#FridayReads: My favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novels

Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I’m going to call the greatest writer of all time, passed away on Monday. I don’t usually cry when people I’ve never met died, but I cried when I read that sad news. Le Guin’s work touched me in so many ways—too many to share them all here. But there are three that stand out, and I’ll share those. Share yours in the comments!

1. Catwings

cover for CatwingsMy family wasn’t rich, but one thing I never lacked was reading material. Weekly trips to the library and a plethora of magazine subscriptions kept me in books and stories. We got lots of great magazines: Highlights for Kids, American Girl, some sort of crafty activity magazine, Zoobooks, a few comics. But my absolute favorites were Spider and Cricket, because they published actual short stories.

In one of these two (I can’t remember which one), I read a story called Catwings. I couldn’t get enough of it. Every issue I’d check first to see if there was a new Catwings story. At the time, I had no conception that the author was a famous sci-fi writer named Ursula K. Le Guin. I just knew it was a good story and I cared about the characters. Those little stories about cats who could fly stuck with me. Of course that’s not the only story from my childhood that stuck with me (there’s Narnia, and The BFG, and Leo Lionni’s picture books about mice, and Dr. Seuss, and Big Red, and Nancy Drew, and too many more to name them all), but it’s one that stuck out even among all the others. I remember reading the story “Jane on Her Own” and being scared for Jane, but also exhilarated that she could go have her own adventures, away from her family. If Jane could, then so could I! Years and years later, I stumbled on a Catwings book in a Barnes & Noble and was delighted—though not surprised—to discover Le Guin was the author.

2. The Left Hand of Darkness

cover for The Left Hand of DarknessIn high school I went to every used book sale within a 25-mile radius of my home. At one of these, I picked up a paperback copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for 50 cents. It was an edition from the ’70s, with yellowed pages and a faded cover. I’d heard Le Guin’s name mentioned over and over in sci-fi circles, so I took it upon myself to read it. The summer between high school and college, I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and it changed how I viewed not just the world, but the very concepts of “truth” and storytelling.

As a conservative Christian kid, I had some pretty messed up views on gender. But even then, patriarchal norms chaffed against my sense of independence (thanks, books!) and solid knowledge that I was just as good as any man (thanks, Mom and Dad!). The Left Hand of Darkness confirmed what I already felt: it was all a construct. It didn’t have to be that way. And it was, then, I think, that I began to decide it wouldn’t be that way, not for me. No one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t accomplish. No one was going to tell me what I was worth. And people have tried—oh, they’ve tried—but fuck them. I’m living the life I want to live, not the life society tells me I should want.

And something else. In the introduction to that edition of the novel, Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about truth. In it, she writes, “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” When I read those words, I understood what it means to tell stories. I understood why stories are so important to me, why I want to read them and write them. I understood that “truth,” too, is its own construct (not to be confused with facts). And that—that’s when I really became a writer.

3. Always Coming Home

cover for Always Coming HomeBy the time I read Always Coming Home I already counted Le Guin as one of my favorite authors. After I read Always Coming Home, she moved right up the list to number one, and I seriously doubt anyone could replace her. I wrote an essay about why this is her greatest book, and you can read it on Monday when it comes out (I’ll try to remember to post a link here when it does). But that essay leaves out the personal impact this book had on me.

Always Coming Home is a fictional anthropological study of an animistic society living in a futurist California that’s been destroyed and reclaimed. This isn’t just a novel—it’s a guidebook for how to live without capitalism, without patriarchy, without hate, without fear. It’s utopia, but utopia that could actually exist if only we weren’t so hell-bent on profits, greed, and destruction.

Reading this book caused me to make real changes in my way of life. It got me thinking about the intersections of the urban world and the natural world. It got me thinking about healing. It got me thinking about spirituality, and what that even meant. It got me thinking about being a whole person. I consider Always Coming Home to be my bible—my guide for living a meaningful, connected, creative life. I don’t follow it slavishly (Le Guin would hate that), but it’s my inspiration. My North Star. It reminds me that all these things—life, creativity, nature, everything—is an ongoing process. The world will keep turning long after I’m gone. I am only a single part in this great ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean I am unimportant. I have something to offer, and so do you. I’ll be happy if my gifts to the world equal half of what Le Guin’s were to me.

Rest in peace, Grandmother.

Why I didn’t march this year

Last year, I went to the Pittsburgh version of the Women’s March on Washington after Greyhound failed to provide buses to D.C. (even though I’d bought my ticket a month in advance, and so had many of the other people left stranded in Pittsburgh). I knew there had been drama behind the scenes, where white women were putting black women down and calling them “divisive” for voicing concerns and opinions.

Another group (Black Femme Excellence Co.) held an intersectional march across town, but after being up until 2 a.m. waiting for a bus that never came, having a migraine, and having to rely on sketchy Sunday public transportation, I didn’t have it in me to take multiple buses to East Liberty.* The main Women’s March was just Downtown though, which is only a 10 to 15 minute bus ride from my house. That, I felt capable of doing. So I went, and I marched. I even made a stupid pink pussy hat in a misguided attempt to show solidarity.**

Found on Facebook. Will update if original creator is found. (Yes, it contains erroneous apostrophes. That’s not the point.)

In the moment, it felt important to make a statement. To do something. Anything. And I do believe protests are an important part of resisting right wing extremism. I hope, sincerely, that the statement made by last year’s (and this year’s) Pittsburgh’s Women’s March overshadows the behind-the-scenes bullshit. I hope that statement is ultimately one of inclusion and acceptance and love.

But this year, after the organizers showed more of the same behavior toward women of color, I couldn’t in good conscious be a part of it.

I don’t want to march behind people who tell black women to essentially shut up because they aren’t focusing on “important things.” I don’t want to march behind people who don’t listen when they get called out on their mistakes. I don’t want to march behind people who think it’s okay to exclude trans women and their experiences (and feelings) from the conversation.

Now, I’m not by any means saying that people who went to the march last year or this year think any of those things or have engaged in the same behaviors as the organizers. I wouldn’t have caught the same drama unfolding if not for my sharp network of badass feminist friends. I can even understand knowing all this and still feeling a need to go, to march, to demonstrate. I respect that. But I couldn’t do it, not this time around.

(Don’t get me started on the pink pussy hat some jackass put on a statue of Harriet Tubman in Harlem. Like, seriously?)

On Sunday, instead of marching, I worked on the 2017 VIDA Count, tallying bylines by gender and recording names so that we can send surveys for the Intersectional Count. I gave (a little) money directly to black mothers who needed the help. I cooked good food for myself and my partner. I told my friends I love them.

I will keep calling my senators and congressman. I will keep sending emails and filling out comment forms online. I will keep making art. I will keep resisting.

But I refuse to leave anyone behind while I do it.


*Chronic illness can really complicate activism. There’s an essay there. I’ll suss it out at some point when my head doesn’t hurt.

**There’s another essay about my feelings regarding pink pussy hats. Maybe next week?

 

Joss Whedon, woke misogynist

Kai Cole’s revelations about her ex-husband Joss Whedon’s manipulative behavior toward women don’t surprise me. I’ve dealt with this kind of man before—the one who says “I’m a feminist!” and “I believe in equal rights!” but turns around and tells clearly misogynist jokes (the “woke misogynist,” if you will) and is quick to blame you for anything and everything. “Lighten up, it’s just a joke!” he says, when you point it out to him.

Gif of Buffy saying "If the apocalypse comes, beep me"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped me get through 7th and 8th grade at an awful Baptist School that wanted me to be docile and pure. But there were always things about it that bugged me, especially in the spin-off Angel, where literally every significant female character (spoiler alert!) winds up dead. In the main show, I always felt that Buffy’s relationship with Spike was problematic. He’s repeatedly abusive, but she still takes him back. One could argue this is simply in her character, or that she’s messed up emotionally, but she demonstrates plenty of strength and moxie is other situations, so I’m not sure I buy that argument.

Even so, Buffy is a great show, and a great character. Sure, it has some flaws (*cough* Riley *cough*), but beyond Buffy, it gives us other awesome female characters like Willow, Tara, and Anya (okay, okay, and Faith).

Does Ms. Cole’s revelation completely invalidate all the good that’s come of Buffy and the positive, kick-vampire role model she provided for countless young women like me? No, not at all. Buffy can still be a feminist icon, because even though her character was created by Joss Whedon, he’s not solely responsible for the character or the show. And aside from the Spike thing, the show on the whole is pretty upstanding from a feminist perspective. I also don’t find much fault with Firefly in that regard.

Iron Man saying Black Widow doesn't need her own movie.

If we invalidated every work of art that had a flawed creator, we’d have no art left. That doesn’t mean we excuse the bad behavior of artists just because they make good art. No. Judge the art on it’s own merits, and judge the creator on their own merits.

But like I said, I’m not surprised that Whedon has behaved this way in his personal life. Angel is a feminist dumpster fire, and The Avengers movies aren’t any better. Whedon has never been, in my opinion, the upstanding feminist he’s been portrayed as. It might not be so visible in Buffy or Firefly, but it’s there in his other work. As others have pointed out, Dr. Horrible is about a stalker that we’re supposed to sympathize with, and the main female character winds up dead at the end. Women are basically absent from the main Marvel movies, and they certainly don’t get to be heroes (but Black Widow! is not a valid argument, because why does she still not have her own movie?).

That’s basically systemic oppression in a nutshell. It’s so baked into our culture that even people who truly believe they are feminists might behave in very anti-feminist ways. Let me just be clear that I am not making excuses for Whedon’s behavior in any way, shape or form. Exploiting people you have power over is never excusable, and I’m saddened to learn it’s something that happened repeatedly (and is probably still happening).

The best way to fight it is to call it out and hold people accountable for their behavior. Will I still watch Buffy? Yes, absolutely. But will I rush out to drop money on the next big Joss Whedon thing that comes out? Well… probably not.