Tag Archives: The Left Hand of Darkness

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …


What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?


Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

The Decades Project one year on

At the start I didn’t mean it to work out like this, I just wanted to introduce a little discipline to my reading for the blog. I decided to select a novel from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here on the blog. What happened was that for the first two decades my choices were both by women and before long I had decided to stay with novels by women. It’s my blog so I do what I want to.

by Henri Lebasque

The decade’s list

Once a month I picked a novel and reviewed it. Here’s the full list with links to my posts:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, (1905)

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, (1913)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, (1926)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, (1938)

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, (1943)

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, (1950)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, (1969)

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, (1975)

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, (1984)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, (1993)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrap, (2003)

The variety

I am very pleased to have included such variety here: from different countries and continents, two translated into English, some sci fi, a classic or two, one was a graphic memoir and there were several prize winners.

The book I most enjoyed rereading …

… was undoubtedly The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993). I was already an enthusiastic reader of her books when I first read it, and on rereading I found that this one combined the best of her humorous and humane writing. Set largely in Newfoundland it took me somewhere I had only been in the film of the novel.

It was serendipitous that as I was making my choice for the 1990s Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The judges noted especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. You can find her acceptance speech here. In it she reveals that she did not begin writing until she was 58. She laments

the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil.

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The book I reacted badly to …

… was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a classic. For many people it is their favourite book. But I hated the manipulation of the reader into wanting the narrator and Max to get away with what they thought was murder.

But it has many qualities, not least in the way the tension mounts, and in the creation of Mrs Danvers. And it has a terrible grande dame, Mrs Van Hopper, in the opening scenes. I don’t suppose my criticisms matter a bit to readers who love this book and enjoy the nostalgic thrill of the opening sentence as they begin another reading.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003). 441pp

The book I was most pleased to read …

… was O Pioneers by Willa Cather. I have wanted to read it for years, and was pleased to have made the acquaintance of this writer. I expect to read more by her soon.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. I used the edition by Oxford World Classics. 179pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the position of women in relation to marriage. Beginning with the tragedy of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, readers of these books find themselves confronted with variations on the theme of independent women. In complete contrast, but still in the United States, Alexandra Bergson is revealed as a pioneer, with no need of a husband, indeed as more capable than all the men in her corner of Nebraska. Rebecca emerges from a frightened mouse to become a fierce lioness, protecting her man. In They were Sisters Dorothy Whipple compares the lives of three women, and shows how their marriages affected their fortunes, and their children’s. And who could read Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing without seeing the worst kind of marriage, oppressing both partners, this one set against the racist backdrop of Southern Rhodesian white society. And how terrible are the trials of Firdaus in Egypt in Woman at Point Zero. Anita Brookner has, with class and style, written many times about the challenges for single intelligent women. Hotel du Lac was a prize winner.

The theme was magnificently emphasised in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet where near-humans have no gender for most of the time, but when they go into oestrus they may emphasise either their male or their female characteristics. So what does gender do when it’s not for reproduction, she asks.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and rereading novels for 2017. The project introduced a wildcard element to my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read non-fiction by women from each decade. I have already found that the choices for some decades are easier than others. It may be that in the first decade of the 1900s women only published gardening books. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project