Back “Quoits,” Ursula K. Le Guin

From Ursula K. Le Guin: Five Novels

Chûn Quoit, in western Cornwall, England. Originally covered by a barrow of dirt and rocks measuring about 35 feet across, this burial site was built around 2400 BC. The capstone measures 10 feet in diameter. Photograph by Jim Champion (treehouse1977, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0).

A little over three decades ago, in 1991, Ursula K. Le Guin surprised her publisher—and her readers—with Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand, a “story suite” about moments in the lives of various women (and a few men) living in a fictional Oregon resort town. The book contained not a hint of dragon-taming wizards, otherworldly dystopias, or space travel. “People didn’t know what to do with it,” she later recalled. “It didn’t fit any particular category.”

When the writer and historian Studs Terkel interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin on his radio program, he zeroed in on one story from the books called “Quoits” and summarized its premise: “There are two middle-aged women—they’ve lived together for a good number of years, these two women, and one has died. Barbara. Shirley is left alone, and Barbara’s grown kids come to visit.” The daughter is upset that the obituary doesn’t even mention Shirley and it leads the two of them to an awkward yet touching discussion about the language used to describe modern families. “They [the couple] loved each other and ‘friend’ I suppose is the closest” word the daughter can come up with, Terkel added. “We have these relationships between men, between women, between three or four different people and their children, and we don’t have any words,” responded Le Guin.

“There aren’t any words that mean anything,” Shirley says in the story. “We can’t say who we are. Even men can’t anymore. Did the paper say she was survived by her ex-husband? What about the man she lived with before she met your father, what’s his label? We don’t have words for what we do! Wife, husband, lover, ex, post, step, it’s all leftovers, words from some other civilization, nothing to do with us.”

The questions considered by the story remain unresolved, much as they still do today. The ability to invent new words and new worlds was, in fact, what drew Le Guin to science fiction and fantasy in the first place, as she often pointed out: “One of the essential functions of science fiction, I think, is precisely this kind of question-asking: reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination.” Yet the differences between Searoad and Le Guin’s other works may not be as clear as they initially seem. “The coastal village of that novel turns out to be a kind of multiverse,” says Brian Attebery, the editor of the LOA edition of Le Guin’s fiction. “Characters interact across gulfs of difference. Conversations between neighbors might as well be conducted via Le Guin’s invented interstellar communication device, the ansible.”

Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Quoits”

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