Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin
After transferring to the University of Virginia from New York University's Liberal Studies Program, I was very confused as to why almost all of my coursework had transferred in as Anthropology credit. At the time, I was pursuing a Psychology major with a concentration in Creative Writing. "What the heck even is 'Anthropology'?" I remember asking myself, while searching online, only to find vague descriptions that only seemed to confuse me more. To this day, I truly do not think I had ever really heard the word "Anthropology" prior to walking into the registrar's office. Quite serendipitously, I decided that before ruling out this whole "Anthropology" thing, I would try at least one class to see what it was about.
Rather than making the sensible decision to enroll in "Introduction to Anthropology," my very first Anthropology course at the University of Virginia was instead “Fantasy and Social Values,” taught by the remarkable Dr. Roy Wagner. (Coming full circle, Wagner would later teach my final undergraduate Anthropology course, “Don Juan & Castaneda.") I was immediately intrigued with Wagner's exploration of Science Fiction and the ways in which the genre was immersed with contemporary social issues. Through this course, which consisted mainly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous works, I laid my foundations in anthropological thought through a quite unique lens, filled with fantastical glimpses into what life could look like outside of our own imagined realities and how social anxieties could be vividly expressed through fiction. Wagner's lectures and teaching approach, paired with Le Guin's stories that were heady and dynamic, exposed me to critical thinking in completely new ways. I remember pouring over Le Guin's novels for hours, inspired by how her stories so vividly played with the boundaries between what we consider "fantasy" and "real life."
It is an understatement to say that Ursula K. Le Guin completely transformed the Science Fiction genre for us all. Le Guin was instrumental in helping readers grapple with complex topics of oppression, triumph, but most importantly to me, the fluidity of identity. Concepts that were once so simple to me, such as “gender” and “sexuality,” all proved to be social constructs (which was a radical idea to me, at the time); these constructs had the ability to dissolve once one delved into the complex and beautiful worlds that Le Guin created. Reading and discussing Le Guin exposed me to concepts I had never thought about, and despite knowing very little about Anthropology as a discipline, I knew that this type of discourse was exactly what I wanted out of my education. Le Guin's work captivated me, which led me to enroll in another Anthropology course.
To Mrs. Le Guin, I am eternally grateful.