This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 2, featuring Samatha Allen and Lauren Wilkinson.
AD READ: Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today, journalist and author Samantha Allen has chosen The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and debut novelist Lauren Wilkinson has chosen A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi.
Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States and of Love & Estrogen. She is a GLAAD Award-winning journalist who has written widely for publications including CNN, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast. She also holds a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Emory University. Real Queer America is a tour through the surprisingly vibrant queer communities sprouting up in red states, offering a vision of a stronger, more humane America.
GUEST 1 – Samantha Allen
Hi, I’m Samantha Allen and The Left Hand of Darkness is my recommended.
So, this is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorites, written in 1969. A lot of it very relevant today as a lot of classic science fiction goes. And it’s about an envoy from a sort of Star Trek-esque federation of people called the Ekumen who visits a wintery ice planet populated by people who are androgynous physiologically and who kind of one week out of the month enter a phase of reproduction in which they’re assigned a sexual role. And so it’s this envoy’s job, his name is Genly Ai, to kind of serve as an ambassador for the Ekumen and persuade this planet to join the Ekumen. But really it’s not so much a plot driven novel as it is kind of like a study in the other. It’s about Genly kind of learning the ways of this planet and befriending a prime minister on the planet named Estraven.
I’m really drawn to the character of Estraven. Genly Ai, the ambassador, the envoy, kind of has a bit of trouble with how to perceive Estraven, and I would say the resolution of the novel is when they finally do become friends on this journey across a glacier as they’re escaping prison where the envoy was imprisoned. But you know, Genly comes from Earth. He’s a man and he’s a bit of a man’s man. He’s masculine and he finds it strange a little bit that these people on the planet that he’s visited kind of enter this period of almost like animalistic heat, during which some get assigned a more male sexual role and some get assigned a female sexual role, and the body just kind of decides and transforms and reshapes a little bit physiologically.
He has a really hard time reckoning with that. He uses masculine pronouns for everyone in the book seemingly by default and when he sees more effeminate qualities in people on this planet, he doesn’t quite know what to do with that. And there are just some really beautiful moments and conversations that they have together, Estraven and Genly, on the ice together that are just stirring and that I think speak to the beauty of encountering the other and accepting the other.
I read it as a teenager. I’ve flipped back into it a bunch and just this past week I listened to an audiobook version of it, which was really interesting. It’s sci-fi book, so there’s a lot of place names and complicated people names that don’t quite translate to the audio version. But what I enjoyed about listening to it in audio form is in the book itself Genly describes how on the planet newspapers don’t really exist. There technically is writing, but most people just have oral traditions or listen to things on the radio. So it was cool to listen to the book and pretend like I was on this planet listening to a story being passed down.
I mean, the other really interesting thing about reading it as a teenager and reading it again now is as a teenager I was still grappling to understand my gender identity. I hadn’t yet come out as a transgender woman. I probably wasn’t sure what those words meant as a teenager. I was raised with a very binary view of gender in the Mormon Church, and so for me, reading this science fiction novel about this planet full of androgynous people who could seemingly … not switch sex, but be assigned to either sex role for a week out of the month, I don’t know, that was really stirring for me and really interesting to encounter.
I think it unlocked some things that I might’ve only known what to do with later. And now coming to it, having come out as a transgender woman and transitioned and reading it, I see so much more the beauty of these interactions between Genly and Estraven, between someone who doesn’t quite get how … He technically understands that gender can look different on another planet, but his heart still has a little way to go. And now it just takes me back to all sorts of, I don’t know, conversations with family members or friends or that kind of thing. Helping their hearts get to the right place.
I envy people who write fiction. It must take such restraint as a science fiction writer to come up with this great big idea, like, “Oh, what about a planet full of androgynous people?” And then to not just spend your entire book hammering that big idea over and over again, but to kind of control yourself and then just make room for these little textural moments and to make your book about a relationship instead of like, “Let me dramatize this big idea in every way I can think of on my whiteboard.”
I mean I would never want to compare my book favorably to The Left Hand of Darkness, but there definitely are similarities between Left Hand of Darkness and Real Queer America. Both kind of focus in on personal relationships and conversations during a moment of political upheaval. Both of them are travel books, and both of them I think broadly are about talking to the other, talking to people who aren’t like you. Learning about their experiences and their approach to the world. I think a lot of people think of of journalism as this very objective process, where yeah, I don’t know, you’re almost like a doctor swooping in to diagnose problems and you have to keep this real stern emotional distance between yourself and the people you interview.
And that works for some kinds of journalism, but for LGBTQ journalism, like the kind I did in Real Queer America, I really wanted to spend time with people, get to know them, build up that trust and then get to know how they see the world. And there are similarities I see in how Genly …. Let me back up a bit. I think one of the most beautiful things about the Left Hand of Darkness is that the way that Genly finally comes to sort of love and accept Estraven is by traveling with him. I think there’s something about travel that kind of builds empathy, builds relationships, lets you see someone in a way that you haven’t before.
And that’s definitely informed my journalism. It informed Real Queer America in the sense that when I was in these states interviewing people, I would say, “What do you want to do? Do you want to go on a hike? Do you want to go out to eat at your favorite restaurant? Do you want to go on a drive somewhere? Let’s go somewhere together.” And in the process of getting from point A to point B, you also often get somewhere unexpected, which is kind of a point of personal understanding.
I’m trying to think of any other science fiction I’ve read that does really interesting things with gender like that. I have read a lot of singularity science fiction, where we’re all like lines of code and I don’t know, flocks of pigeons in the sky and that kind of stuff, and that’s interesting for a different reason because it makes you think about what would gender even look like without humans if we were all just like uploaded into some cyber consciousness or that kind of thing.
But I mean this book is just so startlingly original and I think that’s why it got the Hugo and the Nebula and such acclaim at the time. It wasn’t a sci-fi book with all this action or about a deeply alien planet of people. It was just kind of a book full of conversations. It was a book of talking and I just really took to that.
That was Samanatha Allen, recommending The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Her book Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, published by Little Brown and Co., is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at SLAwrites.
Lauren Wilkinson earned an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and has taught writing at Columbia and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow, and has also received support from the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Wilkinson grew up in New York and lives on the Lower East Side. American Spy is her first novel, and follows FBI intelligence officer Marie Mitchell who goes undercover in Burkina Faso during the Cold War.
GUEST 2 – Lauren Wilkinson
My name is Lauren Wilkinson, and my recommended is A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi.
A Philosophy of Ruin is about Oscar Boatwright, who is a young philosophy professor whose mother dies on a flight. And he is, in the rest of the book, his mother dies on the first page of it and then the rest of the book, he is grieving and behaving in a way that seems wildly out of character for a young philosophy professor. He also learns that his mother is in debt to someone who is a self-styled philosopher. But Oscar sort of dismisses him as a con man, as a cult leader. His mother was really deeply depressed when she was still alive. And this guy helped, and his father is really concerned that she ended up giving this guru 80 grand. So, Oscar needs money. He’s deeply grieving. And when he meets a young student who offers him the opportunity to make a quick buck, picking up cocaine in Mexico, he obliges.
There is, you know, a young woman. You know, as I said, he’s a philosophy professor and his mother dies on the first page of the book. And he’s really grieving throughout the whole thing, and in one sort of drunken night, he sleeps with a woman who he realizes after the fact is in fact one of his students, his 101 class. So, that’s a bit of a disaster. And yeah, she gets him involved in a little bit of trouble and a drug run. But it is so focused on Oscar and his grief that he’s just sort of my favorite character, because I felt like he was … I dunno, he was just so deeply excavated.
And you know, when you put his behavior in the context of grief, you know, you start to see someone who … You know, watch them unravel and see the effect of that kind of pain on someone who is really thoughtful but, you know, doesn’t necessarily understand, doesn’t see, the consequences of what grief can do until it happens to them, I guess. So, I don’t know. I thought that was really, really well-handled.
Reading it made me excited to kind of watch a character. You know, to be able to observe myself figuring out what is really going on with the character. I don’t know. I don’t know if that made any sense, but I was just like … You know when you have a moment with a book where you stop treating them as a character, but as a person? And you’re just like, “Wait, this is …” You know, you almost feel like, “Oh, this is real.” You know? And then you have to take a moment and say, “No, it’s not.” But that’s like a kind of alchemy for me. It’s a kind of magic in a book when that happens. So, yeah, I think it really made me happy to have to remind myself that Oscar wasn’t real.
I feel like it’s genre-bending in a way that I hope to be in my own work in the sense that it’s, you know, ostensibly a genre book, but really investigates the internal life of the main character, Oscar Boatwright, which is also an amazing name.
I think that there are a couple of books that I have read about that are sort of mashing up more “literary fiction” with genre. And I’m always excited to see how they do. Because I think that they defy certain expectations. People just say, “Oh, a literary fiction audience wants it to be straight literary fiction, and a genre audience wants it to be straight genre.” And I think that there’s space for a blend of the two. So I’m always excited to see those books succeed.
I have gone to a few events and seen Nick once or twice. So, of course, I’ve met him socially a couple of times, so I wanted to read his book. And I was just … I dunno, I was kind of blown away by it. So, yeah. You know, I think it’s just because it’s really funny in these moments that I was just like, “Wow.” You know? It’s one of those things where I was like, “Oh.” I felt a little bit jealous. You know? Because I have met this person … And they were like, “Oh yeah, I’ve written a book.” And then you actually read it and you’re like, “Oh, this is good.” And as an author, I want to … You know, I want his work to be good, but you know, I’m still a little jealous. I won’t lie.
I’m sort of revealing though a secret about me, which is I don’t recommend books that often. I feel a lot of pressure. I feel like people are like, “Oh, you’re writer, recommend a book I’m going to like.” And I’m like, “Oh God, what if I mess up?”
So, I don’t know. I don’t know why I hold myself to this ridiculous standard that no one else is holding me to. I just do.
That was Lauren Wilkinson, recommending A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi. Her debut mystery, American Spy, is published by Random House and is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at thrillkinson.
Many thanks to Samantha Allen and Lauren Wilkinson for sharing some favorites with us.
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