Ursula K. Le Guin is easily one of the most accomplished authors in science fiction and fantasy today. She has been a prolific writer of both adult and children’s books since the 1960s, and is the winner of a variety of prestigious awards, including Hugos, Nebulas, a Pushcart Prize, a Newbury Medal, and a National Book Award. She is best known for her Earthsea book series, as well as her novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Ursula K. Le Guin to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “The Silence of the Asonu.”
How did you come up with the idea of the Asonu?
As well as I can remember, it came from talking to my cat—you know the kind of things you say to your dog or your cat, “What a handsome fellow you are,” “Are you thinking about dinner already, greedy gut?”—nonsense like that. And then thinking how grateful I was that he didn’t talk back—how restful and thoughtful the silence of an animal can be.
The Asonu Elder responds primarily to young children. Why is that?
Five of the eleven sayings were addressed to children. They were, after all, still speaking, and had asked a question, or needed to be praised or warned.
The Asonu Elder seems to be very aware of his own mortality. What are the Asonu’s feelings towards death?
To me the fourth, ninth, and eleventh Sayings of the Elder of Isu might indicate both a stoical acceptance of mortality, and a conviction that an individual death is not the end of everything.
Do you know why are the Asonu are actually silent?
The story-teller didn’t ask them, since it wouldn’t do any good to ask them. Some of the more intelligent speculations about their silence are in the story, shortly before the Sayings of the Elder: that they don’t speak because they are listening; because they are hiding something; because language is incapable of expressing their mystical knowledge and if they spoke everything of importance would have been said.
Or perhaps it’s just a genetic thing—like kittens, who mew a lot, but grow up into cats who are often almost entirely silent. The increasing silence of the kidnapped girl would tend to support this explanation. My assumption would be that she ceases to speak because she is an Asonu, and the Asonu gradually cease to use speech as they mature.
But of course she may have been forced into a very different kind of silence, the muteness of a terrified, brutalized child.
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