Recent Posts

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The New Yorker Interviews Ursula K. LeGuin on "The Left Hand of Darkness"

In your 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?,” you refer to Genly Ai as “conventional” and “stuffy.” There has been some debate in the Book Club over Ai’s stereotyping of Estraven as female when he seems frail or vulnerable. Do you consider Ai a sexist?
Oh, yes. Not a mean one. Not a misogynist. He just has accepted and identified with his society’s definition of women as weaker than men, more devious, less courageous, etc.—physically and intellectually inferior. This gender prejudice has existed for so many thousands of years in so many different societies that I had no hesitation in carrying it on into the future.
In 1968, I don’t think anybody could have imagined an Earthman feeling at home with and welcoming the alien gender situation of Gethen. I did think about sending an Earthwoman there—and she would have reacted very differently from Genly...
But science fiction in 1968 wasn’t about women. It was about men. It was a man’s world. I felt I was taking a huge risk as it was, presenting a largely male readership with these weirdly re-gendered people. I thought the guys would hate it.
I was wrong. They liked it fine. It was the feminists who gave me a hard time about it for years. They wanted me to have been braver. I guess I wish I had been. But I did the best I knew how to do. And Genly does learn a lot!
Early on, Genly Ai is casually, almost incidentally, identified as black. He appears to have come from an enlightened version of Earth, where race is no longer a source of division—although gender still is. Did you believe, while writing the book, that racial difference would be an easier barrier for society to overcome than gender? If so, four decades after the book’s publication, do you still think this is true?
In the long run, yes, I think it’s true. I’ve seen it happening, too slowly, but happening, in my lifetime.
I don’t see the very deep prejudice of male superiority lessening nearly as much; it has even been reconfirmed when fundamentalists of various religions re-enforce it.
But Genly’s skin color was not a prediction, it was a bit of deliberate activism. Most readers of science fiction (then and now) are white. Science-fictional characters, then, were white (and nothing said about it.)
So, my evil activist plot: Let your hero have a dark skin, but don’t say anything about it, until the reader is used to identifying with that person, and then suddenly realizes, Hey, I’m not white!...But what do you know?—I’m still human!
This sneaky approach has paid off recently for me personally, in some very touching letters from people of color who wanted me to know that my books (particularly the Earthsea series) were the very first s.f. or fantasy novels from which they did not feel deliberately and hatefully excluded: This World for Whites Only.


Post a Comment