All my best words were hers: a literary narrative on Ursula K. Le Guin
In memoriam: read her to come alive again.
The messages stream in, from friends, acquaintances, strangers.
“Thought of you when I heard the news.”
I am grateful for their thoughtfulness and ashamed at the attention. The well wishes mount and I do not know how to contain them. I am only a fan. I never knew her personally. No matter how keen the loss felt, my relationship with her had always been one-sided, reader to author, writer to muse, apprentice to master. The impact she had on my life has been unfathomable, but so it was for countless around the world, across countries and cultures. I am only a fan.
In the evening, my mom sends me a text: “Are you ok? I saw one of her quotes @Twitter: ‘Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.’”
Gensher, of Way. A biological parent delivering advice from a literary one. If I have learned anything in this life, it is to listen to my mothers. So I sit down at the table and begin once more the work, my work with words, this time plying it to find a road out of the land of dust and shadows, back to the green grove, the sun’s light, the empty sky.
Before I write I read. The tributes arrive, one after another; the tears follow, wave after wave. Neil Gaiman remarks that he would rather be criticized by her than be praised by any other author. David Mitchell remembers how she urged him to amp up the thing everyone else said to tone down. Margaret Atwood pays cool tribute from her isolate tower, as usual. The best obituary comes from Jo Walton; it casts the widest net and hews closest to my heart. Walton focused on her being more, more than the titles bestowed upon her – “award-winning fantasy author”, “science-fiction grandmaster”, “second-wave feminist” – more than a maker of outer worlds and inner lands, a seer with sparrowhawk eyes, an unbuilder of walls real and imaginary.
I compose in a hasty blog post that takes the form of a letter. I tell her about the time I read a passage from The Left Hand of Darkness aloud to my workshop. I speak about how the tent scene at the beginning of Chapter 18 remains my favorite opening and monologue. I write about how reading her words transported me to strange worlds and into new souls, how that sparked my own journeys as a reader and a writer. The sentiment is trite. I steal her own words to say what she already knows. I cannot say what I mean. I cannot find the way.
I return a few days later because writing is what I use to process. Instead of speaking to her I decide to try talking to others, to write not about how much she meant to me, but what they can learn from her. Yes, this is more in line with the original intention, the removal of self in service of the work. I shall try. I shall write so people will know there is more beyond wizards and utopias, aliens and anarchists.
To writers, read for craft. Read the essay “The Stone Ax and the Muskoxen” to learn the difference between hack work that exists to be sold and true art that endures the ages. Read her warning to young writers in “Talking about Writing” — that the cost of a writer’s freedom is absolute solitude, and that the only questions that matter are the ones we ask ourselves. Read the book Steering The Craft to discover the sound of your writing, the trick of repetition, and the skill of crowding and leaping your words. She would not approve of me using the present tense in this essay, I think, or what she termed “focused narrative tense”, but I would argue that in this case, the fixed bright beam is necessary. This is about the work. I know what I’m doing, Ursula. You taught me well.
"To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it." Steering the Craft
To nature lovers, pay attention. Matthew Keely over at Tor muses that if circumstances were different, she may have been known as one of the best nature writers. All my life I knew this, sensed how the current running beneath her oeuvre flowed between our world and the more-than-human one, was sourced from the same headwaters that nourished the forests of her mind. The roots of those trees reach deep, into the short story “Direction of the Road” and its oak tree protagonist, into “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” and the idea of non-human sentience, into the haunting revelation of how a society in “The Nna Mmoy Language” copes with living in a manicured world cleansed of “useless” flora and fauna.
For a challenge, tax the limits of your imagination by leaping into “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” to discover a future not populated with spaceships and laser blasters, but linguists arguing over ant exudations and penguin semantics. Listen to academics scoff at how those at the turn of the millennium did not even recognize the sure grace of sharkscript or the wild wit of seal auteurs. Expand your sphere of consideration to contemplate new frontiers in lichen lyrics, in volcanic poetry, in the immense, cosmic tongues of earth and space.
Between widening your world and delving deeper into the roles animals play in our lives and our literature in her essay collection Cheek by Jowl, browse through The Annals of Pard, her cat blog:
"He is pretty, but his only unusual beauty is his eyes, and you have to look closely to realize it. Right around the large dark pupil they are green, and around that reddish yellow. I had seen that magical change in a semiprecious stone: he has eyes of chrysoberyl." – “Choosing a Cat”, No Time to Spare
I read this passage for the first time in December, one month prior to her passing. Chrysoberyl has long been one of my dearest words.
Read the fragments to discern the mind. Digest as many miscellaneous pieces of writing as possible. Realize the span of subjects her forewords cover as she ruminates on her novels in hindsight. The one to Left Hand is a treatise on the unique and essential metaphors science fiction brings. The one to Planet of Exile reveals that the central theme of her work is surprisingly, marriage. The one preceding The Word for World is Forest reads like a confession, an admission of how repressed anger at systemic injustice can seep into and corrupt even the joy of the creative process.
Discover the passionate introductions she penned connecting readers to other genre writers. Read the one she wrote for Star Songs of An Old Primate so you can learn about the haunting works and tragic life of James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). Delve into “The Modest One” in which she declares fellow Berkley High grad Phillip K. Dick to be a modern-day prophet. Then onto Tolkien, a fellow arboreal author, whose Middle-Earth she treasured and whose works she defends passionately against simplistic interpretations in “The Child and the Shadow.”
More. More political? Read her lament for Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s legacy and how Western writers waste their freedoms in “The Stalin in the Soul.” More technical? Learn how to construct universes while ignoring God in “Do-It-Yourself Cosmology.” More courageous? Read “The Literary Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes” on her experience in refusing an award, Jean-Paul Sartre style, only instead of a Nobel it was a Nebula, and instead of being motivated by personal philosophy she did it to protest the unjust treatment of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem at the height of Cold War paranoia.
When you are done absorbing all those heady words that she proudly made her matter, read her recipe for Cream of Food soup. Note the accompanying doodle of an armless woman staring wearily into the abyss of an exploded fridge. Feel the universal truth of that experience and laugh. I shall make the recipe one day, in tribute and to clear out my fridge.
“Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.” – “The Category-Defying Genius of Ursula K. Le Guin.”
Learn how an 84-year old unstoppable octopus monster slimed out her own trail.
When reading grows unprofitable, listen. Listen to Gabrielle De Cuir narrate the audiobook version of Changing Planes. Let De Cuir’s dulcet tones glide over an alternate version of Gulliver’s Travels with an anthropological twist. Close your eyes and learn what it’s like to live with the Asonu, a people who choose to dwell in secret silence. Envision a birdlike Ansorac ambassador perform his traditional mating dance with the dignity of an antique Spanish dancer. Stay in Frin awhile, to learn how people and animals engage in grand collective dreaming.
When you waken from ethereal descriptions of interplanary travel, return to Earth for some grounding and sustenance. Listen to her 1983 Mills College commencement speech on embracing the kingdom of darkness, the country that grows and nourishes human souls. Move onto her 1986 Bryn Mawr address delivered in 1986 for a 2018 reminder of how when women offer their experiences as human truth, volcanoes erupt and new lands are formed. Sit down for her 2014 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters acceptance speech. Pay attention to words like “profiteers” and “deodorant”; words like “capitalism” and “inescapable”; phrases like “so did the right of divine kings” and statements laced with “resistance”, “change”, “art”, and the rare and uncorrupted usage of the word known as “freedom.”
Hear how an 85-year old dragon spoke truth and breathed fire.
To those who care nothing for dragons, visit Earthsea still. Not the realm of the original trilogy, but the second one she returned to visit later in life. The magic in these latter stories is less showy but more potent, having had time to seep into the fictional world, which changes as all real worlds do. Accompany her as she returns after a two-decade absence with fresh eyes and new questions. Questions like, what happens after a hero’s deeds and doings? Which stories are told and which are ignored? Whose histories were silenced and need to be unearthed? What can change a world and who are the ones to do it?
Questions worth asking, now more than ever.
Start with Tehanu, a star’s name, the swan’s heart, linchpin of the sky; follow a child spared from the fire yet spared no pain, a woman who knows no magic but wields her own power. Move onto Tales of Earthsea, a series of short tales gathered over multiple voyages back to the archipelago. “The Finder” reveals the history behind the least stuffy and most enigmatic master of wizard school. “On the High Marsh” is a tale of healing for a damaged man in the most forlorn of places.
There are many stories; while I can no longer read “The Bones of the Earth” without breaking down, you can and should, as it speaks to the invisible sacrifices that make ordinary life possible. Then there is The Other Wind, a tale about a love that breaks the world, shatters it so that it can be made whole again, so that dust and dead stars give way to fire and sunlight and life ever reborn. Read a story about the coming together of different voices, of redress and reconciliation, of great passing and lasting change:
“'I think,' Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, 'that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.'” The Other Wind
This is my favorite passage from Earthsea and stays with me always.
Read for love, as one always should. Not for the initial thrill and ardor, but for the solid, enduring thing that grows from the tended seeds of compassion, without which bonds are untempered, are not whole, and do not last. Read about the act, remade like daily bread, that survives across the shifting realities in The Lathe of Heaven. Map its endless permutations and impossible calculus in the four-way marriages of “Mountain Ways.” Revisit her seminal works through the lens of love. Dwell in the unsaid spaces between Genly Ai, Estraven, and another as they trek across the Gobrin Ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. Center the story of The Dispossessed around Shevek and Takver, partners orbiting each other across time and space:
“We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that’s already between us, the distance of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back…” – The Dispossessed
This is the most romantic paragraph I have ever read.
Each line contains
A world within words.
Where the words aren’t
There’s room for the soul.
Read her to make her come alive again. Sometimes you can find her as Lao Tzu in her rendition of the Tao Te Ching, as the old teacher who imparts wisdom through witty footnotes as much as translated poems. Read her compare the slim tome to Borges’ Aleph in that both contain universes entire, if you know how to decipher them. Read her dispense life and travel advice via the Roman poet Horace and Emily Brontë; “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt” means “those who rush to sea gain a change in sky but not themselves.” My favorite footnote simply says, “So much for capitalism.” Next to the soup recipe, her rendition of this ancient text is her most accessible and nourishing of works.
At other times she is Laia Aseio Odo. Not the shining symbol and dead revolutionary for an anarchist society in The Dispossessed, but the activist living her last day in “The Day Before the Revolution,” a stroke victim who is done with doing, an old woman who in the act of recalling her six-year-old urchin self with scabby knees, remembers who she is one last time.
These days I find her mostly in Lavinia, both as the luminous final novel she learned Latin in her seventies to pen, and as the silent Virgil creation she imbued with voice and substance. Both Lavinia and her maker now lie beyond the realm of death; their fates are contingent upon us. To find them, make a pilgrimage to the dim forests of Albunea, to those groves that stretch on as far as the mind goes. There they reside now, reborn with each line of read words, each passage and page. Walk awhile in those woods, in silence. Watch for the flutter of an owl’s wing on the wind. Listen for the bird’s call, faint and quavering, crying: “i, i.” That will be them intertwined, creation and creator, dwelling in spirit and awe, alive once more, speaking: “Go on, go.”
In memoriam Ursula K. Le Guin
This article was first published in Entropy.
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