In Her Own Words

Since Ursula Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, I’ve been leafing through the books of hers I have, by no means a complete collection, remembering bits and pieces I’ve loved. A few are gathered here. The first, from Changing Planes, 2003, is an example of the satirical voice I relish. Sita Dulip is stuck in an airport, her connecting flight delayed.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Photo by Marian Kolisch

The lines at the desks were eight miles long, only slightly shorter than the lines at the toilets. Sita Dulip had eaten a nasty lunch standing up at a dirty plastic counter, since the few tables were all occupied by wretched, whimpering children with savagely punitive parents, or by huge, hairy youths wearing shorts, tank tops, and rubber thongs. She has long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper, which advocated using the education budget to build more prisons and applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania. The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction.

From her “mainstream” collection of stories, Searoad, a quick insight about the way art sometimes comes to us: In “Hand, Cup, Shell,” a college freshman unexcited by spending time with family at their seaside house, goes to her room. “A picture of blue mountains she had painted in ninth-grade art class was pinned to the closet door, and she reconfirmed with a long look at it that it was beautiful. It was the only good picture she had ever painted, and she marveled at it, the gift that had given itself to her, undeserved, no strings attached.”

From a Motherboard article she wrote:

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

From Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, the first sentence of the Buffalo Gals story, which I have always loved: “You fell out of the sky,” the coyote said.

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. I used her writing book with its delightful title in my own teaching. In it, Le Guin tells us that Socrates said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” She kept that quote pinned over her desk for years, declares: “Even with the best intentions, language misused, language used stupidly, carelessly, brutally, language used wrongly, breeds lies, half-truths, confusion.” A declaration full of import for our times.

From the famous introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, having discussed the common idea that science fiction is predictive, Le Guin objects:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying…

Fiction writers do desire the truth…but go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places and events…telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

When Searoad, appeared in 1991, it included a back-of-the-book blurb by Carolyn Kizer, Pulitzer-winning poet. Kizer said Le Guin had “become what it was clear she would become: our wise-woman…a writer of infinite range and power.”

Perhaps her best-known (and most frequently taught) story is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which posits that a society’s happiness depends on someone else’s misery. In Conversations with Ursula Le Guin, Edited by Carl Freedman, she said, “…utopia may always be based on atrocity-since all privileged lives are based on injustice, that would seem to indicate a possible rule.”

And from The Left Hand of Darkness: ‘It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Our wise woman: we’ll miss her, but she’s left us much treasure.

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8 Responses to In Her Own Words

  1. Hispanophile says:

    Thank you for this. She will be missed, not just for what she said, but for how she said it. Slightly acid, sure of herself, declarative. What a brilliant voice.

  2. Jim T says:

    Thanks for reminding us what a great writer LeGuin was!

  3. Normando Rothstien says:

    Maybe, some day, the world will stop paying attention to the rich men, the powerful men, the corporate men, the men with the biggest fists, the men with the loudest mouths or the most seductive eyes… Maybe some day those men will stop, look around and see what destruction they have brought to the world, and sit down and listen to the wise women. Some day…

  4. C.M. Mayo says:

    Thank you, Pat. Your blog is a balm for the soul.

  5. Bob Jaeger says:

    Thanks, Pat, for this wonderful collection of quotes. Makes me want to read more LeGuin.

  6. Gregg Painter says:

    LeGuin was one of the best writers who wrote about writing. I just found a book of hers in the library today, comprised of some of her best blog posts from about a decade of blogging. The title is as felicitous as the great film director Luis Buñuel’s biography, “My Last Sigh,” my favorite autobiography. He knew everybody. (In the world of the arts. Helen Keller knew more famous people in general.) Her work–published not long before her death–is entitled “No Time to Spare.”

    It includes her post “Would You Please Fucking Stop,” an essay about the word I passed out to my AP Lit students one year for their amusement. (She liked the word “shit,” but was a little annoyed with the persistent use of the F-word with today’s authors.)

    I’m not sure I would pass this out today, after hearing about the unfortunate administrative leave forced on a fellow DPS teacher last year. One of the complaints was cursing in class. I would use the F-word in class like clockwork, twice a year, to startle the students. Just like I would take two sick days a year, even though I wasn’t sick.

    Except ONCE I was actually sick. And that day, I sent in a video version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Not rated (Spanish). In reviewing it, in a fever the night before, I had missed the part where there was actual fucking. Oops. A friend was my sub that day. I felt bad for her.

    • dubrava says:

      I do hope you’re working on the memoir some of these stories belong in, Gregg. And thanks for two more book recommendations: adding them to my list.

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