’s clear that Le Guin came closer to accomplishing that than most: the literary field is flooded with stories of how gracious and generous Le Guin was, especially to writers as ignorant and young as I was. That’s astonishing.
It should be enough for her to be the best writer of her generation, as Michael Chabon just named her. China Miéville called her a literary colossus, a giant of modern letters (as he critiqued the NY Times obituary for referring to her as merely a ‘grande dame’). Isn’t it enough to be a genius — must you be gracious and generous too? Maybe only if you are also a woman. I feel that Le Guin would have had something witty to say about that.
In the end, I didn’t really need Le Guin to be the perfect teacher in person. What I actually needed from her, she gave me, gave us all. She gave us her unflinching best, a rigorous mind that never hesitated to poke at the hardest questions.
I told my literature students about Ursula K. Le Guin today, squeezing a few minutes for her into a class on American science fiction writers of color, a class where she didn’t strictly speaking belong – though to be honest, I rather think she’d improve almost any class. I told them about the six books that comprise Earthsea, about the gender-bending brilliance of The Left Hand of Darkness, the anarchist explorations in The Dispossessed, the stories in The Birthday of the World and Four Ways to Forgiveness (many of which I teach, gratefully). I mentioned her National Book Award, and her host of awards in science fiction and fantasy. I gave them her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which is one of the most brilliant, uncomfortable stories I’ve ever read.
But I focused on the piece that meant the most to me – her essay in Dancing at the Edge of the World, titled “Is Gender Necessary? (Redux).” The 1988 essay is a commentary on her 1976 essay; in the earlier essay she defended her use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun in The Left Hand of Darkness. In 1988, she went through the earlier essay, and point by point, showed why she had been wrong to use “he” that way, and why she had changed her mind.
Le Guin was willing to interrogate every position she took, to look at it again and again. Unlike most human beings, she resisted the temptation to freeze in place, assured that she had figured all the answers out long ago. Le Guin was better than anyone else I know at looking at herself and her society with unflinching eyes. She is the standard I try to hold myself to, for my writing, for my students. Kind whenever possible. Steadfast and resolute, always.
I wrote this poem for her, five years ago.
I wish I’d had the sense to send it to her then.
They Should Be Afraid of Old Women
A mother now, I can with steady hands
extract a shard of wood or glass and smile
to ease her nerves. I do not flinch; no bands
of fear constrict my chest. It’s been a while
since smaller hurts – the scrapes of life, the bumps –
disturbed my work. With children came a new
defining of what’s worth a panicked thump
of heart. Or maybe it’s just age – who knew
I’d grow so calm? And yet, I am not cold.
I bleed with every news report, each child
at risk – the tears rise quick and uncontrolled;
even fiction breaks my heart. We must remold
this world. My voice and manner may be mild,
but my spine will be as iron when I’m old.
(for Ursula K. Le Guin, among others)
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and twelve other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated science fiction magazine, Strange Horizons, and founded Jaggery, a South Asian literary journal. She serves as Director of two literary organizations, DesiLit and The Speculative Literature Foundation, and is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I often think of Ursula Le Guin as I do Virginia Woolf; both were writers whose literary imaginations remain so spectacularly different than their contemporaries that their works embody a provocative retort to the comparatively unimaginative world around them. Le Guin’s fiction rejected a host of science fiction and fantasy tropes that have become as dull in repetition as they were in creation. In the world of hard science fiction, creation powers itself through narratives thick with aggression and dismissive ecological catastrophe. The worst space operas (the worst of the Star Wars entries and derivative knockoffs, for instance) reflect (largely) American imperialism at its most perfunctorily bland. In contrast, Le Guin writes in an anti-tradition that finds reflection in the works of writers such as Lidia Yuknavitch, Joanna Russ, Kathy Acker, Ruth Ozeki, and Octavia Butler.
The many novels, short story collections, and short stories that Le Guin’s texts in the “Hainish cycle” (Le Guin resisted that title), are a set of loosely related books and stories that are not a cycle at all, that upend “male” science fiction tropes. Prominent entries in the group include The Left Hand of Darkness, The Disposessed, and The Word for World is Forest. Her work not merely opposes traditional space narrative, but refuses to settle for binary oppositions. Most famously, in darkness, the character of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, from the planet called Gethen, is able, like all Gethenians, to assume either sex while in Kemmer (estrus). In contrast, the Ekumen envoy, Genly Ai, comes to understand that his Terran (Earth) biology limits his understanding of Gethenian society. Le Guin writes the space between bodies in the difference between Gethenian androgyny and Terran sexuality. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis induced to the planetary or galactic level: the structure of language determines experience, and the experience of Estraven is as strange to Genly Ai as his “mindspeech”—mental communication—is to Estraven. They come to understand their difference, but only because that difference is wrapped taut around the bodies and speech acts of the characters.
In Le Guin’s fiction, edges are illusions. The great ice sheet that Estraven and Genly Ai must cross is not merely the arc of the planetary circle (a distance to be understood and measured), but rather an interplanetary distance that has no firm boundary. Deep in the “Expendable Chapters” of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, the writer Morelli notes that “it’s a terrible job, splashing around in a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (496). This harkens to Blaise Pascal, where the sphere is “Nature” and to whom the aphorism is oft associated, as well as Nicholas of Cusa, where the sphere is “God.” Yet regardless of the origin…well, that’s just it, Le Guin’s fiction remains anti-origin. The Ekumen of the Hainish cycle, successors of the League of All Worlds, certainly have a place of origin in the planet known as Hain, but the search for their ultimate foundation, their ultimate explanation for what makes all lifeforms connected is never the point of her stories. Le Guin’s explorers hopscotch more than progress, with the NAFAL (Nearly As Fast As Light) travel allowing transport across the galaxy in the span of weeks or months, but with many years passing back home in the same time.
Her characters can never return to where they came from because centuries will have elapsed while the explorers have barely aged. A device called the Ansible allows instantaneous communication, but there can never be contemporaneous contact. There is no stable center of this universe to power a narrative of mutual understanding. The lifeforms who have come to embody the many worlds are diffuse in evolution to the point of strangeness (the winged creatures in Roccanon’s World; the cat eyes of the Alterrans, etc.). For Le Guin, these works aren’t about repair or recuperation. Rather, the Ekumen’s attempts to unify and connect are never the Great Work of turning lead into gold nor tailor tape for measuring the impossible circumference of heteronormative circles. No, Le Guin’s fictions are concerned with more provocative uncertainties: “Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.”
Rather than delve deeply, as others have a surely will, into the specifics of her texts, I want to close with a reflection on the reader. I lead a monthly book group of residents in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The program attracts well-read professionals, often retired, who are familiar with the “classics” but not specifically with genre fiction. I suggested The Left Hand of Darkness in a three-book science fiction series that also included Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Huxley’s 1931 classic, the most famous work of the three and therefore the “draw” to the other two, reads as the weakest. The most interesting sections of the novel, where Lenina and Bernard visit the so-called “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico to observe “natural born people,” are weighted by mid-20th century ideas and feel dated against the more quotidian historical plan of the World State. The World State’s plan is a narrative that lasts, in a sense, for centuries, without—as opposed to the Ekumen and NAFAL—hopscotching anywhere. The reader is largely helpless to imagine the outside in any form excepting a version that mimics our own. Brave New World is less Puck’s (and Northop Frye’s) Green World from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and more, much more—too much more—a box where the cat is both dead and simply more dead.
The Underground Railroad is a different matter. Organized in a series of vignettes that run roughshod over antebellum history and provide a map that could be ripped from a Situationist handbook, the story is all about its secret spaces and lines of flight. A reader at the library asked the group, in the middle of our discussion, how the builders had managed to construct an actual railroad underground. I understood in her question not ignorance, but belief in Whitehead’s subversive vision of remembrance and escape.
Darkness, though, is the hardest of the three to discuss with the casual reader. Its world is (of course) a proxy for our own—Gethen is our planet stuck in a perpetual medieval ice age, where a cold war between two powers (as with cancer in the eponymous short story from Shelley Jackson’s “Cancer” in The Melancholy of Anatomy), has become externalized. The ice and the cold climate, on a planet of two major powers, represent not a version of Soviet and US spheres of influence. The climactic surge across the ice in Darkness that extends through the last third of the book also reads as “forever”—a duration beyond human scale—because the distance that must be crossed is borne by the body, Genly’s, that can never return from where he came, because on Earth, centuries have passed.
My group at the library, smaller than that assembled for Huxley or Whitehead, became more attuned to and fascinated by an imagination that pushes outside the circle. The estrus undergone by the characters in Darkness becomes aligned with the complexities of Gethenian shifgrethor (an attempt to maintain the “pride relationship”—think “saving face”). Le Guin’s characters wear different faces and inhabit different bodies, while the race across the ice that will lead to Gethen ultimately accepting the Ekumen’s invitation forces to the reader to confront the limits of their own binary thinking. Like Genly, we connect to Estraven because we are forced, in cold, in darkness, away from what we’ve always known. We’re left, at the close, with the sense that Gethen’s joining the worlds of the Ekumen will prove transformative in a cultural exchange more meaningful for the group of planets than our exchange in the Age of Conquest has been for this one. Instead of swapping corn and rice, and instead of swapping enslavement and conquest, we leave Le Guin with a sense of boundaries permeated not by force, but by nuance. We leave Le Guin changed. Reformed and re-membered. In her poem “Epiphany” from Hard Words, and Other Poems she asks, “Did you hear?/Mrs. Le Guin has found God./Yes, but she found the wrong one. Absolutely typical (19).” And while Ursula K. Le Guin has now also changed tense, to find a god that is neither circumference nor center, she has left us with an expanse of ice, waiting, calling, for us to cross.
Davis Schneiderman is associate dean of the faculty as well as professor of English at Lake Forest College. His recent novels include the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy (Jaded Ibis), which contains blank novel BLANK, the plagiarized novel [SIC], and the ink-smeared novel INK.; as well as the novel Drain (Northwestern). Schneiderman’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Fiction International, Harpers.org, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, and TriQuarterly. He is currently co-teaching a course on science fiction writing and virtual reality; and performing a work (Paris; Indiana University) exploring the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention.
Mary H. Russell
She’s gone, off the map, into what Hamlet called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”
Le Guin’s characters were travelers, on the hunt for who they were and where they belonged. Those splendid maps at the beginning of her fantasies always drew me in, though I only discovered Le Guin’s Earthsea novels as a grown-up reader.
My childhood fantasy reading had been spent not very far from my real life. When Lucy Pevensie went through the wardrobe portal into Narnia, she found a land of icy evil and self-sacrificing redemptive love. Aslan wasn’t very far away from my Catholic parochia school world.
As a grown-up I found A Wizard of Earthsea (1968 and never out of print since) when I was beginning to teach children’s literature to college students. As an example of speculative fiction, Wizard was perfect. I wanted a book with startling differences from student’s expectations of realism. Narnia is a world we walk into with Lucy, feeling the fur coats in that wardrobe caressing our faces. Earthsea isn’t close to us. It is simply there, a “where” of profound differences. One of us does not get there simply. One who is very unlike us exists there, and must find his true identity, inside himself and against the challenges of that’s universe’s rules. That’s what growing up is all about. Earlier books in the quartet focused on boys moving into manhood, but later, and especially in Tehanu, the 1990 “caboose” that turned the trilogy into a quartet, a girl comes center stage in her struggle. And the endings were not tied up too neatly in any Disney-esque fashion. Characters aged, sometimes died, sometimes disappointed, but still we wanted to find out more about them. How does the rash young hypercompetitive Ged grow up? This isn’t so simple as “bullied outsider comes to full magical strength and then all is well and everybody loves him. The shadow of evil which Ged unleashes early is turned aside in one book but not without cost nor with permanence.
Le Guin had staked out her adult sci-fi market with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. There she imagined a planet where gender is not fixed but shifting. Its inhabitants are “ambisexual.” A diplomat from a planet where gender functions as a fixed entity arrives to advocate a political realignment. Who can forget the moment when the envoy, Genly, hears the announcement that “the king is pregnant”? Le Guin positions readers to become painfully conscious of how our own language assumptions have made us construct the world and its discourse in one way only.
And Le Guin kept going, in so many different directions, as a truly speculative intellect, even to the end of her life. No Time To Spare, published in November 2017, features some of her blogs from the last eight years. She’s an articulate defender of her right to declare that “I am free but my time is not.” She shouts out against those who would make aging some sort of merry marathon. “Old age is for anybody who gets there. Warriors get old; sissies get old.” And for feline fanciers, the seven essays gathered as “The Annals of Pard” delight in their understanding of the psychological fencing matches in which we engage with our cats. Pard won’t attack the kachinas on the mantel when the room is empty; he leaps and launches himself at the figurines only when Le Guin, who values the kachinas, shares the space with him. Le Guin’s observes so closely Pard’s pleasure in hunting little boxelder bugs that she has the breakthrough revelation that Pard loves the Time Machine external drive because it makes tiny squeaking sounds. For him, it must be a beetle’s nest. Pard (short for Leopard, of course) waits patiently by it, sure that he can find a way inside.
Ursula Le Guin taught her readers to speculate, to be surprised, to be frustrated by what they didn’t yet know and yet always to move on to the next territory.
In an obituary in The Guardian, John Clute, a British scholar of fantasy and sci-fi , wrote a fitting epigraph for her: “She had become the mother of her tribe.”
Mary Harris Russell graduated from St. Mary’s College and went on to get a Ph.D. in English Literature at Berkeley, in 1970. For more than 30 years, she taught children’s literature at Indiana University Northwest and was a regular reviewer of children’s books at the Chicago Tribune for much of that period. Her fantasy interests have included Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. She’s currently working on the way pilgrimages change people and what time is all about, as well as wondering if she should get a new bicycle.
I don’t know when I sent my first letter to Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve kept identical black notebooks since I was fourteen, and I looked at the first ten of them and couldn’t find a record about what motivated me to write. The letter must have gone to Avon, her publisher at the time. What I do know is the date of her reply: On February 19, 1980, when I was seventeen. I wrote in all caps: “I GOT AN ANSWER FROM URSULA LE GUIN.”
And this wasn’t just a note. It had a typed envelope and the letter inside was typed on stationary with Le Guin in curly typeface. She thanked me for what I said about the PBS production of The Lathe of Heaven. Then, I must have asked her about the anarchism in The Dispossessed because she went on about her own ambiguous utopia and its founder, Odo’s theoretical foundation. “The major source for ODO’s [caps all hers] is probably Kropotkin.” Then, after a few lines about Emma Goldman’s (“she was such a sweetie”), Le Guin ended, “I fully agree with you that you are going to be a writer. I don’t know why. I just believe you when you say it.”
Of course, I sent her a terrible short story, and she sent back her response, a typed single-spaced savage page. Now, thirty-eight years later, I think: What established writer does this sort of thing? I actually suspect that Ursula did this sort of thing, and all the time. I have no real evidence, and a hasty Google search for stories like my own only led nowhere. Of course, we all know that a generation of writers—particularly women—are in her debt. Of course, we can turn to the back of books—particularly books published by independent presses—and see her testimonials. Why do I assume that some of those women had been corresponding with her for a decade or more before that publication? When she died, were there dozens of women pulling out their forty-year-old letters or postcards? Did they save them in a box like I did?
In my case, after that early exchange, with the exception of a letter which generated a weird little postcard based on who-knows-what with a drawing of “smiling running shoes” I swore I wouldn’t write to Ursula Le Guin until I had something to say. Ten years later, my novel about a failed medieval fourteenth-century peasant revolt was published by Black Heron Press. Le Guin did like the book, and the testimonial she wrote on the back didn’t save The Confession of Jack Straw from obscurity, but it probably was the reason the book ended up on the shelf of Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. I told her so, and she sent a postcard: “The Novelist Beloved by Anarchists Remains Thin – Ancient Slobic Proverb.”
Somehow, when we met in person our relationship felt more abstract. The first time was soon after my marriage, in 2002. We met outside of Powell’s in Portland, and then the two of us headed to her place. She was even shorter than I thought she’d be, brisk, almost businesslike, though by all measures, glad to see me. As we entered her house, she told me that she and Charles had just finished reading War and Peace out loud to each other; when I arrived, he was hiding somewhere. Our conversation was collegial enough, but I do remember her saying something about the importance of women writers having mentors, which made me feel a little too much like a project.
The second time I saw Ursula was in 2014 at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Seattle. By then, she was an established literary lioness, known for her thunderous roaring, particularly against corporations like Amazon. Her emails from the carefully anonymous address were lots of fun. “I hope we can meet LIVE! IN PERSON! at AWP.” And finally, as we arranged to meet her in hotel room, “If you need to be in touch with me after Thursday of next week—try my hotel room. Email no good. Zog not travel with computer. Zog very primitive. 4:30 at Zog’s hotel room.”
She said she’d lost her copy of Jack Straw, and I brought a new one plus the two other books I’d published, half a bottle of wine, and a small bouquet of tulips, and there she was, compact as ever, now a little hunch-backed, with her characteristic cap of straight, white hair. She put the flowers in water and offered me some bourbon from a flask and, of course, I took a nervous sip, and we talked about publishing. She was a happy, witty talker. She said, “You’re a mid-list author” and I wanted to say, “No, actually. I’m not on a list at all,” but it did give us a way to talk about the world of publishing, about marketing and boycotting Amazon of course, and how she resigned from the Authors Guild over their compromise with Google. Then, slowly, the room began to fill with other white-haired Oregonian women, all clearly over eighty; one of them was Ursula’s webmaster. They passed around that flask; one of them took a glass out of the bathroom and took off its paper cap to pour or drink. I began to feel as though I shouldn’t overstay my welcome.
After that point, Ursula and I corresponded only by email, and not very often: When David Hartwell at the big science fiction press, Tor, bought my novel Judenstaat (she warned me that some other women he’d published had found their books buried), when Hartwell demanded a blurb from her (she said she’d get to it and see if a blurb “rises up”; it didn’t), when Hartwell died suddenly leaving my novel orphaned (he was a star, and I’d be treated well; unfortunately, I wasn’t). Somehow, the medium of email didn’t suit either of us. I missed the squibby pictures on her postcards. I also wondered if somehow my publication at a press like Tor made me less interesting. I did write to congratulate her on her inclusion in the Library of America series, and particularly her selection of her wonderful and mostly-forgotten Orsinian pieces in the first volume. I didn’t get an answer.
I‘m fifty-five now, older than Le Guin had been when she first got my first letter. My response to her death is pretty straightforward: I’m grateful that she was honored in her own time, that she got to write what she wanted to write, and that her work and opinions continue to matter. She also died before her husband Charles, something that I suspect she would have wanted; you can feel the strength of that relationship in every book she’s written.
And maybe I understand why Le Guin might have answered all those letters from strangers. She wasn’t being altruistic. An anarchist in the Ododian mold doesn’t believe in altruism. Rather, she believed in solidarity in a broad sense, between writers and readers against the forces of markets that tell us what we have to write and algorithms that tell us what we want to read. As Kropotkin writes, “the great principle of Mutual Aid which grants the best chances of survival to those who best support each other in the struggle for life.”
Simone Zelitch has published five novels, most recently Judenstaat (Tor/Macmillan 2016) an alternative history about the establishment of a Jewish state in Germany in 1948. She has taught fiction workshops for over thirty years, including a course in researching and writing historical fiction at the University of Pennsylvania. She teaches at Community College of Philadelphia where she established their Creative Writing Certificate and currently coordinates their English Degree. For more information, check out her website simonezelitch.com.