The Power of Seeing Yourself

Ursula K Le Guin passed away last week at the age of 88. She was a literary legend, and a lot has been said about her already, so this isn’t a long remembrance or anything, but a little thing that’s stuck with me over the years.

I read the Earthsea books and a bunch of other things as an early library-card-carrying book lover. In my tweens and teens I could be found scouring the spinner racks of paperback science fiction and fantasy novels bridging the YA and adult sections of the library on a weekly basis.

On one such week in my early teens, I found a copy of the 1995 Year’s Best Science Fiction and in it was a story from Ursula K Le Guin! I was only familiar with her stories for a younger market and I remember being fascinated that she also wrote for adults. (yes, I learned quickly after that!)

In my early teens in particular, I struggled a lot with finding my place, socially. I didn’t have the language or the social capital to really understand my own identity at the time; I lived in a small town where being Other than what was considered “normal” was a real problem. As a chubby, awkward, bookish person prone to strong convictions and not easily cowed by peer pressure, I already drew a lot of ire from bullies of all stripes.

A common bullet point in the list of things I was bullied for was my queerness. We didn’t have the vocabulary in a small Pennsylvania town in the ’90s to accurately describe me, but I feel like most children drawn to participate in bullying have a sixth sense for finding the weak points in someone’s identity and exploiting them, and in my case it usually involved all the normal slurs. Lots of “lesbo” and “dyke,” and, most frustratingly, “it,” to distinguish that I wasn’t, like them, a girl or a boy.

I didn’t have a way to translate that I really DIDN’T feel like I was a girl–or a boy. I certainly wasn’t one with either “acceptable” identity and I spent a lot of years chafing at expectations every step of the way.

So imagine my surprise when I get my library books home that particular day; when I sprinted off to my loft in the attic and started to read.

The short story from Ursula K Le Guin in that collection was a little piece called “Coming of Age in Karhide.” It didn’t matter to young me that it was a tie-in story to one of her bigger series (the Hainish Cycle, which began with Left Hand of Darkness)–what mattered to me was that it was a loving and careful depiction of a young adult who was confused and struggling with their own identity and feeling like none of the available options was acceptable to them.

The story explores the social dynamics of a planet where none of its people have a fixed gender identity, and instead have temporary periods of fertility, during which they can be either male or female. While this is one of the core premises of the Hainish Cycle, I hadn’t arrived there yet. What I got was an amazing, and frankly sexy, story about being in a way that I had literally never experienced before. The closest thing I have ever seen to having my own self in any media are the people of Gethen in somer–a neutral state of being.

To early-teen me, the remote possibility that I was gender-nonconforming was still an unknown and something for which I had no vocabulary, but to see the difficulties of this written so eloquently and with so much thoughtfulness was heartening. It felt like someone saw my pansexual, agender self straight through and thought it was worth writing about the struggle, with feelings about sex as a performative identity–especially as the story deals with puberty and sexual identity as a strong part of that.

There’s self-knowledge that comes with that struggle, especially for queer folks, and I felt very much like someone understood what it was like, and that it wasn’t so weird after all: somer or kemmer, love is love.

This story has stuck with me for decades now and was part of how I learned to see myself as I grew up. I owe her a debt of gratitude for that story alone, much less the rest of her wonderful stories and books, many of which felt like a homecoming after a long time away when I finally found my way into them. <3

I’m still but fledgling in my efforts to write things for a wider audience, but I think the best compliment most of us can hope for is to be in inspiration to someone else through our work, and Ursula K Le Guin was that, and more, for a lot of us. I’m grateful we got to share this planet, for a time; a time in which I really needed it.