Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

A Conversation about Fantasy with Ursula K. le Guin and Brian Attebery

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

A Conversation about Fantasy with Ursula K. le Guin and Brian Attebery

Article excerpt

On Gifts and Gifts

Brian Attebery: We've been having various conversations about fantasy since 1979. Since that time there have been tremendous changes in publishing and the academic world and the fantasy readership and maybe your own work since then. Those are some of the things I want to talk about, including your new Annals of the Western Shore. We've now had Gifts [2004] and Voices [2006]. When's the next one due?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Next fall. [Powers, available September 2007]. There was a delay of a year.

BA: I was wondering how you found your way into that world of the Western Shore.

UKL: The first book came as the idea of a person who was expected to have a gift. Everybody thought he had the gift, and it would be reasonable for him to have the gift. But he didn't. It was basically reversing young Ged's situation in A Wizard of Earthsea, where a kid who can't be expected to have a gift has one. That's another set of problems. And then as the idea grew in my head, I thought, what if he had the wrong gift, as it were. He didn't have the one he was thought to have, he had something else. So it was sort of a double whammy. That put me, as an idea like that will do, in the Uplands, among the people there. I had to figure out, just what are these gifts that these people have? They turn out to be fairly dire ones.

BA: When misinterpreted.

UKL: Yes, actually, it seems as if they've been misused, partly because these people have been marginalized and shoved up into a very poor part of the country and don't have much enlightenment offered them. They're like a bunch of benighted highlanders in Scotland, where life is just so tough you just can't think about it very much. But it turns out to be fortunate for Orrec not to have the gift that he is supposed to have, because the one he is supposed to have seems to be completely destructive.

BA: With fantasy, I think it can be disastrous to try to look for messages and morals, but what I see usually is a web of threads reaching out of the book into the world, so that issues and people and places are imperceptibly linked to things in the book. Are there any threads like that that you can think of?

UKL: To the real world?

BA: Yes. If that image makes any sense.

UKL: Well, of course, I'm actually writing about real people and real problems, using fantasy metaphors and images, which allow one to separate out a problem such as being expected to be gifted in some way. You know where I think the idea came from? I was thinking, "What if there was a Bach who wasn't musical?" There were sixty-eight members of the Bach family that were all professional musicians at one time. What about the one that wasn't? And I think that's where the idea began to take shape. There are a lot of people who are expected to be talented or gifted in some way in art or in other fields--sports, academe, moneymaking. And that's tough. Family expectation. So I suppose the realism of my story might resonate with a young reader who felt like: "I'm supposed to be so and so, but I'm not; what do I do? I'm nobody."

BA: When you get into the second book, it gets political.

UKL: Well, with Voices, I think the parallels to our world are way clearer, because we have a religious conflict going on: a monotheistic, aggressive religion taking over a polytheistic, extremely non-aggressive culture, trying to wipe it out and saying this is all sinful and wrong. Books are very important in all three--Gifts, Powers, and Voices. Books are central elements of these fantasies. They're books about books. In Gifts it's not obvious, because most of the people in the book are illiterate. But Orrec's mother is a lowlander; she can read. She's been taught a great deal of narrative and religious stuff. Then a book comes, gets brought up there, and Orrec can read it because his mother taught him to read. And of course this is his gift. …

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