Friday, January 26, 2018

A Young Writer Remembers Ursula K. Le Guin

On January 22, 2018, one of the greatest contemporary writers passed away--Ursula K. Le Guin.

About UKL--Publicity photos, bio, biblio, FAQ, etc.

On Tuesday, I nerded out to my undergraduate Worldbuilding Workshop about how The Dispossessed changed my life—from my thoughts on anarchism to gender to love. A few hours later, I read the New York Times article about the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin at the age of 88. I’ve never been one to feel sad over the passing of people I didn’t personally know, so when I came home and started chatting with writer friends about Le Guin’s work, the melancholic feeling surprised me. I wanted to write about it. So many others have better and more words to devote to one of the greatest contemporary writers, but I am grateful to Ursula K. Le Guin because she gave me hope and freedom and fresh eyes.

I came to Le Guin’s work late compared to many. The video of her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was the first time I truly encountered her. A senior in college feeling insecure about writing fantasy, I felt grateful she acknowledged the honor but also acknowledged how genre writers had been slighted for so long: “I rejoice in accepting it and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long . . . who for the last fifty years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called ‘realists.’”

A few years later, I entered an MFA program populated by folks whose idea of engaging with speculative fiction was trying to comprehend Harry Potter. I was also newly married, and my husband had six or seven of Le Guin’s books. Discouraged, again, about writing science fiction and fantasy, I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness, which shattered what I thought a science fiction novel could be, how gender could be portrayed, how an invented world could shape my worldview. More importantly, it changed how I encountered gender on a daily basis—one of the most empathy-producing moments in my life to date. As I closed the covers and promptly fell into a book hangover, I couldn’t understand why none of my professors had taught Le Guin or pushed one of her books into my hands. Yes, folks had suggested her, but one book deep into her work, and I’d found a complex thinker, writer, reader, teacher all rolled into one.

In a few weeks, I start co-teaching an undergraduate seminar on Le Guin’s work. We will focus on
The Dispossessed, a book about utopia and anarchism, and are already channeling our inner-Ursula by requesting students avoid buying their books from Amazon or other large retailers. I don’t know if any will listen. My co-teacher and I both read The Dispossessed this past year, when it could not feel more timely. Each page, I thought yes, this, this, thank you for putting words to this.

I am grateful to Ursula K. Le Guin because she changed me. I only met her on the page, but I encountered a spirit I wanted to know. While her intelligence and thoughtfulness come clearly through each paragraph, it’s her ability to question her mindset and beliefs I hope to continue emulating even as her books continue to change me.