The tail end of summer brought us an interesting mix of literature, indigenous culture, statehood, and seasonal family fun among our new stamps.
Two releases in late July were single issues, one featuring author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin and the other featuring Raven Story, an important traditional story among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Those two joined the Tap Dance (five), Mystery Message (one) and Western Wear (four) stamps (all presented in last month’s journal) to total a dozen new face stamps in July.
There were three releases in August, bringing us 14 new face stamps, eight of them as part of the Backyard Games set issued August 12 during the Great American Stamp Show in Rosemont, Illinois. The other two issues presented us one final set of five historic Lighthouses, a series that started way back in 1995, and a bicentennial tribute to our 24th state, Missouri.
All of the stamps except the Le Guin stamp are domestic first-class Forever stamps, which will always cover the first-class postage rate. Those stamps were all issued at an original price of 55 cents each. However, the first-class rate rose three cents on August 29, so all first-class domestic stamps cost 58 cents if purchased from the U.S. Postal Service.
Though the first-class rate rose, the additional ounce rate of 20 cents has not changed. The Le Guin stamp pays the 3-ounce rate and was issued at a price of 95 cents. It is now valued at 98 cents from the Postal Service.
Other rate increases that went into effect August 29 include the postcard rate, which rose from 36 to 40 cents (changing the price of the Barns stamps issued January 24); and international 1-ounce letter and postcard mail, which rose from $1.20 to $1.30.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin – an acclaimed and sometimes controversial writer of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy – is the subject of the 33rd stamp in the U.S. Postal Service’s Literary Arts series (Figure 1).
Figure 1. For purchasing information and technical details on the Ursula K. Le Guin issue, see https://aps.buzz/LeGuinUSPS.
The stamp, carrying a Forever denomination for the 3-ounce postage rate, was issued July 27 in Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. The stamp, issued in panes of 20, sold for 95 cents when it went on sale, but that price rose to 98 cents on August 29, when many postage rates rose.
The stamp features a portrait of Le Guin (1929-2018) based on a 2006 photograph with a background that references the wintry world and characters she created in The Left Hand of Darkness. Designed by Donato Gionacola, with Antonio Alcalá as art director, Le Guin’s name appears along the bottom of the stamp.
As an author, Le Guin was interested in more than just science fiction. Her prescient writings – sometimes called forward-thinking and genre-crossing – are now viewed as more than just fantasy.
“Ursula once said she wanted to see science fiction step over the old walls of convention and hit right into the next wall — and start to break it down, too,” said Joseph Corbett, U.S. Postal Service chief financial officer and executive vice president, who served as the stamp ceremony’s dedicating official. “She felt the ideas represented in her fiction could help people become more aware of other ways to do things, other ways to be and to help people wake up.”
Joining Corbett for the ceremony were India Downes-Le Guin, the writer’s granddaughter; Linda Long, University of Oregon Libraries; Amy Wang, columnist, The Oregonian; and Martha Ullman West, arts writer.
A virtual USPS dedication can be seen on Facebook (https://aps.buzz/LeGuinFDCVid). That dedication includes Corbett and India Downes-Le Guin as well as writer award-winning writer China “Tom” Miéville and podcaster David Naimon.
Corbett noted that LeGuin received many awards for her “brilliant storytelling,” including multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction and fantasy writing. The writer had a lifelong fascination with Native American cultures, anthropology, mythology, feminism and the Chinese Daoist philosophy, “and those influences were reflected in her writing,” Corbett said.
In 2003, she became the second woman honored as a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2014, she was awarded the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the American Book Foundation.
LeGuin also was a prolific writer of children’s literature, poetry and nonfiction. Her fictional works include The Wizard of Earthsea.
David Naimon, podcast host for “Between the Covers,” had several long conversations with the writer about the craft of writing. “We just loved talking about the nuts and bolts” of writing,” Naimon said in the virtual dedication.
Naimon noted that the last conversation he had with Le Guin was in the reading room at her home.
At the end of it, Naimon recalled, “I said to her, ‘I don’t think I could imagine another writer who had written in all three genres – poetry, fiction and nonfiction – for a half-century that I could have these longform conversations with at such a depth.’ She said, ‘Why don’t we make it into a book,’ from which we then spent a whole lot of time building out from those conversations.”
The result was the book Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing Hardcover, released in April 2018.
“I don’t think there are many people who have had such a long-term commitment in one genre, let along in three genres,” Naimon said.
Miéville, who describes his own work as “weird fiction,” has been influenced by Le Guin and worked with her for a while.
“She was very, very witty and could be quite vinegary,” Miéville said, “and did not suffer fools gladly.”
Her actions reflected her strong feelings. In 1977, Le Guin refused a Nebula Award for her story “The Diary of the Rose” in protest of the Science Fiction Writers of America's revocation of Stanisław Lem’s membership. Le Guin attributed the revocation to Lem’s criticism of American science fiction and willingness to live in the Eastern Bloc. In December 2009, Le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild in protest over its endorsement of Google's book digitization project. “You decided to deal with the devil,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
“But she always (offered) a kind of humaneness.” Miéville said. “She really made me giggle, but I was very intimidated by her.”
Miéville said the combination of powerful narrative and “intense sense of commitment” coupled with humaneness and humility are characteristic of Le Guin’s work.
“On one hand, her work is very democratic and democratizing,” Miéville said. “But at the same time, she doesn’t blunt the seriousness of her commitment to craft and she doesn’t achieve that egalitarianism or democracy by flattening the difficulty and specifics of writing and how much it matters to work at it.”
India Downes-Le Guin praised the postage stamp.
One of the things I admired about her the most is that she had a depth of critical thought and analysis that I don’t see that often,” Downes-Le Guin said. “I think that [showed] her ability to be vulnerable and her ability to always to be learning.”
Downes-Le Guin said she is sure her grandmother would be honored to appear on a postage stamp.
“She corresponded with her fans all the time, so letter writing was really important,” Downes-Le Guin said. “I love the image on the stamp and I love to imagine all the letters (with that stamp) sailing all over the world with her little face on them. The idea of her blessing these letters on their way is just really special to me.”
Born in Berkeley, California, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was deeply interested in Native American cultures from a young age. It was a fascination that would inform her later work. She graduated in 1951from Radcliffe College and earned a master’s degree in French in 1952 from Columbia University.
She began doctoral studies but abandoned those after her marriage in 1953 to historian Charles Le Guin. She began writing full-time in the late 1950s. She began exploring the potential of science fiction and fantasy in the early 1960s, publishing her first novel, Rocannon’s World, in 1966. She achieved major critical and commercial success with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Le Guin’s writings were markedly ahead of the times. In 1969, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel about an Earth diplomat named Genly Ai who journeys to a wintry planet where two nations teeter on the brink of war – and where the inhabitants have no fixed gender most of the time. The book, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards in science fiction and fantasy, broke new ground and was often praised as the novel that permanently raised the literary expectations for science fiction.
In addition to the novels and fiction that won her dozens of literary awards and legions of avid readers, Le Guin also published volumes of poetry, wrote realistic stories about life in a small Oregon town and started a blog at the age of 81 that became the 2017 essay collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. She also published a translation of the classical Chinese philosophical and religious text Tao Te Ching, the result of 40 years of Taoist reading and reflection.
Le Guin is credited with championing the literary and artistic value of science fiction and fantasy, as well as encouraging more women to write and read fiction in both genres. At the same time, she inspired many readers and writers of color by placing nonwhite characters at the center of her work and by tackling issues of racial injustice and colonialism in nuanced ways. Through lifelong interests in mythology, anthropology, feminism and Taoism, as well as through her wide-ranging translations, essays, poetry and nonfiction, Le Guin demonstrated that no writer needed to be limited by the boundaries of any genre.
Stamp designer Donato Giancola’s work has won many awards and accolades with highlights including the Hamilton King Award for Excellence from the Society of Illustrators (2008); the World Fantasy Best Artist Award (2004) and the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist (2006, 2007, 2009). The Syracuse University graduate has illustrated cards for the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game and he has been described as a “cult hero” among fantasy collectible card game players (Figure 2).
Figure 2. A Magic: The Gathering card designed by Donato Giancola.
Interview with Antonio Alcalá – art director
Were you familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s work? Have you read anything of hers and did anything come to mind in transferring her work to a visual, such as a stamp?
I know of her writing and reputation, but I am not well versed in her work.
How did you find the artist and what made him a good candidate to create this stamp?
The artist was originally selected by another art director. After their retirement, I took on this project to take it to final art.
What kind of discussions did you and the artist have about the design?
We discussed the scene from the book that might be illustrated.
By what media did he create this artwork?
The artist originally worked in oil paint, then scanned the painting and made final touches digitally. So mixed media.
Did the design go through any (or many) changes? Are there any changes of tweaks you can share with us?
The artwork went through a few changes, mainly to get the characters and scene to reflect the way they are written in the book.
The portrait is beautiful. Did the artist base it on a specific photograph? If so, was she wearing blue (which compliments the scene) in that photo?
The stamp features a portrait of Le Guin based on a 2006 photograph. The photograph was a favorite of LeGuin’s. The background shows a scene from her landmark 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, in Genly Ai escapes from a prison camp across the wintry planet of Gethen. He travels with another escapee, Estraven, a disgraced Gethenian politician.