- 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2018
THE GREAT AMERICAN WRITER URSULA LE GUIN
- 03 Feb - 09 Feb, 2018
- A Letter From America
The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie – whom I don’t know otherwise, either personally or through her work (though people I respect tell me it’s good) – got on my nerves sometime in 2014 when, in an interview with The Guardian, she professed herself “deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure … it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, ‘Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?’ At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.”
I can only deduce that Kamila Shamsie is unfamiliar with the work of Ursula Le Guin, who died January 22 at age 88 at her home in the city of Portland, just three hours down the highway from Seattle, where I live. No writer was ever more American than Le Guin, nor more incisively critical of American hubris and empire. She was overtly (and always strongly) critical when called for, but more importantly – and more enduringly – Le Guin’s entire large and powerful body of work stands as a testament to the human imagination as a tool for reckoning with the mess we’ve made of the only planet we know to be habitable.
“In America,” she complained in a wonderful talk included in her late essay collection Words Are My Matter, “the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.”
Le Guin’s life and work offer the rest of us a standing object lesson in how and why we should both pay attention to the world as it is, and imagine that it could be different and better. Her fame was built on her ability to imagine nonexistent but plausible and instructive worlds like Earthsea, and like the planets inhabited by speculative human societies in her Hainish cycle of science fiction novels, above all The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. “For years she was the point man in science fiction’s long campaign for respectability,” noted the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson after her death. Robinson then said a great deal in his next sentence: “Now that reality itself has turned into a science fiction novel, her defense of the field looks thoroughly justified and quite successful.”
Le Guin surely would have endorsed the words of the great British writer J.G. Ballard, who once told an interviewer that growing up during the Second World War, in the chaos of Japanese-occupied Shanghai – which he called “almost a twenty-first century city” – had taught him “many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the best guide to reality.” So what is reality, anyway? What kinds of writing, or political attitudes, should count as “realism”? What is truly realistic, after all? If what we have always called – scornfully, yes, but also smugly – “politics as usual” is no longer serving society, then might we be better served by some other, unusual, politics?
Those are exactly the sorts of questions that Le Guin asked in all her work; she saw it as part of her role to imagine just such possibilities. She knew, and demonstrated, that real knowledge and real understanding require not only patience and sustained attention, but also – and above all – imagination.
In early 2009, when I made a six-week trip entirely overland from Mumbai to Karachi (recounted in Overtaken by Events: A Pakistan Road Trip, a limited-edition sequel to my book Alive and Well in Pakistan), I made a point of taking along and rereading Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, because it’s about twin planets that are separated by ideology, mutual paranoia, and self-enforced exile, and because I had first read it in India, after finding it in a used bookshop in Varanasi in 1994. Varanasi was where I first met Ursula Le Guin, so to speak. Summarizing The Dispossessed to an Indian Muslim woman I met in Delhi, I told her it was “about people who are really the same people, and the isolation they’ve endured, and how they have to come back to trying to understand each other, and trying to reconnect, but they also have totally opposing ideologies.”
Here’s one suggestive passage: “The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage, to deny their history, to forgo the possibility of return. The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer; and his sons are born in exile.”
“Hard times are coming,” Le Guin warned us in Words Are My Matter. “We’ll need writers who can remember freedom.” A friend, herself a writer, consoled me after Le Guin’s death by reminding me that “The silver lining is that when a writer like this dies they leave so much behind.”
Indeed that is a very substantial consolation, because in a real sense Ursula Le Guin herself is still with us – isn’t she? – in the form of her books.
A decade or so ago, my wife and I went to see her speak in Seattle. As we stood in the book-signing line, I nervously wondered what I might say that would express my deep gratitude and admiration, but without fawning and that would ring true. What I decided to say was simply, “Thank you for giving us so many wonderful books.”
The great American writer Ursula Le Guin looked up at me and, like the wise crone that she was, replied, “Well, it’s my pleasure!” It felt, and still feels, like a benediction. •
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