Coming Back From the Silence
an interview with Ursula Le Guin
by Jonathan White
"Can one find a common denominator in the work and thought of Ursula K. Le
Guin?" asks writer Theodore Sturgeon. "Probably not; but there are some
notes in her orchestrations that come out repeatedly and with power. A
cautionary fear of the development of democracy into dictatorship.
Celebrations of courage, endurance, risk. Language, not only loved and
shaped, but investigated in all its aspects; call that, perhaps,
communication. But above all, in almost unearthly terms Ursula Le Guin
examines, attacks, unbuttons, takes down and exposes our notions of
With over 3 million copies of her books in print, Ursula Le Guin is not only
one of the most widely read writers in North America but also one of the
most prolific. During one of her intense writing periods, between 1966 and
1974, she published seven science fiction novels, nine poems, three fantasy
novels, sixteen short stories, five book reviews, and sixteen essays. For
these and other works she has received numerous awards, including the Boston
Globe-Horn Book Award in 1969, for her first fantasy novel A Wizard of
Earthsea. She received the Hugo and Nebula awards for The Left Hand of
Darkness in 1970 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for
Children's Literature in 1972 for The Tombs of Atuan. In 1985, Ursula Le
Guin was the National Book Award runner-up and Kafka Award recipient for
Always Coming Home, and in 1973 she received the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore.
INTERVIEWER: It's clear from your work that language and writing have become sharp tools for re-visioning human society and humanity's place in the larger household.
Much of that re-visioning, at least in the last thirty years, has been
inspired by feminist principles. Your goal, you say, is always to subvert,
creating metaphors for the future "where any assumption can be tested and
any rule rewritten. Including the rules of who's on top, and what gender
means, and who gets to be free." Let's begin with the question of how you
were introduced to the feminist movement, and the role it has played in your
URSULA LE GUIN: My introduction was slow and late. All my early fiction
tends to be rather male-centred. A couple of the Earthsea books have no
women in them at all or only marginal women figures. That's how hero stories
worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like
Joanna Russ, science fiction was pretty much male-dominated up to the I960s.
Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.
None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily.
But I began coming up against certain discomforts. My first feminist text
was The Left Hand of Darkness, which I started writing in I967. It was an
early experiment in deconstructing gender. Everybody was asking, "What is it
to be a man? What is it to be a woman?" It's a hard question, so in The Left
Hand of Darkness I eliminated gender to find out what would be left. Science
fiction is a wonderful opportunity to play this kind of game.
As a thought experiment, The Left Hand of Darkness was messy. I recently
wrote the screenplay version, where I was able to make some of the changes I
wish I could make to the novel. They're details, but important ones, such as
seeing the main character, Genly, with children or doing things we think of
as womanly. All you ever see him doing are manly things, like being a
politician or hauling a sledge. The two societies in the book are somewhat
like a feudal monarchy and Russian communism, which tend to be slightly
paranoid. I don't know why I thought androgynous people would be paranoid.
With twenty years of feminism under my belt, I can now imagine an
androgynous society as being much different and far more interesting than
our gendered society. For instance, I wouldn't lock the people from the
planet Gethen, where the story takes place, into heterosexuality. The
insistence that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex is naive. It
never occurred to me to explore their homosexual practices, and I regret the
implication that sexuality has to be heterosexuality.
I gradually realised that my own fiction was telling me that I could no
longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in
1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book.
"Hey," I said, "you can't do that, you're the hero. Where's my book?" I
stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn't know how to write
about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in
feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism
was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of
Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me
that I didn't have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write
like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.
INTERVIEWER: Your mother, Theodora Kroeber, was an accomplished writer. Her book, Ishi in Two Worlds, is an ethnological classic. What kind of encouragement did her
life and work offer you?
URSULA LE GUIN: My mother wasn't really a feminist. She didn't even like the
word. She called feminists "those women's lib people." But she also asked me
questions like, "Why do you always have men heroes?" And I'd answer, "I
don't know, Ma. Ask me an easy question!" So, I got a lot from her. But
toward the end of her life, we were in some conflict.
My mother also led me to Virginia Woolf, who has given me a lifelong
education. As a novelist, Woolf is a much more important writer than the
keepers of the canons of English literature want to admit. In fact, they're
still afraid of her. And quite rightly. She's deeply subversive, and a great
novelist! I still turn to her for guidance.
INTERVIEWER: What was it that attracted you to the science fiction genre?
URSULA LE GUIN: I didn't exactly choose science fiction. I went where I got
published, which took a long time because my work is so odd. For the last
fifty or sixty years, literature has been categorised as "realism," and if
you weren't writing realism, you weren't respectable. I had to ignore that
and say to myself that I could do things in science fiction that I could
never do in realism. I tend to be prickly about this subject because I get
tired of being put down as a science fiction writer. The fact is, in the
post-modern era, all the barriers are breaking down pretty fast.
I've been editing The Norton Book of Science Fiction, which has inspired
some new thoughts on this matter. For instance, I've learned that science
fiction is a child of realism, not of fantasy. A realistic story deals with
something that might have happened but didn't, right? Many science fiction
stories are about worlds that don't exist, but could exist in the future.
Both realism and science fiction deal with stories that might be true.
Fantasy, on the other hand, tells a story that couldn't possibly be true.
With fantasy, we simply agree to lift the ban on the imagination and follow
the story, no matter how implausible it may be.
INTERVIEWER: Didn't you say once that fantasy may not be actual, but it's true?
URSULA LE GUIN: Wouldn't you say any attempt to tell a story is an attempt
to tell the truth? It's the technique you use in the telling that is either
more or less plausible. Sometimes the most direct way to tell the truth is
to tell a totally implausible story, like a myth. That way you avoid the
muddle of pretending the story ever happened, or ever will happen.
Who knows how stories really work? We're so used to stories with all the
trappings of being real that we've lost our ability to read anything else.
When you read a Native American story, you have to relearn how to read.
There's nothing in them to draw you in. There's no sweetening of the pill.
Maybe there's a coyote, but there's no description. We're used to a lot of
fleshing out, and we're used to being courted and drawn into the story.
INTERVIEWER: Nora Dauenhaeur, a Tlingit woman and co-author of Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors, reminded me last summer that Native American stories are usually told to an
audience that already knows them. In fact, they've heard the stories over
and over again, through many winters. As a result, the storyteller often
uses shorthand a single word or phrase to remind the audience of a larger
event with many details. She pointed out that we are telling stories like
this all the time, particularly among friends and family with whom we share
a history. We may say, "Remember that time we were caught in a dust storm
outside of Phoenix?" And that's the story, all of it.
URSULA LE GUIN: Yes, exactly. You don't describe the sky or the clouds or
what you were wearing. There isn't any of this scene-setting in Native
American stories. It bothers me when I read gussied-up Native American
stories. They're no longer sacred.
INTERVIEWER: What is it, exactly, that makes a story sacred?
URSULA LE GUIN: I don't know. But when we embellish a Native American story,
it turns into just another story. Our culture doesn't think storytelling is
sacred; we don't set aside a time of year for it. We don't hold anything
sacred except what organised religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a
sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labelled
like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves;
there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility.
We've got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that's the
whole point: either it's right or it's all wrong.
INTERVIEWER: We tend to have such a linear, cause-and-effect way of looking at the world. I wonder if one of the things that attracts us to stories is their ability
to change our way of seeing?
URSULA LE GUIN: The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial
that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to
get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those
routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.
We're drawn in or out and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as
William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we're around young
children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world
The tribal storyteller is not just providing spiritual access but also moral
guidance. I think much of American writing today is an exploration of
ethical problems. I'm thinking particularly of novels by black women such as
Paula Marshall, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison. The stories
these women write are gaining literary praise, but they're also doing
something terribly important for their people, who are not just black
Americans but all Americans. In a sense, these women are fulfilling the
ancient role of tribal storytellers, because they're trying to lead us into
different spiritual and moral realms. They're intensely serious about this,
and that's why they're so beloved as novelists.
INTERVIEWER: Stories can also help us remember who we are. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera says, "What is the self but the sum of everything
URSULA LE GUIN: Yes. To remember, if my Latin is correct, actually means to
put the parts together. So that implies there are ways of losing parts.
Kundera talks about this aspect of storytelling, too. In fact, he says that
history, which is another kind of story, is often deliberately falsified in
order to make a people forget who they are or who they were. He calls that
"the method of organised forgetting."
History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral
storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has pre-emptied the
other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective
truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told
the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty
years. Historians now laugh at the pretence of objective truth. They agree
that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we
can't reach it with words. History is not a science, it's an art.
There are still people who insist on teaching history as a science, but
that's not how most historians work anymore. My husband, Charles, who is a
historian, says, "I don't know the difference between story and history. I
think it may not be a difference in kind, but a difference in their attempts
to be truthful."
The history of the last hundred years still has a tremendous intellectual
bias toward the white European point of view. Defined by historians as the
written record, it conveniently illegitimizes all oral traditions and most
indigenous people right from the start. In fact, in its view, everybody but
white Europeans are "primitive." If you don't have a written language, you
aren't part of history.
INTERVIEWER: Are the current changes in how we look at history also changing the way we look at indigenous cultures?
URSULA LE GUIN: Absolutely. It's a de-centring process. We've been
pretending that Europe was the center of the world for too long. With the
help of anthropologists, and now historians, we are finding that there is no
center, or that there are many centers. Nobody has "the answer." It's
amazing how much resistance there is to this. Everybody wants to be "the
people," everybody wants to be "the center." And everybody is the center, if
only they'd realise it and not sneer at all the other centers.
INTERVIEWER: Because history, as it has been practised, concerns itself only with the
written record, language acquires a loaded role in terms of our perception
of reality. Like history, language can become a tool of forgetting, a tool
of estrangement. As a writer, how do you work against that?
URSULA LE GUIN: This is a tricky area. As a writer, you want the language to
be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That's why the
language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal
signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If
you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers
responsible for what their words do.
One of the strangest things about our culture is our ability to describe the
destruction of the world in exquisite, even beautiful, detail. The whole
science of ecology, for instance, describes exactly what we're doing wrong
and what the global effects are. The odd twist is that we become so
enamoured of our language and its ability to describe the world that we
create a false and irresponsible separation. We use language as a device for
distancing. Somebody who is genuinely living in their ecosystem wouldn't
have a word for it. They'd just call it the world.
We can't restructure our society without restructuring the English language.
One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool
of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict. The "war against drugs"
is an obvious example of this. So is the proliferation of battle metaphors,
such as being a warrior, fighting, defeating, and so on. In response, I
could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can
start "fighting" against them. That's one option. Another is to realise that
conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find
other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting.
This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behaviour.
I am struck by how much we talk about rebirthing but never about rebearing.
The word itself is unfamiliar to most people. Yet both women and men are
capable of rebearing, women literally and men metaphorically. A door opens
just by changing the name. We don't have to be reborn; we can rebear. This
is part of the writer's job, either to rebear the metaphors or refuse to use
them. Gary Snyder's lifelong metaphor is watershed. How fruitful that is!
Another of his is composting, which is a lovely word that describes the
practice of creating.
INTERVIEWER: What role has your interest in indigenous people played in your work?
URSULA LE GUIN: I wasn't aware that it played any role at first. Although my
father was an anthropologist and an archaeologist, my entire formal training
in this area amounts to one physical anthropology class. Obviously I have
some temperamental affinity with my father, but I often say that he studied
real cultures and I make them up. He had an eye for exact concrete detail,
and an interest in it. He also had a respect for tools and the way things
work. I got a lot of that from him.
When I started thinking about Always Coming Home I took a lot of time to
discover what the book was going to be. Once I realised I wanted it to grow
out of the Napa Valley I looked around for a literary precedent. I couldn't
find anything except a couple of swashbuckling romantic novels about Italian
wine-growing families. The only literature of that earth was Native American
oral literature. The people of the valley itself, the Wappo, are gone. Even
the name they used for themselves is gone. There are people with a little
Wappo blood, but there is no language, no tradition, and there are no
stories left. So I read other Northern Californian myths and legends and
songs. There's a good deal of information available there. My father
collected much of it himself. I read widely from traditions all over the
United States. My problem was to find a way to use the literature without
stealing or exploiting it, because we've done enough of that to Native
American writing. I certainly didn't want to put a bunch of made up Indians
into a Napa Valley of the future. That was not what I was trying to do. What
I got from reading California oral literature was a sense of a distant and
different quality of life. You can't hear the voices but you can pick up the
INTERVIEWER: The Kesh communities are saturated in ritual. They had festivals of the moon, water, summer, wine, and grass to celebrate the natural cycles. They
danced together at the equinox and the solstice. Where did you get your
understanding of ritual, and what role do you see it playing in a healthy
URSULA LE GUIN: What I know about ritual I learned from books. I've never
lived in a culture like the one in Always Coming Home. What we're talking
about here is partly a matter of literary tactics. The book is made of
words. The Kesh have to have a lot of verbal rituals so that I could write
about what they did. And their rituals had to be lively and interesting so
that they could be told through stories and poetry. I wasn't conscious of
these processes when I was writing the book, but I know that's the way it
works. These rituals are part of the context of the book, but they also show
a society living well, doing no harm, while at the same time not sitting on
their hands and doing nothing. Like a climax forest, the Kesh society is in
good balance. They have a refined technology, but not a growth technology.
They may change the details and the style in the way they do things, but not
quickly or radically as in a society built on growth technology such as
ours. One way to demonstrate the difference in the way the Kesh lived is to
show them involved in the ritual of repeated activities and festivals. The
rituals of the season reveal the Kesh embeddedness in the texture of
existence, environment, culture. Everything flows in one direction.
There seems to be a profound ritual aspect in most healthy Native American
cultures. I used the Pueblo and the Hopi to some extent as models. They have
a lot of ritualised behaviour, which is all taken very easily and
informally. I'm always impressed when I go to pow-wows by how casual they
seem. It's ritual, and yet people are talking and laughing and babies are
running around. It all seems appropriate. The ritual of organised religion
is a different kind of thing. It's something separate, hierarchical, and
male-centered. If everybody's doing ritual all the time, as they were in
Native American cultures, religion and life are absolutely inseparable.
INTERVIEWER: Did your appreciation for ritual change in the process of writing the book?
URSULA LE GUIN: One reason I hated to finish the book was that I had to wean
myself from going through the year as a Kesh person. I enjoyed it, and I
felt very much at home in that kind of round. Living with a fairly
consistent cycle of activities, ritual relationships, ceremonies, and
festivals is the way most people in most cultures have lived throughout
The historical period, which followed the Neolithic era for some thousands
of years, is referred to by the Kesh as the time when people lived "outside
the world." What do you mean by that?
URSULA LE GUIN: What I was doing there is playing with the idea of our
present growth technology from the Industrial Revolution on through the
present the last 200 years. We don't know when this period will end, but it
will. We tend to think of our present historic era as representing the
highest evolution of human society. We're convinced that our exploitive,
fast-growing technology is the only possible reality. In Always Coming Home,
I put people who believe this into one little capsule where the Kesh could
look at them as weird aberrations. It was the most disrespectful thing I
could do, like wrapping a turd in cellophane. That's sort of a Coyote
INTERVIEWER: Speaking of Coyote, she wanders in and out of much of your recent work. How did you meet up with her?
URSULA LE GUIN: She trotted through a project of mine in 1982. It was an
essay on utopia called "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place
to Be," and when the tracks of utopia and Coyote crossed, I thought, "Yes,
now I'm getting somewhere!" The idea of utopia has been stuck in a blueprint
phase for too long now. Most of the writing you see is similar to
Callenbach's Ecotopia, which is another "wouldn't the future be great if we
did this or that?" Or, in science fiction, it's been dystopia: utopia gone
sour. These blueprints aren't working anymore.
Coyote is an anarchist. She can confuse all civilised ideas simply by
trotting through. And she always fools the pompous. Just when your ideas
begin to get all nicely arranged and squared off, she messes them up. Things
are never going to be neat, that's one thing you can count on.
Coyote walks through all our minds. Obviously, we need a trickster, a
creator who made the world all wrong. We need the idea of a God who makes
mistakes, gets into trouble, and who is identified with a scruffy little
Excerpted by permission of Sierra Club Books from Talking on the Water;
Conversations About Nature and Creativity, copyright (c) 1994 by Jonathan
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