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by Karen Joy Fowler

To keep women’s words, women’s works, alive and powerful – that’s what I see as our job as writers and readers for the next fifteen years, and the next fifty.  –  Ursula K Le Guin (1986)

With the death of Ursula Le Guin, we lost, among many other things, a great champion for women’s voices.

She was sometimes a bit apologetic about her own early work.  (I love that work, so for me, no apology necessary.)  But she used to say that she came to feminism slowly, and wrote first as a man, that being the model she had.  She once acquiesced to a request made by Playboy to publish one of her stories using only her initials in the byline so no one would know that a woman (eeek!!) had written it.  Science fiction at that time had a tradition of hidden women so the request may not have seemed as outrageous initially as it came to seem later.

She told me that it was the writer Vonda McIntyre who taught her that writing as a woman was not only possible, but necessary. I often recommend her essay entitled “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (available online) as an inspiring way to start thinking harder about writing as a woman.

In the 1970’s, her growing career dovetailed with that of other powerful women writers.  Through their work and their letters, you can see them all discovering each other.  You can feel the joy they felt in that discovery, none more joyful than Ursula.  She was a great, great writer, but she was a great, great reader, too.

As she moved from beginning writer to established writer to towering colossus, her generosity towards new writers never failed. She taught, she spoke, she inspired, she supported.  She was always looking for what to read next, who might be trying something interesting, who had a different story to tell.  Her glad cries on finding an exciting new voice could be heard around the world.

She looked backwards as well as forwards; she worried about the way women’s voices seemed to disappear. Because of feminist scholarship, she wrote in 1986, “we will – for the first time ever – have kept the perceptions, ideas, and judgments of women alive … as an active creative force for more than one generation.”

She didn’t love every woman who wrote (who does?) but she loved the conversation.

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In many ways, to me at least, she was the spirit of Hedgebrook made flesh.  Le Guin was all about work, community, and a complicated but sustaining sense of place.

Her idea of work was that it was crucial.  Her community was never exclusionary, but always expansive and expanding. Her places were often imaginary, but when she stayed here on earth, she was deeply embedded in the natural world in a way that I worry we, with our indoor lives, are losing our hold on.  She wrote in one of her many defenses of the fantastical, that realism centered the human.  Fantasy gave equal importance to the nonhuman.

So I love to think of her at Hedgebrook with the trees and the lizards, the goats and the women.  I love to think of her – slightly shy and somewhat resistant to the place and the plan – walking the paths and finding the pond, succumbing to rabbits, and writing a story she wouldn’t have written anywhere else.  I love to think of her stepping stone, still there, and her spirit, still there, telling us to get to work.

Our work being:

  • To notice, to listen, to think, to talk, to write.
  • To reach forwards and backwards and sideways to all the women we find by doing so.

And, out of those connections, to weave together the webs that will become the bags in which our lives and our stories can be carried.

Karen Joy Fowler
About Karen Joy Fowler

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