Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She has been nominated for a Nebula Award and a Shirley Jackson Award, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
Managing Editor, Carissa Halston, interviewed Machado for Solstice about her forthcoming collection, writing as activism, and genre vs. style.
CH: First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming collection, Her Body and Other Parties! Will you talk a bit about the overall project and how the manuscript came to be?
CMM: Happily! This collection has been an ongoing project since graduate school. My thesis, a collection with the same title, only shares 3 of the same stories. The majority of Her Body and Other Parties was written post-school. I’ve actually written a ton of work since then—enough for several collections, probably—but Her Body and Other Parties has a specific set of themes and concerns: the oppressed body, gender, sex and sexuality, media, myths and legends and ghosts and the uncanny. Some of the stories have been published online already, but there are a few that were print-only or are otherwise hard to find. And there’s a brand-new short story and a brand-new novella that haven’t been published at all. Overall, it’s a tight, sleek collection. I’m really excited to be working with Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf; he’s a brilliant editor and really understands this project.
CH: In Los Angeles Review of Books, Sofia Samatar wrote, “Sex, capable of infinite variation, holds a prominent place in Machado’s fiction.” Last year, you published “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity” (also at LARB), an essay that delved into your experience growing up in a religious community and how it affected your sexuality. Do you find those experiences informing your fiction? And, as a queer writer, do you view writing fiction as a type of activism?
CMM: Certainly, my experiences with my body—as a queer woman, as a fat woman, as a woman of color, as a woman who either wanted to or has had sex, as a woman, period—have shaped my concerns as a writer. Religion was certainly part of it, of course—especially when it came to navigating sex and sexuality—but I think we’re all marinating in a toxic societal stew of some sort, even if you’re not particularly religious. Slut-shaming and homophobia and transphobia can exist outside of religious contexts, for example. Also, we’re obsessed with weight and food shaming. And people of color experience their bodies being routinely devalued, set upon, and destroyed on a regular basis. Our culture hates bodies. Its only interest is making us hate them, and punishing us if we don’t. I love my body. But sometimes the stress is too much, and I wish I could just be a brain in a jar. (But you can’t drink dirty martinis or eat soup dumplings if you’re a brain in a jar, so… it’s tricky.)
As for the question of “activism,” I think that if you’re a woman, a queer person, a person of color, a non-cisgender person, a non-able-bodied person, etc., writing is inherently a form of activism because you’re staking a claim in a world that is not meant for you. When you try and put your work into the world, you’re saying “I think that what I have to say, in the way I say it, is so important that I am willing to try and get it to other people, no matter what it takes.” And that requires ego, in the best way possible. It requires that you take yourself and your craft and your voice seriously. When you’re not white, not male, not cisgender or straight or able-bodied, that ego is a radical act. So yes, the fact that I take myself seriously as an artist and do what I can to put my work out into the world is a form of activism.
CH: In your story, “The Husband Stitch,” you have moments that seem to revel in irony, e.g, you begin by telling us your protagonist’s voice is forgettable (though it’s not, of course) and all women’s voices are like hers, but then you tell us in other ways that your protagonist is unlike most women, via lines like: “It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want.” I was hoping you’d tell me about your approach to rendering these ironic moments, and this one in particular, since it epitomizes gender disruption in such a delightful manner.
CMM: This is such an excellent question. Something I’ve struggled with all of my life is this perception of what women are. You hear that a lot: “Women are this. Men are this.” And that sentence is never actually true and is always sexist, even if it’s well-intentioned. And yet, there is something that binds women together: the oppression of our bodies. Now, patriarchy touches different women in different ways, depending on the intersections of other types of privilege, but it’s there in one form or another.
So I’m constantly trying to grapple with that contradiction: that to say women are one thing or another is essentialist and false, but at the same time there’s this common, powerful current that runs through our shared experiences. So the protagonist in “The Husband Stitch” is both acknowledging the presence of this force (all women are, to the patriarchy, forgettable) while also asserting her individual experience within that societal bubble—how she’s pushing against the idea of what she’s supposed to be.
CH: You’ve written a number of stories that defy genre and meld the “literary” and the “magical.” On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not-at-all and 10 is let-me-show-you-the-door, how tired are you of dealing with the question of genre?
CMM: Both a 1 and 10, I think. On one hand, I find the question of genre and its qualities and malleability and boundaries to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m perfectly content to discuss it at length in a critical context. But usually, inquires about genre require this irritating, stock set of replies that can never quite address the issue. It’s like “When did you stop beating your wife?” The problem lies in the question.
But here’s the long version: I consider “genre” to be a question of worldbuilding—a fairly easy-to-parse discussion about the logistics of the world and the parameters of reader expectations. As for “literary,” I consider that a style; an interest in psychology, an attention to language, and a willingness to experiment, among other things. These labels are not and have never been a contradiction. And “realism” (which is what people usually mean when they say “literary”) has its own genre tropes and conceits and history to grapple with, which some folks flatly refuse to acknowledge. I should add that nothing I’m saying here is revolutionary; genre writers find themselves saying this stuff all the time. In any case, you can have (and we do have, in droves) commercial realism in the same way we can have literary science fiction or literary fantasy.
But I feel like people sometimes cannot handle the fact that those things can be together. It’s like, if I said I lived in a green house, and someone said “But do you live in a green place or live in a house? It can’t be both!” Sure it can. I could also live in a red house, or a green apartment building. The style of a home and its color aren’t mutually exclusive.
I remember back when Arthur Krystal and Lev Grossman had their little The New Yorker vs. Time genre spat, Krystal did this really interesting (and, I think, telling) rhetorical slight in his final essay, where in the face of Grossman’s rebuttal points, he backed up a bit, redefined “genre” as “commercial,” and then proceeded as if the two were interchangeable. “There will be exceptions, as there are in every field,” he wrote, “but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us.” (Here, of course, Krystal is bastardizing a famous quote of Kafka’s—Kafka himself being a writer of literary liminal fantasy.)
This willfully disingenuous bait-and-switched enraged me because, despite Krystal’s obvious intelligence, he was exhibiting a bias that refused to yield to fact—one very unbecoming of a critic. And in fact, Krystal’s essay came out a week after The New Yorker published George Saunders’ excellent literary science fiction story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” Awkward, right?
So… anyway. I’m off track. I teach that set of essays whenever I teach a speculative fiction class, so I’ve been thinking about them recently. But yes, I write primarily (though not exclusively) fantasy and science fiction, and I’m a literary writer, and I wish “the genre question” would die a fast and inconsequential death.
CH: This next question is a bit self-serving, so forgive me. You’ve written that you grew up in the Lehigh Valley, a small region about an hour north of Philadelphia. I also grew up there, so I’m curious about how you feel that setting (or any setting) colors your work.
CMM: If you’d asked me this question as a teenager, I would have answered “This place will never influence me!” in as cranky a voice as humanly possible. I hated the Lehigh Valley, I hated Pennsylvania, I could not believe that my family lived there. I imagined living anywhere else, and in fact moved to non-Pennsylvania places every chance I got (DC/Maryland for college, California for kicks, Iowa for graduate school).
But when I got a little older, and I returned, I actually realized that I was enamored with Pennsylvania: its history, its natural beauty, its weirdness. I love hex signs and driving up to Jim Thorpe and scrappy lil’ Philadelphia and all of the seasons and red-tailed hawks and how long the state is, and how beautiful it is to drive that impossible length, and how different the east and west bits of the state are. And how coal and industry have ravaged the landscape in so many ways, and there are dying resort towns in the mountains, and how Centralia is always burning, and seeing the outline of Bethlehem Steel against the twilight, and Christkindlmarkt and horse-drawn buggies and 24-hour diners. And eastern Pennsylvania definitely shows up in my work, even when I don’t name it explicitly. In “The Resident,” the unpublished novella in my collection, the protagonist attends a writing residency in the “P—— Mountains,” meant to evoke The Poconos, in a natural space inspired by a Girl Scout camp I used to attend as a child. (That Girl Scout camping experience, including the stories told around the campfire, is a recurring theme in my work. It’s there that I first heard the story of Jenny and her green ribbon, the inspiration for “The Husband Stitch.”)
I live in Philadelphia now, and I’m finally in love with my home. So yeah, in a way, my internal landscape, my default setting, is usually in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic, or the East Coast. Sorry, teenaged Carmen. You never did exactly get away.
CH: And finally, I recently saw on Twitter that you wrote custom fortunes and prophecies at last year’s Nebula Award ceremony. If you were in charge, would that be a regular custom at all award shows?
CMM: I did this with my good friend (and fellow writer) Sam J. Miller, because we wanted to sign something at the Nebulas but our books aren’t in the world yet. (His unbelievably excellent YA novel, The Art of Starving, is coming out in 2017.) We had a lot of fun doing it, because we’re both good at weird, eerie improvisation, and Sam is an excellent cartoonist. And it was better than just signing a scrap; no one wants to stop and get a blank piece of paper signed by two random writers, but people love personalized stuff. So yeah, I think if you’re a writer without a book, making something and then signing it is a great idea. Plus, it might give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, like giving Nick Offerman a weird little prophecy.