Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images. 2001
I don’t know how many of you have heard, but literary icon and one of my personal idols, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away yesterday afternoon. She was the first woman to win the Nebula Award and Hugo Award for Best Novel, for her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. She went on to win these awards several more times throughout her career. This prolific and gifted writer wrote twenty more novels, and according to the New York Times, “a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories (collected in multiple volumes), seven collections of essays, 13 books for children and five volumes of translation, including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu and selected poems by the Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral.”
Ursula’s novels made me realize that fantasy wasn’t always just about wizards and dragons (although her racially diverse Wizard of Earthsea and the subsequent novels that make up the Earthsea Cycle are among my favorite fantasy series of all time.) Her groundbreaking stories questioned everything from race, to gender identity and equality, to the environment. She was an influence on so many other writers like Margaret Atwood, China Mieville, and Neil Gaiman.
Surprisingly she was never given the Nobel Prize for Literature, but in 2014 she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is one of literature’s most prestigious awards.
Ironically, during an interview with author China Mieville she expressed her fear that her legacy wouldn’t last once she was gone.
Why do all women writers get forgotten extremely quickly? That’s a real anxiety Simply from watching what happens to women writers. They go much faster than men writers do.
Well, for the millions of us who read her books, stories, and poetry, she not only took us to new places, she made us look at our society and what happens around us in a different light, and as a result, I don’t think that fear will ever come to fruition. To illustrate this I’d like to share the touching tribute bestselling author Naomi Novik wrote in the New York Times today.
I want to tell you something true
Because that’s what she did.
I want to take you down a road she built, only
I don’t want to follow it to the end.
I want to step off the edge and go into the underbrush.
Clearing another way, because that’s also what she taught.
Not how to repave her road but how to lay another
Even if it meant the grass came through the cracks of the pavement, and the thicket ate it up.
I want to show you something that I dug up out of the earth inside
Because she spent her life picking away at the tunnel veins
And in the next one over, through the walls I heard her working,
The rhythmic steady tick-tick-tick of her knocking at the stone, a music of the sharp end
Of a pen digging into paper
And tried to learn a rhythm of my own, how to get the weight swinging.
I want to take your hand and put it on the breathing monster’s side
In the dark room where we can’t see what we’re touching
We only feel it’s in here with us, too vast to touch all at once.
Here, it’s rough and scaly, and here, it’s smooth and hard as bone
And it’s turning even as we try to make it out.
But she did her best to tell us of every part that she could reach
Calling back sometimes from the far side, muffled by its bulk
And sometimes she put our hands on a tooth’s serrated edge
But never without kindness
The teeth were there anyway, and she wanted us to know where we kept cutting ourselves
She never told the lie that the teeth were the only part that mattered.
But I’ll do all that tomorrow.
Today I’ll pack some tools, a wide-bladed knife and rake
Nothing with a motor, it’s work I want to do by hand
And I’ll wave to you, going the same way
Maybe we’ll see someone wandering, and call them over to come walk with us
As far as the road goes.
Together we’ll rake up the leaves and cut the grass
And pull back the thornbush branches, even if we’ve forgotten our gloves
And in the morning we’ll say goodbye and go our ways again
Maybe you and I will walk together toward that high hill we caught a glimpse of, a few turns back
We thought maybe the road would go there, but it never did.
So let’s go and try to find it
And if we can’t quite get there, at least leave another marker on the way.