Uncanny Vale

Home to the Literary Creations
of Erin Wilcox

Thoughts on the Passing of Ursula K. Le Guin

In my last post, I remarked on feelings of loss and responsibility that arose in me upon the death of my favorite writer, and a sense that these feelings warrant investigation. I want to start with the idea that Le Guin was my favorite writer, because this was not something I’d fully realized before I wrote it down. I can’t claim to have read all of her work or to understand her or to have known her personally. It’s just that, one day I went to the bookstore, and since my drab MFA program was having us read no fantasy at all, and because I knew that Le Guin wrote fantasy, I browsed until I found a used volume of her short stories—A Fisherman on the Inland Sea—and I bought it. It helped that I found her this way, I think: of my own volition, surreptitiously, almost subversively, like a young divinity student seeking out porn. But she was not my favorite author yet. Buying this volume was simply a gesture I made while milling around Anchorage, looking for my voice, like Le Guin’s Tenar, a lonely young priestess groping in the dark.

Later, a particularly vexing instructor of mine referred to “all that crap in the fantasy section” as something we all were to distinguish our fine writing from. I proceeded to prepare a formal case for the legitimacy of science fiction and fantasy, which I was allowed to present to the class. When I presented my case and mentioned Le Guin as a representative of the genre, my Iowa-trained teacher said, “Well, she’s pretty well respected, so that’s not a very good example on your part.” This was how I learned about the structure of literary chauvinism, in which an entire genre (which we identify as genreless) is defined by its superior merit so that any literature deemed meritorious gets airlifted out of the ghetto and plopped between the covers of the Norton anthology, never to be associated with its origins anymore except in the quaintest, most distancing terms. I didn’t know it yet, but I had been primed for my first reading of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I was a youth being introduced to the child in the basement. The child was me.

I had read maybe two of Le Guin’s stories by this time. The one that appeared in our anthology, an excerpt from The New Atlantis, struck me as plain weird, nigh inscrutable. (It was not assigned to us; the Marquéz story in our volume was deemed sufficient to cover all modes of fantasy, but I read it anyway.) Still, like an underwater anemone that had found something interesting, my mind clung to hers. Once in a while, I would read a story in my contraband anthology. I gave myself permission to flip around, as I rarely do, rather than reading it front to back. Something about her writing encouraged this, I think. Her impulse toward freedom rippled outward.

At some point, I picked up Earthsea, and on one of those rare sunny days amid an Anchorage summer in which every person drops their excuses and goes outside, I took my jalopy down the Glenn Highway and found myself a waterfall to read by. Here I was, reading fantasy, and by goddess I would write it one day, damn the Iowa School and all its sycophantic spawn.

Years later, I am washing dishes, listening to The Tombs of Atuan in Tucson, Arizona. I belong to a small book club that reads at least one of Le Guin’s novels every year, in part because one of its members (guess who) loves her work so much. I have come to enjoy her mind like a hall of mirrors: endless, always showing me new pieces of myself and where I come from. Whenever I try to write something original, damned if Le Guin hasn’t been there first. It is 2014, and I am working on a story about a girl with a dowry who lives in an unnamed valley when I read Rocannon’s World, which opens with Le Guin’s first published story—about a young woman with a dowry, on another world.

Now, in 2018, I am still working on a permutation of that same story. Which brings me to the responsibility I feel now that the comfort of LeGuin’s presence has dissipated. She’s not going to write anything else. And I am not aging backward. Though I can and will keep reading everything of hers I can find until the day I die, that task has become finite. It is time to step up, not because I’ll ever achieve half what she did, but because genre-smearing literary chauvinists are rushing to put their stamp on her name. The stamp reads No [Genre]* Allowed. And I will not have it.

My first calling was to put something together in Le Guin’s honor for the genre community and the public, an event that I hope and believe honored her memory. My next responsibility is to finish my dowry story, which no longer involves a dowry but still takes place in a valley that probably evokes the landscape of the Kesh people, since I am from Napa, where Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is loosely based. (But I’m not going to read that opus just yet, not until I’ve gotten this story out the door, lest I go mad.)

And what else? There’s more that I feel about Ursula’s passing, certainly. But now it’s late. Those thoughts will have to wait till next time.

*Insert subordinated group name here.