‘A Berkeley Woman’: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin
Oregon State University/Courtesy

“Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be.” So wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in “The Operating Instructions,” the opener to her 2016 book “Words Are My Matter.

The tome consists of a collection of essays, speeches and wry musings on science fiction authors — variously given, published or shuffled aside since 2002.

It is a reflective work — as much as any compilation of raw feeling, cogent philosophizing and gentle, devastating wit can be singularly reduced to “reflective” — in that it is a volume from which the workings of her mind, her person, her routines, bound in hardback and a smooth orange book jacket, emerges as a holistic portrait. It would be one of the last books she published.

On Jan. 22, Le Guin died in her home in Portland, Oregon. Though no official cause of death was specified, her family confirmed that she had been in ill health for some time.

Perhaps best known for her richly imagined science fiction series “A Wizard of Earthsea” or her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” the latter of which earned her Hugo and Nebula awards, Le Guin is credited with pushing science fiction from the vestigial status of paperbacks and penny volumes into the mainstream success and literary renown it now enjoys.

In her work, the theme of belonging — of finding a familial space in the world — arches over fantastic and familiar settings alike, particularly remarkable because of her background in transatlantic travel. A globetrotter throughout her life, Le Guin had called many places home: She had lived in Europe, was married in France, attended undergraduate and graduate schools on the East Coast of the United States and claimed her immigrant ancestors’ first settling place to be Oregon.

Her first home, however, was the city of Berkeley, California.

Born Ursula Kroeber in 1929, Le Guin grew up in ‘40s-era Berkeley and recalled a city that was just starting to come into itself. Her father — the famed anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, for whom UC Berkeley’s Kroeber Hall was named — taught and conducted research at the school. A young Le Guin had the campus as her playground.

“The campus wasn’t all built up yet, you know?” she told the California Magazine in 2013. “There were lots of lawns and forests, and Strawberry Creek was like a little wild creek. It was a wonderful place to play.”

In the “A.L. Kroeber family photographs” collection at the Bancroft Library on campus, a toddler smiles out from 1930s sepia images from atop a tire swing, among the tall grasses of a hill and, in one instance, not facing the camera at all — eyes intent on an open book.

The city, at the time, was not a city at all. By Le Guin’s description, it was “a very small town,” solidly middle class, with a single department store downtown and a few dime-and-penny candy stores sprinkled around its more suburban streets.

The house her family lived in was a beautiful manor designed by Bernard Maybeck — architect of the Hearst Gymnasium. The home influenced her so deeply with its beauty that Le Guin wrote of it as an old friend: “Perhaps all my life I have been trying to rebuild it around me out of words.”

“It didn’t have the reputation that it got later of being extremely leftist, liberal, independent.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin

One needed a ferry to enter the city of San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge was just being built. In that same California Magazine interview, Le Guin emphasized both Berkeley’s isolation and its modesty: “It didn’t have the reputation that it got later of being extremely leftist, liberal, independent. It was just kind of a more conventional university town.”

She traced its more rebellious, anti-establishment fire — what she called its “bohemian” side — to the influx of European intellectuals in the 1940s, fleeing fascist regimes for a campus that stood open to them.

When asked by the Berkeley Daily Planet if the city or her upbringing has influenced her writing, Le Guin did not give particulars, but she instead reminisced about the beauty of her surroundings: “Growing up in the hills on the edge of the continent, looking out to the west must have been influential. Berkeley was a beautiful place in which to live. The light reflecting off the water, the fog, the massive groves of trees … it was a magical place.”

In her work, Le Guin had a similar way of infusing fantasy into the sublimity of nature. Napa Valley, her childhood home and the site of many leisurely summers, is transformed to vine-like poetry in “NAPA: The Roots and Springs of the Valley,” a select passage from her book “Always Coming Home” published in conjunction with photos of the scenery.

The book portrays a dystopic Northern California as ancient as it is futuristic, shrouded in mist and giving rise to its own haunting mythology: “The fog comes in. It comes up from the vast flat mudlands, the sea marshes and the reed beds, the estuaries and the endless tulles southward.” Le Guin was a worldbuilder of reflective proportions — even as we are introduced to new surroundings within her writing, we cannot help but take note of its mirrored magic within our own.

Beyond her unbound imagination, Le Guin is perhaps best known for her explorations of societal conflicts and controversies — sometimes with the added palatability of fantasy, sometimes without. Her male protagonists are strong without posturing, authoritative without aggrandization. Gethen, the alien planet featured in “The Left Hand of Darkness,” is home to androgynous beings for whom the concept of gender is irrelevant.

Le Guin took pleasure in the expansion of the genre from purely mechanical elements to one capable of critique and censure, a revolution spearheaded, in part, by her own work. “Some of the stuff in it is unspeakable,” she wrote drily in a letter to her family, expounding on a new short story she submitted to Quark Magazine, the science fiction magazine. “But some of it is a very good example of why engineers who like to read wiring-diagram stories are all complaining about science fiction; like what the hell does it think it is? Literature?”

An admirer of Virginia Woolf since her own best-selling novelist mother, Theodora Kroeber, handed her “Three Guineas” to read as an adolescent, she has written variously on the role of women in authorship.

A strident 2011 essay entitled “Understanding Grandmother” criticizing the homogenization of the literary canon offers both a forceful argument and a wisecracking reminder for the future: “I’m no beauty, but don’t give me a headstone that says She Was Plain. I’m a grandmother, but don’t give me a headstone that says she was Somebody’s Grandmother. If I have a headstone, I want my name on it. But far more than that, I want my name on books that are judged not by the gender of the writer but by the quality of the reading and the value of the work.”

Julie Phillips, Le Guin’s biographer, wrote that the author had “a Berkeleyite’s love of alternative thought” in a profile for the New Yorker. But Le Guin, through her revolutionization of the science fiction genre and her persistent fight for social justice, has played a part in defining what it means to be “Berkeleyan,” to be iconoclastic, unapologetic, rabble-rousing and all the rest in the city’s era of soul-searching and self-actualization.

“I want my name on books that are judged not by the gender of the writer but by the quality of the reading and the value of the work.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Accepting a lifetime achievement plaque at the 2014 National Book Awards (“the industry’s Oscars,” wrote one NPR commentator), Le Guin called for hope: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. …The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

The freedom to create and to inspire freedom in turn is emblazoned on our lamp post banners and carved over our cafes: it is her legacy, and ours.

Beyond her boundary-pushing artistry and sharp-tongued activism, Le Guin was warm, hilarious and a little zany. Her epistles to her family throughout the years are covered in doodles, handwritten addendums to typewritten pages and many “XOs” scribbled as postscripts, once in three languages: “XO! (Russian) Ieau! (French) Kho! (Orsinian)” — with Orsinian being a language of her own invention.

She ended her letters with “Luff you!” more often than not, and she spent long paragraphs detailing her family (“Charley comes back Tuesday. It was Peavy’s 70th birthday & cousin Kay’s marriage & all sorts of things, so we sent him as a hostage.”), reading habits (“I am — I am reading War and Peace again — oh dear! What an ass. … By now it’s not at all like reading a novel, It’s merely part of the day.”) and her various experiences as an author (“I am terribly tempted to write von De Cles, ‘How do you know it was with the aid of my husband?” — but I think I had better not”). There seemed to be no distance between Le Guin the letter writer and Le Guin as a novelist and essayist: she is cutting and cheerful, and she always had something interesting to say.

In previous decades, Le Guin returned to Berkeley for book tours, signings and talks. Black Oak Books, the 33-year-old Berkeley institution that closed down in 2016, held a massive portrait of her, dated 1985 as part of their collection of visiting authors photographed by George Sera.

In that photo — no longer sepia, but black and white by artistic choice — her hair is white, framing her face in an echo of her childhood bangs. The corners of her mouth twitch upwards in a wry smile. With her eyes on the camera and her head in a slight tilt, she looks supremely at ease — at home.

In a letter to her mother in 1970, she included a cut-out from a local paper naming her a “Portland Author.” “Funny,” Le Guin wrote beside it. “Am I a Portland Author or a Berkeley Woman?” It seems safe to say that she was both.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.