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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. …

INTERVIEWER

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

LE GUIN

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.

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How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) we also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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A little rant about … writers’ work-life balance

Work-life balance is claimed to be essential for a good life, in the well-being movement. I reject the idea, for writers at any rate. In fact it annoys me so much that I am writing another in my occasional series of little rants. I reject the idea that balance is necessarily a good thing, in diet, expressing a view and in relation to life or work. This is why.

Separating work and life

The idea of balance, like a seesaw, or the scales of justice seems to be good like mother and apple pie. But balance implies that two things are separate and in opposition. This is clearly illogical: my life includes work; I can’t have work outside of my life.

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Okay, so life, in the context of balance, means some kind of different thing from work – enjoyment, socialising, family, hobbies, interests, sleep, chores. But for many, many people the separation is not possible. Many people need to work long and exhausting hours to support themselves and their families. (I might do a rant about Cameron’s favourite phrase hard-working families if May resurrects it). Women in particular work both outside and inside the home, doing more of the housework and domestic chores. Life in the sense of not-work means so little to people who struggle to survive economically.

295-coveryear-of-the-runaways

Not only women, of course. It’s one of the most moving themes of Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways. Our eyes are opened to the sheer amount of work that the young men from India had to undertake in order to pay off the debts incurred in their project of coming to Britain. Frequently their families were in danger if they failed to make the repayments. Frequently there was no work. Or they had to take two or even more jobs. Life for them was working long hours in poorly paid illegal jobs or chasing badly paid illegal jobs. It’s a recommended but hard read.

Is balance a good thing?

It may be that by balance we really mean a more complex concept, integration, a sense that different aspects of our lives have connection and relevance, come together in wholeness.

It is possible to argue that unbalance in our lives, or parts of our lives, is a good thing. I argue this in relation to learning and to writing. The idea of cognitive dissonance, as a necessary precursor for learning, is one I find attractive. Cognitive dissonance means having or encountering inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and this forces a person into rethinking preconceived ideas or understandings. It’s not balance but tension that is the dynamic force here. Being unbalanced is a good thing in this context.

I have been heard to argue at times that the purpose of writing is to create unbalance, uncertainty, requestioning.

Writing and living

As a writer I use my experiences, that is my life, to inform my work. There is no division between my writing and my life. I draw on my childhood, my years of regular employment, my previous writing, and what I read, see, overhear, experience …

What others say

295-cover-3-marriagesI am a great fan of Maria Popova and her Brainpickings. In one post in March 2015, linked here, she picks over the idea of balance in life by drawing on a book by David Whyte, the English poet and philosopher. The book is called The Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship. It’s one I intend to read. She takes ideas of balance to a deeper level than I have, and as always says wise things. Her blog is a gem of thoughtfulness.

Over to you

Can you see any value in the idea of work-life balance for a writer? How is it for you?

 

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