I have on my bookshelf a dog-eared paperback copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 novel Always Coming Home. In it is an inscription from Le Guin:
For my good shepherd Alison
from her grateful sheep,
with love – Ursula
15 1 88
In 1987, my first year in college, I happened upon a notice outside of the English department for a winter session opportunity: escorting a visiting artist during a week-long interdisciplinary conference held at my school, the University of Rochester. I ran my finger down the list of artists’ names until it stopped on one: Ursula K. Le Guin.
At eighteen, I had never met a published author (unless you count the time I stood in line for an hour to have Kurt Vonnegut sign my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five), and this was not any published author, this was Le Guin. I scanned the notice for application information. Applicants were required to write an essay on why they would be a good student guide and to list their preferred artists. The deadline was that day. I sat down in the hallway and scribbled out a plea on the back of the notice. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I am sure I mentioned my worn copy of The Left Hand of Darkness and the first line, which I had memorized. A line that contained a thrilling twist on the nature of reality: ‘I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.’
I slipped the paper under the door – the office had already closed. A week later I received a call from the department secretary. I had been assigned an artist. ‘Who?’ I asked, gripping the receiver. There was a pause. I heard papers shuffling, and then: ‘Ursula K. Le Guin.’ ‘Thank you,’ I murmured. ‘Thank you for choosing me.’ There was another pause. The secretary cleared her throat. ‘You were the only one who applied.’
I was given a car and Le Guin’s schedule and instructed to pick her up at the train station on a frosty January night at 2 a.m. – the one daily train from the west. She was scheduled to stay for the week, but in that week she was to give only one reading and to lead one small discussion group.
Le Guin had yet to go viral as she did after her 2014 National Book Awards speech, but still I marvel at how I could have been the only applicant. It was the university’s first such conference and they were still working out the kinks. Publicity had clearly been lacking. Add to that: the fact that we were in Western New York – also known as the ‘snow-belt’ – where waist-high snowdrifts were not uncommon. Needless to say, the conference was sparsely attended.
The upshot was that I had the keys to a university car, oceans of time and Ursula K. Le Guin. When I told her that I was a townie – I had grown up in Rochester and knew something of its history – she suggested that I show her around. So I took her to Mount Hope Cemetery, a Victorian graveyard and my favorite Rochester destination. I showed her Susan B. and Mary Stafford Anthony’s graves. Two modest stones – identical, side-by-side. Susan’s was clean and smooth, the pale marble shining dully in the gray afternoon light. Mary Stafford’s was moss-covered and mottled. ‘It’s because everyone comes to do rubbings of Susan’s grave,’ I explained, ‘but not her sister’s.’ Le Guin rapped her knuckles against the top of Mary’s grave. ‘Poor Mary,’ she said. ‘But you’ll see, it’s better this way.’
From there, we walked up a snowy knoll to the other side of the cemetery where I showed her Frederick Douglass’s gravesite. I told her that when Douglass had lived in Rochester, he liked to play the violin on his front porch after a day’s work at his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. I took her to my favorite used bookstore, the Brown Bag Bookshop, showed her the rocking chair where I would pass afternoons reading and introduced her to the kindly proprietor who would let me loiter for hours in his store without buying much of anything.
I’d been considered strange in high school. In college I was stranger still. I’d spent fifteen years in a school uniform and had never before chosen my own clothes. Left to my own devices, I tended toward oversized flannel shirts and vintage pants. The kindly thought I was a foreign exchange student. The not-so-kindly avoided me in the cafeteria. Both a local and an outsider, I was deeply of the place yet somehow deeply wrong for the place in ways I had yet to fully understand. I spent a great deal of time alone in those days wandering Mount Hope Cemetery or counting out change on the counter at the Brown Bag to see if I had enough to purchase a used paperback. I had never, before those afternoons during the conference, brought anyone to my secret places. And now I was bringing Ursula K. Le Guin.
One side effect of my Catholic schooling was a nervousness about literary analysis. I had spent years in Bible study where interpretation of authorial intent was frowned upon. You never pondered God’s intentions in writing the Bible or posed questions like, why do you think God chose to open his book in a garden? You did not discuss the life of the writer, their influences, their big themes. Besides, God seemed to have only one big theme: Himself. It had only recently sunk in that almost all other books were not considered divine creations, but rather constructed things, made by humans and as such it was regarded as normal to talk with an author about what they wrote and how they wrote it. This idea had not entirely settled in me and, in meeting Ursula K. Le Guin, I had a sense that I was meeting a god.
After I’d shown Le Guin the used bookstore and we had eaten lunch at Jazzberry’s, which served my favorite meal: jam and banana sandwiches, I brought her to another of my secret spots. As the door shut behind us in Silkwood Bookstore, I came face-to-face with a half-dozen dreamcatchers prominently displayed among the novels of Rita Mae Brown and Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body. I felt a boundless sense of remorse. The store, with its lavender walls, homespun furnishing, mugs of herbal tea and lesbian sex instruction manuals was so obviously one thing that there was no room for interpretation. I realized that in bringing Le Guin to this store, I had possibly revealed more to her than I’d intended. Le Guin was the same age as my father – a child of the Depression who came of age in the McCarthy era when Washington was purged of its ‘homosexual menace’. I grabbed the doorknob and said, ‘Let’s go. I think we should go.’ Le Guin – sanguine, curious, unconcerned – looked around at the Venus of Willendorf replica, the flyers advertising knitting circles and separatist meetings, the box set of Dykes to Watch Out For, and said, ‘I like it.’ She walked further into the store. ‘Let’s look around.’
Halfway down a slender bookshelf we found three of her novels. ‘My sister-in-law goes around to the bookstores in her town and turns my books face-out,’ Le Guin chuckled. She glanced at me, her eyebrows raised. I nodded and, when the store clerk disappeared into the back, we quickly rearranged the literature section so that all three Le Guin titles faced out. Before we left, she bought me a book of Roz Chast cartoons.
Back outside, in the bright winter light, I mentioned that there happened to be another bookstore on the same street. ‘Just a few blocks down,’ I said. ‘I’m sure they carry your books.’ ‘Which way?’ she asked. And so Ursula Le Guin and I went to the Village Green Bookstore and ransacked the literature section, rearranging the L’s until all her books were face-out.
I wanted to tell her what her writing had meant to me, how her books had moved me. I wanted to tell her that I had never before read an author who – fearlessly, eloquently – took society apart and held it up for me to examine, that I’d stayed up all night reading the week I’d been assigned The Left Hand of Darkness for my junior English class, and that, reading about a world where gender was not fixed but rather relational had caused something broken in me to shift, to mend. I wanted to tell her that I’d memorized the first line and that – even though I’d never left my hometown – like Genly Ai I felt caught between worlds, waiting for the gods of one world to fall and new gods to rise up.
I wanted to explain that it hadn’t all started with The Left Hand of Darkness in my junior year, but that I had found her long before, in the public library when I was in middle school. I’d devoured the Earthsea books in which the protagonist, Ged, cannot find peace until he accepts his shadow self. Le Guin pierced my solitude again when I read her slender, realist novel Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, in which no emotion was too complicated, too nuanced or too taboo for her spare, clarifying prose. But I didn’t say any of this. I was mute. I was not used to meeting authors and it did not occur to me that they might want to hear what a reader thought of their work.
When she finally grew tired of the silence (this took a while – Le Guin seemed quite content to sit quietly with me) Le Guin told stories. In retrospect, I see that she may have cottoned on to what I was going through, for the stories she told were about being out of place and being brave. She told me about the first time she took the train across the country – to attend Radcliffe just after the war, when Radcliffe was deeply in the shadow of Harvard and the idea of educating women was an afterthought. She told me about living on the East Coast for the first time and feeling out of place among upper crusty New Englanders. She told me about her struggles to learn French and the time she spent studying in Paris when the words would sometimes refuse to come and she wondered if she’d ever be fluent. But then, she told me, one day she was riding the bus. She was about to miss her stop; the driver, in a hurry, was speeding right past it. When she found herself yelling at the driver rapidly in French to slow down, to stop, she realized she had conquered the language. She told me about writing at the kitchen table late at night after she’d put the children to sleep, that writing when no one expected you to write, when there was little support for a woman writer, had some advantages: ‘If no one is expecting much, it’s not hard to exceed their expectations.’ And she told me about how tired she was of being asked what it takes to be an author. ‘Don’t try to be an author,’ she said as we stood outside a lecture hall in the bitter cold. ‘You cannot control that. Instead, try to be a writer. And to do that, you must write. That’s it. It’s very simple. Why don’t people understand that?’ The words came out in a tumble and her breath, mixing with the frigid air, turned to crystal.
The small group discussion was capped at twenty-five. Only ten people showed up. She did not look the slightest bit fazed and candidly answered questions. Someone asked about a recent popular book by a novelist who tackled similar themes. Le Guin said, ‘I read it [the new novel] in one night and when I got to the last page I was so mad I threw the book across the room!’ I remember being stunned – stunned by her passion, by her unedited criticism, by her courage to be publicly angry.
About halfway through the week, it dawned on the conference organizers that they had a world-class author in residence and she had been fobbed off on an unknown undergraduate. One of the organizers grabbed my elbow as we left a reading and asked me how it was going. ‘Okay, I guess.’ ‘Any problems? Is Ms Le Guin enjoying herself?’ ‘Yes. I mean I think so,’ I stammered, trying to keep Le Guin in my sights as a small crowd descended. The organizer told me that they had updated her schedule. He handed me a paper with a list of new events she was to attend. ‘As an honored guest,’ he said in a stern tone just in case I, like him, had not at first grasped Le Guin’s cultural import. It was still sparse, this new schedule – a few cocktails parties, special seats at readings. When I told her about the updated schedule she nodded, her enigmatic, unflappable smile lifting the corners of her mouth. ‘All right,’ she said and left it at that.
At the first cocktail party I saw instantly that I was out of place. Held in beautifully appointed rooms I’d never before entered, they were exclusive gatherings for the visiting talent and university faculty. There were no students, certainly no freshmen. I busied myself making sure Ursula had a drink and a plate of snacks at all times. Professors from the English department gathered up their courage and began to speak to her. They found she was charming, affable, warm. Her magnetism and wry humor soon captured everyone’s attention. The room filled with tipsy, jovial academics peering over their cocktails at Le Guin. One of them muscled through the crowd and stood before her, towering over her. He announced that he’d like to take Le Guin to lunch. ‘I’m not sure I can find the time,’ Le Guin demurred. ‘I’m sure we can work something out,’ he insisted. ‘You’ll have to ask Alison,’ she said. ‘She’s my shepherd. I’m just her little sheep, following where she leads. Baa! Baa!’
The first time I heard her utter these words I was heading back from the hors d’oeuvres table with a plate of fruit. The bleating was remarkable – loud and sharp, the practiced bleat of a person who knew how harsh real sheep can sound. The professor, flustered, stumbled back. Le Guin took that as her cue, grabbed my arm and said, ‘Let’s go.’
She pulled out that line early at the next cocktail party and used it liberally throughout the evening, whenever anyone tried to encroach on her open schedule. No one ever followed up with me. Not a single endowed chair or provost or department head buttonholed me and asked about her availability. I think it was the thunderous clarity of those bleats. A sound that said: I dare you. A clarion call, demanding that they reach beyond their preconceived notions of who was worthy of their time, their attention. In putting me between her and the phalanx of ‘important types’, she required them to humbly beseech me – the nobody, the mute – to find room in the schedule for them. I have never in my life been so honored as I was on those frigid Rochester evenings when Ursula K. Le Guin told a department chair that if he wanted her attention, he’d have to ask permission from the freshman hovering by the hors d’oeuvres table, shoving saltines in her bag.
At the end of the week, we said goodbye at the train station. I recall, in those last minutes, the light glancing off her silver hair, her eyes flinting. ‘Ms Le Guin,’ I ventured. And then I once again faltered. It was my last chance to say something, to tell her that I had read her books, that they had, at a number of key moments in my life, saved me. But I lost my nerve. She grabbed me and hugged me. It was one of those quick, brusque hugs that obscures as much as it reveals. She pulled back and held my shoulders. ‘Thank you,’ she said. I said it back to her – loudly, immediately. ‘Thank you. Thank you!’ repeating her words, unable to find my own.
The next year, I made a bold move and transferred to Brown University. The New England upper-crusters had been infiltrated by rich Europeans. This junction of privilege, elan and world-weariness undid me. One of them actually asked me if I ever ‘summered on the continent’. My painfully earnest reply: ‘Which continent?’ Again and again, I felt the sting of these new upper-crusters and when I did, I would think of Le Guin on her first train ride east in 1948 – eighteen years old and traveling across the country alone into an unknown future. I chose French as my foreign language and doggedly stuck with it despite every indication that I had no talent for languages, and little chance of ever mastering the difficult French pronunciation. I struggled for years, insisting on finding a way to study in France, applying for every scholarship I could find. I did not land in Paris, like Le Guin, but rather found myself in the south of France for a summer. Mortified and tongue-tied for the first half of my stay, I was caught in a cocoon of shame every time someone asked why I hadn’t bothered to study any French before the trip. At the end of the summer I found myself, having been delivered to the wrong terminal at Charles De Gaulle airport and about to miss my flight, speaking rapidly and clearly in French to the airline attendant, and I realized that I too had conquered the language. It was a few more years before I found myself doing something I had thought was a privilege reserved for the gods: writing. As I began I recalled her words: ‘If you’re a writer, write.’
As the years passed, I watched from afar as Le Guin’s star rose and her genius – that brilliant amalgam of vivid prose, straight talk and revolutionary engagement – was recognized by larger and larger circles. I never felt more vindicated than when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, and used the opportunity to deliver an excoriating speech to American publishers, reminding them that their duty is to art, not commerce. I watched with glee as she was named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress.
I never contacted her to tell her how much she’d meant to me. I thought it would be too much of a bother, that any moment in which I managed to catch her attention would be a moment away from her work. And perhaps I still thought of her as a god. Like a god, she was fixed, undying, a permanent feature in this ever-darkening world. The day before she died, I had spent my morning walk talking to her in my head, arranging and rearranging the words I’d say to her when I finally found the courage to approach her. I thought she’d always be there, waiting for me to stop fetching plates of fruit from the hors d’oeuvres table and to finally take a seat beside her, open my mouth and speak.
For much of these past months, I have been back in the winter of 1988, in upstate New York, remembering: Ursula K. Le Guin, sleepy-eyed, stepping off the late-night train. Ursula K. Le Guin in Mount Hope Cemetery, the moment she realized what I’d brought her to see: the gravesite of a famous woman and her forgotten sister. Le Guin rapping her knuckles against the marble and muttering, ‘You’ll see. It’s better this way.’ The memory that fixes itself most strongly in my mind is of us driving back to her hotel after the first cocktail party. It was a pitch black, moonless night. As I steered the car past endless university lots, I remarked at how exceptionally dark it seemed. It was as if the darkness were a seamless web, permeating both the inside and the outside the car. I could not see my hands on the steering wheel, could not see the pavement or the yellow lines. The streets were empty. It was late and cold and as we floated along, I could not see Le Guin in the passenger seat beside me. And then, her words, spoken very softly, quietly, as if to inoculate them from judgement: ‘Did you remember to turn on the headlights?’ ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Oh, God!’ Mortified, I flicked the switch. The road, the steering wheel, Le Guin – all of it – came back into view. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. The shame of being so stupid, so irresponsible, ravaged me. Who ever thought it was a good idea to trust me with Ursula K. Le Guin, to give me a car and a schedule and a very important person? ‘What an idiot!’ I screamed inside my head. Le Guin reached out her hand and, finding my shoulder, gave it a gentle tap. ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘We’re all right.’
The silence settled back around us. And then: a soft, low chuckle. The chuckle grew into a snigger and then a full-bellied laugh. ‘It was very dark,’ she said. ‘Wasn’t it?’ I glanced over at her elegant face, the sharp eyes squinting with humor – and I started laughing too. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was dark.’
In The Wave in the Mind, one of Le Guin’s many collections of essays, she wrote, ‘All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.’ When I met Le Guin, I was in outer space, hovering in that darkness. Cast out from my homeworld, I spent my days orbiting a new world, afraid to land. She taught me a few things that I’ve never forgotten:
1. Not everyone who thinks they’re better than you actually is.
2. Speaking your mind is better than hiding your mind.
3. Trying to be an author is a very bad idea.
But writing? Even if it means that sometimes you write the wrong thing, or the uncool thing or (worst of all) the completely ignored thing – that’s a solid plan. And if, on occasion, you are called on to be an author, remember to turn your books face-out on the bookshelf.
Photograph © Marian Wood Kolisch