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The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

By Julie Phillips
The New Yorker
October 17th, 2016

The literary mainstream once relegated her work to the margins. Then she transformed the mainstream.

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt “eaten up” with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these “hairy gunslinging fake cowboys” from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic.

The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin’s places. She often goes there in the summer with her husband, Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, to a ranch on the stony ridge of Steens Mountain, overlooking the refuge. She has led writing workshops at the Malheur Field Station, a group of weather-beaten buildings used mainly by biologists and birders, and published a book of poems and sketches of the area, with photographs by Roger Dorband, called “Out Here.” She likes the awareness the desert gives her of distance, emptiness, and geological time. In a poem, “A Meditation in the Desert,” she imagines a stone being “full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have.”

She has roots in eastern Oregon that go back to the early days of white settlement. Not long ago, she told me excitedly that she’d rediscovered records in the attic of her grandmother’s childhood: “My great-grandfather, with my grandmother age eleven, moved from California to Oregon in 1873. . . . They drove three hundred and fifty head of cattle up through Nevada and built a stone house on the back side of Steens Mountain. I don’t think he made a claim; there was nowhere to make it. He was one of the very first ranchers in what is still very desolate country.” The family stayed there for five years before they moved on, in search of new grass or less isolation—her grandmother didn’t say. The story gives hints of what Le Guin already knew: that the empty spaces of America have a past, and that loneliness and loss are mixed up with the glory.

The history of America is one of conflicting fantasies: clashes over what stories are told and who gets to tell them. If the Bundy brothers were in love with one side of the American dream—stories of wars fought and won, land taken and tamed—Le Guin has spent a career exploring another, distinctly less triumphalist side. She sees herself as a Western writer, though her work has had a wide range of settings, from the Oregon coast to an anarchist utopia and a California that exists in the future but resembles the past. Keeping an ambivalent distance from the centers of literary power, she makes room in her work for other voices. She has always defended the fantastic, by which she means not formulaic fantasy or “McMagic” but the imagination as a subversive force. “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption,” she has written, “and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

When I met Le Guin at her house in Portland this summer, she was in a happier mood. Coming out onto the back porch, where I was sitting with Charles in the late-afternoon sun, to offer us a bourbon-and-ice, she was positively cheerful, her deeply lined, expressive face bright under a cap of short white hair, her low, warm woodwind voice rising into an easy laugh. The bourbon is part of the couple’s evening ritual: when they don’t have company, they have a drink before dinner and take turns reading to each other. On the hillside below us, two scrub jays traded remarks through the trees.

The cheerfulness was relative, she told me: it was partly because a conference call set for earlier that day, with the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and some film people who had a project to propose, had been postponed, leaving her with enough energy for a conversation. Her back is bent now with age—she’ll be eighty-seven this month—and she has to be careful with a resource she once had in abundance. “My stamina gives out so damn fast these days,” she said.

The house where Le Guin has lived for more than fifty years has, in certain respects, come to resemble its owner. Past the barriers at the entrance—Charles’s menacingly thorny roses, the lion’s-head knocker that guards the door—the dark-panelled Craftsman living room, with its Victorian feel, might stand for her books set in Europe, or for the great nineteenth-century novels she has always loved, with their warmth, humanity, and moral concern. The front hall is surveyed by a row of British Museum reproductions of the Lewis chessmen, souvenirs of the Le Guins’ two sabbatical years in London, when their three children were small. Some of her awards are in the attic, but she keeps several, notably her first Hugo, from 1970, discreetly displayed in the hall on the way to the kitchen. A place of honor at the right of the fireplace is given to a portrait of Virginia Woolf, a hand-colored print that is a treasured gift from a writer friend.

Later, I went with her into the kitchen, where it’s easy to end up in the Le Guin household. It’s a homey room with white appliances, cream cabinets, and no sign of steel or marble, as indifferent to fashion as its owners. Le Guin dresses well, but casually, favoring T-shirts, and wears little jewelry, though occasionally she puts on earrings fastened with clips or magnets. “You put the stone in front and a tiny magnet behind your earlobe,” she explains. “The trouble is that if you bend down near the stove, for instance, all of a sudden your earrings go wham!—and hit the stove. It’s kind of exciting.”

Europe ends and the West begins outside the windows, on the back porch, with its view stretching over the Willamette River, past the city, to three volcanoes of the Cascade Range: the white peak of Mt. Adams, distant Mt. Rainier, and the sullen ash heap of Mt. St. Helens. The span of it evokes the feeling of distance and isolation that runs through her work, and the awareness, more often found in science than in fiction, that what we can comprehend is a small part of everything there is to know. Imaginative literature, she has written, asks us “to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.”

Michael Chabon, a friend and admirer, sees her as “untiringly opening her work up to a perspective, to a nature that feels somehow beyond human, and yet fully human and recognizable. She gives us a view from the other side.”

To talk to Le Guin is to encounter alternatives. At her house, the writer is present, but so is Le Guin the mother of three, the faculty wife: the woman writing fantasy in tandem with her daily life. I asked her recently about a particularly violent story that she wrote in her early thirties, in two days, while organizing a fifth-birthday party for her elder daughter. “It’s funny how you can live on several planes, isn’t it?” she said. She resists attempts to separate her more mainstream work from her science fiction. She is a genre author who is also a literary author, not one or the other but indivisibly both.

Le Guin can be polemical, prone to what one close friend calls “tirades” on questions she feels strongly about. I once watched her participate in a panel discussion on gender and literature at WisCon, an annual gathering of feminist science-fiction writers, readers, and academics in Madison, Wisconsin. Scowling like a snapping turtle, she sat waiting for illogical remarks, which she then gently but firmly tore to bits. Yet a conversation with Le Guin is often full of comic asides, laughter, and—a particularly Le Guin trait—good-natured snorts. Humor seems to be her way of taking the edge off the polemic, as well as an introvert’s channel of communication.

Behind even the lightest remarks, one is aware of a keen intelligence and a lifetime of thought, held back for the purposes of casual conversation.

She has never felt at home temperamentally with establishments of any kind. But now she finds the establishment wanting to hear what she has to say. Her criticism of the economics of publishing—objections to Amazon, a fight with Google over its digitization of copyrighted books—is widely reported in the news. Earlier this year, a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary about Le Guin, by the filmmaker Arwen Curry, raised more than two hundred thousand dollars, nearly three times the requested amount. In 2000, the Library of Congress declared her a “living legend,” a designation that has made its way into many introductions to her readings. Last month, her “Orsinian Tales” and the novel “Malafrena” appeared as a volume in the Library of America. (She and Philip Roth are the only living novelists included in the series.) “I am getting really sick of being referred to as ‘the legendary,’ ” she protests, laughing. “I’m right here. I have gravity. A body and all that.”

In the late nineteen-thirties, in a tall house in Berkeley, California, a girl climbs out the attic window onto the roof in search of solitude. If she scrambles far enough up the redwood shingles, she can reach her own Mt. Olympus, the roof’s peak. From here, she can gaze out over the rough blue of the bay to the city of San Francisco, row upon row of white houses climbing the hills above the water. The city is strange to her—she rarely ventures so far from home—but the view is hers, and splendid. Beyond it she knows there are islands with a magical name: the Farallons. She imagines them as “the loneliest place, the farthest west you could go.”

Meanwhile, inside the house, the girl’s father is at work, thinking about myths, magic, songs, cultural patterns—the proper territory of a professor of anthropology. From him she will take a model for creative work in the midst of a rich family life, as well as the belief that the real room of one’s own is in the writer’s mind. Years later, she tells a friend that if she ended up writing about wizards “perhaps it’s because I grew up with one.”

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, in 1929, into a family busy with the reading, recording, telling, and inventing of stories. She grew up listening to her aunt Betsy’s memories of a pioneer childhood and to California Indian legends retold by her father. One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.

Ursula absorbed these stories, together with the books she read: children’s classics, Norse myths, Irish folktales, the Iliad. In her father’s library, she discovered Romantic poetry and Eastern philosophy, especially the Tao Te Ching. She and her brother Karl supplemented these with science-fiction magazines. With Karl, the closest to her in age of her three brothers, she played King Arthur’s knights, in armor made of cardboard boxes. The two also made up tales of political intrigue and exploration set in a stuffed-toy world called the Animal Kingdom. This storytelling later gave her a feeling of kinship with the Brontës, whose Gondal and Angria, she says, were “the ‘genius version’ of what Karl and I did.”

Her father was Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the past century. A New Yorker from a prosperous German immigrant family, he went west in 1900, when he was twenty-four, and did field work among the Indians of Northern California.

Throughout his career, he learned about cultures that were rapidly being transformed or destroyed from men and women who were among the last survivors of their people. At a time when the dominant story of America was one of European conquest, Ursula was aware, through her father and his Indian friends who came to the house, that there were other stories to tell and other judgments that might be made.

“With the money we’ll save by shutting down quality control, we can issue some truly spectacular apologies.”

Ursula’s mother was Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, born in Denver in 1897 and raised in the mining town of Telluride. A friend of Le Guin’s recalls seeing her, at the house in Berkeley, “coming down the long staircase, a majestic-looking woman with a long gown and a great big Indian silver and turquoise necklace. She was very stately.” Theodora took to writing in her late fifties, and produced “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a nonfiction account of the last survivor of the Yahi people. Le Guin loved her mother and admired her psychological gifts. But she says that their relationship also contained “something darker and stranger” that she has never quite understood. “We were very lucky, because we never had to act that out. But if I see daughters and mothers act it out toward each other it doesn’t shock me or surprise me. It’s there.”

The Kroeber household was full of voices as well as stories. Alfred liked to pose philosophical questions or puzzles over the dinner table and ask his four children about anything that interested them. The kids were encouraged to take an active part in the conversation, but, as the little sister, Ursula rarely got a word in: “There were too many people, and I was outshouted by everybody else.” Learning how to be heard taught her persistence and gave her a tendency to appear fiercer than she is. “People think I mean everything I say and am full of conviction, often, when I’m actually just floating balloons and ready for a discussion or argument or further pursuit of the subject. It’s my fault—I speak so passionately. Probably because, as the youngest and shrillest child of an extraordinarily articulate and passionate family, I could only be heard by charging over the top, shouting, ‘Marchons, marchons! Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!’ every time I entertained a passing opinion.”

Le Guin’s work combines a Berkeleyite’s love of alternative thought with a strong scientific bent that she sees as an inheritance from her father. In her fiction, she has tried to balance the analytical and the intuitive. “Both directions strike me as becoming more and more sterile the farther you follow them,” she says. “It’s when they can combine that you get something fertile and living and leading forward. Mysticism—which is a word my father held in contempt, basically—and scientific factualism, need for evidence, and so on . . . I do try to juggle them, quite consciously.”

If it was difficult to be the youngest and most precocious of the Kroeber children, leaving the house to enter the world made Ursula feel like “an exile in a Siberia of adolescent social mores.” In the fall of 1944, at fourteen, small for her age, disguised in the sweater, skirt, and loafers of a “bobby-soxer” (a term that still makes her shudder), she began her first year at Berkeley High School, a huge, impersonal institution where popularity mattered more than learning, and fitting in was the ideal. When Le Guin speaks of her teen-age years, she speaks of loneliness, confusion, and the pain of being among people who have no use for one’s gifts. “You’re just dropped into this dreadful place, and there are no explanations why and no directions what to do.”

She found a refuge in the public library, reading Austen and the Brontës, Turgenev and Shelley. In fiction, she could satisfy her deep romantic streak: she fell in love with Prince Andrei in “War and Peace” and once, at thirteen, defaced a library book by cutting out a still of Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy and taking it home to look at in private, guilty rapture. From Thomas Hardy she learned to handle strong feelings in fiction by pouring them into landscapes, letting the settings carry part of the emotional charge. “There’s a patronizing word for that: the ‘pathetic fallacy,’ ” she says. “It’s not a fallacy; it’s art.”

As a child, she was painfully shy, and she still alludes to anxieties that she keeps hidden from the world. I caught a glimpse of that when she asked me, cautiously, “Wouldn’t you say that anybody who thought as much about balance as I do in my work probably felt some threat to their balance?” After a long pause, she added, “Of course all adolescents are out of balance, and very aware of it. To become adult can certainly feel like walking a high wire, can’t it? If my foot slips, I’m gone. I’m dead.”

Equilibrium is a central metaphor in Le Guin’s great works about adolescence, the six-volume Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with “A Wizard of Earthsea.” That book follows Ged, a lonely teen-ager with a gift for magic, who at wizards’ school learns a painful lesson in achieving balance rather than forcing change. There’s little resemblance between the school on Roke Island, with its Taoist magic (a mage is taught to “do by not doing”), and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There is some resemblance between Ged, the provincial boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Ursula Kroeber, the Californian in jeans arriving at Radcliffe College in 1947, all books and opinions, never before out of her home state, eager to prove herself as a poet. Her Radcliffe friend Jean Taylor Kroeber, who became her sister-in-law, recalls that, before she and Ursula bonded over Russian literature, jokes, and music, she found her “a little frightening. It’s not that she meant to be, but that’s the way it came across . . . that there was a good chance that she was ahead of you, in wherever the conversation was going. And one rather brief acute remark could set you back on your heels.”

Ursula had her first clash with the literary establishment when she and a friend signed up to read submissions for a new Radcliffe literary magazine, Signature. Rona Jaffe worked on the magazine, and its undergraduate contributors included Edward Gorey, Harold Brodkey, and Adrienne Rich, whose poem “Storm Warnings” was published there. The magazine accepted nothing of Ursula’s, and she found those fellow-students “cliquish and unfriendly”: “Their comments on what we submitted ourselves, even the comments on our comments, were often remarkably savage and dismissive. We got out again and gratefully went back to our invisibility.” When Rich won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in her senior year, Le Guin, still unpublished, felt pangs of envy.

On top of that, Radcliffe women were given a double message, receiving an excellent education while knowing, in Rich’s words, that “the real power (and money) were invested in Harvard’s institutions, from which we were excluded.” Though Radcliffe has long since become part of Harvard, Cambridge remains a place of mixed emotions for Le Guin. She has told me both that her college years were wonderful and that she has come to dislike the institution; the two emotions shadow each other. Her senior year was marred by a handsome and arrogant Harvard student, an accidental pregnancy, a broken heart, and an illegal abortion. “I’m often startled at the depth of my anger at Harvard,” she told me. “I know some of the reasons for it, but it wouldn’t be so immediate and uncontrollable if it were accessible to reason. I did get a splendid education there—there was wonderful Widener, the Fogg, the elmy campus, which I remember fondly. But the anger’s there like a mine, ready to go off at a quiver of the ground.”

Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe with a degree in French, in 1951. Over the decade that followed, she wrote poems, short stories, and at least four novels. She submitted them to publishers; they came back with encouraging rejections. She felt her way tentatively forward, unsure of her direction, lacking models. American literature was still under the spell of Hemingway, Faulkner, Richard Wright; realism held sway, and there was little interest in play or fantasy. “I was going in another direction than the critically approved culture was,” Le Guin has said. “I was never going to be Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I didn’t know who my fellow-writers were. There didn’t seem to be anybody doing what I wanted to do.” She was alarmed by the literary rivalries of the period; she remembers thinking, “I’m not competing with all these guys and their empires and territories. I just want to write my stories and dig my own garden.”

Instead, she found “allies in foreigners I never met,” reading Woolf’s “Orlando,” Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales,” and the short stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, with their playful and revelatory shifts of perspective. She also became fascinated by the premature, failed revolutions of 1830 and the passionate political documents of the Romantic period, such as “My Prisons,” by the Italian poet and patriot Silvio Pellico. “Books like that were very exciting to me because I could handle them better than I could the contemporary works,” she says. They opened up “the distance that I needed, and probably have always needed, between me and the raw, implacable fact that’s going on right now. I’ve never really been able to handle that. If it’s right in my face, I can’t see it.”

Some writers of her generation embraced confessional literature and, later, memoir. Le Guin has always preferred self-concealment to self-exposure. In the introduction to the Library of America volume, she writes, “I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.” In college, she began setting her fiction in an imaginary Eastern European country called Orsinia and found that it freed her up as a writer. Away from the “small and stony” ground of realism, her imagination began to flourish. Orsinia also gave her the distance to comment, indirectly, on Communist repression, the persecutions of the McCarthy era, the unfreedom of the age, and her decision to follow her own path.

During the fifties, she worked on “Malafrena,” a novel about a young nobleman who obeys his moral compass by fighting for freedom of speech and thought. Freedom is “a human need, like bread, like water,” he insists. Pressed to define it, he replies, “Freedom consists in doing what you can do best, your work, what you have to do.” For Le Guin freedom is a complex ideal and a word “too big and too old” to be devalued as a platitude or appropriated by hypocrites. “Of course it gets misused,” she says. “But I don’t think you can really damage the word freedom or liberty.”

Another of Le Guin’s places is Cannon Beach, a summer town on the Oregon coast where she and Charles have a small house on a street leading to the ocean. Although she claims to share her father’s “incapacity for reminiscence,” she and I went there to talk about her past. The prospect made her uncomfortable at first, and when we entered the shut-up house she threw nervous energy into cleaning, enlisting me to stand on a chair and brush cobwebs off the ceiling. At a little kitchen table, over tea served in the indestructible handmade earthenware mugs of the seventies, she commented, somewhat defiantly, that she had always taken pleasure in cooking and keeping house. It sounded like criticism of the heroic writer, alone in his garret, but there’s more to it than that. She feels that marriage and family have given her a stability that supported her writing—the freedom of solitude within the solidity of household life. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she told me. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”

When Ursula graduated from Radcliffe, her plan was to get her doctorate and become an academic, like her three older brothers. She got her master’s in Romance languages at Columbia University, then received a Fulbright fellowship to do research in France for her dissertation. On the boat going over, she met Charles LeGuin, a historian with an attractive Georgia accent who was writing his thesis on the French Revolution. They shared a sense of humor; they liked the same books; in Paris, they went together to the opera and the Louvre. Within two weeks they were engaged. When they applied for a marriage license, a “triumphant bureaucrat” told Charles his Breton name was “spelled wrong” without a space, so when they married they both took the name Le Guin.

Ursula abandoned her Ph.D. thesis on medieval French poetry, and while Charles finished researching his own thesis she read, wrote, and talked with him about Europe and revolution. Charles became the first reader for all her work, made sure she got time to write, and when they had children shared in their care. They spent the next few years in Georgia and Idaho, until, in 1959, Charles got the job at Portland State. Ursula recalls flying up from Berkeley with a child on her lap and pregnant with her second. “The plane came in low up the Willamette Valley and circled the city, and I was in tears, it was so beautiful. I thought, My God, I’m going to live there.”

Stubbornness and a self-confessed arrogance about her work helped Le Guin through her unpublished years. Then and now, she feels that she is the best judge of her writing; she is unmoved by literary trends, and not easily swayed by editorial suggestion. “Writing was always my inmost way of being in the world,” she says, but that made rejections increasingly painful:

“I suffered a good deal from the contradiction between knowing writing was the job I was born for and finding nowhere to have that knowledge confirmed.” Then, in 1961 and 1962, two of Le Guin’s stories were published. One, set in Orsinia, a meditation on the consolations of art, went to a small literary journal. The second, about a junior professor liberated from academia by an act of magic, was bought by the science-fiction magazine Fantastic.

“I just didn’t know what to do with my stuff until I stumbled into science fiction and fantasy,” Le Guin says. “And then, of course, they knew what to do with it.” “They” were the editors, fans, and fellow-authors who gave her an audience for her work. If science fiction was down-market, it was at least a market. More than that, genre supplied a ready-made set of tools, including spaceships, planets, and aliens, plus a realm—the future—that set no limits on the imagination. She found that science fiction suited what she called, in a letter to her mother, her “peculiar” talent, and she felt a lightheartedness in her writing that had to do with letting go of ambitions and constraints. In the fall of 1966, when she was thirty-seven, Le Guin began “A Wizard of Earthsea.” In the next few years—which also saw her march against the Vietnam War and dance in a conga line with Allen Ginsberg, when he came to Portland to read Vedas for peace—she produced her great early work, including, in quick succession, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “The Lathe of Heaven,” “The Farthest Shore,” and “The Dispossessed,” her ambitious novel of anarchist utopia.

Science fiction opened her up further to writing from alien points of view—composing the political manifesto of an ant, wondering what it would be like if humans had the seasonal sexuality of birds, imagining love in a society in which a marriage involves four people. Le Guin says her ambition has always been “not just trying to get into other minds but other beings.”

She adds, “Somewhere in the nineteenth century a line got drawn: you can’t do this for grownups. But fantasy and science fiction just kind of walked around the line.” Another use of the fantastic for Le Guin was to bring her ethical concerns into her fiction without becoming didactic. Take a metaphor far enough and it becomes a parable, as with her widely anthologized story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin’s story begins with an ethical question posed by William James: If all could be made blissfully happy by the fact that one person was being kept in torment, would we accept that condition? She gives the problem just enough reality for the reader to picture the single abused child and feel the consequences of the bargain.

Her influential thought experiment “The Left Hand of Darkness” uses this strategy to explore gender and alterity. Genly Ai, a man from a future Earth, arrives on the planet Gethen, which is inhabited by human beings who are neither male nor female but, for a few days a month, in a sexual phase, can become either. Ai, as a permanent male, is to them a “pervert.” His isolation and wariness are mirrored in the landscape of Gethen, a place of perpetual winter.

No one trusts Ai but Estraven, a Gethenian who is in exile; these two characters take turns narrating the book, so that we see how strange they appear to each other, and how they struggle to connect. Among the book’s central themes are balance—light is the left hand of darkness, the Gethenian saying goes—and trust. These are set against anxieties about otherness, about control and the loss of it. Estraven hopes that Ai can prevent impending war between two rival states, and asks him:

“Do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear.”

To fulfill this mission, Ai must see beyond his own narrow perspective and learn to trust, even love, this person whose nature calls his own into question.

The novel earned Le Guin her first Hugo and Nebula awards, the top honors in science fiction; her migration from the margins was well under way. Despite her growing success, she suffered periods of depression in the nineteen-sixties—“dark passages that I had to work through” is how she described them to me, as if they were vexed sequences in a novel. She wrote them into her fiction, she added, in the Earthsea novel “The Farthest Shore,” exploring a metaphor she borrowed from Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”: depression as a journey through the silent land of the dead.

Another difficult time for her came in the long period that began after “The Dispossessed” was published, in 1974, when she was rethinking the subjects of her work. She had been writing about imaginary revolutions, but by then an actual liberation movement, feminism, was gaining traction. In the light of “the personal is political,” her “Left Hand of Darkness” seemed to some readers too oblique and metaphorical, her sense of play not illuminating but evasive. Up until then, almost all of Le Guin’s protagonists had been male, and she wasn’t sure how to write from a woman’s perspective, especially since she had long resisted writing directly from personal experience. As a wife and mother who had always had her husband’s support, she was wary of the angry anti-family rhetoric of some mid-nineteen-seventies feminists. She explained, “I had lost confidence in the kind of writing I had been doing because I was (mostly unconsciously) struggling to learn how to write as a woman, not as an ‘honorary man’ as before, and with a freedom that scared me.”

She went on working steadily, writing short stories, essays, poetry, and young-adult fiction. She revised and published some of her older work: “Orsinian Tales” (which was a finalist for a National Book Award) appeared in 1976; “Malafrena” in 1979. She did begin writing from female points of view. But her turn to “writing as a woman,” while it won her new readers, alienated part of her old audience. Some of her new work was criticized as unsubtle or moralistic. Her mother died in 1979, a painful loss. She came to think of this time as “the dark hard place.”

Le Guin emerged from this period by stepping over the boundaries that separated science fiction and literature. Starting in the nineteen-eighties, she published some of her most accomplished work—fiction that was realist, magic realist, postmodernist, and sui generis. She wrote the Borgesian feminist parable “She Unnames Them,” and in 1985 an experimental tour de force of a novel, “Always Coming Home.” She produced “Sur,” the epic tale of an all-female Antarctic exploring party that may be her greatest and funniest feminist statement. Her short stories began appearing in The New Yorker, where her editor, Charles McGrath, saw in her an ability to “transform genre fiction into something higher.”

In fact, it was the mainstream that ended up transformed. By breaking down the walls of genre, Le Guin handed new tools to twenty-first-century writers working in what Chabon calls the “borderlands,” the place where the fantastic enters literature. A group of writers as unlike as Chabon, Molly Gloss, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Victor LaValle, Zadie Smith, and David Mitchell began to explore what’s possible when they combine elements of realism and fantasy. The fantasy and science-fiction scholar Brian Attebery has noted that “every writer I know who talks about Ursula talks about a sense of having been invited or empowered to do something.” Given that many of Le Guin’s protagonists have dark skin, the science-fiction writer N. K. Jemisin speaks of the importance to her and others of encountering in fantasy someone who looked like them. Karen Joy Fowler, a friend of Le Guin’s whose novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” questions the nature of the human-animal bond, says that Le Guin offered her alternatives to realism by bringing the fantastic out of its “underdog position.” For writers, she says, Le Guin “makes you think many things are possible that you maybe didn’t think were possible.”

Le Guin still has strong feelings about artistic liberty. In November, 2014, she travelled to New York with her son, Theo, to accept the Distinguished Contribution medal at the National Book Awards ceremony. In a new collection of nonfiction, “Words Are My Matter,” she writes that drafting her six-minute speech took her six months. “I rethought and replanned it, anxiously, over and over. Even on a poem, I’ve never worked so long and so obsessively, or with so little assurance that what I was saying was right, was what I ought to say.” But, having clashed with corporate publishing in the past, she felt an obligation to take the industry to task.

Standing at the lectern, she gave an uncharacteristically apologetic smile. Then she scowled at her audience of editors and publishers and unleashed a tirade. “I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. . . . And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this—letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish, and what to write.” Instead, she admonished them, “We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” At her conclusion, members of the audience hesitated, looked around, and then slowly rose to their feet for an ovation.

Starting in the nineteen-nineties, Le Guin returned in earnest to historical fiction, in “Lavinia,” and to science fiction and fantasy. Some of her best late work in this mode appears in “The Found and the Lost,” a new eight-hundred-plus-page compendium of her novellas. But a few years ago Le Guin stopped writing fiction, saying it took an energy she didn’t have—although she doesn’t rule out anything in the future. “Never” and “last,” she wrote in a recent blog post, “are closing words. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to open closed doors and windows, I have no intention of going around slamming them shut now.”

She still gives readings, which attract a notably youthful audience. And she writes nonfiction, including book reviews for the Guardian, in which she is glowing in her enthusiasms and fierce in her dislikes. (The enthusiasms include works by Saramago, Rushdie, and Atwood; the dislikes include present-tense narration, fiction about “dysfunctional American suburban families,” and mainstream writers who attempt science fiction without understanding its rules.) She is turning more now to poetry; her most recent collection, “Late in the Day,” was published last year. She told me she was writing some poems exploring extreme old age, playing with the metaphor of an explorer’s sea voyage to the West. “I think some testimony from the late eighties could be useful to people,” she said. Then she added, laughing, “Other people in their late eighties might want to read it. I don’t know about anybody in their late fifties: ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to go there.’ ”

At the house in Cannon Beach, she showed me the family’s photo albums. Over the years, Le Guin’s author photos show a steady progression from a wary young woman, ill at ease in front of the camera, to someone more at home in a public role. But I had asked about the private photos, and here was Ursula, age six or seven, with short black hair, bare-legged on dusty California ground, playing with a toy car and staring into the distance at something unseen.

“I like that one,” she told me. “I look feral. I guess I was rather feral.”

Then there was Ursula at the Arc de Triomphe, a gamine holding an armful of roses, and Charles, looking dashing in a new Parisian coat, climbing Mont Sainte-Victoire. Infants enter the pictures, then small children. In a photo of Ursula in her twenties, she glances up from a typewriter with a look I’d come to recognize: startled, her eyes unfocussed, her thoughts in a place the camera can’t follow.

The next morning, Le Guin stood in the front yard of her house at the edge of the world, feeding a family of crows. The sun was out, and a block away the surf beat gently on the broad beach, where the town meets the waters of the North Pacific. Here the land seemed undone by the unknown distances of the ocean, and Le Guin seemed to be standing where the forces met, gazing beyond her garden to some farther shore. ♦

Julie Phillips is working on a book on writing and mothering, and is researching a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.

This article appears in other versions of the October 17, 2016, issue, with the headline “Out of Bounds.”

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Damnificados in World Literature Today

DamnificadosBy Yang Jing
World Literature Today

It is said that historians provide accuracy while artists provide truth, which can be best illustrated by the novel Damnificados. According to author JJ Amaworo Wilson, the novel is based on the true story of the Tower of David in Caracas, Venezuela—an unfinished and empty building later taken over by a group of homeless families (the damnificados who give the book its title) and turned into a thriving community. Wilson takes this real-life story and molds it into a fantastic fable about the collision between the haves and the have-nots in a fictional South American city. The difference is this: the tower was depicted in the documentary TV series as a haven for criminals, but in the novel it becomes more of a sanctuary for the oppressed class, the damnificados who are the damaged and wounded victims of life’s effluvia—they are everywhere.

The book starts with Nacho leading his band of outsiders into the tower. Nacho is a teacher, steeped in the lore of ancient books like The Epic of Gilgamesh, who tells stories to understand the world. Despite his disabilities, his stories are stories of hope, inspiration, and rebuilding. He is Moses preparing his people for the trek in the wilderness. His brother Emil, the pragmatist, arrives at the tower in a boat, weathering a torrential rain that almost wipes out the damnificados.

When the evil Torres brothers who control the political, economic, and military power of the city decide to drive away the homeless from the tower, the Trash War breaks out. The damnificados use their combined strength and unorthodox faith to organize themselves and to outwit the powerful evil that threatens their survival.

The end of the novel is not a dispersal of victory for the damnificados but a diaspora of hope: “There’ll be other towns and other places to call home.” The epoch of the tower becomes history when it is swallowed by a sinkhole.

Damnificados is a great read. Two-headed beasts, biblical floods, dragonflies to the rescue, massacres involving multilingual ghosts, and a trash truck acting as a Trojan horse—magical realism threads through this very human struggle. Wilson introduces archetypes of hope and redemption that are also deeply familiar—true love, vision quests, the hero’s journey, even the possibility of a happy ending. In this sense, the novel can also be read as documentary literature, which illustrates and predicts that social justice will prevail in the end.

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By Logan Jaffe
New York Times

October 6th, 2016

The salt and pepper shakers that you see above sat in my grandmother’s kitchen for decades. For much of my life, I saw them as I’d see anything in her home: her wind chimes on the porch; her garden shoes by the door; and those colorful pepper shakers on the kitchen table.

I didn’t think even twice about holding them up to my cheeks in an impromptu selfie photo shoot with my sister over Thanksgiving in 2010.

Now I cringe at that memory. My sister and me, white women, 18 and 21 at the time, smiling, making funny faces and posing with objects that contained significance we did not understand.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see that those salt and pepper shakers were mammies, a racial caricature created to perpetuate the narrative of black women’s servitude to whites.

I didn’t see that in my hands, there was physical proof that, for much of this country’s history, many white people did not simply see black and brown people as inferior; the white world that I come from also created mechanisms and characters – from Jim Crow to Aunt Jemima – to maintain that narrative of inferiority.

When I recounted the experience to Dr. David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, he said many people have their own stories and experiences with racist objects.

More than you’d think.

CONTRIBUTE: If you own or have encountered a racist object, we want to hear from you. 

Which is why he considers his museum, which houses about 12,000 objects in a winding hallway of the basement of the Ferris State University library in Big Rapids, Michigan, as much a “storytelling facility” as it is a contextual, educational and painful anti-shrine to the pervasiveness of American racism by way of everyday physical objects.

“Everyone who walks in that door,” he told me when we met at the museum, “they’re not just coming to the objects. They’re bringing themselves and their racial luggage – and in some cases, baggage – to the objects.”

Dr. Pilgrim, who is multiracial but identifies as black, acknowledged that many people feel disgust, pain and outrage when they visit the museum or see these items. He said that’s understandable. Especially for African-Americans – especially now at a time of increased racial tension – the playful portrayals of racism and racist violence often conjure up horrific real-life experiences.

Still, Dr. Pilgrim said, the items have value because they force us to not only confront the ubiquity of racism – from government policy to kitchen tables – but also to talk about the many ways that’s experienced, or not experienced by some of us, often for many years or an entire lifetime.

Objects are also tangible representations of stories. They are one of the many ways that narratives about race and ethnicity are expressed, told and understood.

“These objects were made by everyday Americans making money,” Dr. Pilgrim said. And, he added, they had a purpose: “The millions and millions and millions of everyday objects that belittled African-Americans were made to support the racial hierarchy in the United States.”

Take, for example, the objects Pilgrim’s collected that depict black men as targets. They’re from decades-old carnival games as well as modern-day shooting ranges.

What do they communicate about black men?

“The implication is that they don’t experience pain in the same way,” Dr. Pilgrim said. “Then that justifies physical punishment against them.”

For decades now, at least since the Civil Rights era, there has been an effort by many black families and luminaries (Oprah Winfrey included) to collect these objects, too. But hardly for nostalgia’s sake.

As the late Civil Rights leader and activist Julian Bond wrote in a 1996 collector’s price guide of black memorabilia: “They speak of triumph and overcoming, and inform us that despite what others thought and believed, we were never what these figurines and objects suggest. We see them as sentinels guarding the past, doorkeepers who prevent our ever returning to it, harsh – if even sometimes beautiful – preservers of the history we have overthrown.”

Dr. Pilgrim also stresses that while these blatantly racist objects aren’t as common as they once were, the narratives they embodied still linger, alive.

“I think there’s a narrative that has always existed in this country, and that is the narrative that blacks and whites are just different,” Dr. Pilgrim said.  “And not only are they different, but different in ways that one is superior to the other. And that when they share the same space that conflict is inevitable. I think that narrative still exists in this culture. And I think it’s still reflected in our movies, in our books, and in our politics, certainly.”

WATCH: Dr. Pilgrim explains why he studies racist objects.  

Of course, many other groups – Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, poor whites, Jews, women and gay people, to name a few – have also been, and continue to be, targets of commodified hate.

But the number of objects that dehumanize African-Americans far outnumber those of any other group; Mammies, Piccaninnies, Sambos, Sapphires, Jezebels, Toms, Coons were an industry.

Today, I’m acknowledging my role in that industry. While I have not personally bought these objects or promoted their ideals, I have benefitted from the comfort of not seeing them at all – of not having to.

I’m bringing my experience with these objects out into the open, shame included, because Dr. Pilgrim has convinced me that they not only carry with them both pain and responsibility, but also that there’s value in talking about them – their origin stories, their significance, and how different people interpret their messages.

Plus, as a mediamaker embedded at the New York Times’ Race/Related in partnership with POV, I’m tasked with creating work that reflects how race is experienced today. And in my mind there’s no good way to do that alone.

So, we’re asking you, Race/Related readers, to help us shape an interactive project about offensive objects.


– Because the way race is experienced today can’t be tackled without a thorough and thoughtful examination of the way it’s been experienced in the past.

– Because I’m not convinced the work I create on my own for this subject will be better or more meaningful than the work we can create together.

So here’s the deal.

We’re asking for the stories of people who have encountered these items. If you’re someone who has experience with or a story to tell about these objects, and if you’re interested in using them to understand their origins and impact, then we want to hear from you.

Our goal is to come back to you with more information about these objects and we’ll also try to create some of the meaningful conversations that Dr. Pilgrim also aims to inspire.

SHARE: Have you seen a racist object? Tell us about your experience.

To be crystal clear, our intent is not to promote or champion these items. If you use these objects to promote hate and intolerance, this project is not for you.

Our aim is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to talk about personal stories and facilitate honest, constructive discussions.

For me, that process has already started. I’m still not sure what to do with my grandmother’s mammy salt and pepper shakers. But maybe as this project develops, there will be answers to that question, and many more. 


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Racist Objects: A Painful Past Still Present

By Logan Jaffe
New York Times
October 6th, 2016

What’s to be gained from confronting the uncomfortable?

The video above is full of blatantly racist images and objects – old children’s books that infantilize African-Americans, vintage kitchenware that perpetuates white supremacy, T-shirts and bumper stickers that promote hate and violence.

They are hard to look at. But we can’t ignore the horrors of our racist past, because they influence our present.

The objects in the video can all be found at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, where David Pilgrim, the museum's founder, uses them to help people contemplate the pervasiveness of racism. But there are many more out there, depicting African-Americans and other groups.

I shared my own experience with an object owned by my grandmother in this week’s Race/Related newsletter. Now we're asking you for your stories and experiences with racist objects.

Why? Because we aim to create a meaningful conversation about race and racism.

Why are you asking me to share my experiences involving racist stuff?

This is the first part of a larger interactive project with The New York Times and POV that aims to examine how narratives about race are expressed, communicated and manipulated. We’re asking for your participation to help us understand how common racist objects really are, who has them, why, and to explore what impact they have on individuals and on society.

What will you do with my submission?

We promise to read every submission. We’ll contact a selection of participants for follow-up interviews. We hope to help some of you uncover the back stories to your objects. We also hope to connect you with others who have varied experiences with these objects so we can explore their impact together, with moderated online chats and future installments of this project.

But aren’t you just stirring up more racism and hate?

We know this is a difficult and painful subject. If you use these objects to promote hate, this project is not for you. Our intention is not to promote or champion the existence of these objects. Our goal is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to facilitate honest, meaningful discussions about race and prejudice.

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Racist Memorabilia Teaches Awareness at Jim Crow Museum

Courtesy Dr. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pilgrim, who has collected racially-charged items most of his adult life.

by Konnie LeMay

Dr. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pilgrim, who has collected racially-charged items most of his adult life, believes cartoon and stereotypical  images of Aunt Jemima, Jim Crow, Chief Wahoo and the Redskins all rob the dignity and identity of the races portrayed.

Though Pilgrim uses the items as teaching tools, he admits his disgust for the objects and a relief in moving them to the museum in 2012. “I hated my collection most of my life. I hated having it in my home and I was glad to get it out of my home.”

However, he added, the desire to sweep away or ignore these images – past and present – leaves unhealed wounds.

The Jim Crow Museum has nearly 12,000 objects depicting racial imagery, with 5,000 pieces on display at any time.


On display on the museum is a Ku Klux Klan knife - with a Cherokee head logo.

On display on the museum is a Ku Klux Klan knife – with a Cherokee head logo.

Though the museum primarily emphasizes the stereotypes of African Americans, Pilgrim, along with the university’s gallery director, Carrie Weis, also created two traveling exhibits, including one titled “Them: Images of Separation” with 35 examples of stereotyping of African, Native, Jewish, Mexican and Asian Americans as well as the stereotype of  ‘Poor Whites.’

In developing the museum Pilgrim said, “the biggest roadblocks were Whites and African Americans, who just wanted these stories to be dead and forgotten, people who wanted to see this history die. The truth is racism has not died … these objects are still being made.”

Pilgrim explained that having a collection of racially-charged items is a not an endorsement of their message. “We are not a shrine to racism. It’s a place where we try to provoke intelligent conversation. I know Americans like happy history, but there was another history.”


Dr. David Pilgrim:

Dr. David Pilgrim: ”I know Americans like happy history, but there was another history.” Photo: Courtesy

In the case of Native imagery, Pilgrim finds two main lines of stereotyping. “The drunk savage, the buck or the jezebel hyper-sexual young female, or the romanticized, idealized way – the strong brave, the beautiful woman, the warriors fighting against the government.

A Native comic book is part of the Jim Crow Museum's collection. Photo: Courtesy

A Native comic book is part of the Jim Crow Museum's collection. Photo: Courtesy

“In sports,” he says “there’s probably the greatest abuse of the Indigenous people. You wouldn’t get away with it in that way with another group.”

Pilgrim credits Vernon Bellecourt, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a leader in the American Indian Movement, with first turning his attention to sports. “He was one of the early people who sort of introduced me to the anti-mascot campaign.

“The so-called Washington Redskins. I don’t see how you can’t see that as at least a racial slur, if not a racist slur. You would be surprised at how many people think there is nothing wrong with that.

“To live in a society where every major societal institution taught you that you were inferior in every way imaginable, big and small. There’s no way that they don’t internalize that,” Pilgrim said. ““It stains you in some way.”


Dr. David Pilgrim, an applied sociologist, is author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice and will release another book in 2017 that includes his essay, “Brothers,” his reading of which is on the Jim Crow Museum’s YouTube channel

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Revolutionary Mothering in Novel Niche

by Almah LaVon
Novel Niche
October 8th, 2016

Who will take us in? This is what Glenda Moore was asking when she knocked on strangers’ doors for hours in late October 2012. Caught outside with her young sons in Staten Island, New York during Hurricane Sandy, she asked this when doors were opened, only to be closed in her face. (Later, some of the people who refused to help said they thought she was trying to burglarize their homes.) She asked this until she lost grip of her sons. Until the sea said,  I will take them.  
The bodies of Brandon, 2, and Connor, 4, were discovered nearby a few days later.


This is how marginalized mothers are unsheltered every day; this is why an arbor-anthology had to be built, and its name is Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines (PM Press, 2016). The aim of this collection of communiqués, poems, essays, and visual art is to center mothers, who, like Moore, are locked out of “angel in the house” iconographies–i.e., primarily “radical mothers of color with a few marginalized (queer, trans, low income, single, and disabled) white mothers,” in the framing words of editors Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. And how do the editors define mothering? Panoramically. Enter this anthology knowing that there is a new spelling of the name: “m/other.” Spell it like “investing in each other’s existence,” as Loretta Ross does in the brilliant preface. Spell it like “less as a gendered identity and more a possible action, a technology of transformation,” as Gumbs does in her poetic, incandescent essay, “m/other ourselves: a Black queer feminist genealogy for radical mothering.” Spell it like “a primary front in this struggle {against a colonial, racist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism}, not as a biological function, but as a social practice,” as Cynthia Dewi Oka does in one of the book’s most electrifying entries, “Mothering as Revolutionary Praxis.”

“Revolutionary mothering” may be more redundant than oxymoronic, according to the biome of this book. However, Malkia A. Cyril reminds us in her incisive “Motherhood, Media, and Building a 21st-Century Movement,” the weaponized think-of-the-children has been used to undergird “a conservative vision of family” and the carceral state. Cyril asserts:

…empire is sustained, and mothers become one of the tools of its continuous resurrection.

But just as mothers can become the ideological vehicles for hierarchy and dominance, they are uniquely positioned to lead both visionary and opposition strategies to it. With the right supports, mothers from underrepresented communities can help lead the way to new forms of governance, new approaches to the economy, and enlightenment of civil society grounded in fundamental human rights. In fact, they always have.

With blazing authority in “Forget Hallmark: Why Mother’s Day Is a Queer Black Left Feminist Thing,” Gumbs dismisses “the assumption that mothering is conservative or that conserving and nurturing the lives of Black children has ever had any validated place in the official American political spectrum.” (If it was so conservative, why have so many forces been arrayed against it?) Gumbs argues convincingly that Black motherHOOD is fundamentally insurgent; Black mothers, past and present, harbor futurity.


Witness the diversity of dispatches from the front lines: in Victoria Law’s “Doing It All…and Then Again with Child,” an organizer-mama writes letters to incarcerated women (many of them also mothers) that incorporate her daughter’s drawings–and travels to Chiapas, Mexico to hear Zapatista mothers talk about seamlessly integrating children into revolutionary struggle. Irene Lara invokes “Tlazolteotl, the Nahua sacred energy of birthing and regeneration” in the ceremony-limned “From the Four Directions: The Dreaming, Birthing, Healing Mother on Fire.”

Mothers construct a theatre of testimony to resist genocide and extrajudicial killings in Arielle Julia Brown’s “Love Balm for My SpiritChild,” reminding me of the indefatigable Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. In Lindsey Campbell’s “You Look Too Young to Be a Mom,” a chorus of young mas flip scripts that insist teen pregnancy is disaster unalloyed. tk karakashian tunchez megaphones “WE ARE WELFARE QUEENS AND WE AREN’T ASHAMED” in the manifesta, “Telling Our Truths to Live.” In “On My Childhood, El Centro del Raza, and Remembering,” Esteli Juarez re-members being raised by a father and other activists who occupied an abandoned school in Seattle, Washington for months, so that Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Latinos could have a public space to “gather, build community, access resources, [and] organize.”

The etymological root of “anthology” is “many flowers,” and Revolutionary Mothering is truly a fistful of spiky, necessary blooms. You need to be present for stories like these: Norma Angelica Marrun reflects on an undocumented childhood in the U.S. without her mother in “Why Don’t You Love Her?” In “Birthing My Goddess,” H. Bindy K. Kang is subjected to reproductive profiling and surveillance targeting South Asians in British Columbia. Terri Nilliasca reveals that the international adoption machine is built for white Westerners, and not balikbayan coming to the Philippines to adopt (“Night Terrors, Love, Brokenness, Race, Home & the Perils of the Adoption Industry: A Journey in Radical Family Creation”).

This book is riven with border lines–indeed, one of its conceits is lines, from “shorelines” to “between the lines”–and those lines matter. Border and bottom lines often mark what kind of mothering one has access to; Gumbs summons “immigrant nannies like my grandmother who mothered wealthy white kids in order to send money to Jamaica for my mother and her brothers who could not afford the privilege of her presence.” Cynthia Dewi Oka adds that “collectivizing caregiving in our communities is linked to dismantling a capitalist empire that abuses Third World women’s bodies as part of its infrastructure.” The children of marginalized mothers in the U.S., Loretta Ross makes clear, are primed to “become disposable cannon fodder for U.S. imperialism.”

There are some lines in the sand, uncrossable uncrossable. Gumbs calls out “neo-eugenicist” rhetoric and its relationship to “globalized ‘family planning’ agendas that have historically forced women in the Caribbean, Latin America, South Asia, and Africa to undergo sterilization in order to work for multinational corporations”; she also quotes officials who suggest that aborting Black fetuses in the U.S. will reduce crime and sterilizing women in “developing nations” will “prevent economically disruptive revolutions.” Oka punctures the population-bomb bogeyman embodied in “Black, indigenous, and Third World children…as perpetrators of environmental degradation.” In fact, mothering and radical homemaking are the imaginarium our moment needs, Oka insists–as she sketches a vision of the homes and habitats to come: “Perhaps the kind of home we need today is mobile, multiple, and underground.” The home as rhizome. A site of flux and disturbance, in the most generative sense. The home of the warning shot, to shoo away the State (see: Korryn Gaines). As an otherworldly realm of revolutionary eclipse and endarkenment: “Perhaps we need to become unavailable for state scrutiny so that we can experiment,” she muses, leaving us with a deepened “encumbrance upon each other while rejecting the extension of our dependence on state and capital.” Isn’t this kind of reliance and resiliency we will need, considering the demands of climate change? Is this what it means to mother in the Anthropocene?


Thankfully, this book doesn’t neglect to hold what is unresolved and difficult about mothering and being mothered. There’s pressure on people of color to craft reactive hagiographies about our mothers; while the impulse is understandable–don’t talk about your mother’s failures since the State is all too prepared to enumerate and criminalize them–stories like Rachel Broadwater’s “Brave Hearts” are refreshing. In it, Broadwater meditates on her disappointment with her own traumatized, imperfect mother. Mai’a Williams eschews the soft-focus sentimentality surrounding “mamahood” when she writes, “It’s a visceral sense that vulnerable, quivering life is breaking you and you have to let it.  It’s not self-sacrifice. It may not even qualify as love. It isn’t sweet. It isn’t romantic.” This is beautifully and painfully illustrated in Vivian Chin’s essay, “Mothering,” which is mysterious, fraught with slippage, and haunted by damage not quite known. This is the anti-lullaby–this is rage-son, ankle bracelet, juvenile court, polliwogs not getting enough nutrients, you don’t help me with shit. Fabielle Georges’ “The Darkness” flickers with the radioactivity of colorism, lookism, and Black self-loathing. Claire Barrera talks about being short-fused due to chronic pain in “Step on a Crack: Parenting with Chronic Pain.”


If this anthology’s foremother is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color–indeed, its initial title was This Bridge Called My Baby–then its sibling might be the zine movement. China Martens traces a brief history of “subculture media” that includes The Future Generation zine she started in 1990. Several zinesters are featured in Revolutionary Mothering, including Noemi Martinez of the zines, Making of a Chicana and Hermana, Resist.  Martens explores how zines oiled her leap to blogs and “online snippets” especially suited to the time-strapped mom. Some of the anthology’s contributions (like Mamas of Color Rising’s “Collective Poem on Mothering”) read like raw, urgent telegraphs from mothers out of time–“time traveling is a necessity,” Martens says–and these seemingly rush-crafted pieces add to the anthology’s sense of welcome and immediacy.


Revolutionary Mothering
is a dreambook. Place it on your bedstand and when you awaken, scribble your not-quite-daylight visions in the margins so your dreams will be in good company. With its protean take on mothering, expect to pick up a new book each time you open it. And while we’re dreaming, I would have loved more voices from mothers who embody the truth that “mother” is “older and more futuristic than the word ‘woman,’” as Gumbs wrote. Also invoked by Gumbs, I want more stories from the house mothers of ball culture themselves. Next time, then. I have gotten into the habit of collecting radical anthologies, and this one ranks among my favorites: I was rocked and healed and mothered by this open-armed anthology itself, and suspect it will go on to give birth to other anthologies, other worlds. Mothering got next.

If your potential was visible on your body, like a hologram of your future, you’d know what things to just give up on without trying . . . but then you’d never know that you change your hologram potential if you try.
—Rio, Katie Kaput’s nine-year-old son in “Three Thousand Words”

Those caregiving collectives? Those “phamilies, chosen and stronger than blood” tk karakashian tunchez speaks of? Yes, those. We have an amphibious city to build now, and Revolutionary Mothering offers so many blueprints, so much holographic potential. Let’s hold each other close, before the rising seas.

Almah LaVon is a poet errant and incogNegr@ who is often based in western Pennsylvania. More of her writing on books can be found in the forthcoming anthology, Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color.

Shivanee’s postscript: It’s a tasselated, tapestried honour to have Almah’s critical work on Novel Niche! Many thanks to her, and to the editors and contributors of this formidable anthology, purchasable here.

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Gypsy reviewed in Peace News

by Gabriel Carlyle
Peace News
August-September 2016

It is 2041 and atmospheric CO2 levels have passed 600 parts per million, leading to the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and a three-metre rise in sea levels. Florida is underwater and world population has passed 10 billion. A few billion are stateless refugees. ‘A few billion more [are] indentured or imprisoned.’

Every cultivated acre on Earth is planted with sterile genetically-engineered varieties whose terminator genes have been implanted to protect corporate profits. ‘There [isn’t] a live food plant left anywhere on Earth that [can] propagate itself.’

No longer the global hyperpower, the US continues as if it is, ‘starting or provoking conflicts more or less at need, its constant need being, as always, resources.’

In this hyper-dystopian context, a small group of renegade scientists have conspired to launch the Earth’s first starship, Gypsy – a desperate attempt to solve ‘the great problem on Earth, the problem of humanity’, by starting afresh in a new solar system. (One of the astronauts, who ‘grew up in the slums of Athens after the euro collapsed’, suggests that they christen the ship the ‘Fuck You’ instead.)

Headed for the star Alpha Centauri, almost 4.4 light years away, at 5.6 percent of the speed of light (relative to the earth), the journey will take many decades.

This is ‘hard’ science fiction: Scholz has extrapolated all of the technologies that appear from published research papers, and even went as far as running gravity simulators on his home computer to make the final approach to Alpha Centauri as accurate possible.

Indeed, according to Scholz, this may be the first SF story to ‘take full stock of how hard, maybe impossible, interstellar travel is going to be’. Consequently, the crew’s journey is about as far from Star Trek’s warp-drives as you can imagine.

Story and backstory unfold as, one-by-one, five of the crewmembers are briefly awoken to deal with various crises. There is no happy ending and ‘the great problem’ remains unsolved.

Most compelling is the all-too-plausible picture that Scholz paints of a future techno-hell – a picture with plenty of lessons for the present.

There, humanity has used its new-found mastery of nuclear fusion to encircle the globe with hundreds of thousands of super-light bombs (‘Because the minimum individual yields were within the range of conventional explosives, no nuclear treaties were violated’), and ‘every bit of the world’s digital traffic [is] swept up... stored and analyzed’. Even offline surveillance is ubiquitous, featuring ‘hidden or winged [cameras], small and quick as hummingbirds, with software to read your lips from a hundred yards, and up beyond the atmosphere satellites to read the book in your hand if the air was steady’.

The plotters obtain their spaceship by deceiving a man ‘who owns a third of the world’s fresh water’, and the psychology and behaviour of the 1% is the focus of what is perhaps the story’s most telling passage.

Speaking of ‘the leaders, the nations, the corporations, the elites’, Gypsy’s founder member observes that: ‘if you judge them by their actions instead of their rhetoric, you can see that they understood [the world’s predicament] perfectly and accepted the gravity of it very early. They simply gave it up as unfixable. Concluded that law and democracy were hindrances to their continued power. Moved quite purposely and at speed toward this dire world they foresaw, a world in which, to have the amenities even of middle-class life – things like clean water, food, shelter, energy, transportation, medical care – you would need the wealth of a prince. You would need legal and military force to keep desperate others from seizing it. Seeing that, they moved to amass such wealth for themselves as quickly and ruthlessly as possible, with the full understanding that it hastened the day they feared.’

Though one should never underestimate human beings’ seemingly-limitless powers of self-deception, such a diagnosis may turn out to be not be that wide of the mark.

In the accompanying essay, ‘The United States of Impunity’, Scholz launches an excoriating non-fiction attack on these same elites. ‘A lone wolf like Bernie Madoff, who stole from elites, went to jail’, he notes, while ‘those with systemic ties, who stole from the public [in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis], didn’t’. Likewise, only a few low-level actors were held accountable for torture and killings in Iraq, ‘while the architects of the policies that created the criminogenic situations went untouched’.

‘Those responsible for instigating, justifying, and maintaining the torture regime, as well as the illegal war, were let walk’, normalising ‘the most extreme abuses of the Bush years’ – a pattern not restricted to the western side of the Atlantic.

The remaining material consists of a fantastical correspondence with the editor of a non-existent magazine, NOVUS Science Fiction; a seven-page satirical joke in the form of a fictional testimony before the US senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs; and a short interview with the author.

Moving, memorable, and stylistically-sophisticated (one simultaneously disturbing and hilarious section consists of fragments of future internet traffic; elsewhere Scholz refers to the spaceship’s own datastream as ‘pushing its mite of meaning back into the plaintext chaos of the universe’), Gypsy is another stellar addition to PM Press’s stand-out Outspoken Authors series.

Buy Gypsy | Buy the e-Book of Gypsy | Back to Carter Scholtz's Author Page

The Spitboy Rule reviewed on Scanner Zine

By Steve Scanner
Scanner Zine
September 23rd, 2016

THE SPITBOY RULE: Tales Of A Xicana In A Female Punk Band - Michelle Cruz Gonzales {162 pages, PM Press}

If ya didn’t know, SPITBOY was an all-female Punk band active in the early 90s and based in San Francisco. Gonzales was the drummer of that band, known at that time simply as Todd. This is an engaging read that documents her memories, ideals and personal identity with intelligence, wit and wry hindsight.

The narrative goes back to when Gonzales was in her school band, playing flute and discovering the GO-GO’S. It’s a familiar story, that of where a single band not only sends one off in a new direction but completely changes life’s path and future decisions, but it’s always an interesting story to see what band was the catalyst for the author to become who she is today. From there, we get to read about Gonzales first Punk band, BITCH FIGHT, moving from small-town Tuolumne to the San Franciscan metropolis, SPITBOY forming, recording and touring and the band’s ultimate demise. It could be viewed as standard band biography stuff, but Gonzales makes the narrative much more personal and intimate than many other such books.

For starters, SPITBOY was not a band of hard-out party animals, so there’s no tales of drunken debauchery (seems the band preferred the challenge of Travel Scrabble). Instead, we get an on-going, first-person account of Gonzales understanding her own Chicana heritage within the confines of an all-white, all-female band. Her observations about her background when compared with the rest of the band are insightful, thoughtful and to-the-point without being remotely jealous or chastising. The issue of sexism also rears its ugly head with several small-minded creeps who seem to think it’s OK to not just be suggestive but totally abusive. Fortunately, SPITBOY was a band that could confront such bigotry and come out victorious.

Elsewhere in the book we read of the friction caused by the band not aligning itself with the then-popular Riot Grrrl movement, the culture shock of touring Japan, getting pulled over in New Orleans by cops with guns at the ready and the drug squad ready arrest, the band’s alliance with LOS CRUDOS and of the actual SPITBOY rule.

Gonzales’ narrative is direct, pointed and without too much halcyon reflection. By the end of the book, the reader certainly feels that they understand and relate to the traits of Gonzales as well as the rest of the band, and that is in no small part due to the conversational tone with which Gonzales writes.

This is a brief read though; of the 162 pages, 20 are filled with some excellent photos while each chapter also starts with a photo. There is a preface by former Maximum Rocknroll and Punk Planet columnist Mimi Thi Nguyen and a foreword by Martin Sorrondeguy of LOS CRUDOS/ LIMP WRIST fame.

Without a doubt, this is much more than just a band biography. It is as much a book about self-discovery, female camaraderie and personal politics as it is about a female Hardcore Punk band doing things their own way and succeeding at it. I am sure plenty of people could find both inspiration and confidence after reading this book - and that extends beyond people of colour and females to encompass any and all who feel marginalised by society or intimidated by their local Punk scene. If that’s not the mark of success for a book, I’m not sure what is.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Michelle Cruz Gonzales’s Author Page 

The Spitboy Rule reviewed on Milo and the Calf

Milo and the Calf
September 20th, 2016

Ok, so I know Michelle, the author of this book, and some of the other members of Spitboy, the band at the center of this story. There was a time, a long long while ago, when we were all close. It would be really easy for me to make this review a walk down my own memory lane, but I’m going to resist that.

This is Michele story, told in a series of interlocking vignettes centered around her time in Spitboy, one of the pivotal bands of the early 1990s Bay Area punk rock scene. But the book is about much more than Spitboy. It’s the story of a Xicana from a small town in California, the daughter of a single mom, who discovers punk rock, moves the Bay Area, and forms one of the most groundbreaking punk rock bands of the 1990s.

Spitboy was a band of fierce women who played hardcore infused with passion, politics, and love. I, like many, were incredibly inspired by the band. Its fascinating to read these stories from their days touring the world, struggling against the sexism prevalent in the punk rock scene, while also forming profound relationships with each other and those they came into contact with. Today Spitboy is remembered mainly as a pioneering all women punk band, and they were that, for sure. But they were more. They were generous and kind. They were inspiring in their aspirations for, and dedication to, DIY punk culture, and they were a hell of a lot of fun to see live.

While there are plenty of band war stories here, it wasn’t always fighting the man and loading the van. As with any band on the road, there were conflicts. Michelle, Xicana and raised working class, came to the Bay Area punk rock scene with a very different life story from many in the then mostly white, mostly middle class, scene. This led to scores of painful moments, many of which rang all too familiar to me. Michelle faced everything from the casual erasure of her identity to blatant racism and classism. It is at times hard to reconcile the political aspirations of the punk rock scene with the treatment Michelle endured.

But those are the facts, and we need to face them.

Michelle treats all of this, the good and the bad, with real grace. She calls out the many instances in which the class differences in the punk scene were glossed over, and the scores of times her identity was erased. She does so with a compassion, honesty, thoughtfulness, I find inspiring.

This is a powerful story, which captures a time and place in the punk rock world which few others have documented. I’m so glad I was privileged enough to know Michelle, and the other Spitboy women, and I’m so glad she wrote this book.


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Michelle Cruz Gonzales’s Author Page 

Anthropocene or Capitalocene? in Marx & Philosophy

Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
by Steve Knight
August 30th, 2016

The public’s imagination has been seized in the twenty-first century with the notion that human impacts upon the earth’s geology and ecosystems have been so widespread and profound that they have actually launched a new epoch in the Earth’s history.

Biologist Eugene Stoermer suggested in the 1980’s that this hypothetical new epoch might be called the Anthropocene (literally, “New Era of Man”), a term that was repeated in a seminal paper in 2000, by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen.

While the Anthropocene has not yet been recognized officially by any of the major scientific organizations that designate geological epochs, and there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to when it might have begun, the increasing weight of evidence pointing to unprecedented anthropogenic impacts upon earth and climate systems virtually assures that “Anthropocene” will indefinitely be fixed as part of the public discourse.

In recent years, however, a group of thinkers trained in the ecosocialist tradition of Marx and Engels have initiated a critique of the concept of Anthropocene, arguing that it implicitly blames all of humanity for creating the deleterious effects of biodiversity and species loss, carbon emissions, ocean degradation, deforestation, and other strains on our biosphere. Instead of blaming all of humanity – which includes billions of the world’s poorest, who consume and pollute little – they contend that it is more accurate to place blame on a globalized system of capitalist relations, which are premised on the assumption that infinite, compound growth is possible on a planet with finite resources. This has locked us into unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, hence, “Capitalocene”. The recent collection Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, offers new perspectives on this ecosocialist critique that should be helpful to anyone engaged in extending their understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Part One of the collection, The Anthropocene and Its Discontents: Toward Chthulucene?, offers two attempts to evaluate the term “Anthropocene” as a potential normative category. What does it tell us, and what does it leave out of the conversation? Environmental sociologist Eileen Crist writes in On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature, that the problem with calling this epoch the Anthropocene, is that it traps us within the anthropocentric worldview that caused our climate crisis in the first place. “The Anthropocene discourse clings”, she tells us, “to the almighty power of that jaded abstraction ‘Man’ and to the promised land his God-posturing might yet deliver him, namely, a planet managed for the production of resources and governed for the containment of risks” (23). Crist declines to suggest an alternative name for our epoch, but says that whatever we call it, it must convey a more integral, holistic vision of interrelationships between the human and non-human. “Lifting the banner of human integrity,” she says, “invites the priority of our pulling back and scaling down, of welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life” (29).

In the second essay of Part One, Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Donna J. Haraway brings her background in fields as diverse as technology, feminist theory and multispecies studies, to bear on positing a new paradigm that might replace “Anthropocene” in our discourse. She laments at one point that “[t]hese times called the Anthropocene are times of multi-species, including human, urgency: of great mass death and extinction…of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of responsability…of unprecedented looking away” (39). As a response, she proposes the alternate term “Chthulucene”, based on the eight-legged tree spider Pimoa Chthulu, a creature that learns by feeling with many tentacles. What Haraway calls “tentacularity” (shared by organisms as varied as creepers, roots, fungal tangles, jellyfish, even humans) is a quality of life “lived along lines—and such a wealth of lines—not at points, not in spheres” (36). It is this sort of “string figured” (or “sympoietic,” as per environmental researcher Beth Dempster) thinking, which is multipolar, organizationally open, distributionally controlled, and dynamic, that Haraway believes will lead to better solutions to our ecological conundrum. While Haraway offers some exciting potential avenues for conceptualizing beyond the limitations of the Anthropocene model, I am unsure how her “string figured” mode of thinking might be applied practically to halting the worsening breakdown in our biosphere. I am personally more comfortable with Eileen Crist’s straightforward approach of emphasizing holistic relations between the human and non-human realms.

Part Two, Histories of the Capitalocene, offers three attempts to give some historical context to capitalism’s increasingly tight grip on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. The Rise of Cheap Nature, by editor Jason W. Moore, reprises many of the key points in Moore’s 2015 magisterial study, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Moore believes that while the Anthropocene meme can engage questions of how humans make natures, and vice versa, it cannot provide answers. This is because it is trapped in a Cartesian binary of Humanity vs. Nature, instead of recognizing the “double internality” of humanity-inside-nature, and nature-inside-humanity. Moore maintains that the Capitalocene (an epoch he says was initiated by significant transformations in land and labor relations ca. 1450 to 1640) is premised on a “world-ecology” dialectic in which “capital and power—and countless other strategic relations—do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life” (97). The secret to capitalism’s creation of value, he says, is that it does not actually value most of its inputs; rather it depends on a steady stream of “Cheap Natures”—labor, food, energy and raw materials—to boost accumulation. Much of capitalism’s crisis since the beginning of its neoliberal phase in the 1970’s, Moore suggests, may be attributed to the increasing difficulty of obtaining Cheap Nature inputs.

Justin McBrien’s Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene posits that outright extinction, of species, cultures, languages and peoples, lies at the heart of capital accumulation. McBrien sees the Necrocene, an epoch of “New Death”, coterminous with the Capitalocene, as causing not just the “metabolic rift” between labor and the Earth, as described by John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists, but a process necrotizing the entire planet in a headlong rush to subsume all of the Earth under capital. The final section of McBrien’s essay connects the Necrocene to a post-World War Two “catastrophism” promulgated by the military-industrial complex, and embodied most vividly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Capitalism found in the atom bomb the dark watery reflection of its own image. It realized that its logic could lead to one thing: total extinction. It realized that it had become the Necrocene” (124).

The third essay in the Histories section, Elmar Atvater’s The Capitalocene, or Geoengineering Against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries, takes on the subject of geoengineering, namely proposed large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climate system aimed at limiting or reversing anthropogenic climate change. These strategies are considered risky by most scientists, but have become attractive in a world increasingly reliant on technological solutions; a few prominent scientists, including Google’s Ray Kurzweil and climate scientist Paul Crutzen, have even said that geoengineering is the answer to the climate crisis. Altvater’s critique of geoengineering, however, is rooted in his analysis of capitalism’s inherent irrationality. Classical political economy, he notes, neglects to consider the full web of life’s interdependencies, including most crucially that capitalism relies on a constant “tap” of cheap inputs and a cost-free externalization (“sink”) of waste outputs. Geoengineering promises to address the negative consequences of externalization by pricing in their costs; but Altvater says that this is doomed to fail, because “many interdependencies in society and nature cannot be expressed in terms of prices.” Approaching the problem holistically would be an answer, but this is impossible in capitalism, which Altvater says “is committed to fixing the parts and not the whole” (151).

The collection’s third and final section, Cultures, States and Environment-Making, looks at the crucial aspect of culture in creating the Anthropocene from two entirely different perspectives. In Anthropocene, Capitalocene and the Problem of Culture, Daniel Hartley defines culture as an historically evolving, contingent process, drawing on dialectical relations between land, labor, intellectual activity, the state and other factors. “Cultural history”, he writes, “must incorporate the profound interrelation of historically and geographically specific struggles with their fundamental symbolic components” (163). Hartley’s main problem with the Anthropocene concept is that it does not consider the politics of class struggle as materially determinant, suggesting instead a world where an undifferentiated “humanity” uses technology in a mechanistic “one-on-one billiard ball model of technological invention and historical effect” (156).

In contrast to Hartley, Christian Parenti’s Environment-Making in the Capitalocene: Political Ecology of the State looks at the crucial role played by the state in creating conditions for the Capitalocene. The author asserts that the state does not simply have a relationship with nature; it is a relationship with nature, because its assertion of territorial control—legally, militarily and scientifically—maintains the web of life necessary for societies to function. Parenti reviews some examples of the vital role the state has played in creating conditions for capital accumulation:
Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, the Erie Canal, and China’s Grand Canal. He concludes with an impassioned plea to the Left not to forget the role of the state in formulating an anti-capitalist strategy; “[t]o reform capitalism—and to move beyond it—the Left needs to place the state front and center in its strategic considerations” (182).

The essays in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? provide an invaluable contribution to the debate over what we should call this strange new epoch, wrought by centuries of capitalist depredations upon our biosphere. As these ecosocialists so ably tell us, from their individual perspectives, that humanity’s best hope to save the planet (and its species, including our own) relies on finding ways to replace an unsustainable Capitalocene with socialist relations of production and consumption.

Buy Anthropocene or Capitalocene | Buy the e-Book of Anthropocene or Capitalocene | Back to Jason W. Moore's Author Page


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