Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos
Ursula K. Le Guin came into my life at the most formative time—not childhood or adolescence, but when I began to take writing seriously: in college. My first creative writing professor urged us to draw maps of our stories; “if you can’t visualize the space your characters inhabit, how will you show the reader?” On the projector, he put up maps from The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and A Wizard of Earthsea. On the back page of my notebook I made a list: “Must Read.” To it, I added: Le Guin, Earthsea. Every workshop, this same professor brought books that reminded him of that day’s story and provided more worlds to inspire us. Earthsea popped up again, so I circled it on my list: it was time to read about Ged.
The first thing I remember about Earthsea was the lyricism and rhythm of the writing. How the sentences resonated and echoed in the hearing chamber of my imagination; how I paused often to linger on a description that was so compact but so apt that I had to read it again. In The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin writes, “Her whisper ran out into the hollow blackness and frayed into threads of sound as fine as spiderweb, that clung to the hearing for a long time.” That’s how I felt about her writing. It lasted well beyond the time it took my eyes to take in the words. Or another passage:
A pebble, slipping under her sandaled foot, struck another pebble, and the tiny sound wakened echoes, many echoes, minute, remote, yet more remote. The cavern must be immense, high and broad, yet not empty: something in its darkness, surfaces of invisible objects or partitions, broke the echo into a thousand fragments.
I could feel the care Le Guin put into her writing; I could sense her passion. It’s no wonder she hated to be merely called a science fiction writer: “I’m a novelist and poet,” she said. “Don’t shove me into your damn pigeon hole where I don’t fit because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeon in all directions.”
She broke new ground in the high and broad cavern of literature; she wakened echoes. Le Guin would not compromise and only write realism (then thought to be the highest, most serious form of writing—and often, still is), but she also hated the manufactured confines of genre (not to mention that science fiction, then, was very much a boys club). Instead, Le Guin balanced a fine line between the real and the unreal, navigating uncharted territory that yes, was fantastical and strange, but often was not too far off from the real world. She said:
I was quite certain that reality is often best represented slantwise, backwards, or as if it were an imaginary country, and also that I could write about anywhere and anything I liked, with a hope though no expectation that somebody, somewhere, would publish it. (The Unreal and the Real: Selected Short Stories of Ursula Le Guin, 6)
Notable authors like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Salman Rushdie, and Karen Russell all reference Le Guin as a major influence. Their writing too follows in Le Guin’s brave footsteps and falls in between the cracks of genre, illustrating how a big imagination, an unreal world, and high quality fiction are not mutually exclusive. Le Guin also disliked the sci-fi category because it was often conflated with continuous action and speed. “I get very bored with adventure stories; often it seems that the more action there is, the less happens. Obviously my interest is in what goes on inside. Inner space and all that” (2).
At a time of little diversity in fantasy writing, Le Guin created Ged, the wizard of Earthsea, a dark-skinned hero. She created powerful female heroines like Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, and tested gender norms in The Left Hand of Darkness by creating “ambisexual” individuals with no fixed sex. She broke out of every pigeon hole society had built, and she created a legacy.
“We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone,” but that’s okay, I hear Le Guin whispering through her writing (2). Scrape realism’s scab off your imagination and let it speak; voice unheard concerns; move beyond genre; hear the words. Always hear the words. And let their sound pulse with life.