Events in the progressive world have changed since November 8. I spent the last few days in Eugene, Oregon, at the 2nd Annual James Tiptree Jr. Symposium. The results of the election were present everywhere: in comments on the panels, in discussions in the halls, in the way everyone was so hungry to see and hug old friends, to make real connections with new acquaintances. “How are you doing?” is a different question now than it was early last month. I hugged a friendly acquaintance and heard myself saying, “Can I just keep hugging you forever?” and she said “Yes!”
The Symposium is in Eugene, Oregon, where the University of Oregon houses one of the best feminist science fiction archives imaginable, including the papers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Suzy McKee Charnas, and more. Last year, the symposium honored James Tiptree, Jr.; this year, the focus was Ursula K. Le Guin.
The Symposium was a fine celebration of Le Guin’s life and work — and then it was more. The first day hosted two panels (one by students in a feminist science fiction class) and a beautiful, very politically aware keynote by Karen Joy Fowler, who struck a note of moving away from centering the individual in plot and politics. Ursula Le Guin was there and participating from the audience, and we all had a thoroughly satisfying, thought-provoking day.
Saturday brought an extraordinary sea change in the programming. The morning began with a panel in which three transgender academics and artists, in a panel organized brilliantly by Alexis Lothian, discussed The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s late-1960s novel exploring what happens on a planet largely without gender.
Tuesday Smillie, “art to think about how to move ahead, find ways, imagine futures when there is no clear path, no shadows to help us see,”
Aren Aizura, whose deeply embodied talk included “Structural change is up to us – and LeGuin’s book reminds me to put the care of bodies at the forefront of struggle and
micha cárdenas “”I worry that calling LEFT HAND trans feminist may continue the tradition making trans women invisible.”
All three panelists did an absolutely amazing job of simultaneously holding up the novel as a gift to them (and all of us) while critiquing the ways it fell and falls short of its stated purpose. In this process, they showed us their art, revealed their lives, and modeled the intersection of political rage, artistic integrity, and the ability to move past human failings.
Before we could all breathe after that, we were thrown into a panel (curated by Joan Haran), using Le Guin’s anarchist “ambiguous utopia,” The Dispossessed to talk about activism.
Grace Dillon, of the Inishinaabe people, gave us insight into her tribe’s open-hearted, communitarian ways of making change. Inishinaabe communities are open to non-tribal people, and also include plant people and rock people (and not all rock people take the inanimate language construction).
adrienne maree brown, a Detroit activist and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (with Walidah Imarisha) drew heartening connections between activism and joy, positing a world in which justice is associated with pleasure.
Both Dillon and brown continued Karen Joy Fowler’s theme of decentering the individual and honoring group action.
The afternoon of the second day featured two excellent, memorable presentations, one by Kelly Sue DeConnick and one by Brian Attebery. Nonetheless, the voices of the morning lifted the symposium experience out of “really really fine tribute to one of the world’s great writers” into “thoughtful, realistic, forward-looking grappling with the questions of today in the context of work by one of the world’s great writers.” The only disappointment was that Ursula Le Guin could only attend one day, and thus was not there to hear these presentations.
Embodiment was a surprisingly (to me) recurring theme in both days of the symposium. A number of panelists and presenters noted how much Le Guin’s work is very grounded in the physical, and the geographic; perhaps that’s why it calls on the body more than other fiction.
The University is likely to post the audio transcripts in a month or so; I’ll put links here. Special thanks to Linda Long of the University of Oregon libraries, who did so much work putting the symposium together.