A Woman of Her Word: Ursula K. Le Guin

On January 22, the world lost a great writer. That word, ”great,” is tossed around like cheap confetti, but in this case it’s the unadorned truth. This country, too, lost one of its sharpest consciences, a citizen who ceaselessly reminded us that freedom was everyone’s birthright and fighting to keep it was our job, yours and mine. This writer was political in the deepest sense—not through jargon but through her own esthetic genius and the sweat of her craft.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. She died at age 88 in Portland, Oregon, where she had lived for many decades. She’s survived by her husband of 63 years, historian, writer, and superb gardener, Charles; and their three grown children, two daughters and a son. She’s also survived by 23 novels, 12 collections of her more than 100 short stories, five books of essays, 13 books for children, nine volumes of poetry, and four books of translation, including the selected poems of Nobel Prize Literature Laureate Gabriela Mistral of Chile, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching—a warm, sexism-free, profound rendering of the Tao. Her own works are translated into virtually every written language. Among her numerous honors are the Hugo, Nebula, and National Book Awards, PEN-Malamud, Library of Congress Living Legend, the National Book Foundation Medal, and being voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Those are the surface facts.

But if we were to rummage through, let’s say, the capacious sewing basket of her imagination, we would find a rich, orderly confusion of scraps used and reused.

She had been influenced by a happy childhood. Her parents, Theodora Kracaw and Alfred Kroeber, were intellectuals who introduced her early on to the realms of myth through James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and literature (and feminism) through the works of Virginia Woolf. The Kroebers, themselves anthropologists, became known for their ground-breaking work in making first contact with Ishi, the last survivor of the indigenous Yahi people, eradicated during the 19th Century California Genocide. In the 1920s, Ishi emerged from a Stone Age existence hiding from the modern world in the Northern California mountains. There was no one left alive who could understand his language. The Kroebers took him in and managed to learn that language. They built a special habitat for him, and he lived under the protection of this adopted family until he died of natural causes. Theodora wrote a best-selling book about him, Ishi of Two Worlds, which is still in print and deeply moving. “Ishi” means simply “man,” and was the name given to him by the Kroebers, because his tradition required him not to speak his own name until formally introduced by another Yahi—but there were none of his people left alive to do so. Naming is a signature chord in Ursula’s work; in her story “The Rule of Names”; in the Earthsea series, where knowing the true name of something or someone is to have power over them; Le Guin said more than once that if she couldn’t get the name of a character just right, she wouldn’t have the story.

Another “scrap” in this metaphorical sewing kit—creased in many folds, beautiful, worn almost to transparency—would be Ursula’s long marriage to sweet Charles Le Guin, from their first romance in Paris where both were on Fulbrights, to the closing years when they would sit in silence on their small back porch, gazing out at their large, rambling garden and beyond, to Mount Saint Helens, sipping Wild Turkey bourbon, and listening to Schubert. The current cats—there were many cats over the years, litters of scraps in themselves—would weave between the ankles of their two persons and a fortunate guest.

A wealth of scraps. Motherhood, and its complexities. Feminism: how it changed over her long life, and how it changed her. The commercialization of literature, which, along with the categorization and arbitrary ranking of different forms of writing, depending not on their quality but on their popularity, were targets of her anger lifelong. The vulnerable state of freedom, her basic theme. Her rage over what is happening right now, in the White House, in Congress, in America. A Taoist, after all, she believed it would eventually pass, if we worked at it hard enough, and she believed that writers must remember to be the keepers and propagators of freedom—as if freedom endured in contraband heirloom seeds we would need to resow through books, articles, poems, stories, blogs—in any form through which words can spread and take root.

But always the scraps reassembled into one pattern, words. The center to which all her paths led, the reason she was on this planet: writing. She wrote in every genre, spilling like white water over boundaries, furious when anyone tried to contain her. She maintained her own balance of excellence across categories. But she was undeniably at her finest as a storyteller, the greatest of her age. Her science fiction works, notably The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, are embedded in the canon of American literature. Her so-called fantasy series Earthsea, has been rightly called the heir and equal to Tolkien. Her so-called “realistic” fiction is brilliant, compassionate, severe. Her “children’s books” are sophisticated delights. Her poetry is memorable; her essays pithy, generous, wise. I’m not the only reader to feel she should have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. When asked, “But what does she really write?” by ignorant categorizers, I would tend to snap, “Literature.” She would respond to their querulous list “Sci fi? Realism? Stories? Poems? Magical realism?” with a more compact “Yes.”

We met when she graciously introduced me before a speech and poetry reading I’d been invited to give at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s. She displayed the same down-to-earth humor and honesty that illumine her words on the page. I then interviewed her on four different occasions for my radio program and podcast, “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” and I was nervous, reverent, a little awed at first; you can hear it in my voice. But as the years went on and we became friends, as we began exchanging work in manuscript and commenting on drafts, as we enjoyed long personal conversations by phone and some memorable visits in person, the fear melted away and what remained was laughter and love. “You live too far away, Robin,” she groused.

So I became another scrap, a very small one, in the sewing basket: one of her rapt readers who was privileged to be a personal friend. I loved her work. I loved her. As Yeats knew, it’s never possible to separate the dancer from the dance.

We spoke by phone not long before she died, already ailing and, as she chuckled, “So lazy now! I shuffle from room to room like an old hound dog.” She said she had gone on the Women’s March last year, and lamented being probably too tired to go this year. But the revival of grassroots activism gladdened her, as did the Me Too movement. She wanted to know what I was writing. She was working on new poems—“No more physical strength left for long forms, stories or novels.” She treasured her women’s poetry workshop group that had been meeting for years, as her goad and discipline. She sounded utterly unafraid of death.

In fact, in that last call we spoke about death, and about our mutual impatience with people who try to stay perpetually young. “Arrested development,” she snorted, and I added, joining her in irritation, “Oh, forgodssake, it’s just death, after all.” At that, she began to giggle, and her laugh was infectious. I joined in, and we laughed for maybe a full minute; later, my ribs ached.

Eleven years older than I, she was my lodestar, the intelligence I went to for advice or stern admonition, my Elder. I have no real Elders now: a lonely space. To my concern, I find that others, younger, regard me as such—as if I knew anything at all. (I suddenly see what she meant when she said that about herself.) Ursula is being eulogized now, recategorized and reclaimed and renamed: as an environmentalist, a Western writer, a fantasist, an anarchist, a “genre writer.” My turn to snort, Ha! She was all that and more. Her art—available to all of us–was a sublime visitation of imaginative consciousness, alchemized into art by craft. And her friendship was an unexpected gift. This world is a little dimmer and colder, because Ursula K. Le Guin has left the planet.

Still, as she said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” She was right, of course. As usual. But I will never be able to stop missing her, for whatever remains of my own journey.

The other journey continues, nevertheless, streaming, unstoppable—scraps, names, stories, atoms—dancing out into the multiverse, immortal: the words, the words, the living words.