URSULA K. LE GUIN: breaking the boundaries of fantasy (what can novels do?)

Photo by: Marion Wood Kolisch

Photo by Marion Wood Kolisch

“We always have to defend the imagination against idiots.”

In the cramped auditorium of UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the HumanitiesUrsula K. Le Guin sat ready to face whatever may have come her way. UC Berkeley Professor Michael Lucey was there to discuss her novels Always Coming Home and Lavinia throughout the night, introducing Le Guin with slight intimidation… but he soon realized that Le Guin would make anyone feel right at home. From the moment she sat down on the stage, she filled the auditorium with laughter and admiration.The first forty-five minutes was a causal conversation ranging from how Le Guin goes about her writing to her advice about getting older. The remaining half hour was dedicated to questions from the audience.

The title of the event was “What Can Novels Do?” and Le Guin discussed several crucial elements that go into the process of creating a fantasy world and what that world means to her. She read from her novel Always Coming Home, which tells the story of a group of people named the Kesh that live in the future, as it is revealed in the book. Lucey brought up recurring themes in Le Guin’s work such as exploration and discovery. Le Guin responded to this by saying the idea of cultures bumping into each other has always been intriguing to her. In addition, she spoke of the “danger in going away” from your familiar culture or home in both her novels and in her personal life. Le Guin studied abroad in Paris when she was young and she spoke of going back to France later in life like it was “going home.”

Always Coming Home

Le Guin discussed parts of her writing process such as the difficult job of inventing new languages for her fantasy worlds. This section of the discussion perked my interest because, as an occasional fantasy writer, I find creating whole new languages fascinating. Le Guin created a language for the Kesh people in Always Coming Home but she went about it in a unique way. She told the audience that “Tolkien did it right” when he created the languages for his novels and then translated them into English. She translated the language into English first and when she asked a musician to write music for the songs in the novel, it turned out she didn’t have the songs in the original language yet.

Always Coming Home is not your typical book. It contains chapters of a novel, but it is also part textbook and part anthropological record of the Kesh people. When the unique format was brought up during the conversation, Le Guin commented on this by saying that people read it in different ways. Most start with the novel part first and then don’t know what to make of the other more technical parts, or else they skip around. Le Guin dared herself to write something against the normal, traditional aspects of novel format and she succeeded with Always Coming Home.

As a writer, Le Guin offered up advice about her craft by telling the audience that “you are offering something” to the reader and creating a relationship. In one of her passionate speeches about literature not just being information, like some critics might say, a cell phone went off and Professor Lucey merely said, “that’s the universe agreeing with you.”

LaviniaWhen introducing the reading from her novel Lavinia, Le Guin spoke of the importance of having a sense of place throughout her life. As a child, she knew home as Berkeley and Napa Valley. These clear senses of home and having a place shaped her as a writer for the many different foreign or distant places she would have to surround herself in. In Lavinia, the setting is in Virgil’s Aeneid and places a closer look at the character of Lavinia, the Italian princess in the epic that is fated to marry Aeneas. The novel borders on meta-fiction with Lavinia talking back to Virgil through his poetry. Le Guin once again tests the boundaries of what is traditional format for science fiction or fantasy. In relation to fantasy, Le Guin responded to the enchanting theme of naming in her books and the curiosity that surrounds it. She called it a “widespread form of magic” that harnesses the power of the name through merely knowing the original name of a character and gaining control of their being.

In the last portion of the event, Le Guin opened it up to the audience for questions. People asked a wide variety of intriguing questions that dealt with what influenced her writing to the right way to address loss in this generation. Le Guin got emotional when answering the question “How do we address loss?” She looked out into the audience, commenting on the number of young faces she saw staring up at her. “It’s a tough time to be young,” she said with a twinge of sadness. Le Guin regained her composure and hilariously stated, “Let’s talk about something cheerful.” Another insightful question that was asked was one of writing for children nowadays in this technological age. Le Guin reacted by saying it is “scary” to write for kids because everything carries extra weight. She recalled being young and how she took every word to heart when reading a book for the first time. She added that, “nobody has any right to frighten or hurt a child without a good reason.”

Le GuinOne of the last questions Le Guin was asked was to explain more about her philosophy on aging. This part of the event was probably the most touching yet bittersweet. Le Guin, at the wise age of eighty-three, disagreed with the idea that getting older is the “golden age” of one’s life. She believes that people have to fool themselves into getting older when they are middle-aged and cope with it by the time it arrives. Le Guin was extremely frank and, in my opinion, bold about her beliefs regarding age. It goes against society’s norms to accept this idea that one is getting old. Le Guin was then asked to write a novel about aging, in which her response was, “I’m too old!”

The accomplished author of several novels, short stories, poems and essays in the fantasy and science fiction genres gave the Berkeley auditorium an intimate look into the creative mind and funny, yet genuine attitude that is Ursula K. Le Guin.

You can watch the full event below, courtesy of UC Berkeley. There’s a great recent interview over at Wired, and you can read more interviews, reviews, and find out more about Ursula K. Le Guin at her website.

Erica ArvanitisErica Arvanitis is a Litseen intern and a senior at SFSU for Creative Writing. She is originally from San Diego and enjoys writing short stories, eating burritos, and watching TV in her free time. She hopes to write professionally for a magazine when she grows up — any magazine will do.