In Letters from the Country (1981), Carol Bly describes the phenomenon of people in middle age realizing the value of “time left.” Almost suddenly, there is a shift from giving time to the inconsequential to a tighter focus of life energies on the essential. While there are few who would say that Ursula K. Le Guin’s fiction before her 1986 Bryn Mawr commencement address (published in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 1990) was inconsequential, it would be difficult to deny that her adult fiction after that address shows a new urgency, particularly about listening to what she calls “the mother tongue.” In Always Coming Home (1985), Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987), Tehanu (1990), and Searoad: The Chronicles of Klatsand, Le Guin gives particular attention to exploring the interactions of father and mother tongues and to learning how to speak and listen to the mother tongue.
In her Bryn Mawr commencement address, Le Guin describes the “father tongue” as the language of action. Ideally, public discourse leads to productive social activity that provides materially for the welfare of the culture. Its power, she says, comes from the implicit division it makes between the speaker and the world, seeing the world as an object to be acted upon. The father tongue has become the language of authority, of science and bureaucracy, of logic and argument. It is a language of hierarchy that expects action to issue from its orders. It is a useful but artificial construct, a tool by which culture organizes and gets things done. More fundamental is the mother tongue, the native language of conversation, in which the goal is sharing, communion, the establishing and maintaining of relation. Le Guin argues in the address that much of the barbarity of modern Western culture results from the assertion of the primacy of the father tongue over the mother tongue. She sees this trend as coinciding with and reinforcing the fundamental sexism, militarism, and racism of modern Western cultures, always dividing the world into those with power and those without it and condemning the powerless to silence, to speaking the mother tongue, to which the father tongue may not listen. On the personal level, men are silenced when they wish to speak of relations, and women are heard only if they buy into ideologies of the father tongue. While Searoad is fiction rather than polemic, it clearly grows out of Le Guin’s thinking about language and gender, and it makes concrete in a variety of ways many of the concerns Le Guin raises in the commencement address.
Searoad does not look like what most readers would call a novel. The first eleven chapters are, in fact, short stories and poetic sketches, ten of which were published separately in magazines and journals from 1987 to 1991. All have in common some connection with the small coastal resort town of Klatsand, Oregon, population 251, and most of them are set there. There are adventures at the local resort hotels, relations of complex families, a Jane Austen-like bibliophile’s love affair with a bookstore owner, a divorced woman—sexually abused by her father—trying to come to terms with her dead mother, a lesbian dealing with her friend’s death. These and the other stories are often humorous and introduce a variety of interesting characters. Perhaps the most often repeated theme is of loss, especially of women losing their husbands, their lovers, their children, or their friends and being thrown upon their own resources. Only in the long final chapter—about one third of the book—does the whole come together. In that section, “Hernes,” Le Guin tells of five, or perhaps six, generations of women in the Herne family, in the process drawing together thematic material from the earlier chapters under a revision of the myth of Persephone.
In the original myth, as recounted by the Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Virginia Herne, of the family’s fourth generation, Persephone is raped, carried against her will into hell, and made the wife of the king of hell. Having eaten food provided by her master-rapist-uncle, she cannot be free of him. She is, however, allowed to return to her mother for half of each year. Persephone’s endless cyclic journeys and sojourns account for the changing of the seasons between summer and winter. She is captured in time, and the structure of time is fixed by her fate.
After she leaves her husband and bears a daughter by another man, Virginia imagines a new version of the myth that becomes the end of the narrative. In this version, she pointedly contrasts the father- and mother-tongue versions. The original myth is a true history, told in the father tongue. Yet there is always a new child born, goes the new version, a child that has a new story to tell in the mother tongue. In this “unofficial” version, Persephone returns from hell to her home on earth one day to find her mother and grandmother violated and murdered by all the great barbarisms of the reified father tongue, by the machinery of hierarchical conflicts: war, religion, race, business, and government. Enraged by this, she returns to her husband, the king of hell, and demands the reason. What is left, she asks, when all relations have been destroyed? His answer is “money.” Seeing that hell itself is a construct of wealth, she divorces her husband, saying three times, “I divorce you, King of Dung.” Her action destroys hell, turning hell into what she has pronounced it, a pile of dung, and she returns to the earth and to a new beginning of the processes of time and relation that are spoken of in the mother tongue. She is...
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