It is a sad week for literature. Ursula K. Le Guin, esteemed author and poet, died on January 22nd, 2018. She was 88 years old.
Like many others, I am feeling the loss heavily. Le Guin was one of the great writers of our time, a winner of five Locus awards, four Nebula awards, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and several lifetime achievement awards. She was also my favourite author, and I’ve been struggling to accept that she’s gone. The world just seems a little bit less magical without her.
Despite my sadness, I’ve been trying to focus on celebrating her life. And there’s a lot to celebrate. She was remarkable in many measures, not only for her skills—the detail, clarity, and beauty of her words—but for what she did with them.
In 1968, Le Guin challenged the overwhelming whiteness of the fantasy genre in A Wizard of Earthsea by featuring a cast that was almost exclusively non-white. “My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start,” Le Guin wrote for Slate after the SciFi channel whitewashed the Earthsea miniseries. “I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white […]. It didn’t even make sense.” As a young white teen, I was too oblivious to understand the significance of this act, but now—fifty years after A Wizard of Earthsea’s publication—I see its power and the ripples of similar sentiments in the We Need Diverse Books movement and in calls for greater representation across genres.
The Earthsea books were among the first to give me characters who didn’t look like me. I imagine for some readers of colour, Ged and the other inhabitants of the archipelago were among the first characters who did reflect their race. I can’t speak to the impact that must have had, but I can acknowledge that Earthsea addressed an unconscious bias I had grown up with and expanded my definitions of who heroes could be.
The Earthsea Cycle is, of course, also remarkable for its feminist themes. I’m all for female protagonists that kick ass and take names, but Le Guin gave me something more. I remember being slightly confused upon beginning Tehanu. Tenar, who I’d grown to love for her adventures in The Tombs of Atuan had settled on Gont. She’d chosen to marry, have kids, and run a farm instead of learning magic, a far cry from what I was seeking from her. Yet this too was a deliberate choice on Le Guin’s part. It’s a choice that reveals the heroism in the everyday, in caregiving, in the stereotypical female acts that are so often ignored. In Tenar, Le Guin gave me my first glimpse of a strong female character who was strong in her own right, not for mimicry of so-called male traits.
Similarly, Le Guin’s Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, showed me a society without gender, and it was both entertaining and intellectually stimulating to explore. Questioning your sense of reality and identity can be scary. But a “thought experiment,” as Le Guin called it in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?,” in a well thought out fictional work can offer the comfort and safety to begin doing just that. I explored the world of Gethen at a time when I was just beginning to learn about transgender issues, and though the challenge to gender binaries in The Left Hand of Darkness likely isn’t perfect, it did act as a stepping stone for me to acknowledge social constructs and recognize power structures in the real world. This has been essential to my ongoing efforts to become a better ally to other women and LGBTQIA+ people.
This awareness of what Le Guin’s work has taught me comes after many years of writing notes, essays, and presentations on her work, both for my personal reading records and for classes in high school and university. Without intention, I always seemed to return to Le Guin. Her books are so wonderfully written, and there always seems to be more to see and learn from them. In revisiting all of my attempts to unwrap and absorb all her books have offered me, I realize it’s impossible to differentiate how her books have informed my growth as a feminist, ally, and member of society from how my understanding of her work reflects that same growth. Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult for me to separate how her books have shaped me from the interpersonal memories and connections Le Guin has given me.
Through Le Guin’s words, I am connected to my aunt, who gifted me her books on more than one occasion (the latest of which was just this Christmas, when I received her latest collection No Time to Spare); to my parents, who drove me to Ottawa to see her at the International Writers Festival; to my friends, who took my recommendations and discussed her books with me; and finally, to a larger community of sci-fi and fantasy readers.
This past week, I have seen countless posts from readers, bloggers, and literary elite alike expressing sadness about Le Guin’s passing. From the simple sharing of quotations, to longer stories of Le Guin’s generosity, humour, and wisdom, it is clear that Le Guin touched many lives in the same ways she’s touched mine.
I just learned that Ursula K. Le Guin has died. Her words are always with us. Some of them are written on my soul. I miss her as a glorious funny prickly person, & I miss her as the deepest and smartest of the writers, too. Still honoured I got to do this: https://t.co/U4mma5pJMw
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) January 23, 2018
Le Guin’s writing has challenged and shaped me—and so many others—as readers, academics, and individuals. So, as I mourn the loss of someone who had such a big impact on my reading journey, and as I struggle to accept the new finite nature of words that had once felt infinite, I also take comfort in knowing that Ursula K. Le Guin will not be easily forgotten. She will be remembered as a woman who embodied truly great storytelling, the kind that forges bonds beyond the bounds of book covers.
Thank you, Ursula, for your words and wisdom.