I didn't mean to go to college, I really didn't. I thought if I kept writing poems in my notebook and doing street theater with my acting group, life would simply fall into place. My parents knew better and pushed me into UCSD. In my senior year, the worst and best things happened, one after the other.
My father died in Mexico and immediately thereafter, Ursula K. Le Guin came to my college. I was feeling like a lost soul. My dad so suddenly gone and my dreams of art seemingly impossible, as remote as distant mountains.
In those days, Ursula smoked a pipe. I had never seen a woman smoke a pipe. It made such a deep impression on me that you find women in Queen of America smoking pipes. Now you know where I stole that.
I had never met a person like Ursula. I did not think I was allowed to meet a person like Ursula. When I realized to my profound shock that we loved each other and shared a similar sense of humor, I found myself levitating almost against my will out of my horror and despair.
I tried to process my father's death through story. Ursula took that story and accepted it for an anthology she was editing. My first sale. My first step.
She has always been formidable. She has always been kind. And she has not been shy about laying the occasional corrective paw upside a cub's head. That's how she came to call herself my "Tia Osa," my auntie bear. More mind-boggling than her workshop and her choice of my writing were the moments in which she allowed me to simply share some humanity. My professor and I took her to her first viewing of Star Wars. Imagine that: Auntie Bear with her feet up in the seat laughing like a child until the Millennium Falcon jumped into hyperspace. She turned to me and said: "you know, those stars should be turning blue and when they slow down, they really ought to be red."
Decades later, I sat with her at a tribute in Bend, OR. I had found the actual manuscript of that first story with her written comments on it and I read it for the last time that night in honor of her. When I sat down, Tia Osa grabbed the story out of my hands, thumbed through it, handed it back to me and said, "It's still damned good."
I'm writing this in the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco. As soon as these events end, my wife and I fly to Ursula's beloved Portland. I wouldn't think of bothering her, but if you see her, give her a kiss for me.
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Luis Alberto Urrea is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, a Western States Book Award, and a Colorado Book Award, and has been inducted into the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. He lives in Chicago.
Books mentioned in this post
Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of Queen of America