Luskin: Le Guin Remembrance

Jan 30, 2018

I never met Ursula K. Le Guin. But her essays about the inequities of gender helped me navigate this man’s world.

In her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, Le Guin refutes Virginia Woolf’s argument that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’d read Woolf, and I’d followed her advice. I had a room of my own, but it wasn’t enough. With a flexible mind and children of her own, Le Guin helped me understand why. She said what a writer needs is a pencil, some paper, and the freedom and responsibility for what she writes with these tools.

In her essay, The Space Crone, she argues that the ideal person to send into space as a galactic ambassador of the human race is not a nineteen-year old boy, but a mother past childbearing. Le Guin explains, “Only a person who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition... can fairly represent humanity.”

While many of Le Guin’s essays are about women, they are ultimately about humanity in which each person, regardless of gender, has equal opportunity. This is never more evident than in her famous short story, Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Omelas is a utopian world, or so it would seem. But of course, there’s a catch: In a closet in a basement underneath the gleaming city, a child lives in total neglect. The citizens of Omelas all know this child exists. They’re all taken to see this child before they turn twelve, but they are forbidden to speak even a single kind word. The entire utopia depends on everyone knowing that their good fortune is due to this one child’s misery. Those who can’t abide this arrangement, walk away.

Le Guin understood the power of story. And she could be playful in her writing. One of her children’s books imagines kittens born with wings.

I never met Ursula K. Le Guin. But Karl Kroeber, her brother, was my dissertation advisor at Columbia, which, I suppose, is just two degrees of separation. Nor have I read Le Guin’s famous novels, a pleasure I look forward to, even though she died last week.

But I have read many of her essays, a few of her children’s books, and one very haunting short story. And for these, I’m grateful.