Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 by Ursula K. Le Guin is necessary reading. I mean, writers writing about books and social issues? Swoon. Even better when it is someone as wonderful as Ursula LeGuin, one of the most well-known female science fiction and fantasy writers. If your English Lit. classes didn’t cover “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” I would be floored. Words Are My Matter is full of essays, reviews and talks that LeGuin has given over the years. There is so much to be learned from writers, particularly those from older generations. As she says in her speech “Freedom”:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”
Truer words could not have been spoken, especially at the time of this books publication in late 2016.
Her piece “What Women Know” stood out to me and it is one I’d recommend you read. In it she explains what we learn from women (“how to walk, talk, eat, sing, pray, play with others”) and what we learn from men, which is “often gendered”.
“Social and moral change may begin with women, who have invested in the hierarchy, as they try to teach their children how to adapt to new circumstances. I think of the covered wagons on the Oregon Trails; while the men filled the traditional role of aggressively defending their women from strangers assumed to be hostile and dangerous, the women, often surreptitiously, it appears, talked with Indian women, bartered a little with them, left the kids free to nose around one another…The rigid white male story excluded the strangers, the opportunistic white female story began to admit them.”
I loved this because I have often thought of this myself; when I think of the Little House books, for example, I often think of the strength Caroline Ingalls had to have had or muster up to manage the raising of four girls out in the uncharted territories of the American Midwest-West, entirely alone; while Charles was out facing the elements and working for their survival, she was in charge of something that was arguably more important, more vital. It would be impossible to determine which of them “had it worse” but Caroline’s role should not be forgotten or seen as lesser in any way. She goes on to say:
“The public, male teachings and the private, female teachings may differ, and the differences may be confusing: as when a single mother in the inner city teaches her children the story that society expects them to respect themselves and behave as honest citizens, but what they learn from the young men who are the leaders in the streets, and all too often from teachers and policemen, is that they are characters in a story that allows them only one role – to be addicts and criminals, useless or worse.”
The idea of the male hierarchy penetrates our subconscious even more than we realize. LeGuin herself admits that it ruled her own thinking and writing for a long time before she thought, “if I am a woman, why am I writing books in which men are at the center and primary, and women are marginal and secondary – as if I were a man?”
I like especially that she doesn’t place emphasis on women assuming we know “more” than men; again it is not a competition of who knows more or less, who is better or worse. It is about allowing women to come into the light, about men learning how to take a step back and recognize the roles women have played, and also their abilities to move forward in the same ways that men have been doing for so long.
This really was a wonderful book to read and think about, and I am so grateful that LeGuin is with us and can share this wisdom in her writing. Please, do yourself a favor and read this book 🙂