Kin, Utopia, and Rape

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.

Mrs Whyte's Kosher Dill Pickle

Mrs Whyte’s Kosher Dill Pickle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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*

Cover of "The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for ...

Cover of The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You

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.The Protagonist

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?

Kink.com Happy Hour

Kink.com Happy Hour (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

33 comments

  1. The book sounds facinating. After having read it again, would you recommend it now? I have always liked ancient historical fiction. The Clan bear series by Jane Auel stands out in my mind, although there is rape that occurs in it… you probably wouldn’t like it…

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    1. Hi Diana! I would still recommend it. In some ways, the writing *feels* like the book was written forty years ago, but the underlying messages are still very relevant. It’s a quick read. One of the interesting things about reading it is how well she crafts this megahormoneego male point of view. 🙂

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      1. I read the last book recently, gave up looking for it years ago…I still liked it. There’s something about stripping away all our toys and modern conveniences that appeals to me somehow. I guess it seems like simpler times… even though everything would likely be harder.

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        1. When I first read the series, the last book hadn’t been released yet. I don’t think I ever read it so I have so idea if/how much the last one would have changed my perception of the storyline.

          Re the rape …this was definitely a defining part of the story when it happened and had very long term effects as well (the child, how it shaped her perceptions of relationships, men and sex) but the context was interesting due to the way Clan culture collided with her differences. It was disturbing but didn’t offend me when I read those parts.

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          1. Yes I would agree with that. the last book is pretty much more of the same type of story and I found myself wanting to know more. It leaves you with her at the age of 26, a daughter and husband…and I want to know more…what happens to her daughter in adulthood etc.. 🙂

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  2. I read Kin, years ago. I remember loving it and also being uncomfortable with its preachy feminism. I had forgotten the rape but I can imagine the intention of trying to bring a viewpoint of Wholeness even to that act; it makes narrative sense and artistic sense, in theory.

    I have a similar proscription in my reading choices against torture. But when I read Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell, I believe is her name) , I found myself understanding that what is torture to a recipient might be something entirely other to the perpetrator. It took some very well constructed alien point of view development to bring me to that point, however, and I am not sure I would recommend the book, well written as it is.

    Amazing, what fiction can do to us.

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    1. Very interesting, that you forgot the rape, too. Funny, the preachy factor didn’t catch me so much when I read it years ago. I think I was more preachy then, too. :p

      Yes, fiction can and does have a huge impact. Not sure I would knowingly open a book about torture right now, but if I was to come across Sparrow, I might pick it up for future reading, now that you’ve described it.
      🙂

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  3. I retread a series a couple of years ago that I hadn’t read in 20 years. I think my positions and understandings of my beliefs have changed so much, preachy is a good way to describe how I felt upon a second reading. I did retread some of my childhood favorites and saw more in them than I did as a kid. That was kind of fun.

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    1. I’ve never been one to do that. I only read one book at a time. But if I really like the author, I will plow through every one of that author’s books until I’ve exhausted their work. 🙂

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  4. Hey! Great commentary on this book. What do you think about the racist paragraphs on pages 53 & 53? Describing how, with her dark skin, Augustine was “used to primitive sex”, etc. I am not feeling comfortable to finish this book. Disgusted. Am I overreacting?? I don’t think so but have that sliver of doubt that he will be punished for his racism & wanted to check what you thought before I continue. Thank you. & yes I understand it was written in 1971. Thanks

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    1. Hi, and welcome to Mrs Fringe! 🙂
      I don’t have the book in front of me, but yes, there were a couple of points and phrases, that gave me a very squinkie feeling in regards to race. I really had to think and reread, to decide if this was the narrator and character’s voice, or the author’s.
      Ultimately, I think this book is not as successful as I remembered it to be when painting a utopian society, sans sexism or racism, but it still offers a powerful and important message–especially in light of when it was written.
      I would recommend finishing, and then come back and let me know what you think in terms of her message.

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      1. Thanks so much! I’ll continue & check back! I read a few more pages & I’m understanding the main character is definitely not a hero. Obviously from the first page, he is not.

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