As an editor, it’s rare to be asked exactly why you decided to acquire a book; what you saw within a manuscript that made you jump up and down say, I know someone who needs to read this book!
The truth is, though, that I know many people who need to read this book.
The Wasp Child by Rhiannon Rasmussen is about being brave enough to leave a world that, while in some ways is comfortable in its familiarity, is suffocating in its constant demands for conformity. Having been raised within the confines of an exclusionary religion that fits every criteria for a cult–and found myself constantly on the outskirts because of my questioning, rebellious nature–I deeply connected with that theme. No one told me I had to leave the church, but they made it so that it was the only choice. The trauma that they inflicted made it impossible to stay.
The other part of the book that spoke to me was the obvious homage to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. When I first read that story, I was in college and the world was just about to crash down upon me. The soaring housing market I’d fought so hard to get into (I bought a duplex when I was 21 so I could afford to pay part-time college tuition out of pocket) was collapsing, and I was still convinced that if I worked hard enough, I could make up for dropping out of high school–collateral damage of escaping a household steeped religion. Kafka’s story forces Gregor, the transmogrified main character, to view his family and role in the household in a new way. While I’m still very close to my family, there was real physical distance then, and I knew after reading “The Metamorphosis” that I was never going to be able to share in the religion that is a core part of my family’s identity. Sometimes I felt as close to them as, well, Gregor to his family. Kafka’s story reminded me that I wasn’t the first person to feel that way. Rasmussen’s story takes it even further.
While clearly an allegory for someone who is marked as different from birth, The Wasp Child takes the reader on Kesh’s journey of persecution, exclusion, and flight to freedom. I found it remarkable that someone like me, a cis white male, connected so deeply to the experience in a way that aroused compassion and empathy.
To truly understand what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes is the goal of all great literature and, by that measure, The Wasp Child is an astonishing work of art.
The Wasp Child is the perfect book for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong. Take heart. You will find your people; you will find a place to call home.
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The Wasp Child
Kesh scrambled back to his feet and shielded his eyes from the glare and dust. He could barely see Rin and Saize silhouetted against the hovercraft’s hatch. Although he could pick out the corporate blue of their student uniforms, their faces were obscured by sun and the hover haze. The dust blown up by the exhaust coated his own uniform and pelted his skin, and no matter how he angled his hand, it stung his eyes.
“You can walk home, you disgusting parasite!” Saize shouted down, crouched to ride out the hovercraft’s shivering.
He could walk back all hundred kilometers, sure. Kesh had been watching the dashboard from where he’d been shoved in the back, hands duct-taped together, on top of the research equipment and musty old tarps. It’d been a bumpy ride. He had a pretty good idea of how bruised up he’d be tomorrow. There’d been no point in trying to put up a fight. At least they’d taken off the duct tape before shoving him out the door.
Kesh swallowed the dust, smiled, and waved up at them with the brightest wide-eyed expression he could manage. “Okay! Meet you there, then? How far is it?”
“I told you he wouldn’t understand,” Rin said, leaning back in the pilot’s seat.
“Freak. I can’t believe they just let him go to school.” Saize’s silhouette retreated inside as the hatch sealed shut.
Poor naïve Kesh. Too stupid to understand he’d really been abandoned out in the rainforest to die of exposure.
Kesh considered trying to grab the edge of the hatch as the hovercraft retreated into the air, but it was already way too high up for him to jump. They’d ditched him at last, like they’d been threatening to do every year he’d been in school. All jokes, right? That’s what they told the teachers every time he or Aster tried to have something done about it.
Mostly Aster. She’d kept trying long after Kesh had given up.
“See you later!” he yelled, although there was no way they’d hear him through the sealed hatch. But the last thing they’d see was him smiling and waving.
He hoped it haunted them.
Kesh lowered his hand as soon as the hovercraft was out of sight, futilely dusting himself off, and then turned and walked the other way. Maybe he could find a place where no one would ever discover his body. They’d never be really sure if he was dead or not. A lurking ghost.
The thought gave him a sick feeling in his throat—not the idea of his own death, but the idea of Aster in the classroom, waiting for news of him. Graduating, wondering if he was somehow still alive. If he had a shot at survival, he should at least try it. For her. Right?
But there was no way he could find his way back to the colony. The least the two bullies could have done was give him a blanket, or a knife, or any kind of survival gear. He supposed he was grateful that Rin had insisted the tape be cut open before they shoved him out. His reward for being cooperative on the way over.
Didn’t it get cold out in the rainforest at night? He’d definitely heard that. There were a ton of safety precautions he’d never paid attention to for field trips he hadn’t been allowed on. Deeper in the forest, it was warmer—that one he remembered. And there were edible plants. Something about how it was a big deal that humans could digest the local flora.
The local flora was silent, oppressively so. A stiff breeze rustled the needles clustered under his sneakers. It was far from cold—a bit sticky, even.
“I’m not a freak,” Kesh said. The crunch of the field needles gave way to the wetter squelch of denser rainforest groundcover. Not all of the plants were edible. Some were definitely poisonous. Maybe many of them. “I’m not a parasite. I’m not that weird. I do a full rota of chores. I study. So what, my grades are bad. Who cares?”
It seemed like everyone cared. Kesh kept walking. The silence was broken by an animal call. Some kind of bug. Most of the life on the planet was bugs. They lived in swarms and didn’t kick people out of their colonies to die.
No, wait. They totally did. The whole class had just watched a video on bug life cycles. That must have been where Rin and Saize got their grand idea. What were they planning on telling the teachers and admins when they got back? That he’d fallen out of the craft?
Aster was going to be the first one who noticed he was gone at all, when she would try to call him this evening for their normal study group.
“I didn’t remember anything in biology because I didn’t know I was going to be out here. I’m not even allowed out here! I thought I’d graduate, and . . . I don’t know! Clean stuff? You don’t need a degree to clean stuff.” He made a wide hand gesture, sending the plants around him bobbing, then clapped. His voice had silenced the animals, but the clap was muted anyway, and how tiny his own voice sounded among the towering plants and crunch of his footsteps was equally depressing. “Am I going to die? That’s not so bad. Everyone dies, right? Everyone dies alone. That’s a poem, I think. Isn’t it kind of awful to make kids read something like that?”
Kesh imagined himself dead, decomposing under popped sap orbs and desiccated needles, and felt sick. No cremation, no ceremony.
A loud crack echoed to his right. He started. The noise drove the gross image right out of his head, replacing it with the sudden terrifying conviction that he did not want to die. Not here. Not now. Not alone. And definitely not by being eaten.
Loud noises scared away big predators, right? All he had to do was keep talking.
“. . . Is anyone there?” Kesh called out. The words squeaked out in a timid voice which he immediately hated.
Another crack. A snap. The noise came from behind one of those tall plants called a tree, after old Earth trees, even though they didn’t look anything like those orderly, green poles from videogames. This tree’s purple sap orbs, glisteningly ripe, curled up into a dizzying pattern that sheltered whatever moved behind it from Kesh’s sight. He could investigate, but that would mean stepping closer.
“Hello? I see you.” That was a lie. Kesh moved backward, tensing to run.
A crunch, and a huge, stooping creature stepped out from the brush. Its shell was iridescent, an oily sheen that blended with the plant’s luster. With it came an odd, musky scent, sharper than the wet peat of the forest.
Kesh felt his core untense. He waved at the big bug, but slowly, to not startle it.
“Hello! You’re a sansik, aren’t you?” he called out.
Sansik were the most intelligent native life on the planet. The teacher would always say that with a laugh and follow up with “But now that we’re here”, or some other rude aside. Sansik weren’t hostile, and they didn’t seem to mind passive-aggressive comments from the colonists. They even visited the colony a few times a year. He’d seen them on a few of those visits. From a distance. The smell was new.
Maybe they’d help him get back home.
“I’m Kesh. That’s my name, Kesh.”
The sansik stared at him with large blank eyes, too big for its flat head. It had mandibles. It worked them while it stared at him, unblinking.
Of course it wasn’t blinking. Bugs didn’t have eyelids.
Behind it, two more sansik lumbered over. Maybe they were laying trails, and that was the smell. Could humans smell it? Probably covered that in class. The first sansik was bigger than the other two by half again, and its head was crowned with spires of chitin. Sansik had some kind of ranking system they grew into. The smaller ones were a kind of foraging drone, and the bigger one with the crown was . . .
. . . Just like on a test, the information didn’t come up when he needed it. Royalty, he decided. The bigger ones were usually a sex similar to Earth mammalian female, and crowns meant royalty.
Bigger was subjective. All three were bigger than he was and had an extra pair of limbs folded up against their sides. All three of them chewed their serrated mandibles and stared at him with fractured, shining eyes.
“I’m from Meridian. You know, the weird building full of people like me,” he said, putting careful emphasis on each syllable. Friendly. Nonthreatening. No response came. “I’m lost. Can you take me back there?”
The royal sansik looked up, behind him. Kesh glanced around. Just forest. Was that the direction of Meridian? Imagine if he showed back up escorted by sansik. Everyone would be impressed, even Rin and Saize. Maybe they’d even be a little scared. If they were scared, they’d probably just do a better job of killing him next time. Kesh swallowed. “Well, forget about it. I don’t want to go back there. It’s horrible. You should go away and let me die.”
The royal sansik lowered its head to stare at him again. Kesh crossed his arms, burying his shiver deep inside him with the motion, and stared back, unblinking, for as long as he could.
Finally, it stepped back, then turned and crashed through the underbrush. The other two turned to follow.
They really were leaving him.
They would be the last sentient creatures he ever saw.
His knees almost gave out.
“No, no, no, wait! Wait for me, I changed my mind!” His voice cracked. Tears stuck to his cheeks, despite all of the effort he’d put into staying stoic. Staying determined. Cheerful. He gritted his teeth and ran after the retreating bugs.
“Don’t leave me!”