“A pioneering queer writer”: Carmen Maria Machado on They by Kay Dick | Books

“I remembered how they started, a parody for the newspapers. No one has written about them now.

Dystopia was one of my favorite early genres, the start of the journey away from childhood books. I read Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta. They were flexible with the metaphor; I saw for the first time the in regards to novels, the currents that have moved under prose. There’s a reason we teach dystopian novels to teenagers; the same reason young adult fiction is full of them. Adolescence marks the time when you begin to see around you, when the worry that was bubbling in your mind crashes clean and clear against the shore. Dystopia is a genre for the postlapsarian age; art for what you can’t ignore.


Jhey was first published in 1977. It is the fourth book by pioneering queer English writer, editor and publisher Kay Dick, who lived with her partner Kathleen Farrell in Hampstead for over 20 years. In They – which the author calls a “discomfort sequence”, although it falls somewhere between storybook and fake novel – a nameless and genderless protagonist moves through the English countryside with a group of artists and intellectuals, escaping the predations of a mysterious group of philistines only called “they”.

Photography: Faber & Faber

They have no government, no creed, no mercy. Calculating in their cruelty and methods one moment and scandalously reckless and barbaric the next, they or they travel on trawlers through the waterways and erect strange towers on the coast where rebels are sent to have their memories purged. They hates art, people who live alone, excessive manifestations of emotions; they or they plunder novels and paintings, they or they burn sheet music and poetry.

They also punish anyone who resists. Unrepentant visual artists are blind, shameless musicians made deaf. A sculptor has the broken glass of his sculpture sunk into his eyes. A shocked children’s author walks into a pond every day, apparently to quench the memory of being set on fire. If they choose to continue their practice, “they [will] amputate your hands and cut your tongue,” one of them tells the narrator. They hold the right arm of Jane, a poetess, above the flames for eight minutes, for the crime of moving towards her burning work. (“[Her husband] Russell had acted differently. “You forgot that,” he said, throwing his recently completed fugue into the fire. »

They are untouched, unsettling, oddly familiar. It evokes Yōko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales or Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, occupying a space between dystopia and horror. The lush landscapes are haunted by deeply disturbing details of the forces at work – “It wasn’t a good listen to the footsteps”, the narrator tells us, “they weren’t wearing shoes” – and it’s all a canvas background for endless questions about art: does it mean creating for no audience? If you can’t read a novel anymore, is it enough to remember it? Is it more important to protect the artist or his work?

Carmen Maria Machado.
Carmen Maria Machado. Photography: Art Schreiber/PA

They sold poorly enough that when Dick asked for the paperback edition, his publisher kindly reminded him that authors had to pay for their own copies of their book unless their advance had been earned. “I suggest that Penguin make efforts to sell more copies of They to cover this shortfall,” Dick suggested in his sullen response. She was unhappy with Penguin’s sales or publicity efforts; it seemed to him that no one at home was attached to the book. And Dick was right, in his own way. Nobody was quite ready for They: not the house that published it, not the readers who ignored it, not the literary critics whose reactions were lackluster to incredibly sexist. Two years after its publication, They was out of print. After his death in 2001, Dick’s literary executors approached many publishers, but all declined the opportunity to republish his work. When it was finally rediscovered – a chance encounter in which a literary agent picked it up from a charity shop – it was impossible to order a second-hand copy on the Internet; mine is less a book than a sheaf of flimsy pages held together by the memory of a spinal column.

The rediscovery of They is a happy ending, sure, but a happy ending to a sad story that contains its own metafictional reminder of the height of creation humiliated by the realities of the world, the clash of art and commerce. Artists don’t need to be blinded or burned to be silenced; removing them can be as simple as creating or maintaining economic insecurity and letting the books disappear.


IIn an essay for the Paris Review, critic Lucy Scholes writes of the boost of meeting They after the rest of Dick’s work: “Reading it was like reading the work of a writer entirely different,” she says, describing her as a “complete anomaly. in Dick’s work: a surreptitious end-of-career aberration, the genesis of which is unclear, and which does not seep into what she writes afterwards. The observation is reminiscent of that of HP Lovecraft, in which he argues that there is no better evidence of the pervasive human fear that energizes “cosmic fear” literature than “the impulse that occasionally drives writers of totally opposite tendencies trying their hand at isolated tales, as if to unload from their minds certain fantasy forms that would otherwise haunt them. What haunted Kay Dick? Financial precariousness? Frustrations with the creative process? She died in 2001 – barely a month after a terrorist attack sparked one of our many current parallel dystopias – but one can imagine she would be equally troubled by many aspects of our contemporary lives: violence economy, the eternal wars, the flirtations with authoritarianism, the ongoing environmental catastrophe.

It’s tempting to play the game of allegory with Them, the way we’ve integrated the world-building of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games into the zeitgeist. Metaphors are easily abused; you’ve probably heard your ideological opposite invoke 1984 in his own defense, making (you’re sure) the opposite point that the author himself was making. And it’s easy – and not wrong, to be clear – to affix the label “they” to the people who have specifically made the lives of artists and intellectuals hell: conservative politicians and reactionary pundits, parents bead catchers and loose institutions. . This creates a top-down view of dystopia in which blame exists elsewhere, outside.

But I don’t think Kay Dick would let us go so easily; censorship impulses, infuriating speeches and soft bigotry are not the exclusive property of the right. The radical queer author of They was to be rediscovered by the world, after all. If your understanding of dystopia doesn’t begin, first, with your own complicity – the way you are them, even if you don’t want to be – you’ve missed the point. The problem with Dystopia is that you can bring it into a knife fight, but it’s best not to drop it or you could end up on the wrong side of the blade.


OWe are still in the midst of a pandemic. Unique weather events regularly pass over us; I forgot how the seasons moved. People who don’t have to suffer and die do suffer and die – not because of a lack of resources, but because of a lack of political will. Art is strangled: capitalism, commerce, governments, institutions, fanatics, scolded, cowards. In this context, they feel almost paralyzing. What to do in the face of this loss, this evil, this calamity? Kay Dick tells us. Or, at least, she opens an opening for us, a small door full of meaning: Jane, the poetess. The one who held her right arm above the flames for eight minutes, for resisting the loss of her job. She is, she tells the narrator, writing poetry again. Her right arm ruined, she learns to write with her left.

From Carmen Maria Machado’s introduction to They by Kay Dick, published by Faber (£8.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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