Only in Silence the Word: After Ursula

Ursula K. Le Guin by Eileen GunnSome writers are just—more. More everything. More brilliant. More talented. More challenging, and more wickedly subversive. Ursula was all of those things, but even more than that, she was loved.

I was her colleague in genre and here at Book View Cafe. We never moved past that to friendship. I was too much in awe of her for that. We met a time or two at conferences, and she was gracious. I was mostly inarticulate.

I didn’t need her to be my friend. I had her words. She wasn’t the only influence on my writing, but she was deep in my bones.

The power of names. The beauty of language—not just the meanings of words but their sounds; the music they made when one strung them together. As for what they could say: she taught me to question assumptions. To stop and think. To ask why.

Her fiction captured me first, when I found The Farthest Shore on the YA shelf at my local library. I had a habit of reading trilogies inside out—Volume I was never there when I was looking. Of course I went back and caught up, but that one book, the third in what eventually became five volumes, came to me at exactly the right time. It was precisely what I needed, as a reader and as a baby writer.

The words, of course. The way they sang. The young prince learning that the world wasn’t all about him. The dragons gone mute. The Long Dance and the endless sea. The scarred and incalculable mage—I didn’t know Ged yet, as I would have if I’d met him earlier in his life.

But most of all, in that book, the great question. Death and life, and why no one should live forever. My fascination with afterlives began there, in the land of dust and bitter stones—I found it again later in the oldest epic we know, the Sumerian saga of Gilgamesh, but here, for me, it was new.

It’s no afterlife I’d ever want to write; it’s too bleak. I’m more inclined toward the clear bright colors of the Egyptian world of the dead, though the profound classism is…a problem. And that’s something Ursula also taught me to see.

I read the rest of her fiction after Earthsea, though I have yet to get to Lavinia—an omission I’ll remedy soon. The later works tend to leave story behind in favor of didacticism; I wasn’t mature enough to find that congenial, and I may never be. I did love The Left Hand of Darkness, which asked questions about gender that I’d never known one could ask. And Omelas, of course—that’s Message Fiction, but it’s beautifully and devastatingly written.

Sometimes my relationship with her earlier works changed along with me. I did not appreciate Tenar when I first read The Tombs of Atuan. She was kind of limp and annoying, and it was all so, well, ordinary. Older Tenar was not standard epic-heroic, either, and there wasn’t the Happily Ever After I was conditioned to expect. I didn’t know what to make of it.

It took growing older myself, and growing and changing along with the genre, for me to understand her better. I’m starting to get her now. She was never the heroine of my young self, but my aging self finds her more and more congenial. She finally makes sense.

Ursula’s fiction has always been important to my world and craft, but it was her nonfiction that resonated through me as I grew up. Her essays were sharp, incisive, often witty and sometimes just plain funny—even while they challenged me to change the way I thought, and wrote, and even lived my life. I might not always agree with what she said, but it was always worth pondering.

All of these works are still alive, still there for us to read and reread, but there’s a ring of sadness in them now. The magic endures, but the mage is gone. There will be no more of her own, peculiar, distinctive, wonderful words.

I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not mourning in the conventional sense. I’m processing. I’m feeling out the contours of a world without this great talent in it.

It isn’t a comfortable world. As a woman writer I live through continual waves of erasure, because that’s what our culture does to women. Literary canons are like a cross between Highlander and the Smurfs. There Can Be Only One, and Who Will Be Smurfette This Decade?

Ursula was Smurfette on the Very Serious Lists. “Let’s list all these men, and oh crap, we have to have a female or the wimmins will squawk—right. Le Guin. Well. That’s sorted. Now back to our properly manly listage.”

Ursula herself was having none of that nonsense, and that’s one of the things I love about her. She never stopped speaking up, and she never stopped demanding that women’s voices be heard. She fought the long fight.

She wore her eminence well. She showed the rest of us how it’s done—as a writer, as a public figure, as a person. I’m glad she lived long enough to see how many voices of women and marginalized writers are finally being heard. I’m sad beyond words that she’s gone.

When I first heard the news, I was in shock, as we all were. But then something happened. I began to write a new story.

She knew how it works.

Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky.

I’m far from the first to remember that song, and I won’t be the last. All good songs are worth singing over and over, for the truth they tell us, and because they show us how to make songs of our own. Only little songs, maybe, but there’s power in them. Enough of them together can almost fill the silence the great one left behind.

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Only in Silence the Word: After Ursula — 3 Comments

  1. I was never close enough to her to have spoken to her. I wish I had been; I was often too frightened to write to authors about their books.