Echoes of Le Guin, Part I: Pondering the Way with Ursula

Welcome to The Burning Hearth and the launch of my year long series, “Echoes of Le Guin.”

I love that there are gigantic nebula clouds in space that turn cosmic dust into stars. As we know, these star nurseries form new suns for planets and asteroids to one day orbit. I think Ursula K. Le Guin was a human nebula that turned the dust of all that was around her into stories. With the help of just twenty-six letters, arranged and rearranged into words, sentences, and paragraphs, she created new worlds for us, the readers, to visit. Given her oeuvre, it is clear the mileage she found in the written word. Her voice and vision permeates our story-solar system.

“Echoes of Le Guin” began as a faint idea in my toddler-sized (in comparison to UKLG) brain-nebula. The idea of asking the same questions to different authors, began collecting mental dust. What if, I asked myself, these questions all had something to do with Ursula K. Le Guin? And what if, every other month, I posted one of the six questions with all of the author’s responses? Could this, would this, appear to place these people in conversation over the same issue? Could I make this happen? This collection of dust-thought eventually formed cohesion and “Echoes of Le Guin” was born.

With a universe of words at my disposal, I’m still incapable of describing how honored I am that William Alexander, Susan Defreitas, Kylie Mirmohamadi, Julie Phillips, Klye Winkler, and Isaac Yuen (and David Naimon who does a guest reading for this episode) agreed to this interview series. Because of them, my idea has been set free from my mental nebula and is now traveling through cyberspace.

Having these six in conversation is nothing short of magical. However, I had no idea of the magnitude of the stellar event I was creating when I invited them to take a collective seat at The Burning Hearth.

Before launching into Part I: Pondering the Way with Ursula, I would like to share a bit about this month’s featured author Kyle Winkler. (All author biographies appear at the end of the interview.)

Kyle Winkler

I asked Kyle what prompted him to start the Left Hand of Le Guin podcast, and if he had anything he wanted to share about his upcoming season. He had this to say:

I started Left Hand of Le Guin because I was listening to a profound amount of literary podcasts and was shocked when I couldn’t find anything specifically on her work. So many authors have dedicated pods that deeply explore their work. I’m thinking of Philip K. Dick with DickHeads Podcast and Gene Wolfe and Alazbo Soup Podcast. There are many others, especially for SFF. And, of course, the various big anchor shows like Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Incomparable. But I wanted to contribute. I enjoy audio editing and interviewing people. So, I thought I’d give it a go!

For 2023, the 2nd season will be more deliberate. For example, my first episode is with Kim Stanley Robinson on The Lathe of Heaven. I’m shocked I was able to secure an interview with him, but also thrilled he said yes. We had a great conversation and I can’t wait for folks to hear it. Also hoping to record with David Agranoff of the DickHeads Podcast and discuss The Word for World is Forest.

I also asked him to share any recent or upcoming publications he would like us to know about.

For recent publications, I did release a speculative novel last May, Boris Says the Words, which was influenced (in part) by certain elements of Le Guin’s magic system from Earthsea. I’ve also started writing columns for the gaming site Hipsters of the Coast, where I write about the rhetoric/metaphilosophy of the Black cards in Magic: The Gathering.

Echoes of Le Guin

Part I: Pondering the Way with Ursula

BH: Over the last year, I have grown very fond of UKLG’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. I don’t think I’m overstepping by saying her love of Lao Tzu’s book bursts from every page of her translation, which she referred to as more of a rendition than a translation, since she did not know Chinese.

Her belief in the Way is omnipresent throughout the many pages of her life’s work. I recently read Always Coming Home and, just in case the reader doubted the influence of Taoism after the title, she gives us the last line to the opening paragraph of Part I. “I have come where I was going.” With this, the character and the reader are enveloped in the Way.

When Sparrowhawk says to Arha in The Tombs of Atuan, “You told me to show you something worth seeing. I show you yourself.” I am reminded of the first two lines from Chapter 33 of her translation titled “Kinds of Power.”

“Knowing other people is intelligence,

Knowing yourself is wisdom.”

I have talked to many people who are familiar with UKLG’s writing but had no idea she had translated Lao Tzu’s book. I think it would be wonderful to have you each read from the Tao Te Ching. To that end, I have selected two chapters for each of you to read. Your readings will appear above your answers to the following two questions.

What, if anything, from the chapters you read, resonated with you and why?

Where, or how, do you find the message or lesson of the chapters you read revealed in Ursula’s writing?

Isaac Yuen

Isaac Yuen: I own the 2009 Shambhala edition that comes with two CDs where Ursula narrates each chapter. It’s long been an anchoring text for me, and I find myself referring back to it again and again, sometimes at unexpected times. I especially love her footnotes at the end of some chapters that she describes as “idiosyncratic and unscholarly, and are to be ignored if not found helpful.”  For me her rendition strikes a great balance between playfulness, wit, and profound vastness—all of which are not only Taoist trademarks, but LeGuinian ones, too.

Isaac Yuen reading from UKLG’s Lau Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 24, “Proportion”

Regarding Chapter 24, the first of my selected texts. There’s a heavy current of wu wei, or the Taoist philosophy of doing by not doing, infused through “Proportion.” I’m immediately reminded of a passage from Holmes Welch’s Taoism: The Parting of the Way, which Ursula’s recommended as the ’best, soundest, clearest introduction and guide.” In one of the sections, Welch proposes a thought experiment to the reader: How would Lao Tzu, that old teacher, perceive life in the 20th century? After some prodding, here is what he says:

“America’s greatest troubles come from the advertising business. Do not smile. That business is harmful and dangerous – oh! very harmful and dangerous. It makes people want to buy things that they would not otherwise want to buy. It fills their minds with desires for ingenious devices and with ambition to have more than their neighbours. How, confused by ingenuity, can their characters become simple? How, being full of ambition, can they ever turn inwards and grow quiet? On the contrary, they must be always excessively active to earn the money to buy what has been produced by the excessive activity of others.”

This was published in 1957, perhaps ahead of its time. In the twenty-first century and the throes of late-stage capitalization, Welch’s warning and Ursula’s translation are more resonant, as the constant struggle to self-aggrandize and/or to get ahead has created a world of tumours and garbage to accompany an unhappy and cynical populace.

The chapter title also brings to mind a line I’ve always gravitated towards from The Left Hand of Darkness—of which the Taoist influences are prevalent. It comes when one of the main characters, dragging a sledge across a wintry landscape, laments how the world doesn’t care what he did, how much he overcame, nor any of the accomplishments he deemed praise-worthy:

“But the ice did not care how hard we worked. Why should it? Proportion is kept.”

It’s good to be reminded of one’s insignificance and then to move on, rather than dwelling long in any delusions of grandeur. Keeps things light and clear going forward.

Isaac Yuen reading from UKLG’s Lau Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 58, “Living with Change

Chapter 58, “Living with Change,” is not as easy to graft onto modern society; Ursula acknowledges this difficulty in translating other chapters that grapple with politics. While the first section seems to make the case for ineffective government and an ignorant citizenry (and that effective government just leads people to constantly complain), the last verse, and in particularly the last line, appears to subvert or bypass that notion. Ursula notes, “the point is that Taoists gain their ends without the use of means. This is indeed a light that does not shine—an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.” Again, a riddle to untangle, a strategy to contemplate, a dose of wu wei and effortless action, to lead without seeming to lead, to guide without incurring the baggage of celebrity or hero worship. Simply facilitating people to get things done, without fuss, with ease, easy and content. This is all naturally more difficult than it sounds, but there is a roadmap here, on the dust of the Way.

Kyle Winkler

Guest reader David Naimon reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter, 11 “The Uses of Not”

Guest reader David Naimon reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter, 53 “Insight”

Kyle Winkler:The part about the hollowed out pot resonates with me. I’m constantly thinking of the absence of things. Or, for example, how when people are flying through the air, humans have manufactured a particular shape of space to exist in as we hurtle through the atmosphere. We exist because of the absence. 

W/r/t Le Guin’s work, it’s hard not to see this all throughout her writing. “Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.” Often it’s about what Sparrowhawk doesn’t do. Or what a character refrains from doing that allows the story to proceed or function. He doesn’t attack. Or he removes an obstacle instead of putting one in place. 

Kylie Mirmohamadi

Kylie Mirmohamadi: I have my copy of Ursula’s Tao Te Ching always with me at my desk, in the room of my house in which I write. Even the days I don’t open it, the sight of it brings me joy, and consolation too, as it has over some difficult times in these strange years of the pandemic that we have all experienced. It sits with my Virginia Woolfs (Woolves?) her novels and diaries and essays and stories in many editions, many forms, many combinations. On my desk the Tao Te Ching sits with my talismans: The Waves, To the Lighthouse, A Writer’s Diary. The sound of water, the sea, the river, the rain, is, for me, all through Woolf’s writing, it flows in and out, and I see her amazing creativity as a slippery fish – the way it flashes into brilliance, swimming away as a slick of silver light in a dark, deep sea.

Kylie Mirmohamadi reading from UKLG’s Laz Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 35, “Humane Power” and Chapter 78, “Paradoxes”

I’m thrilled that you chose this watery Paradoxes #78 as one of my passages for response. How beautiful, how powerful, is this wisdom that turns the world’s knowing on its head: ‘Soft overcomes hard,/ weak overcomes strong.’ And water remaining unaltered while it wears away what should be stronger. There is something about that aim to know the self, to be true to it, to hold to it, that – like the power of naming – seems to me so central to Ursula’s work. Ogian’s adult awareness in A Wizard of Earthsea of the cost to the magic of form-shifting: ‘the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one’s self, playing away the truth.’

You know, Constance, that I am a new Le Guin reader, but I see this idea of powerful, often hidden, subversive, alternative ways of being and understanding and being in the world in a lot of what I have encountered so far, and especially in her ideas about narrative. In conversation with David Naimon, when she rejects the idea that story must be about conflict; what she calls the ‘narrow, social-Darwinist’ and ‘very masculine’ view of life as a battle.

In her rightly-celebrated manifesto (can I call it that? I wonder. It seems so, to me) ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ (1986) where she goes about loosening the stranglehold of the fighting hero, the conquering warrior, the fighting brothers, the bombs, the killer story, the conflict narrative – the stories about ‘sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things’ – positing instead the ordinary/ revolutionary, passive/ actively enabling object of the container, as a way to understand narrative. ‘I would go so far,’ she says, ‘as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.’

(Ursula, paradoxically again, delivers our hero a killer blow when she observes that ‘the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.’)

So, not the tale of heroics, war, conflict. The realm of other stories, centering things and characters who may seem weak, unheroic, anti-glamourous. Those who, like the water, act in steadfastness and stealth, in the shadows of other people’s, society’s, disregard. In her ‘A Left-Handed Commencement Address’ when she spoke to the graduands of Mills College in 1983 ‘aloud in public in the language of women’, Ursula speculated that ‘[m]aybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness.’ Enacting the same world-view-reversing that we see in Lao Tzu’s paradoxes, she encouraged the young people in her audience to seek and see hope in the overlooked earth, not the weaponized sky: ‘Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.’

(It is deeply subversive to speak, aloud, this women’s knowledge. In my writing room I also have a print-out of Ursula’s words, where I can see them, when I need them. Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? she asks. ‘Every little macho dodo … There is no more subversive act than the act of writing from a woman’s experience of life using a woman’s judgment.’)

I see these alternative, subversive world-views and narratives in Ursula’s fiction too, although I am just beginning my foray into those dazzling worlds. In the ways of knowing of marginalized people; the women and servants who are characterized in ‘Sur’ as knowing that ‘the backside of heroism is often rather sad’, holding their secret, hard-won knowledge that ‘achievement is smaller than men think. What is large is the sky, the earth, the sea, the soul.’

What seems large is small. What is large cannot be owned, or achieved, or won. Right words sound wrong.

And the great, overarching paradox in the words of the Creation of Éa that frame A Wizard of Earthsea, that Vetch sings so movingly at its dénouement, travelling on ‘the vastness of the Open Sea’: ‘Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.’

#35 Humane Power I find more enigmatic, but I find the possibility that it holds out (again, expressed in paradox) of nourishment through contemplation to be delicate and elusive. When we refuse to be distracted by constant demands (consumption, agitation, movement, entertainment), not chasing an impossible satiety, when we are still, the world might come to us – ‘harmless, peaceable, serene’ – what a beautiful thought.

But it’s more than a pretty thought, a nugget of truth, to be wrapped up in the page of a notebook, brought home, and left on the mantlepiece (sorry, more Woolf). My responses to this passage have made me dig deeper than I anticipated, further into my unconscious and emotions and memory than I am comfortable with. It connects me to the contemplative traditions in which I was brought up, which I have left, as much as we can ever leave. The hymn that speaks of the still, small voice of calm; the exhortation to ‘be still’. (‘Be still and know that I am God’, it says, but here it is instead, and comfortingly, ‘be still, and know’)

And of Ursula’s own writing? These ideas are reflected in the fiction I have read (and there is so much more to be read). But what I want to remember here is how, when I first opened Earthsea, I had a visceral response – of stillness, of height – which became almost vertigo-like. I felt the stillness and I felt the swerve and the drop, like the flight of a dragon, that moment of peeling away into wings that she describes so perfectly. It was awe.

William Alexander

William Alexander reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 33, “Kinds of Power”

William Alexander reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 34, “Perfect Trust”

William Alexander: Both of these chapters read like portraits of the Master Doorkeeper—one of my favorite characters in the Earthsea saga—who guards the only entrance to the wizard school of Roke Island. That same door is also the only way out. Sparrowhawk gets in by revealing his true name—Ged—at the threshold; to leave again he needs to say the Doorkeeper’s name.

            He knew a thousand ways and crafts and means for finding out names of things and of men, of course; such craft was a part of everything he had learned at Roke, for without it there could be little useful magic done. But to find out the name of a Mage and Master was another matter. A mage’s name is better hidden than a herring in the sea, better guarded than a dragon’s den. A prying charm will be met with a stronger charm, subtle devices will fail, devious inquiries will be deviously thwarted, and force will be turned ruinously back upon itself.

            “You keep a narrow door, Master, said Ged at last. “I must sit out in the fields here, I think, and fast till I grow thin enough to slip through.”

            “As long as you like,” said the Doorkeeper, smiling.

Ged tells a joke when he gets stuck. That’s important. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Ursula says in a footnote of her Tao Te Ching translation. When we savor the high seriousness of high fantasy it’s easy to forget that wisdom also has a sense of humor.

Ged sat thinking how he might, by force, ruse, or sorcery, learn the Doorkeeper’s name. The more he pondered, the less he saw, among all the arts of witchcraft he had learned in these five years on Roke, any one that would serve to wrest such a secret from such a mage…

             “Master,” said Ged, “I cannot take your name from you, not being strong enough, and I cannot trick your name from you, not being wise enough. So I am content to stay here, to learn or serve, whatever you will: unless by chance you will answer a question I have.”

             “Ask it.”

             “What is your name?”

             The Doorkeeper smiled, and said his name.

This little scene shows up exactly halfway through A Wizard of Earthsea. It also contains the whole book. Both of the two wizards are patient—a hard-won trait for Ged. Both of them share a sense of humor. Both of them share their names. Neither wizard tries to dominate, outwit, or otherwise overcome the other.

“A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible,” Ursula says on the very first page of her Tao translation. “It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything.”

Julie Phillips

Julie Phillips reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 67, “Three Treasures”

Julie Phillips reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 52, “Back to the Beginning”

Julie Phillips: “Poems are housework,” June Jordan said, and I think Ursula often felt that ordinary household work didn’t get valued enough. You can see that in Tehanu especially, where Tenar has become a middle-aged woman who keeps house. I did a lot of caring recently for a beloved relative who was dying, and it made me think about how care work, which seems so repetitive and banal, can carry you right into the profoundest mysteries of human existence. I think that’s what Tehanu is about, and I think it’s what Lao Tzu is saying: you don’t need to go on a quest to find the answers. They’re here, they’re all around you.

An interviewer once asked Ursula what she would do to save the world. She had a low tolerance for impossible-to-answer questions (it’s like “What’s your favorite book?”: where do you start?) so she told him:

“The syntax implies a further clause beginning with if… What would I do to save the world if I were omnipotent? But I am not, so the question is trivial.

“What would I do to save the world if I were a middle-aged middle-class woman? Write novels and worry.”

She did more than that, of course; she was being snarky. But that has always seemed to me like a Taoist answer.  

I love the first lines of Chapter 67: “Everybody says my way is great but improbable. All greatness is improbable.” I think that does a good job of summing up Ursula’s career. And like Ursula’s work, it issues a kind of blanket permission to be yourself, no matter how unlikely or inexplicable you feel yourself to be.

Susan Defreitas

Susan Defreitas reading from UKLG’s Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Chapter 14, “Celebrating Mystery” and Chatper 75, “Greed”

Susan Defreitas: I first read the Tao Te Ching in a class I had at the Interlochen Arts Academy, which I believe was called (anachronistically) Man’s Search for Meaning. We read a wonderful hodgepodge of books, including Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Inferno, and The Book of Job. The Tao “got deep into me,” as Le Guin put it, at a young age, as it did her—and part of what impressed me about this little book was that it could be translated so many different ways. Our teacher presented us with various translations of the same verses, and each seemed to have its own very different sorts of meanings.

Le Guin’s translations are a poet’s translations, and I think they’re notable for their elegance, as well as for the ways they underscore the revolutionary, or shall we say subversive implications of the book.

As for what they actually say: Chapter 14 sounds, to me, a whole lot like the “empty space” that comprises the vast majority of every atom in our world—the way everything solid is really made of nothing at all. To paraphrase another verse of the Tao, it’s the empty space of the cup that makes it useful. Which reminds me of George Orr, the protagonist of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN: he doesn’t want anything, and that’s why he can create anything. He’s sort of the empty space into which the pure creative potential of the universe can manifest, via his dreams.

And of course all that business of circling back, of returning, can’t help but echo Ged’s journey to seek the shadow in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, and his return to home and self. I think it also echoes the poetry of the Kesh people, from ALWAYS COMING HOME, who advise us to seek adventure, to walk in new lands and discover new things, but to be “always coming home.”

And #75 offers us a pretty straightforward reminder that a brutal sort of top-down economy destroys itself in time: those at the top forget that their own fortunes rest precariously on those of  the people below. Which reminds me of THE DISPOSSESSED—the story of a world where people rebelled against that sort of top-down extractive economy, and instead built their society (messily, at times) from the ground up.

Author Biographies

William Alexander is a National Book Award-winning author of unrealisms for young readers. His novels include Goblin Secrets, Ambassador, and A Properly Unhaunted Place. Additional honors include the Eleanor Cameron Award, the Earphones Award, two Junior Library Guild Selections, and two CBC Best Children’s Book of the Year Awards. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at Clarion. He teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

An American of Guyanese descent, Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. Her work has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, LitHub, Story, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, Oregon Humanities, and elsewhere. An independent editor and book coach, she divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon.

Kylie Mirmohamadi is an author and academic from Melbourne, Australia.

Julie Phillips is the author of The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, a meditation on maternal identity and creative genius in the lives of several artists and writers who were also mothers. Her previous book was James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She lives in Amsterdam and is currently working on the biography of Ursula K. Le Guin. (Julie’s photo by Chris van Houts.

Kyle Winkler’s books include the cosmic horror novella, The Nothing That Is, a story collection, OH PAIN, and a speculative novel, Boris Says the Words. He is the host of the podcast The Left Hand of Le Guin and writes the “Swamp Talk” column for Hipsters of the Coast. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Kent State University and fiction in the MFA program at Ashland University. A new novel, Grasshands, is forthcoming in 2023. 

Isaac Yuen is the co-author of the essay collection, The Sound Atlas: A Guide to Strange Sounds across Landscapes and Imagination, along with nature writer Michaela Vieser, forthcoming in German with Knesebeck Verlag in 2023. His debut solo nature essay collection, Utter, Earth, is also forthcoming in 2023 with West Virginia University Press. The title piece with the same name, published in AGNI, was awarded a Pushcart Prize.

Isaac’s other creative works have been published at Gulf Coast, Orion, Pleiades, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere. He was a 2019 Jan Michalski Foundation writer-in-residence in Switzerland and is currently a Fiction Meets Science writing fellow at the HWK Institute of Advanced Studies in Delmenhorst, Germany.

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