Honored Sci-Fi Writer Has Deep Berkeley Roots

By SUSAN PARKER Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 12, 2003

To fans of science fiction and fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin is a one-person institution, the author of over 100 short stories, 19 novels, 13 children’s books, two collections of essays and numerous poems and translations, as well as winner of the National Book Award, the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, the PEN/Malamud Award and many other literary honors and prizes 

But for Berkeley, she remains a native-born born institution, the daughter of two luminaries of the campus scene, legendary anthropologist A. L. Kroeber—for whom UC Berkeley’s Kroeber Hall was named—and renowned writer Theodora Kroeber, author of “Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America,” UC Berkeley Press’s first bestseller. 

Born here in 1929, she attended University Elementary School located on Shattuck Avenue, Hillside School, Garfield (now Martin Luther King Middle School) and Berkeley High. 

Now a resident of Portland, Ore., she has fond memories of her Berkeley childhood. “It was wonderful,” she said. “Back then Berkeley was a very small town. 

“The Golden Gate Bridge was built while I was a child, but to get to San Francisco we took the ferry. There were no Bay or Richmond bridges. Going to San Francisco was an excursion, not a commute. Hinks was the only department store in downtown Berkeley. Up where we lived, on Arch Street, there was a dime store, a penny candy store, a drugstore and a small grocery. That’s all. Now it’s known as Walnut Square and the Gourmet Ghetto.” 

Le Guin always expected she’d go to UC Berkeley, but the year she graduated from high school her father received an appointment at Harvard. 

“My father said I was going to Radcliffe,” she laughed. “I had no idea where or what Radcliffe was. When I got there I felt like a foreigner.” 

From Radcliffe Le Guin went to Columbia and from Columbia she sailed to England to take advantage of a Fulbright Scholarship. On the boat to the British Isles she met her soon-to-be husband, historian Charles A. Le Guin. 

Ursula and Charles moved to his native state of Georgia and then to Moscow, Idaho. Forty years ago they wound up in Portland and she has lived there ever since. 

Le Guin started writing when she was five years old. However, it was years before she made a living as a writer. A French and Italian Literature scholar, she helped support her growing family (three children) by teaching, tutoring and secretarial work. Her first pieces were not published until she was 27. 

How did her childhood in Berkeley has influenced her writing? 

“Nothing specific,” Le Guin said. “But growing up in the hills on the edge of the continent, looking out to the west must have been influential. Berkeley was a beautiful place in which to live. The light reflecting off the water, the fog, the massive groves of trees… it was a magical place. And the campus was wonderful. It was our playground.” 

And what does she think of her native city now? 

“Berkeley isn’t my kind of town anymore,” she answered. “It’s so crowded, so fat-cat. How can you live there if you’re not rich? When I’m there I have to really look hard for the old Berkeley. The Bohemian Berkeley that I knew as a child no longer exists.” 

These days, she’s busy promoting her latest book, “Changing Planes.” This delightful series of fictional travel accounts is narrated by a tourist who has mastered the “Sita Dulip Method.” Sita Dulip of Cincinnati discovered one day while waiting for her connecting flight at an airport that “by a mere kind of twist and slipping bend, easier to do than describe, she could go anywhere and be anywhere because she was already between planes.” 

Le Guin’s fanciful descriptions of bizarre cultures mirror and satirize our own society and open up puzzling doors into the unknown. She creates imaginary worlds that address a multitude of topics: war, tyranny, the middle class, mortality, immortality, dreams, art, technology and the meaning and mystery of being human.  

Asked about her new work, Le Guin talks about the translations she has coming out this summer and fall. “The Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral,” the Chilean lyric poet who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, will be published next month by the University of New Mexico. Argentinean Angelica Gorodischer’s “Kalpa Imperial,” a science fiction/magical realism tale about a future empire, will be available Aug. 15 from Small Beer Press. Le Guin sounds just as excited about these translations as she does about her own writing. 

I asked Le Guin how she would suggest someone who is not familiar with her work to go about reading it.  

“Well,” she said, “if you aren’t a science fiction reader already, and I can’t imagine not being one, I’d suggest starting with my novel ‘Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand.’ But if you want to take a chance on fantasy then I suggest reading the ‘Left Hand of Darkness.’ It was my first big hit.” 

“What do you read in your spare time?” I asked. 

“Everything and everybody,” she answered. “Novels. Poetry. Lately I’ve been on a Jose Saramaga binge. Have you read ‘The Cave’? You should.” 

“Who do you admire?” I asked.  

“Virginia Woolf,” she was quick to say. “But I couldn’t read ‘The Hours.’ It pressed my feministic buttons that Michael Cunningham thought he could tell us what Virginia was thinking when she drowned herself.”  

Finally, I asked if she writes everyday. “Heavens no!” Le Guin shouted. “I’m not that methodical. I don’t do anything everyday except eat!”  

“Changing Planes” by Ursula Le Guin, published by Harcourt, is available in local bookstores. She has her own web site, http://www.ursulakLe Guin.com/