Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m sitting in an airport. Ursula Le Guin is dead.

Several years ago, I recorded some memories to be banked by NPR in case they needed an obituary. This is apparently standard and the way such things are done with Notable Figures. I was assured that she was in good health. That it was just a policy when people reached a certain age.

Sometimes, the reporter said, these were never used.

I am sitting in an airport. My phone buzzes. The reporter has texted me. She wants to give me a heads-up so that I’m not caught by surprise. They will be using the interview. Today.

Ursula Le Guin is dead.

I am caught by surprise. I am sitting in an airport crying and I don’t honestly care that it is making the people around me uncomfortable. Ursula Le Guin is dead.

She’s been a part of my life since before I began writing. I ate the Wizard of Earthsea books. I still have my dogeared copy from when I was a teen. I’ve lost track of how many times I read it. It’s such a slender volume and yet it shaped my world. Words. She understood the power of words.

The first time I met her, I was not yet a writer. I lived in Portland, Oregon and was working full-time in puppet theater. Tears of Joy was getting ready to stage her children’s book A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back. I worked every angle I could to get assigned to the show as the set designer.

Nancy Aldrich, the artistic director of ToJ, and I went to Ursula’s house. It was a beautiful craftsman style home set on a hill nestled in a garden. It’s in a neighborhood, mind you, but when you’re in the garden, all you feel are the trees. She met us at the door looking just like her photos. Small, silver-haired, and powerful.

The back of my head filled with EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. She brought us in. Offered us tea. We sat in her kitchen and went through my designs. She liked them. She was pleased.

Fast forward five or more years. We’ve corresponded via my role in SFWA. I’m a Writer now, but I haven’t seen her since the show and then had cause to go to her house again with some other people. She remembered me. We’d only met once before, in a different context, but she remembered.

From that point forward, I would see her a couple of times socially or around writing. I remember sitting in her living room and hearing her explain what she got wrong about Wizard of Earthsea. The fact that this icon– this book that had shaped me — that she could still examine her work and see errors was astonishing. (Example: With one exception, none of the female characters have names. And most of their dialogue is reported rather than direct.) Seeing her be unafraid of the mistakes, or embarrassed by them was empowering. Realizing that she saw those problems as a way to better understand herself and an opportunity to improve even decades after the book’s publication, continues to shape me.

I love that she continues to interrogate fiction and society. That she is unafraid to admit error. That she doesn’t see it as a weakness but as a way to grow. I love her power.

I find myself unable to speak of her in the past tense. This was the problem when I recorded the interview for her obituary. Ursula Le Guin was alive when I did that.

Today, I have been told that she is dead. There is a low wall between us, but not enough, I think to keep her from shaping my life or yours.

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14 Responses

  1. Brett Rebischke-Smith

    I always loved the way so little of the dialogue in Wizard of Earthsea was written as such. It made those few bits terribly important to me. I always assumed it was deliberate. It makes me smile, too, that she considered it an error. Always teaching.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      The sparseness of dialogue was a choice, but the treatment of the women in the narrative was not. She said that she had always considered herself a feminist and that writing Wizard of Earthsea made her realize that she had only read fantasy written by men for men and that she’d internalized a lot of things from that. Earthsea made her realize that she needed to discover a way to write fiction for women.

  2. Jason Denzel

    Thank you for this touching post, Mary. She will always live on through her work, but you certainly are one of the worthy people carrying her torch.

  3. Eve

    Mary, I knew Ursula in a different context, as a client at Maloy’s. I too am very sad to know that her powerful, silver haired, self will never appear in the door again.

    I want you to know that during one of her visits, writing came up (it usually did not). I mentioned that a dear friend of mine had recently won a Hugo, and she asked who. As soon as I said your name, her face positively lit up, and she said, “Oh, what a lovely person Mary is, and a fine writer”.

  4. Ann WJ White

    Beautiful stirring words. Yet I can hear her in my mind’s eye telling us not to sorrow, we have work to do, changes to make. I’ve never met her. I’ve read every published word like a drunkard who can’t stop even if they wanted too. My mother (82) introduced me to Ms. Le Guin. She never told me that I had to read her, she just handed me books. I think that as the world was changing in the 60s and 70s, Mom wanted me to understand that I could be a strong woman, a woman who could make a dent on ignorance (that solid slice of marble that refuses to believe it is part of a cycle.) I learned tolerance. I learned rebellion.

    I grew up to be a strong woman. Then my children arrived and as they grew I read to them, handed books to them, and invited them on my journey as my mother had invited me.

    Ursula Le. Guin is dead. But she lives and breathes through her words. She left enough of herself behind to be cherished for as long as books live. Your testimony to her humanity is stirring and proper. I shed tears too.

  5. Peter Hentges

    I get something new every time I re-read the Earthsea books. I, too, have lost track how many times I’ve read them. I love, love, love that she kept examining her work as she evolved. As soon as you mentioned her criticism of Wizard of Earthsea it rang and true, and obvious, and so hidden in the work that I hadn’t noticed it before. Thank you.

  6. Marie Brennan

    I will forever be grateful that I had the chance to speak to her once and tell her she’s the reason I went to grad school. Her response was a cheerful “I’m sorry” — but even though I didn’t finish my degree, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I didn’t have that shaping me.

  7. KWG

    Beyond what the loss of Le Guin the writer means to the world, those of you who have lost Ursala the friend have my deepest condolences.

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