U Le G

tombs-of-atuanIrresistible, once I thought of it. But to escape any misunderstanding right from the start: I’m eulogising Ursula Le Guin, but this isn’t a eulogy (by which I mean that I’m not writing nice things about Ursula because she’s dead – because she emphatically isn’t).

Good grief. Silly puns that take too much explanation should be left alone, but I didn’t get much sleep, so you’ll just have to put up with it.

I should also say, at this point, that I’m going to be writing about books of hers that I’ve read, so there will be some spoiler-effect here. I’ll try to warn you before it gets bad.

The point of all this is that I’m in awe of Ursula as a writer.

I have a “history” with her writing, and it’s a personally embarrassing one, from my present perspective. We’ll get to that.

Anyway: the first time I ever heard of Ursula Le Guin was when I was about 11, lucky enough to be on a holiday on a Greek island with my mum and brother (and no dad!), and a family we were friends with, and their mum’s artist colleague, whose name I can’t remember now (but whose flat in Finchley I found myself decorating, by a very bizarre coincidence, 9 years later).

This friend had brought books with her to read on holiday, and one of them was the book whose cover graces the top of this blog-thing – The Tombs of Atuan. (Here beginneth the spoiler alert, which, let’s face it, is going to apply for this whole blog-thing.)

So, sitting in a hot dry country, I read a story of a girl trapped in a hot dry country, trapped in a hot dry life, who one day has someone flow into her life like shockingly cool water, and wash her right out of it. I had no idea at the time that this book was the second in a (then) trilogy – I just read it and absorbed it and loved it with a passion. (This has happened to me since with several other writers – to read a book by them, and then discover I’m in the middle of a longer story that stretches back as well as forward – what an allegory.)

I love Tenar. It was very carefully not clear to me at the time just how much I identified with her. As someone being abused at home, I lived with dark forces I was not in control of. As someone concealing their transgender nature from themselves (for safety among dark forces), I couldn’t let myself know how much I identified with this young woman who both feared and longed for rescue. It didn’t occur to me until very recently that the mage who rescues her was also me.

Ursula Le Guin has called some of her story-telling genre psychomyth. I take this to mean a marriage of myth, story, with psychological growing-up, and with the psyche itself, with archetypes (the Jungian archetypes are very present in her Earthsea books, especially the trilogy). I love the way she writes. I really love it. I’m not going to try to analyse it here, I just want to praise it from an experiential point of view.

After I read that book, I read in quick succession the first and third books of the then trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore. These were beautiful. And not just the covers! (though those Puffin covers have not been bettered since, I think.) They taught me something very important, between them, about the difference between “powerful” and “power over”. That to become powerful is not to have power over the world, or other people or beings, but to become one’s true self, to meet one’s true self, warts and “shadow” and all. True power is never at someone else’s expense. This has stood me in good stead as I’ve been slowly growing over the damage done to me in earlier life, and slowly come out as transgender (and all the rest of it). It has also been a curious foreshadowing to me ending up becoming a Buddhist, to my sense of ethics. And as an abuse survivor, I’m still learning how not to give others power over me and then resent them. I’m getting there, but really looking forward to learning that properly.

As a teenager and in my 20s, I subsequently read several of Ursula’s “science fiction” books (that’s how they were marketed then, which genre label doesn’t at all do them justice): The Lathe of Heaven, City of Illusion, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, Rocannon’s World, Threshold, A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else… and short story collections: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, The Compass Rose, Orsinian Tales. I didn’t really notice at the time just how few significant female characters there were in her earlier writing – though I responded strongly to those who were there: Tenar, Kest (well, she was significant to me), Irene… and to the ungendered characters of Gethen.

A couple of times in my life, Ursula’s books have caused major healthy landslides in my psyche. First, The Dispossessed opened up something important in me which definitely led to me becoming a Buddhist – concerning how something can appear to be both “in a certain place at a certain time” and “moving”, which she refers to in the book when discussing Transilience. I ended up having a huge-o dream about this, which I still contemplate when I want to feel the stronger wind of freedom on me. Actually, it was only a few months before I had that dream that another book of hers shifted something big in me. There’s a short passage in Always Coming Home that I read sat in a prehistoric oak wood on Dartmoor, which freed me from holding onto being pointlessly in love with someone. Except that every time I’ve read the book since then, this passage isn’t actually in there – so it was just the Coyote singing to me out of the pages back then, which is a fun mystery to live with.

Anyway, my “history” – this is the embarrassing part, though it has an explanation (if not an excuse). I’ve only just made sense of the chronology of this, but Ursula’s writing started to become consciously feminist around the same time I came out to myself as transgender, and then forcefully sent my female self back into a coma again. So I had a huge reaction to her writing, and parted company with anything she wrote after Tehanu (which I hated until recently, and now love). This was all part of my awful Anger With Women™ which washed away last year when I began to transition. Not long before I began my transition, I read The Other Wind, and ended up starting a correspondence with Ursula (yes, actual pen-and-paper – or in my case, computer-and-printer letter-writing). I have two things to say about Ursula’s letters back to me: she was incredibly patient, and her handwriting is beautiful. I was trying to bait her about her story-lines being anti-men, and she refused to take the bait. The last word she wrote to me was “peace”, before I realised I couldn’t say anything without toads and snakes pouring out of my metaphorical mouth, and so stopped writing.

Then I began to transition in spring last year, and it all changed. Last month, a friend sent me Ursula’s book on writing, Steering the Craft (what a great title), and on reading the introduction and looking at Ursula’s photo on the back, I felt a huge rush of love and gratitude, so I wrote to her again (this time using a pen) to explain (but not excuse) my past behaviour. I have no idea whether she’ll reply, or what her stance (if she has such a thing) on transgender issues is – since some feminists are deeply reactive towards transgender people. I’m very curious to see what happens next.

Meanwhile, I’m totally delighted to be slowly working my way through all her books I’ve missed out on since the 80s. I’m currently reading Changing Planes, which is what prompted me to write this overlong narrative. In this book, in writing a series of loosely connected “anthropological essays” on mythical beings, she has shown an amazing subtle skill at an aspect of story-telling I’m trying hard to learn, as I struggle to write my novel: “don’t tell everything.” The spaces she leaves for the imagination to fill in (or to delight in never being able to fill in, delight in simply never knowing what belongs there) are as important as everything her story-teller tells. I’m in awe. What a treat.

ursula-le-guin[A couple of things:

I know, not all those books were marketed as science fiction, I just didn’t know where else to put them in my list of books I’d read…

…and it appeals to my sense of self-irony that this blog-thing is so overlong because I haven’t yet learned “don’t tell everything” – though you’d be amazed at the restraint I have shown…

…and oh, the woman’s name was Sylvia!]


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