- Pronunciation: heh-yi-yeh (hɛjɪjə)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Speculative fiction (Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 novel Always Coming Home)
- Example: There are innumerable expressions of heyiya. What they all share is a commitment to reshaping desire, forming ecological connections, and disconnecting from ecocidal forms of collective life.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the beloved author of novels, short stories, children’s literature, and poetry, died in January 2018. After her passing, Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards circulated widely, and her words from one moment in particular stood out: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Le Guin spent a lifetime imagining various forms of resistance. Fans and literary critics have devoted themselves to celebrated works like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), but less attention has been given to what might be her greatest feat of the imagination. In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin creates a future world of unmatched breadth and artful precision. One can sense that something new is coming into being—something radically dissimilar to the global capitalist present. That emergent world takes shape through the practice of heyiya.
The Kesh are a people learning to inhabit California’s Napa Valley in the distant future. Their Napa Valley is connected to our own: toxins, air and water pollution, and climate change from our present continue to impact their lives. The Kesh have human neighbors called the Dayao (also known as the Condor people), uncomfortably familiar figures that represent the present moment’s ideological residuals. The Dayao exact violence upon humans they consider unlike themselves and against nonhumans whom they view as merely useful to their civilization. They attempt to accumulate scarce remaining resources to form a militant, imperial force. The Kesh respond to the ideological strain represented by the Dayao, along with the toxic and climatic residuals of our time, by living lives guided by heyiya.
Heyiya signifies a set of practices whose end is a vibrant ecology that flourishes in the Valley. Heyiya for the Kesh means “sacred, holy, or important thing, place, time, or event; connection; spiral, gyre, or helix; center; change.” This brief introduction to heyiya will maintain that it is a collective labor of imagining ourselves in and among the humans and nonhumans of this allegorical valley. Reading about how the Kesh practice heyiya provokes us to consider how our shared labor could be put to use in imagining a future desirable enough to begin letting go of our attachments to present systems of power. The aim of engaging in heyiya is ultimately to make our home anew through the labor of refashioning our desires.
Practicing heyiya for the Kesh is learning how to become attached to ecologically viable visions and detached from destructive ones. Heyiya is an effort to recenter collective life on the joys of deeply felt relationship to other human animals, nonhuman animals, and living and nonliving material processes, with an openness to becoming attuned to the ecohistorical forces beyond their limited perception. It is a worldview that understands connection as intertwined with disconnection from the lures of commodification, colonialism, racialization, anthropocentrism, and ecocide. Heyiya toggles between connection and disconnection, altering the form of Kesh material relations. This entry will explicate how Always Coming Home models the practice of heyiya in a manner that readers can emulate. I illustrate how the Kesh use metaphors of the double spiral and the house to reimagine and rebuild their relationships to their locality and the planet. The Kesh view the dance and the hinge as metaphors of the libidinal energies needed to reshape our relations of connection and disconnection to visions of home. Finally, I turn to the mythical Coyote figure that teaches the Kesh how to engage safely and creatively with the terror of ecocidal violence.
Always Coming Home reads more like a fragmented ethnographic report than a novel. A unique work in Le Guin’s oeuvre, the novel formally models heyiya, as the reader’s pleasure comes from assembling the various Kesh cultural practices that attune them to their neighboring humans, animals, plants, landscapes, and waterways. Sections of the text are devoted to the Kesh’s relations of kinship; to architecture and the built environment, including maps of the Valley; to artistic sketches of the guinea pig–like “himpi”; and to Kesh stories about significant animals and creeks. Still others include life stories and various characters’ poetry. Always Coming Home is not clear about how its diverse sections fit together. Readers’ efforts to weave these genres, forms, and images slowly reveal how the Kesh have figuratively and literally incorporated their bioregion. The Valley starts to come into focus. Making sense of the novel itself demonstrates that satisfaction can come from collective efforts to grasp the various lifeways and ecological scales all around us.
The fruits of laboring to imagine the Valley and its inhabitants are valuable beyond our desire to understand a multiscalar world and its complexities. The work of cocreating the Valley produces an affective sense of possibility: the future world of the Kesh may be fictional, but heyiya is real. Readers can begin to sense an intimate connection to life in the Valley opening up a vision of a future that is not foreclosed by current ecocical violence. Heyiya, then, is a collective, material process we can all engage in to find pleasure in ecosocial connection as well as the work of reversing overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. Our world of capitalism and catastrophe, slow violence and dispossession, is not all that can be imagined and created.
Readers of Always Coming Home slowly learn how heyiya becomes materialized in the Valley. The Kesh give shape to heyiya in a double spiral form that signifies its dialectical nature:
It [heyimas] is formed of the elements heya, heyiya—the connotations of which include sacredness, hinge, connection, spiral, center, praise, and change—and ma, house. The heyiya-if, two spirals centered upon the same (empty) space, was the material or visual representation of the idea of heyiya. Varied and elaborated in countless ways, the heyiya-if was a choreographic and gestural element in dance, and the shape of the stage and the movement of the staging in drama were based upon it; it was an organisational device in town planning, in graphic and sculptural forms, in decoration, and in the design of musical instruments; it served as a subject of meditation and as an inexhaustible metaphor.
The guiding source of metaphor, heyiya, is what connects the Kesh to each other and to other life in the Valley, but its manifestations take on “countless” and diverse expressions. This allows for unity and difference to coexist, along with opportunities for change. The passage above indicates that the Kesh understand heyiya as a sacred connection that comes into being when it takes on a material form in architecture, dancing, drama, poetry, and music. The Kesh recognize heyiya as a concept that should inform all expression, however artful or utilitarian. We could consider heyiya as a challenge to incorporate nonhumans into our creative, cultural, and political projects. Heyiya always points to relationships between ideas and material realities, symbolized by its double spiral: ideas, fantasies, and desires transformed into material realities, and vice versa.
The Kesh’s double-spiral living arrangements imagine the construction of a more expansive vision of home. Le Guin writes: “In a Valley town everybody had two houses: the house you lived in, your dwelling-place, in the Left Arm of the double-spiral-shaped town; and in the Right Arm, your House, the heyimas. In the household, you lived with your kinfolk by blood or by marriage; in the heyimas you met with your greater and permanent family.” The left spiral represents human kin and is symbolically associated with everyday life: local animals and plants, geographic directions in the Valley, and soil and stones. The right spiral is where they build the heyimas, which represents the climate and the flows of the atmosphere, along with deep history and distant ecological impacts. The two spirals suggest that the Kesh understand these scales, the local and nonlocal, to be uneven but interconnected, requiring mediation in order to come into cultural focus. We too might consider the urgency of cultivating knowledge and feelings about various ecological scales into cultural forms. What collective opportunities might emerge by creating community around the pleasures of ecological intimacies?
The Kesh have to practice dealing with scalar asymmetries and historical differences. By doing so, the other beings of the Valley come into consciousness as normative members of the community. The Kesh’s housing perpetually reminds them of their expansive kinship in the Valley. Nonhuman animals come to matter by bringing them “into the house,” or by resignifying their relationships through naming and the production of space. The Kesh’s built environment situates them as a small part of the planet’s material processes, but with the potential to, like us, radically reshape the geological, hydrological, and climatological systems. Today, built environments are tethered to a capitalism that reproduces racialized geographies, uneven development and resource appropriation, and neocolonial arrangements of accumulation and dispossession. Heyiya, on the other hand, is a collective imaginative process that does not permit us to believe that contemporary systems of power are the only shape that history can take. Ecotopian processes like heyiya remind us that our labor can be put to other uses, our desires can build other lifeworlds, and our collective efforts can make that reality as rich and textured as the lives of the Kesh.
The Kesh create communal pleasures that help them to incorporate various scales of human and nonhuman difference. Dancing, for the Kesh, represents the corporeal and psychological pleasures of embodying heyiya. Each dance takes place in the same double spiral formation and meets at what they call the hinge. The hinge, like the hinge on a door, connects the internal and external by acknowledging differences between humans and animals, plants, and climatic-geological scales, but it also suggests they are bound together. A hinge allows for movement to avoid the ossification of desire. The Kesh view the Dayao’s desires as fixated on ecosocial ways that are destructive. For the Dayao, only one leader, a single process, or a homogenous view of linear time is meaningful. From the Kesh perspective, this focus creates simplistic expressions of diversity and creativity; it also inadvertently produces a worldview that reinforces the Dayao sense of exceptionalism. The Dayao understand their place in the world as unique, chosen, and therefore worthy of the world’s resources and energies. The Kesh call this kind of ideology and praxis living “outside the world.” It is the same name they give to our present moment.
Unlike the Dayao, the Kesh have structured reversals into their cultural life to prevent the emergence of destructive desires. They believe that periodic shifts in cultural norms prevent anthropocentric and ethnocentric behaviors from taking root while simultaneously promoting the pleasures of connection and disconnection as equally necessary:
At the World Dance people get married; that’s a wakwa [dance, spring, or water source] of sorting out things, getting things right and flowing on the two sides of the world; that’s a wakwa of lasting and staying. The Moon Dance doesn’t do anything like that. It goes the other way. It goes out and apart, undoing, separating. You know the heyiya-if comes in to the center and at the same time it’s going out from the center. A hinge connects and it holds apart. So under the Moon there are no marriages. No households.
Kesh dances are a shared celebration of the connections between human animals and the various ecological and cosmological scales. Dances mark large-scale movements of shifting seasons and celestial objects, along with the everyday scales of the community’s nonhuman members such as bears, deer, pumas, coyotes, and hawks. How would our perceptions of the climate, for instance, become altered if we danced its many forces, like the Kesh, feeling them in our bodies? They dance to make these scalar forces visceral, memorable, familiar, and exciting. The Kesh also relish changing direction at the hinge. In the passage above, the movement to the center of the heyiya-if (arriving at the hinge) is about a change in motion from connection and duration to opening up for separation. Hinge acts acknowledge that we must be reflexive and open to reversals if we are to find collective pleasure in reversing the calamities of our present: climate change, mass extinction, racial and ethnic conflict, and refugee crises arising from military excursions and ecological distress. We can become more open to letting go of, disconnecting from, or reversing desires that contribute to this suffering. Knowing what to mourn—what relationships and structures to let go of—has never been more urgent.
The center of heyiya is where the Kesh hinge, but as the first passage made evident, they also understand this focal point of the heyiya as perpetually empty. The clearest explanation for this apparent paradox is that the empty center represents what remains unresolved in history, a contradiction or antagonism that shapes Kesh life. The Kesh call this living outside the world. They associate the ecocidal behaviors of living outside the world with the past (our present) and with the Dayao. The Kesh gain their cultural identity from this contrast, which has the potential to turn violent when an “other” is found to blame. They must therefore sublimate the tendency to turn to warfare if they are to remain true to the ethos of heyiya. Kesh people dance to find better use for these energies, but they also tell stories about the outside that both diffuse the urge to harm and reorient unresolved conflict toward creative ends.
The Kesh continually fill the void at the center of heyiya with stories that create new life out of mass death and destruction. The last two elements of heyiya are, not coincidentally, “center” and “change.” The Kesh reference this empty center of heyiya through stories of recreating the world by consuming and transforming the “outside.” These tales include the birth of the Valley, which emanated from the mythical Coyote figure’s shit after she had devoured the poison of the reader’s present. One set of stories lets the Kesh spiral back to the empty center to engulf the toxicity of the “outside” and thus to keep working toward building up the “inside.” Coyote’s myths do not lend themselves to self-aggrandizement—in the manner of the Dayao—as if the Kesh were uniquely important. Rather, they reverse this tendency, narrating the Valley and all of its members, human and nonhuman, as born of Coyote’s excrement. These stories depict the “outside” as a past period, and therefore empathetic space opens up for the Dayao, who have received this historical inheritance just like the Kesh. Both groups were born of the past’s shit. At other times, representing the second spiral of heyiya, they tell horrific stories like “A Hole in the Air,” in which a man enters the “outside of the world” through a hole in the air and continues to die over and over from grief and poison. Both types of origin stories allow the Kesh to see their present as a material and ideological remnant. The Kesh prefer to place blame on historical processes, not people. We too can work against systems of power that are destructive without forgetting that its perpetrators have learned how to desire from the “outside,” and it is the systems that must change. The Kesh ultimately realize through their unresolved conflicts that the work of truly living in the Valley is not yet complete.
The Kesh therefore do not merely live in the Valley; they desire to live in and among it more fully. Heyiya is the enjoyment of seeking the Valley together, knowing that in true heyiya fashion—with its perpetually empty center—the desire to fully inhabit the Valley is perpetually on the horizon. We will need to dance again and craft new tales. As the narrator of Always Coming Home tells us, “We’ll go on, and you’ll hear the quail calling on the mountain by the springs of the river, and looking back you’ll see the river running downward through the wild hills behind, below, and you’ll say, ‘Isn’t that it, the Valley?’ And all I will be able to say is, ‘Drink this water of the spring, rest here awhile, we have a long way yet to go, and I can’t go without you.’” Always Coming Home suggests that we too can build a home in the Valley. This great work is one we can enjoy together if we are willing to see it as a work of constant imperfection, only to spiral back and try again. Such efforts can also detach us from normative expectations that scientists, politicians, or geoengineering will somehow save us. Like the Kesh, it takes the collective power of the group, not a singular hero. The practice of reading ecotopian fiction such as Always Coming Home can inspire a sense that the future is not foreclosed to our political, economic, and cultural interventions. The world becomes ours to remake when we join the dance, practice hinge acts, build the house, and tell Coyote stories. Take a moment to look around, because “we have a long way yet to go, and I can’t go without you.”
Another Path: Fotminne
2. Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (1985; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 515.
3. The “education of desire” has long been considered by critical theorists to be fundamental to utopia literature. See, for instance, Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005); Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999); and Christine Nadir, “Utopian Studies, Environmental Literature, and the Legacy of an Idea: Educating Desire in Miguel Abensour and Ursula K. Le Guin,” Utopian Studies 21, no. 1 (2010): 24–56.
4. Le Guin acknowledges that her anthropologist parents influenced her formal choices in this novel. She has been asked if Native American cultures influenced the creation of the Kesh. She found that Native American oral literature helped her to capture aspects of the Napa Valley. She insists, however, “I certainly didn’t want to put a bunch of made up Indians into a Napa Valley of the future.” There is certainly room for concern about resemblances that could be read as what Shepard Krech III calls the ecological Indian myth. Simultaneously, the novel exhibits anarchist, Marxist, Taoist, and ecofeminist influences and Le Guin’s own express concerns about “stealing or exploiting [Native American literature], because we’ve done enough of that to Native American writing.” See Jonathan White, Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity University Press, 2016), 117; and Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: Norton, 2000).
5. Le Guin does signal to readers, however, through her fictional alter ego, Pandora. It is Pandora who collects and curates the novel. She writes the following at the end of a short note entitled, “Pandora Worries about What She Is Doing: The Pattern”: “Even if the bowl is broken (and the bowl is broken), from the clay and the making and the firing and the pattern, even if the pattern is incomplete (and the pattern is incomplete), let the mind draw its energy. Let the heart complete the pattern.” Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 53.
6. Donna Haraway’s work on “string figures” and “tentacular thinking” utilizes speculative fiction in a critical and creative approach to various scales that has some resonance with heyiya. See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017).
7. On the concept of “slow violence,” see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011). On the valences of dispossession, see David Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register 40, no. 1 (2004): 63–87.
8. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 45; emphasis added.
9. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 48.
10. On the necessary mediation of ecological phenomenon, see Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), and Jesse Oak Taylor, “The Novel as Climate Model: Realism and the Greenhouse Effect in Bleak House,” Novel 46, no. 1 (2013): 1–25.
11. For a discussion of the contemporary moment’s derangement of scale, see Timothy Clark, “Scale,” in Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1, ed. Tom Cohen (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/telemorphosis/.
12. On foundational ideas about the production of space, see Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992).
13. For recent scholarship on racial geographies, see María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016), and for the central role of capitalist appropriation, see Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015). For an introduction to uneven development, see Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, 3rd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
14. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 242.
15. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 339.