The one known as Ursula K Le Guin has departed.
So it goes…
She is survived by books – full of characters and entire worlds – stories and premises that have impacted countless people in more ways than typical for any author.
There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life,
or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.
— from The Dispossessed
I felt the need to write something about her passing not simply because she was a writer too, or that I have read some of her books, but because she inspired me by the ways in which she integrated her politics into her craft and persona.
So here it goes…
As someone who proudly identified as a speculative fiction novelist – something that was more meaningful back in the day when science fiction and fantasy carried a lot more stigma as if inferior to other genres – she showed the literary community what this fiction is meant to do: to push boundaries, to distort the familiar, to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.
There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids—they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians. . .
One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.
— 2017 interview with LARB
Not only were her characters mostly people of colour, but she also engaged with difficult subjects (themes that I am always compelled by, including anarchism and politics, feminism, environmentalism, magic and identity) through narratives that were poetic, meaningful and memorable – all things that I aspire to accomplish too as a writer.
1978 Eye of the Heron explored conflicts between two communities on a penal planet, one being militaristic and the other ones trying to abide by their pacifist beliefs.
1974 The Dispossessed follows a story set on the twin planets Anarres and Urras, with the former ruled by capitalist patriarchy and authoritarian state, while the latter is composed of self-imposed exiles who live in an anarchist community.
Her worldbuilding skill was especially unique, not simply for escaping the cliche of quasi Medieval Europe landscapes and its feudal power structures (1968 A Wizard of Earthsea‘s sea-faring archipelago being my favourite), but because she integrated elements of her new worlds in ways that made our own contemporary human societies (and the binaries upholding most of it) seem so much more fluid and subject to change – which is damn inspiring.
The Left Hand of Darkness is her famous 1969 novel, set several thousand years in the future on an ambisexual winter planet, where people go through a biological cycle of annually acquiring and shedding male or female sex characteristics (depending on their relationships or desires).
The choice to train to be an artist of any kind is a risky one.
Art’s a vocation, and often pays little for years and years — or never.
Kids who want to be dancers, musicians, painters, writers, need more than dreams.
They need a serious commitment to learning how to do what they want to do, and working at it through failure and discouragement.
Dreams are lovely, but passion is what an artist needs — a passion for the work.
That’s all that can carry you through the hard times.
So I guess my advice to the young writer is a warning, and a wish:
You’ve chosen a really, really hard job that probably won’t pay you beans — so get yourself some kind of salable skill to live on!
And may you find the reward of your work in the work itself.
May it bring you joy.
— URSULA K. LE GUIN
And maybe most of all, she showed us, writers, that you can be truly relevant to this world in this day and age, by refusing to be satisfied with the status quo rules of might-makes-right, the notion that books are only just a commodity, that the economy should dictate how we live and value ourselves, that art is only to be bought and sold.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
— Le Guin’s 2014 National Book Award Speech
The following are two fairly lengthy excerpts from speeches she gave, but both are so so so wonderful that I still wanted to share. Both are commencement speeches, and both speak to the need for us, particularly women and marginalized voices, to ignore those forces which seek to conform us into their mould, to resist it by writing outside dominant tones of our patriarchal culture – because to do so is truly successful.
Now this is what I want: I want to hear your judgments. I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking, about eating, about cooking, about feeding, about taking in seed and giving out life, about killing, about feeling, about thinking; about what women do; about what men do; about war, about peace; about who presses the buttons and what buttons get pressed and whether pressing buttons is in the long run a fit occupation for human beings. There’s a lot of things I want to hear you talk about.
This is what I don’t want: I don’t want what men have. I’m glad to let them do their work and talk their talk. But I do not want and will not have them saying or thinking or telling us that theirs is the only fit work or speech for human beings. Let them not take our work, our words, from us. If they can, if they will, let them work with us and talk with us. We can all talk mother tongue, we can all talk father tongue, and together we can try to hear and speak that language which may be our truest way of being in the world, we who speak for a world that has no words but ours. I know that many men and even women are afraid and angry when women do speak, because in this barbaric society, when women speak truly they speak subversively—they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.
That’s what I want—to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you—I want to hear you. I want to listen to you talking to each other and to us all: whether you’re writing an article or a poem or a letter or teaching a class or talking with friends or reading a novel or making a speech or proposing a law or giving a judgment or singing the baby to sleep or discussing the fate of nations, I want to hear you. Speak with a woman’s tongue. Come out and tell us what time of night it is! Don’t let us sink back into silence. If we don’t tell our truth, who will? Who’ll speak for my children, and yours?
— Le Guin’s 1986 commencement address
And then this…
What about success?
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own.
Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean — the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
— Le Guin’s 1983 commencement speech at Mills College
Okay, that about does it this time.
Thank you for writing, Ursula.
See you in the next world…
Thanks for reading.