Every morning, The Oregonian publishes the latest tally of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ursula K. Le Guin prints out the number in bold script on standard computer paper and tapes it to her living room window not far from the rainbow peace flag atop her garage. Does this do any good? Does this change anything? You might just as well ask if novels or stories have any real-world effect. In an interview with Wired magazine last year, she gave her approval to the members of Occupy Oakland who decorated their signs with the cover of The Dispossessed, one of her science-fiction novels that chronicled a failed revolution.
Le Guin is not a dull or prescriptive leftist and there are good reasons why her work attracts genre geeks and high-brow literary types along with activists. Her novels and stories are critical of every sort of imagined culture, and at times filled with sympathy for figures one imagines would be her fiercest political opponents on this earth. There are no Darth Vaders or Saurons in her Earthsea Cycle novels. She can’t quite manage to turn the creepy social engineer in The Lathe of Heaven into a Stalinist monster. But she does depict cruel and twisted societies and her humane gifts as a storyteller allow her to dissect them without providing any fast answers on how to correct them. Like J.M. Coetzee, she demands that you ask what citizenship in the human race requires. Unlike Coetzee, she makes you ask those questions without hating yourself for being human.
Small Beer Press has just released a two-volume collection of her short stories, The Unreal and the Real. The first volume, Where on Earth, includes her realist and magic realist fiction set somewhere on the planet she inhabits. It includes some of her pieces set in Orsinia, her fictional Eastern European country, which she has not chronicled since it enjoyed a revolution a little over 20 years ago, as well as favorites like “Direction of the Road” and “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” The second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, includes work more squarely placed within the science-fiction genre, including “Betrayals,” another story about the aftermath of a failed revolution and “The Wild Girls,” a long piece about a slave society. The volume opens with her famous parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” It’s always hard to define a genre. Much of the work in her first volume could find a place in her second volume, and vice versa.
I met her at her house in Portland on a January afternoon. It was a clear day and you could see Mount Saint Helens about 50 miles distant from her dining-room window. We sat in her living room where we were consistently interrupted by her black-and-white cat Pard. We began the interview by talking about her parents and siblings. Her father Alfred Kroeber was a legendary anthropologist who wrote a famous study of the California Indians in the 1910s. Her mother Theodora Kroeber enjoyed a writing career late in life, writing biographies of her husband and of Ishi, the last member of a lost California tribe whom he had befriended. Karl Kroeber, her late brother, was an English professor at Columbia University. The following is a pared-down version of a 75-minute conversation.
The Millions: What did you learn about writing from your father and mother? Your mother started writing around the time you started writing.
Ursula K. Le Guin: She got published first though. I suppose what I learned from my father is that writing is something people do. It’s a perfectly normal human activity. You do it everyday. You have a place where you do it and when you’re doing it, it is respected…The family doesn’t bother you.
Now, of course this doesn’t work the same way when you’re not a professor and are a young housewife. But I think it gave me a security a lot of young writers don’t have, the sense that I’m doing something absolutely worthwhile. And the sense that I can and I will make the space in my life to do it. And this can be a huge problem, particularly for women writers. They really want to write, they really have the urge, but they aren’t sure that they have a right to do it. And I was given the right by seeing my father, who I respected and who everyone respected and who was a great guy, just doing it. So that’s a huge gift.
From my mother [it was] more complicated. She, being of her generation, didn’t start writing until she got all her kids out of the house and settled. She felt it wasn’t right to combine writing [with] being a housewife and mother. I had some problems with that in my teens. I wondered if I could do it. My best friend in high school, who was John Steinbeck’s niece, said, “Of course you could do it if you want to. Why not have kids and books?” She was right. So there again, I got support. My parents were supportive, but they didn’t hover at all.
TM: Were there any writing techniques that you learned from them?
UKLG: No. I didn’t even realize what a good writer my dad was until I was quite grown up and had been writing for a long time. My mother loved to talk about her writing while she was writing. [She would] talk about it before she wrote…which was neat for me because I cannot talk about writing. And I never talk about anything until it’s finished. There’re different kinds of writers and she was the kind that liked to talk it out. And it was a lot of fun to have someone like that to talk about writing. But I don’t think we taught each other anything.
TM: It’s interesting that you say that because I thought there was a tone in her book on Ishi similar to what I see in some of your books.
UKLG: Well that would probably be something that someone else could see that I couldn’t.
TM: A way of pulling back, a quietness.
UKLG: That’s nice, yeah. She and I certainly have different styles. But you know how it is. The kid doesn’t want to be compared too closely to the parent. So I could be absolutely blind to some similarity there.
TM: Did you find yourself studying these imagined worlds the same way your father studied his actual worlds?
UKLG: There’s certainly a similarity, but I think it’s temperamental. I didn’t read his books, as I said, until I was grown up and I had been writing what I write for quite awhile. We are interested in artifacts and how things are made and how operations are carried out. It’s [a similar] mindset, his equipment [as an anthropologist] and mine as a novelist.
TM: And I imagine that’s something you picked up by osmosis in dinner table conversations growing up.
UKLG: Yes. He wouldn’t talk shop at table, but we entertained a lot of people, particularly in summer when we were up in Napa Valley. [There were] anthropologists, ethnologists, European intellectuals — mostly refugees as this was the ’30s and ’40s — and the conversations would be very wide-ranging. My father did not talk a lot about his work. Of course he wasn’t doing ethnology anymore by the time I came along. There were some picturesque ethnologists who came through and told us about their adventures.
TM: You wrote a bit about your brother Karl, who was my professor at Columbia, and your shared love for books growing up. Did you share your work with him early on?
UKLG: No. Karl and I were the two youngest [of four children] and we were just under three years apart. We were pretty tight and pretty feisty. Karl was a rivalrous person. He was very sick as a baby. He was not what they call celiac now [– he] was the real thing. He lived on rice and bananas for his first six years. So he was very fragile. And he had a tremendous fighting spirit. So Karl was in rivalry with me [from the start], which was kind of ridiculous. So there were always some problems [and we] were also very tight. Brothers and sisters are fascinating.
TM: It sounds like the Kennedys.
UKLG: (Laughs) Well, slightly different type, but yeah. I think you know how that can be within a family. We played together and read books together all through our childhood. And often we were up there for the whole summer and there were a lot of adults coming and going but there were just four kids. When the two older brothers were playing Julius Caesar, Karl and I were [the Gauls].
TM: Was that your introduction to storytelling, playing together like that?
UKLG: Story-telling was mostly from my father who would tell us mostly Indian stories outside the house [in summer] around the fire at night. My Great Aunt Betsy had the family stories. She was a good storyteller.
TM: She was on your mother’s side?
UKLG: She was my mother’s aunt. She grew up in Wyoming. It’s a Western family. She just had that gift of storytelling. It’s because we were up there in the summer, and we sat around the fireplace [under the stars — so] no reading. It was all just game-playing or storytelling. We could play charades. So I think I had a much more oral culture than most American kids of my generation [– even then, before television.]
TM: In Always Coming Home you play with the Indian tradition where everyone is sitting around telling a story and then someone…
UKLG: Does a variation.
TM: What intrigues me about it is that it’s a very fast-motion version of what occurs in written culture.
UKLG: Yes, exactly.
TM: You read a story by Tolkien and you turn around and say I’m going to do my own version of this with the same archetypes.
UKLG: Being in science fiction was great because there was an open and free borrowing of vocabulary and ideas and so on. [It] was not plagiarism in the slightest. It was simply artists using the same material. I always compare it to the Baroque music period, where they’re all borrowing from each other like crazy and they’re all building the same house.
TM: When you’re writing about these made-up worlds, the Hainish worlds, Orsinia, or Earthsea, you are imagining all these small details, what the chairs or the doorknobs look like. But there are limitations to what you can imagine.There’s only so much you can know.
UKLG: It becomes an obsessive game.
TM: Are you ever aware of that when you’re writing?
UKLG: No, because after all in writing if you don’t have to mention the doorknob you don’t. I think one reason why most science-fiction movies are so lousy is that in them you do have to imagine the doorknob and you have to design it. And every single visual object has to be designed to tie in together. And then you get into a literalism which is a little bit soul-killing. But in writing you get away with murder. You just suggest something. So much of fantasy and science fiction is just the art of suggestion. You don’t really tell people that much, but they think you have because they imagine it.
TM: But how does it work when you imagine a new language.
UKLG: Oh well that’s different. I always come back to Tolkien here, who wrote the essential essay about those of us who make up languages. Lots of people when they’re kids draw. They draw islands or maps or places with the roads and the cities and the marshes and mountains and so on. It’s amazing when you ask an audience, “How many of you did that as a kid?” At least a third of the hands will go up. I never asked how many made up languages, which would be interesting to do. But I don’t think very many do. I love language, I love the sound of language. I play with word sounds in my head. This is just some native gift. I make up more languages than I have to actually.
TM: When Hemingway writes For Whom the Bell Tolls, he writes the dialogue as a Spanishfied English. He knows the basic constructions of Spanish in order to be able to do that. Do you ever try to do anything similar with your invented languages?
UKLG: No, not in the way Hemingway does, where he writes with a Spanish accent. And I don’t like it when he does that to tell you the truth. I find it a little affected and foolish. “Okay Ernest, if you want to write in Spanish, write in Spanish. Learn it well enough to write in it. You’re writing English.”
In The Left Hand of Darkness you have a major cultural concept like shifgrethor. I didn’t need to build the language out of that. But I did need to know enough to get shifgrethor. I needed to have a phoneme pool to get the word from. And then I just needed to know the word and what it meant and had meant and all its connotations and denotations. But I didn’t really need the rest of the vocabulary.
I do translate. I like translating very much. It’s a kind of writing I’ve done more as I’ve gotten older. And of course if I’m translating from Spanish I don’t want it to sound like Spanish. I want it to sound like English. I want it to do in English what it does in Spanish. So I’m almost the other pole from Hemingway there. And not only there.
TM: Do you feel “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” means something different now than when you wrote it?
UKLG: That story? No. Because I don’t know what it means. It is a question. I know why I wanted to write it. Out of middle-class guilt, out of human guilt for what we do to each other and everybody else. I know my motivations for that story. [It] meant a lot to me. Of course, that’s the story they always ask about, and write letters about. And they always want me to give the answer and not the question.
TM: That story speaks very directly to life under late capitalism. I don’t know if you see that story speaking to other possible systems.
UKLG: Well, I never thought of it that way because I’ve only lived under late capitalism. And both Dostoevsky and William James who asked the question the story asks before me were living under capitalism. Dostoevsky somewhat less. His was more of a feudalistic capitalism. I don’t know. Interesting question. But not one I could answer now.
TM: I’d be curious to know how maybe someone in Cuba would react to it.
UKLG: I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. The story has been translated into lots of languages. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard from anybody specifically about it from a really different culture. And I don’t know if my stories go to any really different cultures. I think Indonesia is about as far [as my work has gone]…Turkey…Korea…They’re all capitalistic.
TM: I sense in the way “Omelas” ends, with a look at those who choose to walk away from it, and the way many of your stories end, and a few of your novels, a weird Tolstoyan optimism minus the Christian theology. In the situations that you imagine — as bleak as they are – there’s always some decent humanity that exists that is somehow still worth preserving.
UKLG: Optimism seems an odd word. But I can see why you use it. It may just be a refusal to take the counsel of despair. I think to admit despair and to revel in it — as many 20th- and 21st-century writers do — is an easy way out. Whenever I get really really depressed and discouraged about our politics in America and what we are doing, ecologically speaking, globally speaking, [with] our mad rush to destroy the world, it’s very easy to say, “To hell with us. This species is not successful.” Something tells me I have no right to say that. There are good people. Who am I to judge? The problem with despair is it gets judgmental. But I’m not saying this very well.
TM: This refusal to judge is the other side of the refusal to idealize.
UKLG: And of course, when I was in my 20s and 30s I had a good deal of political idealism. I did think we really could work towards and achieve more justice in human societies. And that revolution might be a way to do it. I’m pretty far left, and basically socialist. Human nature is whatever human nature is. “We can make it better than it was so far.” It’s pretty hard to keep thinking that decade after decade, let me tell you. I guess José Saramago was able to hold onto his Marxist faith into his ninth decade, but he was a very tough guy. A lot of that hopefulness — that would be optimism — gets knocked out of you, particularly if you are living in a country as I feel I am living in, that is really on the skids, that is really losing it.
TM: There seems even in “The Wild Girls,” the bleakest story here, some of what I call optimism.
UKLG: There is? (Befuddled expression)
TM: There’s still humanity that comes through in this horrible slave society, in which people can still tell a joke.
UKLG: But that’s how people are. I will not say, “Even in Breslau they told jokes.” But they probably did. You read Primo Levi and you realize how people can come out of something like that. He’s still Primo Levi. He’s a beautiful man. Human beings are very tough. And they are funny and they are kind. There are all sorts of good things about human beings. And I come back to this. I have no right to despair. As for “The Wild Girls,” probably the last full short story I wrote, I think it’s a good story. But I don’t really like it because it’s so dark. Those people just don’t have a chance. It’s based on an Indian society in the Mississippi Valley that really did work that way. And I’ve been trying to imagine myself into that society. And just…“My God!”
TM: Your father had no patience for those who idealized the Indians. He had a lot of fascination for these cultures. But he disliked the [condescending, co-opting] white voice of “I admire the Indians.”
UKLG: “The wonderful brave Indian.” Oh yes.
TM: I was just thinking of that as interesting given that that was your inspiration for this story.
UKLG: The fact that it came from an Indian culture was neither here nor there. It just struck me as one of those utterly weird things that human beings have actually done. I didn’t make this up. I just fictionalized it.
TM: You have this beautiful man archetype with Shevek in The Dispossessed. He is of a different culture that you make up. So how do you balance admiring the man himself while avoiding the trap, as your father was clear about, of idealizing the culture?
UKLG: Oh, I guess because I was inoculated early. I have rarely romanticized another culture, idealized it because it’s different than mine. I say rarely, because when I was in my teens I romanticized France and romanticized French culture the way a lot of people do. Of course when I got to France, there were people [who]…but man, did they eat well. (Laughs)
There’s something I got fairly directly from my dad. [The differences are endlessly interesting], but value judgments are not involved. And you can’t romanticize.
TM: But you can romanticize an individual.
TM: And fall in love with him.
UKLG: And it could be a man or a woman. And of course there are beautiful people. I’ve met them. They’re not beautiful all the way through, [maybe, but] people worth knowing for the rest of your life. There are such people. That’s put me out of step a good deal with a lot of the fiction of my time.
TM: Because the fiction of your time is opposed to romanticizing individual figures?
UKLG: The fiction of my time is about dysfunctional American suburban families.
TM: No Jean Valjeans.
UKLG: Talk about romantic. Well, shoot I like Victor Hugo. I can romanticize with the best of them. I tend to romanticize people but not cultures.
TM: When you write, how much of it is “doing not-doing,” the Taoist ideal?
UKLG: Maybe, as I’ve gone on, what I’ve learned as a writer is that you do as little as possible. And part of it is leaving a lot of it up to the reader. And a lot of it is realizing you don’t have to do that much if you do the right thing. [Makes clicking sound] That’s enough. So my writing has tended to be shorter and more allusive than it used to be. I was re-reading The Lathe of Heaven — which I’m still fond of, which I still think is funny — but, boy would I cut it if I could. They talk too much. They explain things too much.
TM: I know you’ve written that science-fiction writers are not prophets. But is there any thing that has happened in your society during your writing life that has happily surprised you?
UKLG: Hmm…That’s not particularly a question to me as a writer, is it? Just to me as an American.
TM: Yes. Just curious.
UKLG: Well, pure happiness is such an endangered thing. This may sound sort of trivial, but I took geology in college, one semester. And I liked it but I couldn’t stick with it. I didn’t want to be a scientist anyway. But when they began figuring out plate tectonics, when they began figuring out how the Earth is put together, why we have mountain ranges, why continents drift and so on…That was an intellectual revolution that I lived through week by week as it developed. And it was wonderful. It was so terrific to realize that geology of all the stable solid sciences was just coming to pieces at the seams and discovering the world all over again and finally getting its feet right on the real world instead of on a lot of theory. That was so cool. I think science – not technology — science is one of the best things we do. And then there are artists who have come along in my lifetime, like Saramago, [who I wouldn’t have discovered] if they hadn’t Nobel-ed him. “Wow! There’s a man like that, writing like that, in his 80s.” I don’t know if things are better or worse. It’s always the best of times and the worst of times, isn’t it? But I’ve been glad to be alive while things like plate tectonics and Saramago were going on.