Revisioning Gender: Inventing Women in Ursula K. le Guin's Nonfiction
Rashley, Lisa Hammond, Biography
I am a man. Now you may think I've made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I'm trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I've been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don't matter. ... I am a man, and I want you to believe and accept this as a fact, just as I did for many years.
--"Introducing Myself," The Wave in the Mind (3)
[U]ntil the mid-seventies I wrote my fiction about heroic adventures, high-tech futures, men in the halls of power, men--men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary. Why don't you write about women? my mother asked me. I don't know how, I said. A stupid answer, but an honest one.
--"The Fisherwoman's Daughter," Dancing at the Edge of the World (234)
Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most honored contemporary American authors, is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, though she has done extensive work in other genres, including poetry and nonfiction, as well as some writing that is difficult to categorize, borrowing from the realms of mainstream realistic fiction, science fiction, and magical realism. Since the late 1960s, Le Guin has challenged numerous conventions of science fiction in her novels, depicting characters who redefine our understandings of gender and race and creating plots with clear political subtexts. One of the most constant themes in Le Guin's long and respected career has been her ongoing effort to reconceptualize gender, and in that process of redefinition, she has never been afraid to consider and reconsider her positions. Hailed by critics as a pioneering author questioning gender roles in the traditionally male realm of science fiction, she has also been simultaneously reviled for focusing her fiction on male characters, and even for unintentionally depicting androgynous characters as masculine. The intense critical scrutiny her fiction has undergone has been mirrored in many respects by her own examination of her personal attitudes about gender as well. Since 1969, Le Guin has reexamined--and most importantly, reinterpreted--her fiction, but she has also moved far beyond simple examinations of gender roles to an actual performance of her own changing gendered identity, especially that of the woman writer. In much of her nonfiction, Le Guin employs the same fundamental narrative techniques of experimentation and play that characterize her fictional writing to create multiple feminist identities through narrated autobiographical bodies. Le Guin embodies gender as a provocative process, constructing selves vested in female bodies and identities, but at the same time, refusing what she terms "sexualist reductionism" (Wave 285); that is, reducing those bodies to their sex and gender. In these performances, Le Guin challenges her readers' and her own understanding of both gender and genre, an ongoing feminist process she has now continued in print for nearly forty years.
Le Guin's initial public forays into the controversial realm of redefining gender began with the 1969 publication of The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel's depiction of an androgynous race challenged conventional wisdom in science fiction genres at the time, but the critical response to the book produced a firestorm of both praise and criticism for Le Guin's work that occasioned her reexamination of her attitudes about gender. (1) Still taught regularly in science fiction and women's studies courses, the novel portrays the planet Winter's androgynous cultures, as seen largely through the eyes of a young black man from Earth, Genly Ai. As the first of several narrators in the book, Ai's perceptions of the people of Winter provide the initial descriptions of the people and planet, and he has a pronounced tendency to read these people through his own gendered lens as men or women, according to his own preconceptions. …