Carmen Maria Machado: Claiming Her Space
Carmen Maria Machado is self-assured and outspoken, turning a mirror not only on herself but on society’s unchallenged biases to create immersive fiction.
Carmen Maria Machado is an award-winning writer whose short stories defy easy categorization, spanning science fiction, gothic horror, erotica, fantasy, and literary fiction.
Raised in Allentown, PA, Machado began writing fiction while studying journalism at American University in Washington, DC, and earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has been published in Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeneys, and elsewhere. Her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017) was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
Machado is also a frequent contributor of cultural commentary to The New Yorker. Her memoir In the Dream House, about an abusive lesbian relationship, was shortlisted for the 2021 Folio Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Carmen Maria Machado doesn’t accept conventional narratives, nor does she create them. She has an unnerving talent for weaving the disturbing, the provocative, the horrifying, into her stories. But, she says, it’s all in good fun.
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s like playing, you know? It gives me the same sensation as when I was a kid and I was playing with a dollhouse, you know? And so, it’s that sort of same sense of creative control, and sort of like generating a world and generating characters, and generating conflict, and creating this space, and doing so to reflect something that’s inside of me. I actually think it’s really fun.
Even as a child, Carmen’s play wasn’t like most other little girls. She’s always had a distinctly macabre sensibility. She and a friend liked to pretend they were doctors, saving their dolls, who were twin sisters, from mysterious, deadly illnesses. Now, as an adult, Machado still has the tendency to look for the dark side in things.
Machado: Whenever we drive past that billboard, out on one of the highways where it’s the Chick-fil-A, and it’s the cow that’s painting, and it says, “Eat Mor Chikin,” and I always say to my wife, “Oh my God, the cow doesn’t want to die.” And so he’s, this barely literate cow is trying desperately to paint a sign to encourage humans to kill and eat another kind of animal to spare their lives. That’s so dark! Who came up with that advertising concept? And so, I feel like that’s just the way that my brain works. I don’t know why. I mean, I think it’s from reading, and just being a weird kinda goth kid, and thinking about death a lot, and thinking about the way the world is kind of a nightmare. A world that I actually do mostly enjoy living in, you know, but yeah, and I feel like that just comes through in my work, and I think that sort of eeriness, even when the material isn’t explicitly, at that moment, horror, there’s still this sense of unease.
Take, for example, “Difficult at Parties,” a story from Machado’s National Book Award-nominated debut collection. The narrator and her boyfriend, Paul, approach a housewarming party for some of his friends, but her PTSD makes even a mild encounter with good-natured strangers pulse with menace.
(Excerpt from Difficult at Parties):
We pull up next to a row of parked cars, in front of a renovated turn-of-the-century farmhouse. ‘It looks so homey,’ says Paul, stepping out and rubbing his gloveless hands together. The windows are draped with gauzy curtains and a creamy honey color throbs from within. The house looks like it’s on fire. The hosts open the door. They are beautiful and have gleaming teeth. I have seen this before. I have not seen them before.
Machado doesn’t always cause unease to generate fear. She often provokes discomfort to prove some larger point about society. Among her favorite topics to tangle with, sex. Machado is a fierce proponent of the casual sex scene. She believes that her characters work hard, and therefore deserve a little roll in the hay.
Machado: We literally are our bodies. We live in our bodies. Our bodies are the source of pain and pleasure, and eventually, and our birth, and eventually, our death, right? And sexuality in some form, whatever it is, is an essential part of the human experience. And if you think about it that way, it’s like why wouldn’t you write about sex in the same way that you would write about eating, you know? It’s characters doing things that bring them close to other people or push them away from other people, or this sort of moment with themselves, or whatever it is. And if you think about it that way, it’s just like, it’s literally as important a part of craft as any other sort of element of the human experience.
Carmen Maria Machado understands that pleasure is as essential to life as pain is to a good story, so she advocates for many ideas that push against received wisdom. In an essay for Guernica magazine, “The Trash Heap Has Spoken,” she imagines a society where fatness is seen as a virtue instead of a sin, while exploring the many ways that large bodies are diminished in America. Along the way, she recalls a telling anecdote from the biography of Shirley Jackson, her favorite horror and mystery writer.
Machado: And that drives me bananas because I’m like, “No, she’s a genius and she’s fat,” and those two things are not, they don’t exist in opposition to each other. Like it’s, people think that because we’ve grown up, I mean, if you look at the sort of cultural representations of fat people, they’re bumbling, they’re stupid, they’re laughable. You know, there’s just this very, there’s this ease about the way we demean fat bodies.
AJC: Do you refer to yourself as fat?
Machado: I do, yes.
AJC: So what does society think that that means, and what do you think that that means?
Machado: There’s this interesting thing that happens, and I think most people who are fat have experienced this, where if you say that you’re fat, which to me is as simple as the fact of saying I have brown hair or I have brown eyes, people will be like, “No, you’re not. No, no, no, don’t worry. You’re not, don’t worry.” Or they have other words that they like to use. You know, those like, “No, you’re voluptuous,” or, “You’re this, you’re that.” And to me, that’s not interesting, because what it sort of ties up what is, I think, a fairly neutral descriptor about a person’s body. It’s the same way you would say thin, it’s the same way you would say you have blonde hair. You just, it’s just a thing you say, right? It’s just a way of describing a person’s body, and there shouldn’t be any judgment associated with it.
But there is, in truth, a whole lot of judgment associated with fatness. In our culture, a thin body is assumed to be healthy and hardworking. A fat body, on the other hand, is seen as lazy, indulgent, in constant danger of disease. Neither is an absolute truth. But studies have shown that even medical professionals stereotype their patients in this way, and it can lead to worse care. Machado says she’s experienced this firsthand.
Machado: So years ago, I had swine flu when I lived in California. I got really sick, I was out for two weeks. It was really, really bad. But after the swine flu was over, which had devastated me and devastated also the entire office that I worked at, I had this rasp in my chest that was leftover from the sickness, and it wouldn’t go away, and I was like, “I need to go to the doctor and get an inhaler or something,” ’cause I can just feel this, it’s still kinda lingering, you know, right here. And I had a coworker who was this tiny, petite woman, and we both went to the same doctor, we both had the same health insurance, and she also had the same rasp. She was like, “Oh, I know, I got the same thing, it’s really bad,” ’cause she had also gotten the swine flu. And we’d both went to the doctor on two separate days, and I went in, and the doctor said, “Well, have you thought about losing weight?” And I said, “I don’t normally breathe like this. I just got, I was just ravaged by swine flu,” I had a fever of like 102, I was extremely ill for a very long time, “and now I have this symptom that’s lingering from it. Is there anything you can give me?” And then he just kept talking about weight loss and talking about how I needed to lose weight, and maybe I wasn’t breathing right ’cause I was too fat, and I was like, it was this fight, it was a fight. Eventually, they gave me an inhaler, and that was it. My coworker went in the next day, walked in, got an inhaler in five minutes, and walked out. They didn’t question it for one second. And that kind of fatphobia, the way that we focus on the fat body in this way also kills people, right? So years ago, there was a girl. I read this story about a young girl who was slightly overweight, and they diagnosed her with the wrong kind of diabetes. Like they, it’s like, they diagnosed her with the kind that they thought she had because of her body, and they never bothered testing, and she died. She straight-up died. Fatphobia kills people.
But in Machado’s world, the fat don’t just live, they rule.
I have an intermittent daydream in which I’m a queen straight out of an epic fantasy novel. I am draped in red silk and sit in a large baroque throne, crowned with a grandiose headdress, dripping gemstones that tick, tick, tick like Yahtzee dice when I turn my head. My feet rest on snoozing bears. I am so fat, I can only leave the room on a palanquin borne aloft by 20 men. I am so fat, it takes the air out of the room. I am so fat, no advisor tells me no. I am so fat, would-be conquerors flee the room in fear. I am so fat that members of their court do their best to look like me by eating onions cooked in lard, but none can match my sweeping vista, my strength, my power. I am so fat, I can take as many lovers as I please. I am so fat that fatness becomes culturally inextricable from a firm, wise, no-nonsense attitude. I am so fat, the citizens who come before me for advice or assistance feel safe in proximity to my orbit, and afterward, they go home to their families and tell their children that I am even larger and more exquisite in person. I am so fat, their daughters shove pillows under their clothes during play and say, “I’m the queen,” and then argue about how many monarchs are allowed during their game.
Carmen Maria Machado loves to press on our collective bruises. She takes on our culture’s implicit biases and helps us to rethink the things we’re often afraid to even discuss in polite society. All this with a rare combination of emotional honesty and intellectual ferocity. Long may the trash heap speak.