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.