On my reading list for February (or as soon as I move up the library hold-list totem pole) are two titles I learned about last night at Powell‘s: Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed and Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction, edited by Margaret Killjoy.
Powell’s is one of the top reasons I wanted to live in Portland, and last night I did a little happy dance when I checked their event calendar. Two bucks to ride the bus downtown and hear Ursula K Le Guin?! What is this place, heaven?
Okay, so she lives in Portland and heaven wouldn’t have this many strip clubs (hey, it’s my blog,) but still. I love Portland; I love Powell’s.
Le Guin read from two short stories to a packed crowd of predominantly young people in their twenties. She’ll be 81 this year and kept making references to books she’d written and things that happened “before most of you were born!” I love the softening effect of an older person’s perspective on contentious issues, and anarchism is something that tends to get people riled up.
Nobody got riled up at Powell’s, probably because they were all anarchists. I’m not an anarchist, but I’m interested in ideas about alternative ways of living. And I appreciated Le Guin’s thoughtful questions and friendly responses, the kind that invite more people into the conversation.
The overarching questions for the evening were: What does anarchism mean today and why is fiction a good medium for radical thought?
Le Guin spoke about fiction’s power to bring abstract theory to life, helping us imagine what alternative ways of living would actually feel like. She defended utopian fiction as a useful way to talk about what we imagine for the future– not that we should endeavor to build exactly what we envision and consider anything less than that a sign of failure, but that we should choose from the best ideas in those visions. To me, this is a picture of the creative process itself, engaging with mystery and the unknown to rediscover truth. Why shouldn’t that process be part of our world-building in real life, too?
This was partly what motivated Margaret Killjoy, a radical writer and activist, to put together this collection. He wanted to bring together the voices of writers who identify as anarchist or write about anarchism, voices from both past and present. Illustrative of the challenge was his anecdote that upon visiting the bay area anarchist book fair, he could only find two works of fiction in the whole joint. Much of anarchist literature tends to be non-fiction.
For those who are, like me, unversed in anarchist fiction, some of the more well-known names follow: Starhawk and Derrick Jenson both contributed to Killjoy’s collection. Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut and Ed Abbey are other writers who identified as anarchist, as I learned from Killjoy’s “Powerpoint presentation”– a cartoon history of anarchist fiction drawn in Sharpie on a flip chart, and held up by a volunteer.
Anarchist news dot org has a great interview with Killjoy, wherein he says he’s interested in normalizing anarchism through fiction. At first this seems self-contradictory– wouldn’t normalizing what is radical cease to make it, well, radical? Maybe that’s exactly it.
Here’s Killjoy’s distillation of what anarchism means: the right balance of freedom and responsibility. I turned that over in my mind as I crossed nearly empty streets to catch the bus home. Stoplights turned from red to green and the crosswalk signs counted backwards from ten. The trees were lit up bright as day down 6th avenue, in two perfect lines. I listened to my footsteps on the sidewalk, caught my reflection in the black windows of empty buildings.
Sometimes real life feels like science fiction.
That was yesterday’s mental yoga session. I’ve never read Le Guin, I don’t read science fiction, and I don’t know much about anarchism. This is going to be fun! If you have any favorites by Le Guin or other sci-fi writers, please let me know.