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The director of the Ursula K. Le Guin doc talks her magical, radical work

The late sci-fi and fantasy author shook up societal norms, gender roles, and genre constraints with her galaxy-spanning art

The late, great American writer Ursula K. Le Guin changed sci-fi and fantasy writing forever when she emerged in the late 60s. In her time, the American author published 20 novels, over 100 short stories, 12 books of poetry, seven essay collections, 13 children’s books and a guide for would-be writers across a career spanning several decades. Her writings surpassed traditional sci-fi and fantasy, and with her Daoist beliefs, delved into hopeful new worlds that broke free from the political, gendered, and social restraints we know in our own. From her Earthsea series to the revered Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin shook up gender norms and broke open patriarchal gatekeeping.

The life and work of this icon, who passed away in January, are captured in vivid, eye-opening detail in Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a 2018 crowd-funded documentary that took director Arwen Curry 10 years to make.

We caught up with the San Francisco-based director ahead of the film’s screening at New Suns, a feminist literary festival at London’s Barbican centre.   

How did you first encounter LeGuin’s work, and why did it resonate with you

Arwen Curry: I read Le Guin as a child, as many people do. I got into her work with the Earthsea books. I also read some of her adult novels that were on my dad's bookshelf.  The authenticity of her imagined worlds made them feel very real to me.

How did you get into film, and making this film in particular?  

Arwen Curry: I had a writing background, working as the editor of a venerable punk magazine based in San Francisco called Maximum Rocknroll. I was about to go to journalism school, and I was thinking about projects that could honour and explore the lives of feminist writers that had influenced me; Le Guin was one of those women.  By the time I got to Berkeley (Graduate School of Journalism), I decided to do the film documentary program there, with this film in mind. I fundraised for and shot Worlds Of… concurrently with several other feature documentaries: Regarding Susan Sontag; Eames: The Architect & The Painter (about husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames).

Is that why it took ten years to make?!  

Arwen Curry: Correct (laughs). But in the course of that time, I learned a lot about the craft and my relationship with Ursula deepened, so it was a blessing in disguise in some ways. 

Was Ursula on-board from get-go?

Arwen Curry: I developed a vision of what I wanted to do and then I approached her; it was a bit of a process to convince her (laughs). She wasn’t shy with the press – she'd given a lot of radio and print interviews – but she was famously reticent in front of the camera, as a lot of writers are.  

How did you win her over? 

Arwen Curry: I learned fairly recently that it was a fortuitous moment when I approached her; her son told me this at the premier in Portland (LeGuin’s home town) in September. He said: "You know, if you had approached her a couple of years earlier, or later, it might not have gone this way." She'd began thinking about her legacy in a way she hadn’t before, and thinking you know ‘this (a documentary) might be something that happens (with or without her), so maybe I should get on-board now. 

She saw a cut of the film in December, and passed away in January. We wrapped in April.

“She was instrumental in elevating these very marginalised genres... through the sheer inventiveness and quality of her work. When she showed up, (sci-fi) was all giant green monsters and bikini-clad robots”

There was a lot of rejection before the successes came. Why was it important to show those early obstacles?

Arwen Curry: I wanted to show that success doesn’t come from nowhere; feminist awareness doesn’t come from nowhere – it all comes from something, and how you get there is the interesting part.

Ursula wrote fiction, poetry, essays and even released an album of spoken word songs, Music and Poetry of The Kesh, to accompany her book Always Coming Home (1985). How did you choose which of her many works to weave the film’s narrative around?  

Arwen Curry: A lot of the film is structured around her evolution as a writer and a feminist, when she was writing the Earthsea books – both sets of trilogies. We also talk about The Dispossessed (1974) and The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969), in part because they were game-changing books, but also because they show us something about how she was influenced by the times that she lived in and the circles she was moving through.

Ursula came up pre-nerd cool, writing at a time when sci-fi and fantasy and YA lit were both a) male dominated, and b) still denigrated as sub-cannon, not serious literature. How did her works change that?

Arwen Curry: She was instrumental in elevating these very marginalised genres, and I think she did that through the sheer inventiveness and quality of her work. When she showed up, it was all giant green monsters and bikini-clad robots, and in some ways, the science fiction of the time was aiding in its own marginalisation. She inhabited that space, but she wrote with a quality that showed real literature was taking place. It was very important for people – both at the time and in the generations that followed – to see that it could be done this way. 

As to her determination, she knew the value of her work, and she loved writing. To her, there was no question that she was going to be a writer. It was just a matter of breaking through, of finding the crack where the light would shine through.

She was also ahead of her time as a working mother. As she says in the film: “I was writing a book with one hand and raising three children with the other.”  

Arwen Curry: Yes. Her husband Charles was also ahead of his time, in the sense that he truly valued her work. Technically speaking, she was a ’60s housewife, but they both knew she was a serious writer, and instead of trivialising that, Charles supported it. He watched the children when she needed to work, and he facilitated her having that time. Without that simple thing, we would not have this body of work. 

I’m raising two kids of my own, children I had during the course of production, so it was all very real to me, trying to accomplish a large piece of work while also trying to be there for your children. 

As a new-ish Le Guin reader, I had no idea her work was so radical, so concerned with what liberation might look like beyond capitalism, patriarchy, gender binaries etc. She’s very clear in the film that, for her, fantasy isn’t “a woo-woo place” but rather a realm where new realities might emerge, right?  

Arwen Curry: Yes. This wasn’t unicorns and rainbows – this was serious human inquiry. Le Guin is not often talked about in this way, but she was deeply dedicated to human freedom. She explored that concept in many of her works, which were anthropological or ethnographic in nature, and very pleasurable to read.

Her values and motives as a writer were largely shaped by her mother and father’s anthropological work. Alfred and Theodora Kroeber both worked to document lost and precarious languages and cultures of American’s indigenous peoples – work that directly informed Ursula’s oeuvre.  Would casual readers know this abut her?

Arwen Curry: It’s common knowledge, but often misunderstood. Hers was a childhood that was deeply steeped in myth and folklore and cultural relativism, from her father's anthropological work, and her mother’s books.  She grew up in a house filled with great thinkers; she had refuges from Europe in her house during the Second World War; she had people like Robert Oppenheimer debating around the dinner table. She understood from a very young age that the way we live – the way our society is structured – is not the only way, and that this isn’t a frightening thing, but rather something that offers possibility and hope.

Ursula shows a willingness to critique her own work in the documentary, to regard its failings as she saw them. That’s an honesty we don’t always get from our best writers.   

Arwen Curry: I think Ursula was very unusual in her willingness to evolve in the public eye, to ruthlessly examine her own shortcomings. She doesn’t condemn her early work, though – she builds on it, and that’s a really valuable example of how to move in the world, how to acknowledge your mistakes and move on. She knew the important thing is to stay flexible, to listen, to be honest with yourself and with other people. We could use a little more of that right now.

Yes. America is…struggling, isn’t it?

Arwen Curry: I had a screening here in San Francisco last night and during the Q&A, this woman asking me in in this very sad voice ‘what do you think (Ursula) would tell us about what we should do right now?’ And my response to that was: we can’t allow them to colonise our imaginations, because if we can’t imagine a more just future, then we can never get there. In her 2014 National Book Award speech, Ursula said:  “We live under capitalism. It seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings." Ursula saw the long view.

Indeed. She was writing about gender queer people back in the ‘70s, in Left Hand of Darkness, decades before non-binary identity became common parlance.

Arwen Curry: She had a very open mind and an active curiosity about all aspects of human identity and culture, so anything that seemed set or fixed, she was likely to question in her work – especially when those around her weren't. She did this with gender, with family structures, with race, society; she played with every conceivable idea around how humans could organise and define themselves. And some of that is very useful to us now.  

Her legacy in 2018 is undeniable, as authors like Neil Gaiman attest to in the documentary. We’d have no Harry Potter without her early Earthsea books, for example. Are today’s writers making good on the trail she blazed?  

Arwen Curry: I think lots of people are following in her path, including authors who aren’t considered sci-fi writers – people like Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith.  And then there are people working within the sci-fi and fantasy field – people like Adrienne Maree Brown – who draw directly on Ursula’s world of experiment and possibility to imagine new frontiers for gender, race, politics, and how people might re-organise in radical new ways.