Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin Sails to Distant Stars

I was sad to hear about the death of Ursula K. Le Guin.  Of course, she was 88 years old, so in some ways, this news was coming sooner rather than later.  But she seemed so vital still, so unstoppable.  This morning, our local NPR announcer called her one of the most important writers of the 20th century.  I would agree, but the world did not always see her this way.

I confess that I didn't always like her science fiction--or more accurately, I liked the ideas more than the execution.  I looked forward to reading The Left Hand of Darkness, but then I found it difficult going--not the gender fluidity, which intrigued me, but something else which escapes me now.

I might say that everything I know about gender fluidity I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin.  Once that might have been true.  I can safely say that she was the first writer that I read that blew open the boundaries of the gender binary.  She changed my thinking by expanding it--on this topic and many others.

She was important to me as both a feminist and a writer, and as a feminist writer.  She insisted on smashing boundaries--those boundaries that kept science fiction separate from more respectable types of fiction, those boundaries that kept female writers safely in their spaces, separate from awards and opportunities.

Her craft essays have shaped me too.  I have several of those books on my shelf.  She showed us in so many ways how to be a writer.  She wrote so well in so many genres.  I didn't realize that she kept a blog.  I plan to explore it more today.

I plan to remember her as I age--she showed us how to do that too.  Perhaps one reason why news of her death was such a surprise is that I didn't realize she was 88.  She seemed so fierce and unstoppable.  I will cherish how she looked, with her sensible hair cut, her comfortable clothes, her face that seemed surgically unaltered.  She reserved her energy for writing, not for the pursuit of unattainable beauty standards. 

Her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards still electrifies; you can find it here.  Her words seem especially prescient today:  "Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality."

At the time, much attention was paid to her words about the commercialization of the art that we produce, words like these:  "Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship." 

But today, I think about a different kind of hard times, and all the fears that seem like possessive demons.  Today I will think about the kinds of freedom that we need to champion.  Today, I will return to the words of Ursula K. Le Guin.

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