When Ursula K. Le Guin died four years ago, she was mourned by fans in the literary world and a global body of readers. Now a new anthology of short stories by local authors inspired by her work has come out. It’s called “Dispatches from Anarres.” We talk to the editor of the anthology, Susan DeFreitas, and two authors Rachael K. Jones and Curtis Chen.
There will be an event for the book on Thursday, March 10, 6 p.m., hosted by Bishop & Wilde, a new Portland bookstore, featuring Jonah Barrett, Michelle Ruiz Keil, and Jason LaPier.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Allison Frost: When the world lost legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin four years ago, she left behind more than 50 published works, novels and short stories, children’s books, poetry, essays and more. She was best known for her science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Lathe of Heaven, to name a few. She made her home in Portland and treasured Oregon Steens Mountain, perhaps more than any other landscape. Her death left a hole in both the literary world and a global body of readers. Now, a new anthology of short stories inspired by her work has come out. It’s called Dispatches from Anarres. I’m so pleased to welcome the editor of the collection, Susan DeFreitas, along with two other writers who wrote stories for the book, Rachael K. Jones and Curtis C. Chen. Welcome all three of you to Think Out Loud.
Susan DeFreitas: Thank you.
Curtis C. Chen: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Rachael K. Jones: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Frost: Yeah, great to have you. So Susan DeFreitas, let’s start with you. When and why did you decide that you just had to do this?
DeFreitas: When I moved to Portland in 2009, I soon found that Portland was home to many famous literary names, which was thrilling for me as an aspiring author, but no name loomed larger than that of Ursula K. Le Guin in her environmentalism and her feminism in her pacifism and in her pioneering of what we might now speak of as maybe queer identities or gender fluidity in her writing. No one seemed to more exemplify the spirit of the city. I had loved Le Guin’s Earthsea novels when I was a tween. My mother actually read those novels when she was pregnant with me. So they’re dear to me and to my mother as well. But it wasn’t until I moved to Portland that I really started to read Le Guin’s works in earnest. And this was when I was moving to Portland to attend grad school. And I found I was reading many magnificent works of fiction doing my M.F.A., and writing, but I loved Le Guin’s novels, I loved her writing more than that of anyone else. So when my favorite author passed, I knew I had to do something in tribute to her work.
Frost: Well, how did you organize the collection, because it’s anything but random?
DeFreitas: At first, I read all of her work and all of her published fiction in an effort to really have a sense for what her major themes were. So, when I got the contributions that came in, I thought, okay, here is the story of the sea voyage, here’s a story where there’s magic in names, here’s a story where there’s time travel, speaking to these different themes. And then for themes that were important in her work that I had not gotten contributors, I had not gotten short stories that touched upon it, I actually personally reached out to folks who I thought their work might touch upon. I asked them if they would be willing to write something or contribute. So that’s how I got a wonderful piece from Rene Denfeld in conversation, talking back to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” like a famous short story. But when I actually brought everything together, I thought, okay, there are some distinct genre things going on here. So, the first section of the book is all fantasy. The middle section is all stories set in our world with a speculative element. And then the final section is all straight ahead science fiction.
Frost: Well, I have more questions for you, but I want to bring in Curtis Chen now. Curtis, so you are going way back, perhaps not to the womb, but you write that your first experience in a writing circle was taught by Pat Murphy and Ursula K. Le Guin herself. So what was she like? And how do you think she shaped your formative writing?
Chen: Yeah, that was quite a number of years ago. And it was an amazing experience overall. I probably can’t articulate all the ways that that particular workshop has shaped my writing and continues to shape it because it was multiple weeks, several months, like three months maybe if I recall correctly. It was both of them at every session plus all of the students who were writing pieces for everyone to critique. So it wasn’t just a matter of them telling us stories about their experiences writing or publishing but also looking at what we were doing and starting a conversation with us like this is kind of what I see in the story. I think it’s doing this with these themes and maybe consider doing more of this or less of that. And it was a really, really great experience and I kind of look back on it now because at the time I maybe didn’t realize how much of an education I was getting and I’m sure there were nuances that I wasn’t picking up because I was so new to fiction writing still at that point.
Frost: What’s the first book of hers that you remember reading?
DeFreitas: The very first one that I remember picking up, I think it was in high school, was the Left Hand of Darkness and it was kind of a nice counterpoint to a lot of the science fiction I was reading that was mostly written by older white men from the fifties and sixties with a very particular point of view. And Le Guin was very emphatically interfiction, not that perspective. So, like Susan mentioned, a lot of the things that show up in her work, the gender fluidity in the Left Hand of Darkness and also the ways in which a pacifist society deals with violence in Word for World is Forest. Those really kind of popped for me. This was similar in terms of subject matter, but the way it was dealing with these characters and their lives was coming from a very, very different place.
Frost: And Rachael, what did you get from the Left Hand of Darkness? It’s arguably the most well known of her novels, but I know that you read that as well, what struck you?
Jones: I remember it absolutely blew my mind the first time I read it. I think that what struck me about that novel was just the fact that it deals with this interaction between people from off planet, like these others who are coming from the outside into this society, in which everything works completely different and that within the society people also sort of believe this is the way that things should be. And they have these very strong ideas of what should and shouldn’t be in terms of how gender should operate and how gender roles work and even the idea that you would change genders. I remember even that first line of like that the king was pregnant being something that took me to a different place I never knew I could go.
Jones: I remember it being very challenging because I read it at a time in my life when I was just starting to read more outside of some of the books that I grew up with in a very religious household. We didn’t really have a lot of books that were outside of our own beliefs growing up. So I remember Ursula’s books were really revolutionary for me in terms of understanding that people are shaped by your culture in the same way that you’re shaped by your interactions with outsiders. And I think that Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly beautiful example of that and one that I’ve just found so riveting.
Frost: Well, Curtis I’d like to get into the details of your story. It deals with technology and humans and not just technology but actual technology with a personality or artificial intelligence and yet it’s not like a robot which is often how we read and hear about our artificial intelligence.
I wonder if you would read a bit of your story where one of the characters, Febby, meets Lad and if you could just kind of set it up before you read.
Chen: The main thing to know is that Ladd is sort of the main character here who is narrating most of the story is an artificial intelligence but it is basically just a program running inside a pendant that is worn on a necklace. So it’s got no mobility of its own and very limited sensors. It’s meant to be worn as part of a bunch of different wearable devices which is where it was before the start of the story, but at the start of it it’s been separated from its owner and it’s not sure what’s going on. So that’s kind of a little bit of a mystery at the start and then we gradually build out the picture from there.
‘System rules kept demanding that LAD activate Mundine’s implanted rescue locator beacon - more commonly known as a kidnap-and-ransom or K&R stripe - but the LAD couldn’t control any devices while disconnected from the bodyNet. The fall-through rules recommended requesting user intervention from other nearby humans. After careful consideration, LAD decided to risk making contact.
Ladd waited until Febby was alone in her bathroom to speak to her.
‘Hello Febby,’ LAD said, ‘don’t be afraid.’
Sonar indicated that Febby was sitting on the toilet. LAD’s motion sensors measured her neck muscles moving, likely turning her head to look around. `Who’s talking?’ she asked quietly, ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m hanging around your neck,’ LAD said, ‘Look down, I’ll flash a light three times each in red, green and blue.’
LAD gave her 1000 milliseconds to move her eyes then activated the pendant’s status lights. The three-way OLEDs burned a lot of power, but LAD believed this was an emergency.
‘A talking necklace?’ Febby said, ‘Cool!
‘Listen, Febby,’ LAD said, ‘I need your help.’
Frost: That’s such a conversation with two different – you would think – people and it seems like that whole idea of personhood is woven through. How far does a name in itself go to conferring that personhood?
Chen: Yeah, well names are … I mean, they can be used in different ways, especially in fiction. And Ursula herself did a lot of interesting things with the names that she gave to different places and different people and different things within various cultures. In this case it’s a little more mundane in that it’s sort of a nickname that someone would give to someone that they consider a friend. But the key there is that who do you consider a friend and who do you treat as a person even though they are different from you physically and maybe even in the way that they think about and interact with the world.
Frost: Well, I have more questions for you Curtis, but I want to bring you in now, Rachael, and talk about your story. The title of your story, “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles” instantly confused me and intrigued me. And it’s explained so early on that I wonder if you could read just the first two paragraphs at the beginning of the story?
Jones: ‘In the desert, all the footprints lead into Oasis, and none lead out again. They come for water, and once they find it, no one returns to the endless sand. The city is a prison with bars of thirst and heat. Outside the gates, the reptiles roam: asps and cobras, great lazing skinks, tortoises who lie down to doze in the heat. Where they go as they pad and swish and claw their way through the sand, no one knows, save the women who look over the walls and feel the deep itching pressure in their bones, the weight of skin in need of sloughing.’
Frost: That’s a concept of sloughing off your body. How do you marry that to a woman now?
Jones: The the nature of being a woman is definitely one of being made to feel as uncomfortable in your body as possible at all times starting with just women’s fashion, to the ways that we have very limited societal expectations as to how we’re supposed to fit into society and what we’re supposed to be good at, not good at. And being a woman is very, very, very loaded in our culture. It’s interesting to me that there are people who do fit that mold and they’re that really comfortable and yet I know that for myself and for just so many people that I know that there’s just a lot of discomfort and trying to squish yourself into this mold that doesn’t really fit most people.
Frost: There are also so many contrasts that really reflect and support this idea, but yet they are their own contrasts, like just the desert and the Oasis, the name of the city. Usually it’s the desert that represents deprivation and an oasis is salvation, but it’s not so in your story.
Jones: Yes, and I thought it was really fun in this story to explore the idea that sometimes what’s comforting and safe can be itself a prison. So these are people in a society who are kept from looking for anything new because they perceive the desert as too dangerous to go out into. And so you go to this place where they offer water and comfort and there seems to be a civilization, but once you get inside you find that there’s not really any way out because you don’t have the means or the right kind of body to go out and survive into a world that’s just different from the one that you’re in and so you’re stuck in this place regardless of whether or not you fit in. The story … it’s a very, very conservative, difficult society to fit into. And yet people perceive the desert as more dangerous for some reason, even though it is ultimately the only way to escape, that is to take that risk and become the kind of person or the kind of body that can go out and try something different.
Frost: How do you think this story resonates with Le Guin’s work in general?
Chen: What I love about Le Guin’s work, especially, is the way that she talked about cultures that are really different from ours. She was just this quintessential anthropologist in how she looked at societies and how, in any given society, you’ve got the ideal and your values and the things that formed the core of what your family should look like and what your ambition should be. And that, generally speaking, these things are picked because they’re functional to your society for some reason. Another thing I love about her works is that she resists the temptation to make it very, very black and white. I think in the hands of any lesser author, probably all of us except for Le Guin, is that we kind of tend to be a little more reductive in our science fiction and how we maybe even project our own idea of good versus bad onto these societies. And she was always thinking about how you’ve got the way that society should be, you’ve got people who live within a society themselves who don’t fit that mold, and then you’ve got the way the outsiders perceive that society. And in these interactions between all these groups in the ways that they perceive and judge each other and how ultimately there really isn’t any clear right or wrong in the sense; there’s just sort of like what’s working for you and what’s not working for you. I think that I have never read another author who shows the level of compassion for everyone involved in those conversations through all these cultures that she creates. The whole reason that we don’t have easy answers even within our own societies is because there isn’t really one thing that works for everyone. Her work explores that in ways that are just mind blowing and expansive and I think really healing in some ways when you’re a person who doesn’t who hasn’t down you’re fit to just understand that there really isn’t a perfect world or a perfect society where all these problems will go away, there’s always going to be a little bit of tension between what your culture needs from you and what you need for your culture.
Frost: Curtis, I want to ask you the same question. How do you see “Laddie Come Home” resonating with Le Guin’s work?
Chen: A lot of the best science fiction for me is dealing with expanding the circle of what it means to be a person, whether that means a robot or an alien or just a human who is a little bit different because they have been born differently or if they have acquired some strange ability or they’ve modified their body with technology in some way. And again, like Rachael was saying how there’s a society that treats those people differently because you can in some ways become an outsider even though you were born into the same society.
Frost: Well, Susan DeFreitas, back to you and all three of you can weigh in, but so what is the value of science fiction in this moment in time?
DeFreitas: I think we live in a time of unprecedented challenge to our ability to adapt as human beings. The existential threat of climate change arises from our cultural mores. It arises from what we have decided is important and what is not. So as a book coach, I always say every major problem we have in our culture is because of some kind of bad story we have come to believe. I really, truly believe that. So I think storytellers have a great deal of power in the face of that. Those stories have the power to open the heart, reroute synapses, interrogate, expose and ultimately replace the bad stories that got us here. And nobody did that, to my mind quite so well, as Le Guin. She spoke in her viral National Book Awards speech about how we are in a time when we need the realists of a larger reality, writers who can imagine ourselves beyond the box of of our upbringing, of our society, of our culture, of what we have been taught is possible and what is not to meet this moment in human evolution to meet the challenge posed by climate change in particular. So, in the face of that, I think science fiction and fantasy as well, speculative fiction period is the most flexible tool for training our imaginations in bigger ways to imagine ourselves beyond the culture that we find ourselves in.
Frost: Rachael and Curtis, anything to add to that?
Jones: I have been thinking about this question a lot myself for just so many reasons. And I keep going back to this concept that is found in several of Ursula’s works. She invented this idea of the answerable and the answerable was this piece of technology that would allow instantaneous communication between planets without there being a lag. And I found myself thinking recently that the answer was such a great metaphor for what science fiction can and should do, and even what Ursula’s work did. It has this ability to connect and bridge and jump over barriers much like what Susan was saying. And ultimately, it’s funny to say that by bearing these conversations and metaphors, it allows for more clear communication, but I think that’s what it does because, ultimately, stories get past our defenses and access our curiosity instead of our fear. And I think that’s only when you’re in that space that you’re able to change your mind and hear out new ideas without being afraid of change.
Chen: Not to be a big downer, but one thing that sometimes frustrates me about the discourse that I see around science fiction specifically is trying to measure it by how well certain works have predicted the future. Because we’re in the 21st century now and a lot of works written in previous times were about, oh, what’s life gonna be like in 2020, or whatever. Of course it’s very rarely anything resembling what actually happens because no one can really predict the future. So I don’t think that’s a useful way to think of science fiction or speculative fiction overall. And people often talk about it in terms of, oh, this doesn’t seem plausible, or this technology doesn’t seem realistic, or Elvis can’t be Black, or whatever. I just wish more people would be open to looking at these different kinds of possibilities, because like Susan was saying, and Rachel as well, that’s kind of how our imagination is how we imagine a way out of whatever mess we’re in currently. However, you want to frame that.
Frost: Thank you all so much for those last answers and for this discussion. Thanks so much, Curtis, Rachael and Susan.
DeFreitas & Jones: Thank you.
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