|"For the reader [of Left Hand of Darkness], I left out too much. One does not see Estraven as a mother, with his children, in any role which we automatically perceive as 'female': and therefore, we tend to see him as a man. This is a real flaw in the book, and I can only be very grateful to those readers, men and women, whose willingness to participate in the experiment led them to fill in that omission with the work of their own imagination."|
|Ursula Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary?"|
|Essay in response to critics of LHD|
Born 21 October 1929, Berkeley, California, nee Ursula Kroeber. Grew up in Berkeley. Daughter of Alfred Kroeber (anthropologist) and Theodora Covel Brown Kracaw Kroeber (author of Ishi in Two Worlds, 1961). Attended Radcliffe College (BA, 1951) and graduate school at Columbia University (MA, 1952). (Studied Romance Literatures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, esp. French.) Married to Charles A. Le Guin, a historian. Lives in Portland, Oregon. Has three children, two grandchildren.
She has published over eighty short stories, two collections of essays, ten books for children, several volumes of poetry, and sixteen novels. Her books have consistently won Nebula and Hugo awards.
Growing up in a stimulating home filled with books and visited by scientists and writers, Le Guin absorbed her parents' interest in the study of different cultures. "My father studied real cultures and I make them up--in a way, it's the same thing," she notes.
Le Guin keeps extending her work. Her futuristic novel Always Coming Home includes
both poetry and prose, and the book comes with a tape of music.
It has been noted that Le Guin brings to science fiction and fantasy a "new sensitivity" and "a number of striking and sympathetic characters." One critic claims that she "examines, attacks, unbuttons, takes down, and exposes our notions of reality" and does so "in almost unearthly terms."
Le Guin's World: http://hem1.passagen.se/peson42/lgw/
I read Lao-tzu and the Tao Te Ching at 14. My father had it around the house in the old edition with the Chinese text. I sneaked a peek and was and remain fascinated. Taoism is still an underlayer in my work. It begins talking about what we can't talk about--an old mysticism that intertwines with Buddhism and is practical and not theistic. Before and beyond God. There's a humorous and easygoing aspect to it that I like temperamentally and that fits in with anarchism. Pacifist anarchism and Lao-tzu have a lot of connection with each other, especially in the 20th century.
Review of Shambhala Books: Tao Te Ching edited
by Ursula Le Guin
The influence of the Tao Te Ching
pervades Le Guin's work, quite explicitly in novels such as A Wizard of Earthsea
and The Left Hand of Darkness. It is no surprise, then, to learn that she
has been studying it since she was a teenager, seeking out and comparing
different translations. She herself knows no Chinese
and what she offers here is a rendition rather than a translation; she has also taken the liberty of leaving out verses she feels are inconsistent with the others (as likely intrusions). This is not a scholarly reference (or a guide for rulers), but a powerful and accessible Book of the Way, "the most lovable of the great
religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhausibly refreshing". Le Guin's commentary (some footnotes, mostly endnotes) is also valuable, and the whole is packaged in an attractive volume.
Tao Te Ching from Shambhala Publications 1997
The Left Hand of Darkness
One of six Hainish Novels of Ursula Le Guin:
The Dispossessed 2300 A.D.
Early settlement of new world.
The Word for World is Forest. 2368
Failure of colonizing efforts.
Rocannon's World 2684
Early stages of involvement with the league of the worlds.
Planet of Exile 3755
World which has lost its former ties with others.
City of Illusions 4270.
Separated world, trying to return.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Established league of the worlds is now supplemented by the Ekumen, concerned primarily with education, cultural communication & trade. Their envoy, Genly Ai, is sent to Winter or Gethen with the task of getting them to join the Ekumen. Kardish Politician Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is helping him.
On this planet, as a result of a Hainish biological experiment, the people can become either male or female when they go into "kemmer" or a state of sexual arousal which occurs every 26 to 28 days. Thus, many mothers are at differing periods fathers. The cultural effects of this ambisexuality is a major theme.
Chief Countries: Karhide (capital: Erhenrang) & Orgoreyn (capital Mishnory)
Karhide: Ruled by a mad king Argaven. No war, but power relationships are worked out in terms of shifgrethor: "prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship." Subtle & often misunderstood by Genly Ai.
Orgoreyn: On the verge of being able to mobilize for war. Bureaucratic, aggressive. People here are trained in "a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above."
Karhide: Handdara or Foretellers. The mystique of darkness. Led by Faxe.
Orgoreyn: Yomeshta or followers of Meshe who deny darkness.
Narrative: 20 chapters, ten by Ai Genly; six interpolated non-narrative chapters of myth, scripture, scientific report, and hearth tale; and four from Estraven's journal.
Background myths: Taoist creative tension of opposites; myth of the androgyne.
Tensions: fidelity & betrayal; masculine & feminine; duality & wholeness; light & dark; isolation & community; microcosm & macrocosm; alien & familiar; communication & silence.
Interview: Coming Back from the Silence
Author: White, Jonathan
Title: Coming back from the silence. (interview with Ursula LeGuin)(Interview)
Journal: Whole Earth Review, n85 (Spring, 1995) :76 (8 pages) pages.
URSULA LE GUIN was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, to Alfred Kroeber,
one of the founders of modern anthropology, and psychologist/ writer Theodora Kroeber. The family spent winters in Berkeley and summers in the rural Napa
Valley, sixty miles north of San Francisco. Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe in 1951 and took her M.A. (in Romance languages) from Columbia in 1952. Fullbright scholarships allowed her to spend a year in Paris (1953) and two years in London (1968 and 1975). In 1953, she married the historian Charles Le Guin, and they eventually made their home in Portland, Oregon, where they have raised three children.
With over three million copies of her books in print, Le Guin is one of the most widely read and most prolific writers in North America. She won the National Book Award (The Farthest Shore, 1973) and was an NBA finalist for The Left Hand of Darkness (1970), The Tombs of Atuan (1972), and Always Coming Home (1985). She has also received the Hugo, Kafka, and Nebula Awards.
Jonathan White is the founder and former president of the Resource Institute. Focusing on Northwest coastal culture and traditions, the nonprofit Institute held "floating seminars" aboard the schooner Crusader, in Northwestern waters from Puget Sound up to Alaska. Participants included leading thinkers and artists in diverse disciplines. Ten years of these seminars led to the assembly of Talking on the Water: Conversations About Nature and Creativity from which this interview was excerpted in abridged form.
Jonathan White: What attracted you to science fiction?
Ursula Le Guin: I didn't exactly choose science fiction. I went where I got published, which took a long time because my work is so odd. For the last fifty or sixty years, literature has been categorized as "realism," and if you weren't writing realism, you weren't respectable. I had to ignore that and say to myself that I could do things in science fiction that I could never do in realism. I tend to be prickly about this subject because I get tired of being put down as a science fiction writer. The fact is, in the postmodern era, all the barriers are breaking down pretty fast.
Science fiction is a child of realism, not of fantasy. A realistic story deals with something that might have happened but didn't, right? Many science fiction stories are about worlds that don't exist, but could exist in the future. Both realism and science fiction deal with stories that might be true. Fantasy, on the other hand, tells a story that couldn't possibly be true. With fantasy, we simply agree to lift the ban on the imagination and follow the story, no matter how implausible it may be.
JW: Didn't you say once that fantasy may not be actual, but it's true?
UL: Wouldn't you say any attempt to tell a story is an attempt to tell the truth? It's the technique you use in the telling that is either more or less plausible. Sometimes the most direct way to tell the truth is to tell a totally implausible story, like a myth. That way you avoid the muddle of pretending the story ever happened, or ever will happen.
Who knows how stories really work? We're so used to stories with all the trappings of being real that we've lost our ability to read anything else. When you read a native American story, you have to relearn how to read. There's nothing in them to draw you in. There's no sweetening of the pill. Maybe there's a coyote, but there's no description. We're used to a lot of fleshing out, and we're used to being courted and drawn into the story.
JW: Nora Dauenhaeur, a Tlingit woman and coauthor of Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors reminded me last summer that native American stories are usually told to an audience that already knows them. In fact, they've heard the stories over and over again, through many winters. As a result, the storyteller often uses shorthand -- a single word or phrase -- to remind the audience of a larger event with many details. She pointed out that we are telling stories like this all the time, particularly among friends and family with whom we share a history. We may say, "Remember that time we were caught in a dust storm outside of Phoenix?" And that's the story, all of it.
UL: Yes, exactly. You don't describe the sky or the clouds or what you were wearing. There isn't any of the scene-setting in native American stories. It bothers me when I read gussied-up native American stories. They're no longer sacred. When we embellish a native American story, it turns into just another story. Our culture doesn't think storytelling is sacred; we don't set aside a time of year for it. We don't hold anything sacred except for what organized religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labeled like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves; there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility. We've got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that's the whole point: either it's all right or it's all wrong.
JW: We tend to have a linear, cause-and-effect way of looking at the world. I wonder if one of the things that attracts us to stories is their ability to change our way of seeing?
UL: The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We're drawn in -- or out -- and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we're around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.
The tribal storyteller is not just providing spiritual access but also moral guidance. I think much of American writing today is an exploration of ethical problems. I'm thinking particularly of novels by black women such as Paula Marshall, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison. The stories these women write are gaining literary praise, but they're also doing something terribly important for their people, who are not just black Americans but all Americans. In a sense, these women are fulfilling the ancient role of tribal storytellers, because they're trying to lead us into different spiritual and moral realms. They're intensely serious about this, and that's why they're so beloved as novelists.
JW: Stories can also help us remember who we are. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera says, "What is the self but the sum of everything we remember?"
UL: Yes. To remember, if my Latin is correct, actually means to put the parts together. So that implies there are ways of losing parts. Kundera talks about this aspect of storytelling, too. In fact, he says that history, which is another kind of story, is often deliberately falsified in order to make a people forget who they are or who they were. He calls that "the method of organizing forgetting."
History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted the other forms of storytelling because of its claims to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can't reach it with words. History is not a science, it's an art.
There are still people who insist on teaching history as a science, but that's not how most historians work anymore. My husband, Charles, who is a historian, says, "I don't know the difference between story and history. I think it may not be a difference in kind, but a difference in their attempts to be truthful." The history of the last hundred years still has a tremendous intellectual bias toward the white European point of view. Defined by historians as the written record, it conveniently illegitimizes all oral traditions and most indigenous people right from the start. In fact, in its view, everybody but white Europeans is "primitive." If you don't have a written language, you aren't part of history.
JW: Are the current changes in how we look at history also changing the way we look at indigenous cultures?
UL: Absolutely. It's a de-centering process. We've been pretending that Europe was the center of the world for too long. With the help of anthropologists, and now historians, we are finding that there is no center, or that there are many centers. Nobody has "the answer." It's amazing how much resistance there is to this. Everybody wants to be "the people," everybody wants to be "the center." And everybody is the center, if only they'd realize it and not sneer at all the other centers.
JW: Because history, as it has been practiced, concerns itself only with the written record, language acquires a loaded role in terms of our perception of reality. Like history, language can become a tool of forgetting, a tool of estrangement. As a writer, how do you work against that?
UL: This is a tricky area. As a writer, you want the language to be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That's why the language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.
One of the strangest things about our culture is our ability to describe the destruction of the world in exquisite, even beautiful, detail. The whole science of ecology, for instance, describes exactly what we're doing wrong and what the global effects are. The odd twist is that we become so enamored of our language and its ability to describe the world that we create a false and irresponsible separation. We use language as a device for distancing. Somebody who is genuinely living in their ecosystem wouldn't have a word for it. They'd just call it the world.
We can't restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict. The "war against drugs" is an obvious example of this. So is the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, fighting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start "fighting" against them. That's one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.
I am struck by how much we talk about rebirthing but never about rebearing. The word itself is unfamiliar to most people. Yet both women and men are capable of rebearing, women literally and men metaphorically. A door opens just by changing the name. We don't have to be reborn; we can rebear. This is part of the writer's job, either to rebear the metaphors or refuse to use them. Gary Snyder's lifelong metaphor is watershed. How fruitful that is! Another of his is composting, which is a lovely word that describes the practice of creating.
JW: The use of language to name the world seems to have two sides. On one hand, things are given names as an expression of intimacy and respect; and on the other hand they are given names to create distance and separation. In your story, "She Unnames Them," for example, barriers are broken down as the names for animals are taken away.
UL: "She Unnames Them" is really an Adam and Eve story that I subverted. Eve takes all the names back because they were either wrong from the start or they went wrong. As she does this, the barriers between herself and the world are dismantled. At the end of the story, she has no words left. She's so close to the animals that she feels vulnerable and afraid, yet full of new desire to touch, smell, and eat.
Why do I feel like the way we give names is wrong? I don't want to flog that little story to death, because it was meant partly as a joke, but we do use names to cut ourselves off. Talking about a dog is different from talking about Rover. In the language of war, we don't talk about killing or even casualties anymore. We use strange euphemisms instead, like "body count" and "friendly fire." The language of pretended objectivity is often used this way, too. We manipulate names as categories of reality, and the names then become screens between ourselves and the world. The names become a tool of division rather than of community.
My father worked with the Yurok Indians of California, among other tribes. If you read his Yurok myths, you learn that every rock and every tree had its name. It was a small world they lived in, not a planetary one. They were in intense community with it, and their naming was a way of respecting their independence. But anything is reversible, and naming can become the destruction of community, where we hide from the real world by using more and more words. I know people who refuse to learn the names of trees. They have a concept of "tree," but the names simply get between them and the real tree.
I grew up in the Napa Valley without learning the English names for many of the plants and animals. When I started writing Always Coming Home, which takes place there, I had a wonderful time learning the flora and fauna of the area. For a while, I knew the name of every wildflower. But what you learn late doesn't stick. Now when I come across a flower whose name I've forgotten, I say, "How do you do, little yellow flower, whatever your name is." I used to crave to know the names, and I enjoyed learning them. It's funny, by naming a thing, do we think we get control over it? I think we do. That's how magic works. If you know the name of a thing, then you know its essence. At some level, I think we all must believe that.
We're naming creatures, but we need to respect that some things are beyond names. Like the mysterious essence of an animal in the wild. If our names make them appear tame or petlike, as in Walt Disney's world, then it's degrading. Some of the California Indians knew that when you name an animal, such as a deer, you are addressing its metaphysical nature. They called that universal quality "Deerness" or "The Deer." It's a profoundly mysterious and important matter, and very hard to put into words, but I feel I know what they're talking about. When these Indians hunted, they asked Deerness to help them. The deer that comes to the hunter is related physically to all other beings, but it is also an embodiment of Deerness. It's the gift of Deerness. This way of looking at the world can apply to every living being. When we name something we are naming its essence, and therefore its sacredness.
JW: In Buffalo Gals, you say that all creatures talk to one another, whether we are able to hear or not. But this conversation -- this community -- is not a simple harmony. "The peaceable kingdom, where lion and lamb lie down, is an endearing vision not of this world": What do you mean by that?
UL: The vision of the "peaceable kingdom" denies wilderness. In the Christian tradition, the denial of violence, of the fact that we eat each other in order to live, removes you from this world. Heaven is supernal bliss where there is no violence, no eating, no sex. When lions and lambs lie down in the wilderness, the lamb ends up inside the lion. That's how it is. You can deny that in order to gain another world. But if the only world you want is this one -- and this one seems quite satisfactory to me -- then the myth of the "peaceable kingdom" is only a charming painting.
JW: You continue in Buffalo Gals: "Some rash poets get caught in the traps set for animals and, unable to endure the cruelty, maim themselves to escape." You give the example of Robinson Jeffers. Was Jeffers maimed because he took too personally his disappointment in the dark side of nature?
UL: Jeffers was a very strange man and poet, with an enormous component of cruelty and violence in his work. He had incredible sympathy with animals. He could give you an animal in a word or two like very few poets can. I think he honestly felt them, even though he often perceives them through violence. I can't explain Jeffers, he has always awed and annoyed me. I'm grateful to him as one of my predecessors writing about California. Even as a teenager, I knew he had California right.
The poem that most reveals Jeffers' self-hatred is the one about the cavemen who torment a mammoth to death. They trap it and roast it alive. He's full of this kind of disgust for humanity. Yet he soars out into a great vision; never a happy vision, but a great vision. He's a difficult case when you're talking about animals.
JW: The trap of shamefulness seems like an easy one to fall into. If we want to be alert, we have to take all this in -- the violence, the killing, the cruelty --
UL: Yes. But since we're capable of compassion, we know it hurts. This causes all sorts of difficulties. My aunt was a biologist, and I watched her drop an artichoke into a pot of boiling water and say, "I wonder if it can feel that?" She was a very hardheaded biologist. Humans have to think about these things, whether we like it or not. It's the nature of our humanity to feel uncomfortable and full of guilt and shame and confusion. But we still participate, because we have to eat. Much of what animals do naturally we have to do consciously. That's our gift and our curse. All we can do is be conscientious about it -- do it rightly, not wrongly.
JW: In Always Coming Home, hunting for food and skins was primarily done by children and adolescents. Under the supervision of adults, young girls and boys were allowed to hunt rabbit, possum, squirrel and other small game, and deer. Why was hunting considered inappropriate for adults?
UL: You're supposed to outgrow it. The same thing is true of war. In one chapter, I describe a small war with the Pig People. It's modeled on the warfare of the Northern California Indians, which was usually just a matter of standing on a hill and shouting insults. Sometimes people got mad enough to hurt each other, and occasionally someone was killed. Mostly it was the young boys who engaged in war, not the whole tribe. What comes up in the chapter on the Pig war is the report that there were adults involved in the war. That's a shameful thing in the Kesh society. Both hunting and war are looked upon as occupations for adolescents -- adolescents who are already a little out of control and needing to prove themselves. You can continue to hunt into adulthood if you're really good at it, of course, but I was implying that it's something most people outgrow.
People should be able to figure out their place in the life-death cycle without killing animals. The trouble is that it relates to what Hemingway said: "You can't be a man until you've killed another one." I say bullshit! Why don't you try it without a gun? Maybe there's a gender difference there. Maybe a woman can do it and a man can't. I hate to say that, but you wonder. It isn't built into women to be hunters in our culture. Even a fisherwoman is unusual.
Having a close relationship with an animal, particularly one that lives a short life, can be an intense, constant reminder of mortality. Cats only live ten years, so most of us see a lot of cats die in our lifetime. Going through the death of a pet, particularly for children, can put us through the same emotional process that hunting does. We don't have to kill an animal to get there. It's a very interesting subject, and I hope the difference is cultural and not inherent to gender.
JW: Another aspect of hunting is that it teaches us where our food comes from.
UL: That's a different subject. That's not a spiritual process but a matter of facing the facts. What are you willing to do for your food? Most of us would kill an animal to eat it, if we had to. I could, and would, if I were hungry or defending myself. I'm not saying I would enjoy it, but for those two reasons I would kill an animal. I have Buddhist friends who don't even swat flies. I can't go that far. If something is biting me, I squash it. A pest is a pest.
JW: It's clear from your work that language and writing have become sharp tools for reestablishing human society's (and humanity's) place in the larger household. Much of that effort to envision anew, at least in the last thirty years, has been inspired by feminist principles. You say your goal is always to subvert, to create metaphors for the future "where any assumption can be tested and any rule rewritten. Including the rules of who's on top, and what gender means, and who gets to be free." How were you introduced to the feminist movement? What role has it played in your writing?
UL: My introduction was slow and late. All my early fiction tends to be rather male-centered. A couple of the Earthsea books have no women in them at all or only marginal woman figures. That's how hero stories worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like Joanna Russ, science fiction was pretty much male-dominated up to the 1960s. Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.
None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily. But I began coming up against certain discomforts. My first feminist text was The Left Hand of Darkness, which I started writing in 1967. It was an early experiment in deconstructing gender. Everybody was asking, "What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman?" It's a hard question, so in The Left Hand of Darkness I eliminated gender to find out what would be left. Science fiction is a wonderful opportunity to play this kind of game.
As a thought experiment, The Left Hand of Darkness was messy. I recently wrote the screenplay version, where I was able to make some of the changes I wish I could make to the novel. They're details, but important ones, such as seeing the main character, Genly, with children or doing things we think of as womanly. All you ever see him doing are manly things, like being a politician or hauling a sledge. The two societies in the book are somewhat like a feudal monarchy and Russian communism, which tend to be slightly paranoid. I don't know why I thought androgynous people would be paranoid. With twenty years of feminism under my belt, I can now imagine an androgynous society as being much different -- and far more interesting -- than our gendered society. For instance, I wouldn't lock the people from the planet Gethen, where the story takes place, into heterosexuality. The insistence that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex is naive. It never occurred to me to explore their homosexual practices, and I regret the implication that sexuality has to be heterosexuality.
I gradually realized that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. "Hey," I said, "you can't do that, you're the hero. Where's my book?" I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn't know how to write about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me that I didn't have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.
Part of the women's experience is shared with men and part of it isn't. Experiences that are only women's, like childbirth, have been described a thousand times, mostly in novels by men. These descriptions have nothing to do with the actual experience. Generally, I don't think men in our culture want to hear from women about childbirth because men want to have their way. So, women's stories have been cast in the form of men's stories. A women's story has a different shape, different words, different rhythm. Theirs is the silent crescent of experience that we are just beginning to find words for.
The incredible upsurge of woman writers and poets in the 1980s is a sign that women are finding their voices. They're beginning to talk about their experiences without using a male vocabulary or meeting male expectations. It's sticky, because the language is so male-centered that it excludes much of the feminine experience. Sex, for instance, is always described from a male point of view, as penetration, insemination, and so on. A lot of women still deny that their experience is different than a man's. They do this because it's scary to realize you don't have the words to describe your own experience. The few words we do have we get from our mothers and the women who taught us when we were young. Virginia Woolf says, "We think back through our mothers."
One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist's job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It's one reason why when we read poetry, we often say, "Yeah, that's it. That's how I feel." Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.
JW: The natural landscape is another of those vast silent areas you speak of. As a writer, have certain landscapes had a particularly strong influence on you?
UL: Mostly I don't know where my writing comes from, Experiences are composted, and then something different and unexpected grows out of them. In 1969, my husband and I spent a couple nights in French Glen, the mountainous area of southeastern Oregon. It was my first sight of that sagebrush high-desert terrain, and it got into me so instantly and authoritatively that a book grew out of it -- The Tombs of Atuan. The book isn't about the desert but about a community surrounded by a terrain similar to what you find in southeastern Oregon. The desert is a buried metaphor in the book. I have no idea of the reason for the emotional economy of it, but I know the book came to me as I was driving back from French Glen.
The central landscape of my life is the Napa Valley in Northern California. I grew up there and I consider it my home. I've often thought, "How can I get this beautiful valley into a book?" That was the main impulse of Always Coming Home. I wanted to write about people living in the Napa Valley who used it a little more wisely than we do now. When I was a child, it was the most beautiful and diversified agriculture you ever saw. There were vines and orchards and truck gardens. It was the way a cultivated valley ought to be. But there was too much money in vines, so they pulled up the orchards and truck gardens. The only thing growing there now is money.
JW: What role has your interest in indigenous people played in your work?
UL: I wasn't aware that it played any role at first. Although my father was an anthropologist and an archaeologist, my entire formal training in this area amounts to one physical anthropology class. Obviously I have some temperamental affinity with my father, but I often say that he studied real cultures and I make them up. He had an eye for exact concrete detail, and an interest in it. He also had a respect for tools and the way things work. I got a lot of that from him.
When I started thinking about Always Coming Home I took a lot of time to discover what the book was going to be. Once I realized I wanted it to grow out of the Napa Valley I looked around for a literary precedent. I couldn't find anything except a couple of swashbuckling romantic novels about Italian wine-growing families. The only literature of that earth was native American oral literature. The people of the valley itself, the Wappo, are gone. Even the name they used for themselves is gone. There are people with a little Wappo blood, but there is no language, no tradition, and there are no stories left. So I read other Northern Californian myths and legends and songs. There's a good deal of information available there. My father collected much of it himself. I read widely from traditions all over the United States. My problem was to find a way to use the literature without stealing or exploiting it, because we've done enough of that to native American writing. I certainly didn't want to put a bunch of made up Indians into a Napa Valley of the future. That was not what I was trying to do. What I got from reading California oral literature was a sense of a distant and different quality of life. You can't hear the voices but you can pick up the feeling.
JW: In Always Coming Home, the historical period, which followed the Neolithic era for some thousands of years, is referred to by the Kesh as the time when people lived "outside the world." What do you mean by that?
UL: I was playing with the idea of our present growth technology from the Industrial Revolution on through the present -- the last two hundred years. We don't know when this period will end, but it will. We tend to think of our present historic era as representing the highest evolution of human society. We're convinced that our exploitive, fast-growing technology is the only possible reality. In Always Coming Home, I put people who believe this into one little capsule where the Kesh could look at them as weird aberrations. It was the most disrespectful thing I could do, like wrapping a turd in cellophane. That's sort of a Coyote metaphor.
JW: Speaking of Coyote, she wanders in and out of much of your recent work. How did you meet up with her?
UL: She trotted through a project of mine in 1982. It was an essay on utopia called "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" and when the tracks of utopia and Coyote crossed, I thought, "Yes, now I'm getting somewhere!" The idea of utopia has been stuck in a blueprint phase for too long now. Most of the writing you see is similar to Callenbach's Ecotopia, which is another "wouldn't the future be great if we did this or that?" Or, in science fiction, it's been dystopia: utopia gone sour. These blueprints aren't working anymore.
Coyote is an anarchist. She can confuse all civilized ideas simply by trotting through. And she always fools the pompous. Just when your ideas begin to get all nicely arranged and squared off, she messes them up. Things are never going to be neat, that's one thing you can count on.
Coyote walks through all our minds. Obviously, we need a trickster, a creator who made the world all wrong. We need the idea of a God who makes mistakes, who gets into trouble, and who is identified with a scruffy little animal.
Excerpted by permission of Sierra Club Books from Talking on the Water, copyright [C] 1994 by Jonathan White. Available at your local bookstore.