Today I read in the Aqueduct Blog that it is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 81st birthday. The day also marks the release of a volume in her honour that I am going to get my hands on as soon as I can. Although I am drowning in work and getting over a nasty respiratory bug, I wanted to mark this day with a post, if only a short one. I started by trying to write an essay on the significance of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work on one humble writer, yours truly, but the essay threatened to turn into a very long thesis so I put it away for another day.
So the short answer is that when I was a hesitant young would-be writer, grown up on SF in which I’d never found people like me or ideas different from the Western Canon, reading Ursula Le Guin’s works at the advanced age of 32 blew my mind. It was as though she, a person I’d never met, was telling me, a person she didn’t know existed, that there was a place in SF for the likes of me. I hadn’t yet come across Indian SF, which was being quietly written in various Indian languages, with the exception of some short stories by Jayant Narlikar. Besides, the woman could write! So, rather like Eklavya in the Mahabharata, I decided to adopt her as a literary auntie.
In other words, it is all (or mostly) her fault that I’m a writer of SF. Readers may celebrate or decry that as they wish.
The kinds of stories I really like are written well, have unforgettably vivid characters who are not all heroes but often quite ordinary, in which there is a strong sense of place, and where ideas are important. Additionally I like the kinds of stories that speak to you in two voices — the voice of the text, and the non-verbal speech between the lines, the kind that goes deep and keeps talking long after the last page has been turned. Ursula K. Le Guin’s works are all that.
My brother was the first person to recommend her work to me, many years ago now. He was active in the civil rights movement in India and the book of hers he kept trying to get me to read was The Dispossessed. Among his friends it was an inspiration. I’d become alienated from SF in my late teens, a distancing that lasted a decade, so I didn’t really listen to him until I had been living in the US for a while as an accidental immigrant. I wanted to go back to reading SF, and I did, but I hadn’t found anything that spoke to me and my experience as a non-white, non-male stranger in a strange land. So when I finally read her it was like coming home.
And that’s just about her writing. Since those first heady days of reading The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and the Earthsea books, when I learned that you could actually invent cultures and mythologies and customs as busy and varied and interesting as those in our own world — a knowledge that helped the process of decolonizing the mind that I’ve written about earlier— since then I’ve had the privilege of meeting Ursula in a couple of writers’ conferences and of corresponding with her a few times over the years. She has given a Raw (No Longer) Young Writer much-needed encouragement and support. It’s helped me get through some tough times as a writer, particularly when I was a vulnerable beginner. I remember an early story of mine she’d liked being later torn apart by a group of writers, and sitting back a bit smugly (I was young, relatively speaking) and thinking “Ha! But Ursula Le Guin thought it was good, so there!”
I could go on and on, but I suspect my limited eloquence will not be able to keep up with all I have to say, so I’ll stop with a quote from my friend Anil Menon.
“Perhaps all writers have this invisible council of writers in their heads that they cannot disappoint. I know I do. Ursula Le Guin is one of them. Ever since I first read The Dispossessed as a teenager, she’s been both standard and inspiration. But it’s not just about her work; hers is an example of what a writing life could be: incredibly generous, kind and passionate. As we say in India: here’s to a thousand more birthdays for Ursula-ji.”
So here it is, from some of the people who come from other places and speak other tongues and have different ways of looking at the world: Happy Birthday, Ursula! जन्मदिन की शुभकामनाएं!