Welcome Aboard the Spaceship: More on Ursula K. Le Guin

I remember when I spent a couple of weeks in a writing  residency at a cottage on the beautiful grounds of the Hedgebrook Foundation. The notebook on the table contained entries from writers who had stayed there before me. On one page, Ursula Le Guin had drawn a little lizard and commented on its presence, signing the entry, UKL. I was in awe of who had been there before me, and yet, somehow, I felt invited to the great party of writing and life. I felt as if I’d been allowed to shape the two in my own way.

Tributes are pouring in now, some formal and respectful, others more personal, remembering moments and insights and connections, human to writer, with no difference between the two.

Here’s one on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Excerpt:

Ursula K. Le Guin helps me know where I am.

She is not gone.

And this beautiful account of friendship and of a child’s glimmering insights from William Alexander. Excerpt:

Ursula died at the age of eighty-eight–a multiple of eleven. I wish she could have waited for ninety-nine instead.

She collaborated a few times with my youngest daughter Iris. Together they told stories about monkeys and cats.

And that in turn reminded me of the time I read Catwings to my son back when he was five. We read it many times. We read the sequels. The very notion of cats with wings gave rise unfailingly to delighted laughter and to the anxious turning of pages.IMG_2220IMG_2219 2

And then there was wonderful Alexander, lost and treed, cold and terrified by a wandering owl, who was then found by a stranger and discovered an entire family of most unusual cats.

Of course, back when I read these out loud, over and over again, I had no idea that many years later I would meet a wonderful Alexander who was a friend of Ursula’s. There’s that invitation again, a kind of magic that we ought to make the effort to pass along.

“I Am a Man.” Change as Wrought by Ursula K. Le Guin

“Rest in peace” doesn’t quite fit a writer like Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, who died yesterday at the age of 88. Her imagination was fierce and wide-ranging. Her essays stoked the confidence and energy of generations of writers, especially women. She bent and questioned assumptions of race and gender in ways that feel fresh and necessary today. Her books were way ahead of their time.

IMG_2216The best thing I could think of to do in her honor was to reread the opening piece from my well-thumbed copy of her collection, The Wave in the Mind.


…if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground…. Models like the Austin and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Hard to beat those words. Le Guin was a force in the world. Who’s stepping up to take her place?

The Singular Case for “They”

In the last century, back when I first began daring to think of myself as a writer, I thought I knew how gender was supposed to play out in language. I had grown up speaking Tamil at home. It’s a language that is set up quite logically, with a neutral gender assigned to inanimate objects. I’d struggled mightily with Hindi, in which common nouns are gendered, there is no neutral gender and you’re just supposed to know that a chair (कुर्सी), for example is feminine and your glasses (चश्मा) are masculine.

IMG_2066But I thought I knew the rules in English. Pronouns were supposed to correspond to the referent, whether that was male, female, or genderless. When you dealt in plurals, however, the male, rather illogically, was supposed to embrace the female. That posed a minor problem for me, if truth be told. Still, (we’re talking about America in the 1980s here) I was determined to follow the rules in order to be recognized as literate. In order to make people stop saying to me in surprised tones, “You’re from India? But you speak such good English.”

[Brief aside: Rule-following did not help that cause. Some people still say that to me. These days I reply: “You don’t do too badly yourself!”]

So I spent a lot of time dancing around the noun-pronoun-gender minefield.

Then I read Ursula Le Guin’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness. And realized that the little unease I’d always felt about that embrace situation–well, maybe it wasn’t so irrational after all. Men have spoken for women for centuries, not to mention embracing them without asking permission. How natural it was then for the language of Empire to reframe suppression and erasure as inclusion.

Still, whenever I could, I tried to write in plurals. I’d torque myself into twisty sentences, or clip them all into many short ones, in order to make that gender connection unnecessary. But it was when I was reading students’ work that I really began to doubt my own adherence to a rule that had begun feeling more and more archaic to me. Susa Silvermarie’s critical thesis on gender fluidity eventually led me to question, among other things, some of the building blocks of grammar that I’d taken for granted.

In 2016, NPR offered this update:

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”

As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.

So there. I’m burying my gender pronoun hatchet at last. If anyone calls me on it, tell them to worry about something else instead.

How about apostrophes?


Ursula LeGuin on Go Set a Watchman

“Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air…”

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdLet me be clear. I am one of those who fell in love years ago with To Kill a Mockingbird. I read the 1960 edition about ten years after its publication. I wore it to shreds from reading and rereading. And then I saw the movie. From faraway India, a land racked by its own history of inequity and communal conflicts, it seemed to me that Gregory Peck and Atticus Finch were one and the same and neither could do any wrong. And young Scout was me! I hid secret messages in the knotholes of trees. I eavesdropped on grownups. I wondered about justice in the world. Who else could she be?

Now I’m several decades older and have had to learn to live with the complexities of human existence, the many shadings between right and wrong, the tussle between loyalty and truth and above all the uselessness of self-righteousness. This week, I’m reading Harper Lee’s old/new book and it’s making me think about the role that fiction can play in society and how much nostalgia can blind us. I love this post from another of my favorite writers on the questions the new book raises and above all on the tragedy of a gifted writer’s lifelong silence.