Sci-Fi Titan Le Guin Wanted To 'Stand Up And Be Counted' As A Writer With Kids

Jan 24, 2018
Originally published on January 25, 2018 11:21 am

Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote popular science fiction and fantasy books from a feminist perspective, died on Monday at the age of 88.

Speaking to Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1989, Le Guin said she initially began writing science fiction because it was the one genre she knew she could sell. "It's how I broke into publishing," she said.

Le Guin went on to write more than 20 novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea series. She also wrote poetry, short stories and essays about feminism and other social issues. Le Guin is credited with helping to bring the science-fiction genre into a more literary — and feminist — realm.

"There was a whole generation of science-fiction/fantasy writers that I kind of came in with," she said. "Both men and women, I would say, were more interested in people, in the human element of these stories. They kind of humanized science fiction."


Interview Highlights

On what inspired her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, about "ambisexual" beings who switch genders

I wrote it in 1967, which is really when I think feminism was kind of beginning to come alive again and people were asking questions like, "What is the difference between men and women? How much is biological? How much is cultural?" and so on, all those questions.

And one way to ask those questions — my way of doing it, mainly — is to write a novel about it and sort of set up a situation in which women turn into men [who then] turn into women monthly, as it were, and see what happens.

On how characters switched genders in the book

These people most of the time are actually neuter. They're not sexually active. Once a month you, as they call it, "go into kemmer," and at that point you become either a man or a woman. You are physiologically gendered and you take on sexuality. Your sexual drive becomes very intense, and if you're with somebody who is already going into kemmer as the other sex, you're likely to be the other sex — they trigger the opposites, but not always.

So the point is that you can be the father of a child one month and then get pregnant the next, which obviously would make certain changes in society.

On disproving the notion that women can't be mothers and do creative work at the same time

I feel a certain obligation to sort of stand up and be counted as a woman who has had kids and brought them up, and also done creative work, which — particularly in the arts — there does seem to be almost a sort of agreement that this can't be done. ...

The fact is, creative work has replaced having a family for some women. That's fine. Having a family has replaced creative work for other women. That's fine. Then there are some of us who really need to do both and are perfectly capable of doing both.

Another thing that I've found ... [is that] women who write, who have children, their work tends to get "disappeared." They're not quite respectable. The few women who are counted part of the great canon of English literature tend to be childless and often unmarried. ... I have to say, the men seem to prefer it that way.

On how being a mother ultimately enriched her writing

There is a time during one's life when, if you are responsible for the care of your kids, it is very hard to do other creative work. You have to do it around the edges, in the middle of the night, or you never can get up before your kids, so it's usually late at night. Or, if you have the money, you hire some kind of baby sitter or some kind of child care.

It's hard. Your energy, your creative energies are being spread thin and strained. On the other hand, you are living an extremely rich life at the same time. And this is going to enrich your work, inevitably, I think. It may not seem so at the time, but ... babies don't stay babies for very long, whereas writers live for decades. You do outlive your babies.

Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Ursula Le Guin, who wrote popular science fiction and fantasy books from a feminist perspective. She died on Monday at age 88. Some of her best-known books include "The Left Hand Of Darkness," "The Lathe Of Heaven" and the "Earthsea" series. In 2014, at the National Book Awards ceremony, she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. I spoke with Le Guin in 1989, after the publication of her collection of essays, speeches and reviews called "Dancing At The Edge Of The World."

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GROSS: One of your best-known books, "Left Hand Of Darkness," was, in part, about gender. And it took place in a world where people were androgynous. You have an essay about your thoughts on androgyny in your new book. Why did you want to write a novel in which the characters were androgynous?

URSULA K. LE GUIN: Well, I wrote it in 1967, which is really when, I think, when feminism was beginning to kind of come alive again. And people were asking questions like what is the difference between men and women? You know, really, how much is biological, how much is culture and so on - all those questions. And one way to ask those questions is to - actually, my way of doing it mainly - is to write a novel about it and sort of set up a situation in which women turn into men turn into women monthly, as it were, and see what happens.

GROSS: Would you describe the system that you created - the sexual system - the sexual traits that people have?

LE GUIN: (Laughter) Well, yeah. Well, these people are - most of the time, are actually neuter. They're not sexually active. Once a month, you - as they call it, going to kemmer. And you - at that point, you become either a man or a woman. You are physiologically gendered. And you take on sexuality - your sexual drive becomes very intense. And if you're with somebody who is already going to kemmer as the other sex, you're likely to be the other sex. They trigger the opposites but not always. So the point is that you can be the father of a child one month and then get pregnant the next - which makes - obviously, it would make certain changes in society.

GROSS: You have an essay about books and babies that was also excerpted in The New York Times Book Review...

LE GUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Recently. And this is about what you think has been the refusal of our society to grant women both the right to be creative and to have children at the same time. Women seem to feel - well, society seems to have thought that women had to make a choice, one or the other. And you think that many feminists have felt that way too, that you had to make the choice and that the choice would be for work over children.

LE GUIN: Yeah, right.

GROSS: Now in your life, you've had both. You have three children.

LE GUIN: Yes.

GROSS: Is that right?

LE GUIN: And I don't know how many books.

(LAUGHTER)

LE GUIN: I think it's something like 25 books or something. As I say somewhere, thank goodness it wasn't the other way around. Yes, which, in a sense, gives me not only the possibility of talking about it, but I feel a certain obligation to sort of speak up and stand up and be counted as a woman who has had kids and brought them up and also done creative work - which, particularly in the arts, there just seemed to be almost a sort of an agreement that this can't be done. And as you said, it doesn't come only from the misogynist side of things. It has come from many women, many feminists. And here, it gets really sticky. And I genuinely don't want to hurt people here because women are always being told you must do this and you can't do that and so on.

And the fact is creative work has replaced having a family for some women. That's fine. Having a family has replaced creative work for other women. That's fine. Then there's some of us who really need to do both and are perfectly capable of doing both. Another thing that I found reading all the stuff I read to write that article is how - I'm talking particularly about writers 'cause that's what I know most about - how women who write, who have children, their work tends to get disappeared. They're not quite respectable. The few women who are counted part of the great canon of English literature tend to be childless and often unmarried. Apparently, I have to say, the men seem to prefer it that way.

GROSS: How do you think being a mother has helped and hurt you as a writer?

LE GUIN: It's - that's a very large question. There is a time during one's life when, if you are responsible for the care of your kids, it is very hard to do other creative work. You have to do it around the edges, in the middle of the night or - you never can get up before your kids. So it's usually late at night. Or you - if you have the money, you hire some kind of babysitter or some kind of childcare. It's hard. Your energy, your creative energies are being spread thin and strained. On the other hand, you are living an extremely rich life at the same time. And this is going to enrich your work inevitably, I think. It may not seem so at the time. But one of the points I tried to make in the article is, after all, babies don't stay babies very long, whereas writers live for decades. And you do outlive your babies.

GROSS: Ursula Le Guin recorded in 1989. She died Monday at the age of 88. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the leadership of the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services is now largely composed of anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ activists and how that's affecting policy. My guest will be Dan Diamond, who covers HHS for Politico. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.