Thus begins Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay, Introducing Myself. It is these little details that steer the prose into the realm of identity and gender. Originally written as a performance piece in 1992, the essay explores a complex subject – what does it mean to be a woman (or even a man for that matter)? With a provocative start, Le Guin is almost daring you to challenge what is being said. Surely, there is no truth to what she is saying. Le Guin is a woman. We know that. And she knows that. So how can she claim to be a man?
“So when I was born there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am. I am him, as in ‘If anybody needs to throw up he will have to do it in his hat’ or ‘A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.’ That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man.”
The male is the default when it comes to referring to people, a collective lot of human beings, the makers of all civilizations. It is, as if, there is no other gender to speak of. The pronoun ‘him’ is used so intuitively and so often, that if all human beings are men, then Le Guin too, must be a man. For what else could she possibly be?
“Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women by decades.”
This is one of the lines that hit the hardest. For someone born in 1929 who must have seen modernization up close, witnessed the transformation of the world in unimaginable ways and seen the changing nature of how we operate in it, Le Guin is clearly someone who can speak with authority on the subject of identity, gender stereotypes, and feminism.
Rich with wordplay and metaphors, Le Guin takes space in her essay to reveal truths in a light-hearted manner and with such simplicity that it is hard to not break into laughter at the absurdity of things.
“I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now.’
What this essay highlights are the constant tussles between one’s identity and society. How is one to define oneself? Are we, who we are, in relation to those around us? Is society supposed to label and tell us the do’s and dont’s to be followed in keeping with those labels? And if one was to flout whatever collective wisdom told us, did that make us less of who we are?
“And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invented women, and I live and live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty.”
And just like that, Le Guin, using her wit and sarcasm moves into yet another interesting subject – aging.
“There must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous effort because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that I am at best a bad man. An imitation phone second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet, but it might be worth trying.”
And that’s a harsh reality, one that makes you pause and think. First, there were no women to speak of. And then, there were no old women to think of. So if one was to start thinking of oneself in terms of identities that have missed the attention of the mainstream, and the constant struggle is to be more like a man or to remain youthful forever, is that somehow negating our true selves? Are we falling victims to conventions and most importantly, to untruths?
In Introducing Myself, Le Guin also touches on issues related to body image, and in a self-deprecating manner, attempts to defy the accepted norms of what we have been taught to understand is our duty as women. In a deeply intimate and confessional mood, she speaks of how even after ‘women’ had been invented, she failed to live up to the ideal.
“What it comes down to, I guess, is that I am just not manly. Like Ernest Hemingway was manly. The beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences. I do try. I have this sort of beardoid thing that keeps trying to grow, nine or ten hairs on my chin, sometimes even more: but what do I do with the hairs? I tweak them out. Would a man do that? Men don’t tweak. Men shave.”
And that’s the truth of it, a reality that I as a woman, face as well, almost three decades after Le Guin first wrote this. I absent-mindedly end up running my finger along my own messy brows as I read this essay, and the thought occurs to me that I am carrying along unshaven legs for the past week and been trudging along to all kinds of public places oblivious that a stray hair on my toe might attract the attention, and worse, the censure of the gents and the ladies I encounter. Should I be doing something about some of the less feminine aspects of mine? Should I be behaving the society expects me to?
That is exactly the point that Le Guin is trying to make in her slightly wicked way. She is asking her readers – how do you define yourselves? Are you are trying to fit into the definitions already given to you by society? Does maintaining the definitions already accorded to you steal away at your individuality? Or is there still a spirit within you, to redefine yourself anew, and say what it might mean to be a woman or old or really, anything at all?