In Memoriam Ursulae

Not long after I moved to the Bay Area, I attended the Potlatch convention. Ursula Le Guin was the Guest of Honor that year, and one day as I arrived I saw her walking across the lobby toward the dealers’ room . . . with a videographer trailing along behind her.

Well, crap, I thought. I really wanted to talk to her — but it’s hard enough walking up to URSULA K. LE GUIN out of the blue and saying “hi” without somebody on hand to document the entire thing. And for all I knew they were in the middle of doing something where they wouldn’t welcome a random stranger interrupting it.

A few minutes later, I wandered into the dealers’ room. She was there; so was the videographer. I loitered to one side. I watched as she browsed the tables, and as everybody else in the room eddied out of her way — out of frame, they probably hoped. I’m not sure whether anyone there had any better idea what was going on than I did, but it was clear I wasn’t the only one who felt super-awkward.

I waited. I pretended to browse.

The videographer put their camera down.

It’s now or never.

I drifted over to Le Guin, took my courage in both hands, and introduced myself. And I told her that she was the reason I’d gone to grad school to study science fiction and fantasy.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a laugh.

It’s true, though: her book The Language of the Night was the first thing that made me realize, hey, science fiction and fantasy are a thing you can think about. Like, critically. And not just in a lit-crit way, but in the ways I was familiar with, the anthropological side. I didn’t know at the time that I would wind up writing papers about role-playing games, but I knew that I’d never figured out what I might want to do if I went to grad school in archaeology, and now I had the answer to that question in the neighboring field of cultural anthropology. Or folklore. Or both. (It wound up being both.)

So I told her I was an anthropologist and that I’d heard about her parents, particularly her father, in my classes (which was true). I told her that I deeply admired the way anthropology informed her work, and that I aimed for it to do something similar in mine. We didn’t talk for very long — I didn’t want to dominate her time or, y’know, wind up babbling about nothing — but I got to tell her the impact she’d had on my life. (And may have even remembered to say that the review which compared my first-ever published short story to her work was one of the most flattering I’d ever received.)

And then I turned around and found the videographer was filming us. Of course. >_<

I still don’t know what that was for. Possibly the documentary somebody has apparently been working on for the last decade? I didn’t ask; I just fled. But I walked away glad that I had spoken to Le Guin — even if I was caught on camera doing it — because I haven’t gotten to speak to most of the authors who shaped my life. Frances Hodgson Burnett died in 1924. The D’aulaires, in the ’80s. Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, and I regret that I never made the effort to attend a UK convention where I might have been able to meet her. (I did get to send a message to her via Sharyn November for her, hmmm, I think 75th birthday?) But I had the chance to tell Ursula Le Guin the effect she had on this particular writer and academic.

We will miss her.

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