For me, reading fiction is like a bag of dill pickle chips. I’ve learned to resist temptation most of the time. Earlier this year I was so blocked I couldn’t read even if I let myself. But when I’m in a phase…I can’t eat one. Once I start, I have to keep going until I’m licking the residue off of the bag.
Most novels are read, details forgotten within a day. (I’m a fast reader.) Maybe I’ll remember the general plot line, or the main character, and so I’ll remember the author’s name and look for more of their work. Then, of course, there are the macaroni and cheese books. You know, the comfort novels you can and do re-read. Other books are like the special dinners you remember forever. Even if you only got to enter the restaurant once, some meals have a huge impact on your life and memories.
The Kin of Ata are Waiting For You, by Dorothy Bryant, is one of those books for me. *spoilers ahead*
Initially, it was published in 1971 under a different name as a novella, by a small (I think feminist) press. A few years later, it was picked up by Random House and retitled, maybe 1976. I first read it around 1983, looooved it, but until last week I hadn’t seen it around or read it in at least twenty years.
Oh yeah, feminist sci fi, in line with Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, and the queen, Ursula K Le Guinn.
The protagonist is an anti-hero, a truly despicable man who seems to represent some of the worst of what the Y chromosome can produce. The book opens with him, an unnamed successful novelist who is in the middle of a fight with a woman. It’s ugly, it’s crude, and he kills her. An accident, but his thoughts in response are all about him, how this might impact his life, how he can get away with this. He runs away, crashes his car, and awakens in an entirely different world. Ata. A mysterious island, a utopia where the inhabitants are governed by their dreams and the greater good. No violence, no sexism, no racism, no written word. They know about the world he comes from, and somehow they keep the balance of that world by maintaining their own. Sex isn’t puritanical, not only for procreational purposes, but it isn’t without consequence, either. He does not magically accept this new world, the people, or their ways, and tries to bring the “real world’s” ugliness with him. As he starts to accept where he is, and begins to understand them, he thinks he will return the favor. Yanno, benevolent privileged white guy, gonna teach the savages the error of their ways, help them out with all his words, studliness and of course, his superior understanding that more is better.
This is not a likable main character. It takes a while to find anything sympathetic in him, and just when you think you have, Bryant raises the stakes and you’re disgusted with him all over again. But because she keeps raising those stakes, you keep reading. He’s one big “id” and the kin of Ata are all “superego.” The book is very Jungian, which fascinated me when I first read it thirty years ago, and fascinates me now. Her descriptions of the island and the people, their customs, all beautiful. There is growth for the protagonist, and a definite (though not easy) character arc, and redemption by the end. But again, not easy. In the same way he confuses the kin for simplistic people, it’s easy to assume he will be saved by acknowledging their spiritual “superiority,” without facing any consequences.
Because it’s been so long since I last read it, some of what I took away is different, some of what I noticed are things I didn’t notice then. The time period? My youth? I don’t know. But I do see some “preachy” factor now, that I didn’t then. I wondered, as I read, if Bryant was raised in, or had spent time with, the Quakers. Quite a few of the customs and beliefs made me feel like I was in a Friends’ Meeting House.
Part of the book is a love story–though not a romance, and this is the part that has me rambling on today. I have one absolute rule in reading or writing romance. Rape is not romantic. I can never, and will never, accept a hero as a romantic lead if he crosses the line. For me, crossing the line doesn’t mean intercourse. Any scene where the “hero” uses physical force to restrain a heroine, or hold her down long enough for her to realize and acknowledge those “strange new stirrings” and I’m done. I’ve heard some writers of historical romance (not many) say well, you have to understand the context, the times…. Umm, no, I don’t.
How could I not have remembered this scene, or loved this book anyway? Yes, he rapes his love interest, Augustine.
He knows she doesn’t want him, but she doesn’t fight him off, doesn’t yell for help, so he justifies his actions, telling himself if she really didn’t want it, she would have called for help, hit him, something. Not only does he do this, but a relationship develops between them later, paralleling his spiritual growth. Can this be? Can I, as a modern pseudo-feminist, accept and still like this novel? Should I oppose it on principle? If I had never read this book before last week, had no associations with it, I would have stopped reading.
The scene itself was interestingly written, and in many ways, it made sense as a powerful statement for a gender neutral, post misogynist society. She could have fought him off, she was at least as strong, if not stronger. The impression was that it was him who was reduced by this act, so ridiculous, so disappointing, it was the tantrum of a child, and she would wait until he had finished his fit before she took care of herself.
Augustine becomes pregnant from this rape. Yes, it’s part of Bryant’s theme of consequences, action/reaction. I assumed he would never, as long as he was on Ata, be able to forget who he was, what he brought to the table and thought was superior, every time he saw the baby/child. I kept waiting. No matter how he evolved, truly loving Augustine, their child, and Ata, I was disappointed. In his depths, it’s clear he understands his actions were wrong, even as he committed this act. And again, this never tries to be a romance, and the protagonist is never a hero. Even within the framework of a “love story,” as opposed to a romance, Augustine’s feelings for him are complex, and never overshadow what she believes is the greater good–or better for herself. And on Ata, the greater good and the individual “good” are so entwined they cannot be separated.
I understand why Bryant included this scene, this heinous act on the part of the protagonist. He was a murderer, but it was through the rape that he realized just how his belly was scraping the bottom, and begin the climb towards caring about others and his actions. I understand it, but I feel squinky every time I think about it, and writing about it.
On Ata, there is very little disease, illness, or disorder. There is pain, injury, aging and death; the kin are human beings, not supernatural creatures. But another detail I hadn’t remembered, the one specific mention of a physical disorder, was of a member with epilepsy. He wasn’t seen as special, having a direct path to God or dreams, nor was he seen as less than anyone else. He was kin. And it gives me a connection to who I am today, what my life includes in reality, not the fantasy of what I thought would be.
I’m wondering what will happen if revisit some of my other old favorites. If I blow the dust off of The Once and Future King, will I find might makes right, after all?