Early this year, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin looked on in dismay as Ammon Bundy and his “bullyboys” occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Le Guin had fallen in love with that hard country—with its high desert and the treeless basalt ridges of Steens Mountain—some 50 years ago, on a road trip. It was a difficult drive over gravel roads with young children in the backseat. But the landscape bowled her over. She’d never seen anything like it, yet it felt familiar.
“Now here comes the slightly woo-woo part of it,” Le Guin warned me as we sat on her porch in Portland on a warm afternoon in July. Recently, thumbing through a packet of family papers, she discovered that as an adolescent, her grandmother Phebe had helped her great-grandfather drive 350 head of cattle through the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and onto the eastern flank of Steens Mountain, where they’d homesteaded for several years in the 1870s. Perhaps Le Guin was drawn to the landscape by some primal sense, the way a salmon finds its river.
To much of America, Harney County was as unfamiliar as Gethen, the snowbound planet Le Guin created in her radical 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The Bundy event could itself have been a Le Guin tale: The rough peace of a strange desert in winter disturbed by the arrival of armed outsiders; a community fractured but kept from breaking fully apart by the good sense of the county sheriff, whom Le Guin described as her “hero.” The occupation raised many of the same questions Le Guin has asked throughout her career: about the meaning of freedom, and of belonging; about the value of the natural world; about humanity’s capacity for destruction, and for peacemaking.
Le Guin hasn’t been back to Harney County since the occupation. She’ll be 87 this month and doesn’t have the stamina for long trips, nor for much writing. She’s stopped writing fiction completely—a deep personal loss, as there’s nothing she likes better than “making up stories.” It’s a public loss, too. Le Guin is one of America’s most influential living writers, and one of literature’s most subversive and generous imaginations. Since receiving her first rejection letter at the age of 11 (from Astounding Science Fiction magazine), she’s published 10 story collections, six volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books, four translations, numerous essays, and 20 novels. Le Guin brought us to wizarding school (in the Earthsea series, published long before Harry Potter), to a dystopian Portland where one man’s dreams change reality (The Lathe of Heaven), to a planet where gender is unfixed and the king is pregnant (The Left Hand of Darkness), to a drought-stricken anarchist planet (The Dispossessed), to a postindustrial Napa Valley (Always Coming Home), and, most recently, to Bronze Age Italy (Lavinia). For Le Guin, “elsewhere” has always been a lens magnifying the vexations of our own time and place, including militarism, sexism, governance, and ecology.
Le Guin hasn’t always been recognized for her contributions. She struggled until her 30s to publish her fiction, and after she’d found a home in science fiction and fantasy, fought what she saw as bias in the literary establishment toward women and “genre writers.” Reviewers weren’t sure what to do with her stories, slippery and idiosyncratic as they are. Now the gatekeepers have caught up. The National Book Foundation awarded her the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. In September, the Library of America released a collection of her historical fiction set in an imaginary Central European country called Orsinia. The publication puts Le Guin on the spare list of authors who have been canonized by the series while still alive, including Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth.
Imaginative fiction, Le Guin wrote in 2011, is a way of saying, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is”—“it” being the confines of gender, capitalism, or the publishing industry. Le Guin wrote people of color into science fiction at a time when white men mostly wrote about themselves, albeit on other planets, and she troubled the space-race-era faith in technological triumph. For half a century, she’s been hacking escape hatches into the roof of the suburban McMansion where American literature has been trapped. That so much of today’s celebrated fiction pulls its energy from the fantastic—think George Saunders, Karen Russell, David Mitchell, or Michael Chabon—testifies to her ax work.
This month, Small Beer Press will release a collection of Le Guin’s reflections on reading and writing—essays, lectures, and book reviews—called Words Are My Matter. The collection articulates Le Guin’s belief in the social and political value of storytelling, as well as her fear that corporatization has made the publishing landscape increasingly inhospitable to risk-takers, to those who insist on other ways. This is a real problem, particularly if we can’t count on fresh water from the well of Le Guin’s imagination. In a year stalked by the long shadows of authoritarianism, ecological collapse, and perpetual war, her writing feels more urgent than ever.
* * *
“Sometimes it just seems like the more women tell the truth, the less men want to hear it.” Le Guin was sitting amid potted geraniums and tomatoes, nursing a glass of scotch and water. She is a small woman, quick to laugh, with light-hazel eyes and gray hair cropped close to her ears, the way she’s always worn it. We were talking about Lavinia, her most recent novel. Le Guin has an affinity for languages, and the book grew out of a desire to read the Aeneid in its original Latin. She was struck by the daughter of Latinus, wife to the hero Aeneas, who is “slighted” by Virgil: Given “nothing but modest blushes, and no character at all,” Lavinia never speaks. Le Guin mined her silence (and the library stacks) for a fully realized female hero and a Bronze Age Italian world as richly drawn as any of her far-off planets.
Le Guin warned me that she didn’t want to talk about politics straight-on, but I’d been there only a few minutes when she turned the conversation that way. “I’ve been thinking about this sick election that we’ve got going—how much of the problem is misogyny?” she asked. That same afternoon, across the country in Cleveland, attendees at the Republican National Convention were eagerly buying up buttons and waving signs referring to Hillary Clinton as a bitch and a tramp, and baying like bloodhounds for her imprisonment. “It isn’t talked about very much,” Le Guin complained. “The big part of [Trump’s] appeal is not that he’s appealing—it’s just that he’s a man, and he sneers at women.”
* * *
Le Guin came haltingly to feminism. When she was a teenager, her mother gave her Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas; Woolf has been a lifelong influence. (Le Guin hates being asked about her influences, which are uncountable. On the other hand, she’s written, a select number of books have made no impression on her at all—among them, Atlas Shrugged.) But she spent the first decades of her career writing stories about men, in a genre so dominated by them that many of the women who wrote science fiction did so under male pen names. Le Guin went to Radcliffe—“heaven” intellectually, but narrow in its social conceits. Women were schooled in “gracious living” and “trained to accept that fact that you were better than other people,” she recalled. It was a lesson she unlearned “very painfully.” In her fiction, she treats class as a matter of exploitation; she is interested in the underbelly of richness, with its dependence on poverty elsewhere. The most explicit example is in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” her famous “psychomyth” about a utopian city where peace and prosperity are contingent on the ceaseless suffering of a single child.
At 20, Le Guin got pregnant, her condition confirmed by a rabbit test. A friend helped her find what she thinks was probably the most expensive, and safest, illegal abortion in New York City. She is acutely aware that she was one of the lucky ones. “It’s very hard for me to imagine, but I do try: What if I had obeyed the antiabortionists and had my baby as I was supposed to?” she wondered. She is certain that she wouldn’t have met her husband, or had the three children she wanted—or her career.
Le Guin “loves a love story,” and her own romance with Charles Le Guin, a historian, was fairly classic. Both Fulbright scholars, they met en route to France on the Queen Mary. It wasn’t an immediate romance, she insisted; it took four nights before she was “pretty sure” about him. And it seemed to her that Charles took forever— at least a week. In Paris, they lived in a little hotel in the Latin Quarter and married later that year. She calls their partnership “life-determining.” Alone, it would have been impossible to support herself as a fledgling writer, especially while raising three children. Although she prefers to write in the morning, she wrote at night when the kids were young, upstairs in her office while Charles listened for the children. For years, the only writing of hers that found its way into print was poetry.
She began picking apart gender in the late 1960s, while working on The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel is set on a snowbound planet populated by Gethenians, who are androgynous. But it was another decade before she wrote a novel with a female protagonist, and that happened by accident, after she killed off the man she’d assumed was the hero of The Eye of the Heron midway through. “Really, the book showed me what it had to do,” she explained. She stopped writing for a while, and read the entire Norton Book of Literature by Women. “I thought, ‘Oh, can I do this? I’m sort of scared.’ I went on following the book where it went.” Since then, Le Guin’s stories have been increasingly populated by women, old and young, and concerned with themes often dismissed as feminine, and thus unimportant. Lavinia, with its attention to the domestic and spiritual rituals of the royal household and the fraught relationship between the protagonist and her mother, is a capstone. Unsurprisingly, Le Guin’s feminism is most explicit in her essays, in which she comes at sexism not with resentment or righteousness but with her considerable wit. (Despite the seriousness of her subjects, Le Guin’s writing is often playful, and funny.)
The night she felt her career take off, she was in Oregon’s Coast Range, the middle of nowhere, in a two-room cabin full of kids and no telephone. A neighbor came racing down the hill to tell her that someone had called from Pennsylvania. It was her agent, Virginia Kidd. “I went roaring up the hill,” Le Guin recalled, “and Virginia said, ‘You won!’”—the Hugo Award, one of sci-fi’s most prominent prizes along with the Nebula, which she’d won earlier that year. “I said, ‘You’re kidding!’ Then I went back down to the creek and sat for a while and thought, ‘Holy moly, they noticed.’”
* * *
Le Guin grew up in Berkeley, in a house built from and surrounded by redwoods. It was “remarkably beautiful,” but also full of “largeness, darkness, and unexpected spaces,” with “room in it for many and mysterious beings,” Le Guin writes in an essay in Words Are My Matter. “Perhaps all my life I have been trying to rebuild it around me out of words.” Summers were spent at the family ranch in Napa, listening to her father and great-aunt Betsy tell myths and family stories around the fire. Alfred Kroeber, Le Guin’s father, was an anthropologist, famous for his work with Native Americans, and she grew up around an “Indian uncle” and European expats who instilled in her an early affinity for “the other.” Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a best-selling biography of Ishi, the “last wild Indian” in California. It’s easy to draw lines between the work of father and daughter—the scrupulous attention to the details of an unfamiliar society, its norms and tools and foundational myths—but as a child, she was less aware of the content of his work than the idea that time spent alone in a study, writing, was sacred.
When Le Guin was 9, Germany invaded Poland. All three of her brothers went into the military, the eldest aboard a minesweeper in the North Pacific. She finds it difficult to talk specifically about the war. Everything was khaki-colored; there were blackouts in Berkeley, and the darkness stuck with her. “It’s pretty clear in all my writing that I hate war—I’m in fear of it and I hate it,” she said. Later, her father took her to one of the founding conferences of the United Nations, in San Francisco. It gave her some hope “that maybe we were done with that.”
Of course, we weren’t. She wrote the novella The Word for World Is Forest while living in London during some of the grimmest stretches of the Vietnam War. Cut off from the antiwar movement back home, Le Guin channelled her “frustrated anger and shame,” as she put it in a 2008 interview, into that book, in which militaristic colonizers bring murder, rape, and clear-cutting to a tree-rich planet inhabited by peaceful, green-furred hominids. Le Guin has long been an activist, though a quiet one—marching, writing letters, holding signs—against nuclear testing, for civil rights, and more recently against the Iraq War. To inform her activism, she sought out pacifist and anarchist literature in little bookstores in Portland. That led to The Dispossessed, her “ambiguous utopia” set on two planets—one much like Earth, the other inhabited by anarchists.
After living through so much war, Le Guin still writes about it as a fresh horror. In a remarkable passage in Lavinia, the poet Virgil tells the young heroine of the violence that is to come on her account, a “hideous chant of slaughter” running several pages long. The war happens, the poet explains, “because men are men.” Axes cleave skulls, swords sever arms from shoulders, Aeneas kills and kills and kills. “He kills like a butcher. Why is he a hero?” Lavinia asks of her future husband. “Because that is how empires are founded,” the poet replies. At a time when most Americans give little thought to the bombs being dropped by remote control on people they know nothing about, Le Guin reminds us that war is never bloodless.
For someone preoccupied with humanity’s ability to destroy itself and the rest of the natural world, Le Guin is notably disinterested in dystopias. Frankly, they bore her. “I think they’re just ground out,” she told me. “They’re just the latest way to write sci-fi novels. Don’t readers ever get tired of being told that the world is coming to a nasty, ugly end and only a very few people will survive, by luck and by violence?” Nor does Le Guin think much of the kind of shallow moralism used to justify invasions and torture. She has written through plenty of dark territory, but with an eye fixed on the constant stars of kindness and bravery.
* * *
In 2014, Le Guin committed what is now a notorious act of bravery. After accepting her medal from the National Book Foundation, she went to the podium to give the five-minute acceptance speech she’d spent six months writing. “Hold on,” she said as she slipped on her glasses and adjusted the microphone. She gave a small laugh, and thanks for the “beautiful reward.” Then she delivered both an impassioned case for the social value of literature and an indictment of her own publishers, Amazon, and other “commodity profiteers” that “sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.”
Le Guin had warned before that writers were being stripped of ownership of their work by Amazon and Google. But it was something else to tweak the nose of the publishing industry while it was sitting there right in front of her. “Hard times are coming,” she warned, “when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom…. Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.”
Le Guin has a reputation for being somewhat prickly, largely when someone asks a poorly thought-out question or tries to “pigeonhole” her as a science-fiction writer; she would rather be called an American novelist and poet. But what she objects to is using genre to assign value—she doesn’t mind it as a descriptive category. “Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way,” she writes in Words Are My Matter. She’s been quick to defend science fiction from well-known writers who have wandered through it, in her opinion, briefly and unseriously. In 2014, she savaged Chang-rae Lee (and, in an aside, Cormac McCarthy) for using “essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially,” in his dystopia On Such a Full Sea.
With fledgling writers, particularly women, Le Guin is much gentler. “She opened the door for me into writing science fiction and fantasy,” said her friend Molly Gloss, another Portland writer who took a workshop with Le Guin early in her career. Even in the worst piece of student writing, Le Guin could find one sentence that was beautifully written, and she takes the time to blurb unknown writers whose work she admires. For years, she’s been an active member of a local poetry group.
* * *
Always a writer from “the margins,” Le Guin is now writing from life’s edge. “It’s very hard to write about being old. We don’t have the vocabulary. It’s the way a lot of women felt when they realized they had to write about being women and didn’t have the vocabulary,” she told me. We were in her living room, with its comfortable chairs and the window looking north past an old redwood tree to Mount St. Helens. Pard, her green-eyed cat, stretched on a scarlet carpet nearby. Le Guin feels a duty “to try to report from the frontier,” but it’s very difficult, and mysterious. “You are definitely approaching the borderland. Borderlands are weird places.”
Poetry fits this particular edge best, and so, at the end of her career, Le Guin is returning to the form that began it: “bones words / pot-shards / all go back,” she writes in “Earthenware,” from her collection Late in the Day, released in December 2015. She lingers on spoons, a pestle, and other homely objects; returns to the landscapes that have “soaked into me,” as she described it; and examines her own precarious position. If there are stories she hasn’t had time to tell, she keeps them to herself. From “The Games”: “I’m not sorry, now all’s said and done / to lie here by myself with nowhere to run, / in quiet, in this immense dark place.”
While we were talking, a clock began to strike. The timepiece, a gift from Charles, is beautiful and old. Le Guin listened, counting the chimes. It rang out precisely. “Bless her old heart,” she said, and blew the clock a kiss.