Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Work for Today’s World


Debbie says:

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!”

Photo by Joyce Scrivner
Photo by Joyce Scrivner

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.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 1.

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.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 2.

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.

When “You’re Only As Old As You Feel” Is Not Enough

Debbie says:

At WisCon this year, I moderated a panel (suggested by and including the brilliant s.e. smith) called “When ‘Love Your Body’ Is Not Enough.” The concept was to explore how the “love your body” message can be empowering to some subset of people, and can also be perceived as a trap, or a judgment, to other people who are unable to, unwilling to, or uninterested in loving their bodies. One thing we discussed was that any time a simple slogan is treated as a complex life imperative, there will be people who are marginalized by not fitting the simple paradigm.

Now, the eminent Ursula K. Le Guin has weighed in on exactly the same topic, though her focus is aging rather than body love or body hatred per se. Taking as her jumping-off point Robert Frost’s “The Ovenbird,” she asks, “What to make of a diminished thing?”

With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

And the Pope isn’t Catholic.

“You’re only as old as you think you are!”

Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion. …

To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life — me.

As we expect from Le Guin, she cuts right to the heart of the matter. Any denial of an individual’s lived experience is erasure. This is no different from Samuel R. Delany’s clear explanation to the “colorblind” that “If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, you can’t be my ally.” Le Guin’s version might be more like “If you can’t see the ways I am diminished from what I was, you can’t see me.”

Where another 83-year-old might embrace “You’re only as old as you think you are,” Le Guin does not. And in any event, telling someone, “You’re only as X as you think you are” is always telling them what they are from your perspective. The essay goes on to discuss respect in a way somewhat new to me:

Respect has often been over-enforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding. It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification. Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all. Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death. The acceptance of that takes courage. Courage deserves respect.

I don’t usually think of “respect” as a form of reinforcing privilege, but Le Guin is right–that’s probably the way it’s most often used. Think “respect the judge” as applied a courtroom. To her named effects of “repressing aggression and requiring self-control” I would add “encouraging attention.”

Here’s Le Guin one more time:

I recommend studying the ovenbird’s question long and seriously.

There are many answers to it. A lot can be made of a diminished thing, if you work at it. A lot of people (young and old) are working at it.

All I’m asking people who aren’t yet really old is to think about the ovenbird’s question too — and try not to diminish old age itself. Let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.

Most commonly, we use “denial” to talk about things we don’t want to admit about ourselves, or face in ourselves. Le Guin is using it to talk about things we don’t want to hear from others, know about others, look at in others because we don’t want to see ourselves mirrored in them. This applies to aging (and youth), to fat, to disabilitythe list goes on.

A lot can be made of a diminished thing; in the end, each of us–if we live long enough to diminish–get to make our choices about that, choices constrained by not only age but class, race, and other social status markers, as well as our own personalities.

I’d rather have a diminished Ursula Le Guin in the world than a great many people I can think of at the apex of their strength and power. May she live and diminish as long as works for her.