Carmen Maria Machado’s surreal, boundary-breaking writing offers unbroken beauty

Courtesy of Carmen Maria Machado via Wikimedia

Carmen Maria Machado’s name has floated in the literary ether around me for years, scattered through the bylines of publications from “Medium” to the “New Yorker,” stamped on the high-gloss hardcovers of “Her Body and Other Parties” that I shelved at my first job, and, in the form of her recent memoir “In the Dream House,” selected as the crescendo to the syllabus of my first college-level English course. In a rapid end to this slow-burn courtship, I read the memoir in a single night.

Machado’s writing is intoxicating. Chasing each of the book’s three sections with trips to caverns of the Joss laundry room in an attempt to prolong the trance I found myself under, one refrain rang through the haze: I need to talk to this person. Last week, I had the pleasure of doing just that when Machado came to the College to deliver this year’s Gifford Lecture.

Whether simply reading her prose or speaking with her over the phone, Machado’s intelligence is immediately palpable. Yet, what makes both her work and presence so electrifying is the way she alternates between an intellectual self and one of deep compassion and humor. Machado sacrifices neither for the sake of “In the Dreamhouse,” integrating critical histories of queerness, violence and pop culture into the book’s intense subject matter. The memoir, which details an abusive relationship Machado experienced in her early 20s, examines queer intimate partner violence as well as the less overt violence of growing up in a marginalized body through a kaleidoscope of metaphors.

I asked Machado how the absence of these marginalized identities in our cultural canon—a phenomenon she refers to using Sadiya Hartman’s phrase “the violence of the archive”— affected her own development as a writer. She said, “Very much so. Writers are all sort of made up of their influences and the books they come to. How those books come to them depend a lot on what we canonize, what we include in the archive, and so, it’s a weird sort of self-perpetuating problem. So, if, for example, if you don’t see women’s perspectives on something being portrayed or explained, or they’re just not in the canon at all, there’s just this sense of ‘I’m alone,’…You’re so…whatever you are that you think your experience is really unique, when in fact, human experiences repeat themselves with some regularity. So, I feel like it is what is, and you have to extract yourself from it and purposely work against it because simply going by the status quo, you are playing into that system inherently.”

Machado breaches this system from its bones—the memoir, from its vignette structure to its content to its clever injection of horror, fantasy and choose-your-own-adventure is fundamentally experimental. She explained to me that fantasy and horror helped her by functioning as a means of articulating internal conflicts and fears. She described: “Every genre has its own way of pulling on some thread of human consciousness and concern in a way I think is really useful for all writers, not just fiction writers.” 

“For some reason it’s like my brain needs the fiction to be able to get myself around it in some way and then I feel able and capable of writing the non-fiction,” she elaborated. Though Machado acknowledges this often isn’t the most efficient, interweaving fantasy and reality is essential to crafting the eerie tenor of her work. Machado endows the mundane and melodramatic moments of our lives with equal gravity, forcing us to comb through our own memories for the monsters and epiphanies that lurk at the corners.

Though a memoir, “In the Dream House” reads like a cross between an autopsy and a fable—meticulous, gory and enchanting. Concerned as it is with exploring the literal architecture of Machado’s love-turned-horror story (the titular Dream House is in fact a real place), it felt strangely prescient in a time where we all have been somewhat trapped by our own houses, whether they are dreamlike or nightmarish.

In discussing this and the strange, liminal atmosphere of the now yuppie-beleaguered American tourist towns, I was curious to know whether her relationships with the many emotionally-charged landscapes in the memoir have changed. According to Machado, it depends on the place itself and the strength of its “temporal umbilical cord.” “I spent a good chunk of my life moving to different cities and driving across the country for various reasons and trying to figure out where I went,” she reflected. “I feel like the book reflects that in the way that some of these movements are just very tied to these specific geographic locations.”

This immediately reminded me of a quote from the memoir (“The only time I feel patriotic is when I’m on a road trip”), and I asked if she could explain the relationship between those movements and her conception of the country.  She answered, “Especially with natural beauty, there is this sense of ancientness…we’re just these tiny little beings in this large temporal field and that’s just what it is. This is a way of thinking of it for myself, like we’re very small ants in a very large space.”

The image of us all as ants milling around an ancient land is strangely comforting. The same goes for “In the Dream House,” which might serve as something of a cautionary tale for young people navigating unfamiliar terrain. 

Machado emphasized the importance of finding good models for healthy relationships in order to avoid creating narratives that justify unhealthy behavior. She advised, “If one person’s fear and anxieties are animating the relationship and the other person is just adjusting around that, that’s not a good relationship.” Most importantly, she impressed on me her hope that young people will begin to see their happiness as justification enough for the romantic decisions they do or don’t make. “Sometimes,” Machado mused, “I feel like people want a reason…like, I can only break up with my boyfriend if he cheats on me, or if he does something bad to me, but it’s also okay to say, ‘I’m not happy and I don’t want to be in this relationship.’” 

Ultimately, though, the most salient piece of advice that Machado offered, which, like her writing, both terrifies and emboldens me is this: “When you’re twenty…you’re just a hot mess. That’s literally what it is. You’re just a hot mess until you aren’t anymore. And that’s fine and good.”

One Comment

  1. Absolutely captivating article. Bryn has brought this author to our couches and chairs and graciously invited into an enriching conversation!

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