QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant

In this ongoing survey of QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics, I want to try to go back to the very firsts—even risking the possibility that those works have not aged well. The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You was, to my knowledge, the first English-language speculative book that featured neopronouns: gender pronouns that are distinct from he, she, or singular they. It is a book that is unique in another respect as well: it was a massive self-publishing success, which was almost entirely unheard of in the 1970s when it first appeared.

The book was originally published under the title The Comforter: A Mystical Fantasy by Evan Press in Berkeley in 1971, then republished by Dorothy Bryant’s own Ata Press, until it was picked up by Random House in 1976. (I could not find out much about Evan Press; this might have been an earlier name for Ata Press as well. Interestingly, Edvige Giunta’s monograph on Italian American women writers points out that Italian American women like Bryant turned to self-publishing early on due to a preexistent cultural tradition.) The book is still in print and seems to have a following; for this review, I read a copy of the 1988 printing.

The novel begins with a detailed murder scene of a naked woman; the murder is committed by the protagonist, an up-and-coming Anglo-American male writer. (From here on, I’ll call him “Protagonist” with a capital P.) The Protagonist attempts to flee from justice, but after a mysterious event, finds himself on an island inhabited by “the kin of Ata”—a calm, quiet people of various races. Here, he experiences an entirely different way of life, and eventually achieves a spiritual awakening. But can he stay there forever?

The spiritual truths the Protagonist learns in his time on the island are feminist, but this is the kind of second-wave American white feminism that mined Indigenous and non-Western cultures for material while not offering any reciprocal solidarity. Usually, I begin my reviews by focusing on a work’s positive aspects, even if they are few, but here I want to offer my warnings about the novel first and foremost, as I feel these might influence people’s willingness to pick up the book. I’ll try to keep plot descriptions vague, but I’ll have to discuss a particular scene of sexual violence.

Bryant pushes the unlikable main character trope to its extremes: the Protagonist not only kills, he also rapes a major character. This was clearly intended to underscore the fact that the Protagonist has a long way to go until he becomes more spiritually mature and stable, but writing from the perspective of an unlikable character is technically difficult, and I felt that Bryant did not carry it out convincingly. I read and reviewed Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Kid from Hell elsewhere last year, and I thought that novella succeeded at the exact same task that The Kin of Ata fails at: to show an aggressively masculine and very close-minded character from a first-person perspective, while simultaneously deconstructing his point of view.

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You exhibits a definite anti-Black strain, despite the author’s awareness of the fact that Black people experience discrimination in the United States (something that is briefly touched on in the text). The Protagonist is not only a rapist: he rapes a dark-skinned Black woman and gets her pregnant, and the two of them end up in a romantic relationship. She is strong, resilient, and entirely treated as a tool in the Protagonist’s process of self-discovery. After the violent scene and its aftermath, I only continued to read further in order to complete my review of the book. (I would prefer not to quote directly from these segments even for the sake of substantiating my argument.)

In addition to its anti-Blackness, the book also has anti-Indigenous themes. These are possibly less obvious because they are structural rather than played out in the interpersonal relations of the main characters, but they are very much there. The kin of Ata are an exact instantiation of the Noble Savage trope. To a present-day reader, the titular people read as rather parodistic: they are quiet, enlightened, they spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing their dreams. They work in the fields and avoid technology, including writing. But all of this seems to have been meant earnestly by the author.

I have an interest in the study of dreams, and I noticed that the dream culture of the kin of Ata was strongly reminiscent of the so-called Senoi dream theory, popular in the 1960s and 1970s and later discredited. This complex of ideas stemmed from multiple anthropological misrepresentations of the beliefs of the Senoi people, an Indigenous people of Malaysia. Supposedly (according to the discredited theory), the Senoi people place great importance on dreams, ritually discuss their dreams with each other every morning, and this practice makes them immune to mental and even physical illness. (Almost everything Westerners claimed to have identified as “Senoi beliefs” in this period was later found to be incorrect, and Senoi people are not in fact immune to illness.)

While the Senoi dream theory is not named as such in the book, there is a reference to Jungian approaches on the back cover, and most of the people perpetuating the “Senoi dream theory” at the time were American Jungians. The kin of Ata have all the views and rituals attributed to “the Senoi” during this period, up to and including this immunity to chronic—if not acute—illness:

I rarely saw anyone ill. The people believed that ill health began with donagdeo—acts which would disturb or decrease their ability to dream, and resulted from accompanying states of imbalance. […] Actually the people did not believe in accidental injuries; and a person’s illnesses were his own responsibility. I don’t mean to imply some magic immunity from biological fate, only that illness was over with quickly, either through recovery or death. There was no chronic dis-ease. (Page 134)

This is too precise a match to be coincidental.

Now we have the internet and can research and find out about such claims much more easily, so I wouldn’t penalize the author retrospectively for building on anthropological falsehoods that were very prominent at the time. But her choice of this framework is telling, and the fetishization of the enlightened Indigenous person who stays away from civilization and technology is problematic and grating to read… especially considering that it comes from a region of the U.S. whose peoples were among those most affected by colonizer genocide.

I found all of this very frustrating, in part because there are many interesting feminist aspects to the book when it does not try to tackle race and Indigeneity. These I feel more comfortable quoting, too. Neopronouns are explicitly present in the text, though they only make a brief appearance because the Protagonist translates everything to the English of the time:

Everything animate and inanimate was either masculine or feminine, nothing was neuter—except human beings. I’d never encountered anything like this in any other language. […] One pronoun referred to all human beings. People called to one another by this word when not using someone’s name, or they referred to one or more people by it. It was both singular and plural and it meant kinship. The way most people use the word “brother” would be the closest word in English, but because “brother” implies gender and singularity, it is quite wrong. The closest word I can think of to approximate the meaning of this pronoun is “kin.” We were all called kin. (Page 51)

But this is not just a brief mention—the lack of gendering among the people of Ata does affect how the Protagonist perceives them. He tries to guess their sex, and he sometimes cannot: “Someone who must have been the oldest person on the island got up from a step near the fire. He or she, skeletal and hairless, was helped by two children who could not have been more than three years old” (page 135). Also, bisexuality seems to be the norm: “The adults were serially (and often bi-sexually) monogomous [sic], and the very old, sexless, belonging to the whole population, like children again” (page 174).

Most significantly, the path to the Protagonist’s spiritual enlightenment also leads through a meeting with his feminine self: “One of me was a woman, a hundred women, all the women, hurt, enraged and furious, that I had ever known. One of me was a man, myself, every rotten, opportunistic, cruel, avaricious and vain self I had ever been” (page 129). This is typical of Jungian approaches of meeting the anima, or for women, the animus. This approach is ultimately still quite binary in nature, and it does not conceptualize these experiences as specifically trans experiences in any way, but as something characteristic of every human being.

But here I felt that Bryant in fact pushed against the classic framing a bit: instead of a kind of cissexist ‘deep down, everyone is trans, so no one really is’ sometimes heard from more spiritually inclined second wave feminists, we definitely get the opportunity to see that some people are more trans than others. There is a trans woman character—at least that seems to be the plain meaning of the text—but aggravatingly, we only find out this detail about her upon her death when her naked body is exposed (again, I’d prefer not to quote the specifics).

The novel provides a lot of facile answers—including an explanation of how the kin of Ata are magically related to humans elsewhere—but sometimes it offers glimmers of something wonderfully complex, open-ended and messy:

I tried to explain to him what I meant, making comparisons between Ata and the outside world, but he kept insisting that what I called an emphasis on sex outside was really a total loss and de-emphasis by Atan standards. When he saw that I was talking about the physical act of sex he looked shocked. “But is that all you mean by sex?” And we didn’t seem to be able to get beyond that; we got bogged down in translation.” (Page 153)

Unfortunately, these occasional moments did not make me feel that it was worth reading the book, or enable me to recommend it to you.

Next time, I am planning on covering a book I’m very much looking forward to reading. It satisfies some of the more frequent requests I get from readers to discuss science fiction books with queer themes set in a near future, and recovery from trauma. Do you have any near-future favorites?

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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