“This is another lesson I take from Ursula: Sometimes if you don’t fit in the world, the world has to change.” — Karen Joy Fowler
Those words from Karen’s keynote speech at the 2016 Tiptree Symposium summed up my experience. The two-day event at the University of Oregon celebrating the work of Ursula K. Le Guin was a powerful antidote to the bombardment of horribles that continue to assault us after the election debacle. I came away feeling transformed.
For me, the most powerful item on the program was “Le Guin’s Fiction as an Inspiration for Activism,” a panel featuring adrienne maree brown (co-editor of Octavia’s Brood) and Grace Dillon (professor at Portland State University in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program), and moderated by Joan Haran (of the University of Oregon and Cardiff University in Wales).
Using The Dispossessed as a starting point, adrienne focused on the importance of specialness to the story. Shevak’s world on Urras doesn’t value specialness, but when he travels to Anarres, he runs into a world with a “highly competitive sphere” based on specialness. I found this gave me deeper insight into Shevak’s actions and also a grasp of something important in our own society, where sucking up to someone considered “special” is so common.
adrienne also asked us to think about this question: “How do we make justice the most pleasurable activity?” Doing the right thing should be enjoyable, not a slog. She pointed out that we are “slowly dying of reform,” a suggestion that we might want to push the boundaries more.
Grace, who is of the Anishinaabe people, brought many books to the presentation, emphasizing both that she is a professor and that she comes from a background that valued books and reading. “Our theory is practice,” she said in the beginning, a line that particularly resonated with me.
She told us we needed to make art, writing, and science simultaneously – something that echoes the recent work of Donna Haraway for me.
A discussion of The Word for World is Forest by four students from a class on feminist science fiction at the university was also inspiring. The students – all born long after this piece was first published – were clearly moved and affected by it. Each picked a particular point that affected them.
The line that stayed with both one of the panelists and with me was “You haven’t thought things through.” That sentence, said by a person from Hain, was a great insult, though perhaps not understood as one by the person to whom it was addressed. It could be applied in many situations today.
There were many other inspiring moments. Karen talked about wanting to meet Ursula because she had met many other writers who seemed deeply unhappy with the profession. She needed to know that Ursula was happy in her choices (and found that she was).
A discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness by several persons who identify as transgender showed that it still had ideas to offer even though the times have moved on from the period when it was written. A panel discussion on “Ursula K. Le Guin and the Field of Feminist Science Fiction” (which featured Book View Café’s own Vonda N. McIntyre, among others) emphasized both the community and the conversation aspects among women writing SF. And a reception at the library, which has papers from a number of women science fiction writers, offered a slide show from Ursula’s life.
The closing speech by Brian Attebery on “The James Tiptree Jr. Book Club: A Mitochondrial Theory of Literature” tied together many different writers to get the “Secret Feminist Cabal.” That talk is available here.
There was also a party, sponsored by the Tiptree Award. Here I am with my sweetheart, Jim, talking to Vonda and Suzy McKee Charnas. (Jim was in the process of getting caught up in one of Suzy’s books, which were on the table.) Thanks to Nina Kiriki Hoffman for the photo.
I had a great time and came home prepared to fight a few dragons.