The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

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By Julie Phillips
The New Yorker

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt “eaten up” with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these “hairy gunslinging fake cowboys” from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic.

The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin’s places. She often goes there in the summer with her husband, Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, to a ranch on the stony ridge of Steens Mountain, overlooking the refuge. She has led writing workshops at the Malheur Field Station, a group of weather-beaten buildings used mainly by biologists and birders, and published a book of poems and sketches of the area, with photographs by Roger Dorband, called “Out Here.” She likes the awareness the desert gives her of distance, emptiness, and geological time. In a poem, “A Meditation in the Desert,” she imagines a stone being “full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have.”

She has roots in eastern Oregon that go back to the early days of white settlement. Not long ago, she told me excitedly that she’d rediscovered records in the attic of her grandmother’s childhood: “My great-grandfather, with my grandmother age eleven, moved from California to Oregon in 1873. . . . They drove three hundred and fifty head of cattle up through Nevada and built a stone house on the back side of Steens Mountain. I don’t think he made a claim; there was nowhere to make it. He was one of the very first ranchers in what is still very desolate country.” The family stayed there for five years before they moved on, in search of new grass or less isolation—her grandmother didn’t say. The story gives hints of what Le Guin already knew: that the empty spaces of America have a past, and that loneliness and loss are mixed up with the glory.

The history of America is one of conflicting fantasies: clashes over what stories are told and who gets to tell them. If the Bundy brothers were in love with one side of the American dream—stories of wars fought and won, land taken and tamed—Le Guin has spent a career exploring another, distinctly less triumphalist side. She sees herself as a Western writer, though her work has had a wide range of settings, from the Oregon coast to an anarchist utopia and a California that exists in the future but resembles the past. Keeping an ambivalent distance from the centers of literary power, she makes room in her work for other voices. She has always defended the fantastic, by which she means not formulaic fantasy or “McMagic” but the imagination as a subversive force. “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption,” she has written, “and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

When I met Le Guin at her house in Portland this summer, she was in a happier mood. Coming out onto the back porch, where I was sitting with Charles in the late-afternoon sun, to offer us a bourbon-and-ice, she was positively cheerful, her deeply lined, expressive face bright under a cap of short white hair, her low, warm woodwind voice rising into an easy laugh. The bourbon is part of the couple’s evening ritual: when they don’t have company, they have a drink before dinner and take turns reading to each other. On the hillside below us, two scrub jays traded remarks through the trees.

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