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In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le GuinUrsula Has Walked On

“Ursula K. Le Guin has walked on.” On January 23, the day after her death, this is the way many of us in the Native American community learned about the departure of a brilliant woman who had quietly worked much of her life to mentor, encourage, and advocate Indigenous artists, writers, and activists. We were at our day jobs, on the road, between classes. I was spending the week at a small cabin in the saddle between Big House and Little House Mountains, outside Lexington, Virginia, where I’d gone to work on a book of essays. Night had fallen, and an icy January wind risen, when I put aside my work and checked email. There it was, a message from a friend: “Ursula has walked on.” The wind howled, and so did I.

I met Ursula K. Le Guin in the mid-1990s, at Flight of the Mind Summer Workshop for Women, held on the MacKenzie River in Oregon. I wasn’t in Ursula’s workshop; she didn’t know me at all. So after the workshop’s grand finale, where everyone read something created that week, I was stunned when Ursula approached me out of the crowd. She walked right up to me and said, “That was a very fine poem. That needed to be written. Thank you for writing it.” After she’d walked away (leaving me speechless), a friend said to me, “You know who her father was, don’t you?” I shook my head. My friend told me. It was a name of an anthropologist who had done a lifetime of work with California Indians; who had, in fact, been a key player in declaring the Esselen tribe—my tribe—extinct.

The daughter of that man had just acknowledged a poem by the daughter of an Indigenous man from the Esselen Nation, a poem about still existing eighty years later, despite that academic denial. Ursula did not have to acknowledge me. She certainly did not have to compliment my work. But that was Ursula.

We didn’t communicate again until many years later, when I contacted her to see if she had any resources for a Native elder who was being cheated out of substantial royalties. Ursula remembered me, and immediately set wheels in motion to find out the best possible legal moves. That was so like her. We kept in touch, developing an email and snail-mail correspondence that felt natural, as if we’d been talking all along. It never stopped amazing me: her attentiveness to ideas and literature, stray poems traveling back and forth, books, her delight in seeing photographs of our mountain, shared homesickness for California, drawings of her beloved Kishamish. We exchanged stories about our respective fathers, too; laid to rest some old ghosts.

I know that I was one of many who received such generosity from Ursula; she was an established author who never forgot how hard it was to be invisible to the dominant culture around us. How painful it was to be invisible. Over the next few hours on January 23, as news spread, I saw tribute after tribute pour in from big names, an obit in the New York Times, lists of her awards, the phrase “Grand Dame of Fantasy and Sci-Fi” draped in all caps. And Ursula deserved every bit of that, though she’d have fussed it was too much.

What you probably didn’t see were the quieter tweets, Facebook posts, and of course, private emails, from all the “invisibles” whom Ursula had befriended and championed.

Not just Native writers, but queer, immigrant, black, Latinx, undocumented writers—the list goes on and on. Daniel Heath Justice, Cherokee author of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, writes:

After the novel came out, I sent a thank-you note to her for her thoughtful words on the book’s behalf, in which I told a story of her late brother, Karl Kroeber, who’d also been quite kind to me during my co-editorship of *SAIL*. I just wanted to offer my appreciation, not expecting the lovely card that arrived a few months later that included a sweet story of her brother and her kind wishes for the book’s success. She didn’t know me; she didn’t have to do any of this, but she did. And I’ve never forgotten it.

. . . [S]he never ceased advocating for Indigenous writers and our work. As a writer *and* as a human being, she was an exemplar of professional and human regard. May her journey to those far shores be a gentle one.

Writing a storied note to a thank you note is pure Ursula—she was a builder of relationships, of community. Dovie Thomason (Lakota/Kiowa Apache) writes, “She was a real human being—gets no better [than that]!” To be a “human being” in Native community is a term of highest praise and respect.

adrienne maree brown, a black queer writer, was another of Ursula’s correspondents left with so much unsaid; she posted a final letter to Ursula that begins,

dear Ursula,

great teacher.

great spirit.

i’ve been crying since i got the news of your passing, and also feeling very alive.

i got to live at the same time as you.

and i get the honor of grieving you.

adrienne goes on to list the profound ways in which her correspondence with Ursula gave her strength, structure and purpose during times when being a young lesbian writer of color seemed an impossible combination. Her words echoed so much of what I felt, and knew others were feeling too.

Luis Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter (among others), posted a blog that reaches back to his earliest days as a writer, the loss of his father to horrific violence, and Ursula’s prickly, gentling presence in his university workshop. Although Luis is a big deal now, back then, he says, he was lost and flailing: “I believed deep down that I was always going to be a struggling Tijuana and Logan Heights kid. My fate was to be working jobs I hated, secretly writing in my notebooks for lovers who didn’t understand what I wanted to say.” Ursula, he says, believed in him—but warned, “I’m not going to be easy on you.”

That was Ursula, too. Giant bear-heart. Big bear-growl. With just the right amount of tenderness as she back-handed you, lovingly, with her little bear paw.

I’ve chosen just a few of the stories I’ve seen and heard since Ursula died. But the theme is clear: Ursula saw each of us. She saw, she engaged, taught, listened, directed, encouraged, and made each one of us feel important, treasured, valued. Imagine being a hugely successful author in tremendous demand for readings, talks, award ceremonies—not to mention her own writing time!—and yet, giving away all that love and energy to the next generations of writers. That, too, was Ursula K. Le Guin.

She left behind a body of work that will keep our minds and hearts busy for the rest of our lives, and beyond. And yet none of us were prepared for this being to move on. As adrienne writes,

when i wondered if imagination could be necessary for revolution and transformation, you said yes, you said our dreams and visions matter, they are the way we make oppression temporary.
88 years. i wanted more. you are that kind of human.

Micha ene hikpalala, ukuski-koltala tanoch. I’ll see you.

Donations may be made in Ursula’s name to:
Audubon Society of Portland
Please specify that the donation is for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Harney County
Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Malheur Field Station

Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “In That Ohio,” first published in the Spring 1987 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Dr. Deborah A. Miranda is a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation. Her book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2015. She teaches creative writing and literature at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.