This roundtable, celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin’s 94th birthday, aimed to take stock of Le Guin’s whole marvelous arc. It explored the origins and historical context of her work, as well as its political and aesthetic impact now, half a decade after her death. Arwen Curry is the writer and director of the celebrated documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. So Mayer, (writer, bookseller, organizer, and film curator) is the author most recently of Truth & Dare and editor, along with Sarah Shin, of Space Crone, a new collection of Le Guin’s writing. Julie Phillips is author of the prizewinning SF biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and is now at work on an authorized biography of Le Guin. The conversation was convened by Public Books’s own John Plotz (Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea)
John Plotz: Which Le Guin book has made the most difference to you and why?
So Mayer: I was read A Wizard of Earthsea at my primary school and I hated it. It made me so angry. It was the third book in a row that we’d been read, after The Hobbit and Moonfleet, which I declared to the teacher was all boys. It infuriated me. So I didn’t read any more Le Guin or I thought I didn’t read any Le Guin until I was in my twenties and a TA on a science fiction and fantasy course taught by the wonderful Daniel Heath Justice.
And then I read The Earthsea series, and found myself rereading The Tombs of Atuan, which was a book I thought I never read before. But I had read it! And it had sunk into me at such a deep level that I thought it was something I dreamed. In fact, it had become a structuring dream of my whole life: the dream of leaving behind the tombs and experiencing that difficult freedom that comes to Tenar. And rereading that at a very difficult point in my midtwenties absolutely changed my relationship to myself, to fiction, to science fiction.
Arwen Curry: The Lathe of Heaven really struck me. I was taken with the respect and the delicacy with which she treats her characters and their relationships, the details of what love looks like, played out within a setting that is constantly roiling and changing.
And, of course, there is also the book’s idea of dreams changing reality. If you say it offhandedly, it seems to be cliché or simple. But it was so profoundly interesting to me: the reality that you were living in one moment was not the same for the person next to you, that you could be the only one who knew it, that these nuances are changing.
Julie Phillips: I would ask what you mean by making a difference. Are you talking about a book that reflects my experience—my sense of myself at age 13—back to me like The Tombs of Atuan? Are you talking about a book that caught me up so emotionally and surprised me so completely in the first two pages like The Lathe of Heaven? Are you talking about a story that made me cry, like “Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” or “The Shobies’ Story”? Are you talking about her writing on motherhood, particularly in her essays but also in fiction, and how that shaped my most recent book? And how her whole life and her fictions like the Earthsea series have shaped my sense of what a creative life can be?
What kind of difference? She makes so many kinds of difference. She asks so many questions. Like she said in Arwen’s documentary, “I open doors, it’s not for me to decide what comes in and out.”
I just gave a talk to a group of ninth graders who had all just read The Lathe of Heaven and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” They were really excited to think about what makes a just society. And I have a feeling that they’re going to carry that thought with them always. And that the more they read Le Guin, the richer their thoughts will become and the more questions they themselves will have.
John Plotz: Let’s talk about the range of being human. Julie, you quote Le Guin as saying, “The world does not in fact belong to us at all,” and you quote Michael Chabon saying that Le Guin “gives us a view from the other side.” That really strikes me about her as a writer: that the human doesn’t sum it up in terms of what she’s interested in.
Julie Phillips: Not even the animate! She imagines what it would be like to think as a rock. This is really, really powerful for thinking about the climate and ecology and the Anthropocene and what our responsibilities are and what the limits of our powers are.
Arwen Curry: Sometimes people would ask me, during the Q&A after a screening, What would she think of where we are now? Are we doomed? Is humanity going to survive?
And my best reflection is that she saw beyond humanity. It’s not only the survival of humanity that she cared about, but the other creatures and structures and beings and the earth itself, the land, the landscape.
Julie Phillips: Yes, she finds emotion in the landscape, trying to feel what that landscape might have to say for itself. There’s a really lovely essay that she wrote at the end of 2016 about finding political hope in the Tao Te Ching and in the way of water. Water doesn’t appear to resist, finds the low places and can become dirty, and yet still remains itself and wears down rocks. If you open yourself to the awareness of its power, water has more power than we think. And she might have told us to look for hope in the things that appear powerless and to look for power in those places, too.
That’s the magnificent thing about the opening of The Lathe of Heaven: there is the jellyfish, which is powerless. It can’t steer itself, but it’s in the midst of the ocean that carries it and it’s part of the ocean’s power. It’s one with the ocean’s power.
Arwen Curry: And she calls the jellyfish a very old and successful life-form. This is an old and successful strategy.
She’s not saying, “Well, humanity’s doomed, but other things will survive, so it’s okay,” necessarily. She’s saying humanity is not going to look the way it looks now. Society’s not going to look the way it looks now. We will have to go with what comes and find other ways to flow.
John Plotz: Can I circle back to the question of her political beliefs and actions? I’d love to hear your thoughts about inflection points for Le Guin herself. Is there a consistent line, or can you look at moments where she changed or battles that she fought?
Julie Phillips: Biographically, she was very politically active, at least from the ’60s on, in very practical ways. She demonstrated against nuclear arms, went to campaign headquarters, stuffed envelopes for Democratic presidential candidates, marched against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. She joined the board of Portland’s public library, did that community work, wrote letters to the editor of The Oregonian to complain. It wasn’t just theoretical for her.
So Mayer: Some of the last pieces of writing that I read by her were letters to the local paper about the standoff in Malheur. Speaking out against the Bundys, but also against bringing armed resistance against them.
That opposition to violence, to domination, seems to me the unifying theme of her politics, even if it took a while to translate it into being called feminism. But an opposition to violence—being antiwar, antinuclear, against the separation between human beings and other beings on the planet—seems to be a thread that you can follow through her thinking and something that she was constantly grappling with.
Take The Word for World Is Forest. This is a book about the Vietnam War, about Agent Orange, and the attack on the living world as well as the human beings within it. And it feels like a very visionary book, even though it’s almost a documentary of its time.
Then there is The Dispossessed, which to me is almost a spiritual guide as well as a political guide in its form. It has this dual structure that circles back around to itself and ends with the open hands. In so doing, it doesn’t say this is a prescription for how to live your life politically. But it does say what you have to do is find the form that meets the politics of being open, of being the revolution, of making change.
To find a literary form to inhabit your politics, and to be inhabited by your politics: that is at one with the fact that the politics weren’t casual or opposed for her. Walking in marches and finding the form of a march in your novel go together so remarkably in her work.
She saw beyond humanity. It’s not only the survival of humanity that she cared about, but the other creatures and structures and beings and the earth itself, the land, the landscape.
Arwen Curry: Take feminism: as a young woman, as a young writer, she was writing from that male perspective of that young hero in these mythical situations. So she was echoing and mimicking that voice that we have all as female readers had to take on as readers and writers to some degree. And she didn’t necessarily think of herself as a feminist at first. Through that second-wave feminism, through the women’s movement, she began to realize, I am a part of this. I am someone who’s been oppressed in some ways. But instead of stopping—because this stops people frequently, when they receive a piece of criticism from other feminists, from other people within their circle, it can grind the process to a halt—instead she was very determined to incorporate these new understandings of the world and her place in it back into the work.
And then you have the feminist turn to Earthsea in Tehanu: a response. And people didn’t necessarily like that, among her original readers who were mostly men. And she found a way to come to a balance in her work with all of these pressures and to come out the other end of it more prolific and more expansive than ever.
One of the lessons I take from her most personally—and is most enduring for me as a creative person and as a human being—is her ability even as a very proud person, a person who’s proud of her art and her craft, to absorb criticism and let it do its thing: let it compost within her and reject what was fallacy.
Julie Phillips: The process continued through her blog, which was very much engaged with the issues of the day. And what’s interesting about that is that she didn’t find it particularly easy to write about political issues without putting a lot of distance between her and them, without setting it on another planet. Because, she said herself, she had a tendency to get up on a soapbox and she had to find ways not to do that.
But at the end of her life, she figured out how to write a political essay that’s really engaging, that’s not at all preachy (or not very!) and that works as an essay and not just as an exhortation. She finally got to something that she always wanted to do and hadn’t quite known how. So she was always learning her craft.…
So Mayer: One of my favorite essays, which we included in Space Crone (and I’m wearing a sweatshirt that has a quotation from it, made by the Welsh artist, Frank Duffy) is “Is Gender Necessary? [Redux],” which is actually two essays in one. It’s both a reflective essay on craft and an essay form on politics that’s full of doubling and footnotes and reversions; you can watch a great artist finding their way to something new. That was part of the process that Arwen spoke about: being challenged, particularly about The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that has been through many generations of different forms of apprehension and welcome and critique and return, partially because Le Guin kept coming back to it and saying, “I heard those critiques.” This is the essay where she questions her use of the he pronoun. And in the end comes down to the thought that maybe if she were rewriting the book, she would use they/them for the Gethenians. And then she subsequently wrote a short story set in Gethen (“Coming of Age in Karhide”) that appears in the collection of The Birthday of the World where she decides to go into a kemmer house and as an older person embraces writing about sex and sexuality and eroticism in a beautiful way in her work for the first time, really.
To me that’s hugely political, whether you call it politics with capital P (or in light of her character Odo pissing on a statue, perhaps we could call it politics with a small pee!). She kept changing, kept that transformational alive as a model of politics, that things could change, that her form could change, and the essay as well as in the fiction.
And I know that The Left Hand of Darkness was a hugely meaningful book for me as a nonbinary person. And I know it has been for many trans writers and artists as well, who’ve loved it and argued with it in different ways. And I always tell them: “Go and read ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ and discover the very useful word clitopenis.”
Are we allowed to say that in Public Books, John?
John Plotz: Definitely.
So Mayer: It’s very scientific.
John Plotz: When Le Guin talked about herself as embattled, she described herself as an embattled fantasy writer, or an embattled science fiction writer. That was the marked category that she was speaking for. Is genre something that was a power for her or is it more like a narrowing, a wall that we put around her work that doesn’t do justice to it?
Julie Phillips: Among other things, genre in writing often comes with communities. People form communities as writers of different genres. And the community of science fiction could be limiting, but it was also vastly important.
So Mayer: At least in her public writing, she was a huge defender of science fiction and fantasy. She defended it from without—against the assumptions of elite literary fiction—and from within—against some of its worst masculinist, colonialist, militarist tendencies. Its “locker-room” tendencies, as she phrased that famous letter refusing to introduce an anthology.
And she encouraged the broadening of who had access to writing and reading science fiction and fantasy, particularly in her late years behind the scenes. I know she worked with a number of First Nations writers and editors to ensure that anthologies and books they were publishing saw the light of day, had the support they deserved.
Julie Phillips: Especially in the early years, she could be skeptical of her own writing of science fiction, like, What am I doing? I thought I was going to be a literary writer, and here I am turning out another one of these books. In private, she was almost depressed about it.
But in public, her impulse against exclusionary behavior and exclusionary criticism is so very strong that she was always going to include herself in science fiction. She was always going to include science fiction in what mattered to her, and to talk about exclusion from within science fiction that happened within the science fiction community.
Arwen Curry: The community aspect, Julie, that you mentioned was the first thing that occurred to me as well. She accidentally stepped into science fiction at first. She was always attracted to things that didn’t really exist, but it wasn’t necessarily that she wanted to become a science fiction writer. She was a writer, a poet, but that was how she could get published.
And when she got that feedback from other writers and that direct contact with fans and that sense of vibrancy and community and support—even though it was problematic—she found a place where she could have a voice. She never turned her back on science fiction.
Julie Phillips: And it’s so empowering for her work, too. You see that the materials of genre and the forms of genre. In a way she was a writer looking for a form that worked for her. And her imagination flourished and opened up once she moved into outer space and Earthsea.
It gave her a sense of power. She was intensely good at world-building—but it probably also felt intensely powerful to be able to inhabit those worlds and decide what happened. That sense of control (control without control, control without trying) just comes to her in some way.
John Plotz: I have a final question which comes out of the final line of your film, Arwen: “We have a long way to go, and I can’t go without you.”
I have this sense in Le Guin that there’s this commitment to solidarity. I can’t go without you. There has to be a we, but there’s something very solitary in her writing as well. I almost think of it as solitary solidarity. Is there a tension there: the commitment to solitude—anarchism, going your own way—alongside the commitment to solidarity?
So Mayer: It immediately makes me think of Shevek, who is the protagonist of The Dispossessed, and particularly of the moment where he realizes he’s disappeared so far into his own work that it’s actually made him ill. And his way back from that is to go and do the shared work of Anarres: ditch digging, sewage pumping, speaking to people he doesn’t like in the dining hall.
And for me as a writer, I find that very moving. Again, it gives you the possibility in the same way there’s the possibility that we can live together and live with the world that we’ve made and are making. There is this possibility of living with others that sometimes means living with the other that is the self. But that we can move between them. And I don’t know biographically, but that’s something that strikes me as very present in the fiction.
Arwen Curry: I certainly think it’s present in the fiction. We have these single individual lonely envoys. And where do they go? They don’t go meet another individual. They go into a civilization, they go into a society, and there they find relationships. And they have to learn to understand how to be with a new set of rules and a new set of traditions.
And in her own life, one of the critiques she had of my film, of the documentary, was that it made her look like she had no friends. I didn’t talk with a lot of her friends, but writers are solitary people in their work. And she was that, but she was so deeply connected to the people she loved and the people she worked with. And so I’m sure that that tension existed within her as well.
Take The Farthest Shore: this passion for connection is so deeply in it. Obviously in The Tombs of Atuan, but in The Farthest Shore as well, there’s a warning against the loss of connection, against the willingness to sacrifice freedom, to sacrifice joy for safety, for habit.
And her point in that is that’s not life. It isn’t life. We are perched above the abyss and balancing here is our job. We’re not going to be safe. And if that’s our primary goal, then we’ve lost.
John Plotz: I love that idea of her writing “envoy” fiction, Arwen, that’s amazing.
Any final words? Any questions we ought to have covered but didn’t?
Julie Phillips: Of course there are—the questions are endless.