Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ursula K. LeGuin, My Hero: Dead at 88

Ursula LeGuin was my hero. And I made sure to tell her that.

In 1985, LeGuin was invited to speak at Dartmouth College by the Anthropology Department. At the time, I was an adjunct lecturer in the Anthropology Department, teaching a course in Linguistics. When I heard that LeGuin was coming to Dartmouth, I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled when I discovered that she had been seated right next to me.

"You are my hero," I whispered. I was not just starry-eyed, I was awestruck.

She ignored me.

LeGuin's book, The Left Hand of Darkness, had left an indelible mark on me when I read it in college. Up until the publication of her book, science fiction writers were essentially an old boys' club. From the first science fiction by Jules Verne, straight up through the post WWII titles of Asimov, Bradbury,  Aldiss, Vonnegut, and Anderson, men predominated. These were all great writers whose works focused on "hard" science, ethical dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence, or space sagas, and in which women, if they appeared at all, were thrown in for sex appeal.

LeGuin changed all that with The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that explored gender. It hit the bookstores in 1969, just as the feminist movement was reaching a peak. The book not only broke the gender barrier, it featured a black protagonist, Genly Ai. LeGuin's wide-ranging explorations of sexuality, gender roles, social change, capitalism, race, Taoism, and civil disobedience struck a nerve. Those of us who were involved in the social activist movements of the 70s read, and discussed at length, every one of her books.

Because it was ground-breaking, The Left Hand of Darkness was roundly and soundly rejected by publishers. LeGuin, in an effort to encourage writers to "Hang in there!" posted the full rejection letter on her site. (Miss Kidd was her agent.)

Dear Miss Kidd, 

Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I'm sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith. Yours sincerely, 

The Editor 

21 June, 1968 

(When it was finally published, The Left Hand of Darkness went on to win both Hugo and Nebula Awards. It has since been reprinted 30 times, and it redefined the genre.)

When I heard that Ursula LeGuin had died on January 22nd, I thought of that talk she gave at Dartmouth. She had brushed me off, but she regretted it. The next morning, she invited me to have breakfast with her. I brought my baby daughter, who was only two months old, and she expressed her joy in motherhood. And years later, when I published my first novel, a children's fantasy based on bedtime stories I had told my daughter, I sent her a copy. She wrote me a gracious note of thanks. Two decades had passed, but she had not forgotten me.

Ursula LeGuin was, and always will be, my hero.

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