Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You
By Dorothy Bryant

Before I get onto this book, I need to share something that happened today (and it happens to be relevant to this book, so bear with me). I was hanging out at my classroom about an hour before my evening classes when a din from outside brought me to the window. Out on the street below were dozens of Taiwanese aboriginals dressed in traditional garb waiting for the beginning of a parade. Behind them was a group of drummers from Gambia and behind them were another group from Niger.

I rushed out onto the street to find the beginnings of a parade to celebrate the opening of an international meeting of aboriginal peoples. In Hualien, of all places. Cool!

There were groups from Peru, Tahiti, Uruguay, Chile, Canada, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and New Zealand. Some were dancers, others musicians. The costumes were exquisite and it was one of those spontaneous moments (this event, like so many in Taiwan was poorly advertised and promoted) that makes life in Taiwan so interesting. A random parade in the middle of a Wednesday. Awesome.

But more to the point, it was a showcase of aboriginal culture from around the world. The rhythms and the music and the dance and the costumes that, despite our infinite barreling toward an unreachable level of progress, reminds us that we come from something more temporal. I'm not suggesting that aboriginal culture is somehow primitive or backward. That would be categorically arrogant. It is what it is and we all come from a variation on that theme whether we are Gambian, Uruguayan, Taiwanese or Canadian. But these cultures deserve a great deal of respect for surviving and thriving in this world and there is a great deal we, as modern citizens of the "global community," can learn from these cultures. They possess a certain quality and knowledge of our collective past that we often choose to ignore in our modern societies.

That being said, I think a whole load of people mix up the notion of respect for and symbiosis with nature and preservation of our collective history with the notion of right and wrong. There exists a segment of the world's population that see aboriginal cultures, wherever they my be, and wrongly assume that simple living equals instant happiness, understanding and bliss. That living "in tune with nature" has somehow made these cultures better and more spiritual than larger, more cosmopolitan cultures. Or, to put it more bluntly: primitive, good. Modern, bad.

I hate this crap. Ignorance flows in two directions.

Humanity is always sure that we are currently living in the end of times and that the next generation will see the demise of human civilization via warfare or rapture or environmental degradation or communism or meteor or Minotaur. We blame ourselves and our wayward cultures for cultivating an immoral civilization and if we could only go back to the way things used to be, we'll be A-OK. As if "the way things used to be" was all that and a bag of chips. It wasn't. That's why it isn't "the way it is." Furthermore, "the way things used to be" are simply a variation on "the way things are" and "the way things will be later."

Aboriginal cultures are not the answer to all our suffering. They may live a "simple" life "close to nature" but I can guarantee that the same social ills that exist in the world today exist in the microcosm of a Maasai village. It's all relative. Larger populations deal with larger problems. Like I said, we can learn a lot from indigenous culture, but salvation is not one of those things.

But I digress.

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You is the awkwardly titled utopian fantasy novel by Dorothy Bryant that tries to convince its readers that "primitive" (as she continuously refers to it) cultures essentially reign supreme over modern cultures (utopian fantasy indeed). We have strayed from our creation and have become suffering, ugly beings who are lost. The nameless protagonist is an outsider (from this world) that arrives at the mysterious island of Ata where a strange tribe of people (not unlike the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine) live a frugal, yet fulfilling life devoid of the trappings of modern (or even pre-modern) living and depend on their dreams as a guide for the living. It all sounds strangely like Aldous Huxley's book Island, without the drugs.

But Aldous Huxley it is not. The plot is paper thin. It is a simple Jesus story of redemption and suffering with all sorts of pseudo-religious undertones. The philosophy is overtly sanctimonious and insanely over-simplified. Dorothy Bryant is obviously the sort of person that thinks we should go back to "the way things used to be," forget all our smart phones and plastic bags and garden hoses. Oh, sure there was more to this book than that, but I had such a hard time getting around these points that the rest seemed to glance over me.

But all was not lost reading this book. I did agree with Bryant on a couple of occasions, namely her take on dogma vs. interpretation. The Eloi, I mean Atans, do not possess a system of writing. they communicate everything orally (and too much oral communication is bad). Their culture is entirely dictated by their dreams and the culture is subject to change, nuance and interpretation rather than the dogmatic manner in which we seek truth (I'm looking at you, Christians and Muslims). While I won't go so far as to say that writing elicits a hardening of the arteries in humanity's heart, insisting on one uncompromising truth in a world with as truths as there are people is pointless. But to go so far as to shun the written language, learning and such, well that's taking things a bit too far, regardless of the message you are trying to convey.

Unless you are truly desperate or you happen to be one of those people who really liked The Shack or the work of Paulo Coelho, pass on this on if it comes your way.


Chiba Chiba Y'all said...

Meteor or Minotaur would be a great band name

Ryan said...

I'll play the glockenspiel.

Beaux said...

wow, you missed some points of that book. Its about the free will and non-judgement of all individuals in a closed society. the unique thing this teaches is the personal responsibility and discipline that comes with spiritual growth to enlightenment. they don't hate, they don't judge.
thats the meat and potatoes of the ata story, i agree that there is not much else there in the way of timeless literature- but to live in a collective society that operates on an "all for one" level like a hive mentality is at the heart of being human- it's about common respect...personal responsibility- all the things we need more of in these "modern times". framing those things into this ata story is what makes it deep deep.

Ryan said...

Perhaps you are right. But I couldn't read past the new age-y nonsense. Once my alarm bells for that go off, I tend to tune a lot out.

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