The Body Is So Inescapable

18 October 2022

A conversation with this year’s Conrad Festival guest Carmen Maria Machado on book writing and queer literary perspective.  

Conrad Festival

Agata Hołobut: This year’s Conrad Festival is dedicated to “Communities”. Is it an important concept for you? Which communities do you identify with as a writer and as a person?  

Carmen Maria Machado: I think that if you don’t have community, you really don’t have much at all, so it’s a very important part of my life. The communities that I belong to are the writing community at large, the queer writing community and also, in general, the queer community. Different intersections of what I do and who I am.  

You once said that literary and genre writing is nowadays more a question of community than content. What communities do you write for?  

I feel like I have two totally separate answers that cannot be reconciled. I don’t write for other people; I write for me. I’m trying to please myself. And especially with my fiction if the work feels like it’s for a community, that’s because I’m part of that community and I’m trying to please myself. On the other hand, I do also recognize the fact that when I was writing my memoir, I was thinking a lot about other queer people. That was very much on my mind.  

You allow us to hear self-defined, individual voices. To what extent are you interested in conveying collective experience through them?  

Again, sort of not at all. The phenomenon of art is that you create a sense of universality through specificity. People have this idea: “You wrote about this gay character and that’s not my experience, and therefore it’s wrong”. I say: “No, that’s just a different experience”. I’d really hesitate to be prescriptive about the kinds of experiences that writers are supposed to commit to the page. I write what I want to write, and I think that people can just take it or leave it. 

Her Body and Other Parties is famous for its haunting corporeal images. Your characters “have” bodies, are possessed by them, lose them and are them. What relations of self and body do you enjoy exploring the most in your writing? 

The body is so inescapable. There aren’t many truly universal human experiences, but a truly universal human experience is the possession of the body. The way it exists and is the vehicle for your mind. The way it feels and eventually dies and is subject to all those: sleeping, shitting, desire and hunger. That is the nature of human experience. For me it was a way of underlining my understanding of my relationship with my fatness and my queerness, and my horniness, and my pain. How old was I when I finished that book? Twenty-five, twenty-six? 

The title Her Body… implies an observer’s distance, yet most of your stories are first-person narratives. What do you find appealing in them?  

I’m very comfortable in first-person. When I wrote this book, I didn’t realize until a journalist asked me that except for the Law-and-Order story it is entirely in first person. And I was like: “O my God! How didn’t I even notice that?”. It was just a thing I did automatically. Right now, I’m working on a new book in third person, and it feels like I’m moving little dolls around, it’s very odd.  

In the Dreamhouse tackles a sensitive issue of emotional abuse in a same-sex relationship. Why did you decide to write it as a memoir rather than fiction? 

I did write about it in fiction. In my first book there is a story called Mothers, which is about an abusive lesbian relationship; I wrote another called Blur. But for me it was really important that it was non-fiction, because fiction is so slippery in so many ways. People will put autobiographical readings on things, but you can’t officially, because I can just say: “I made it up, it doesn’t matter”. It was important to put a stake in the ground and be like: “This happened to me and I’m gonna do this in the best way that I know how”.  

Most of it is written in second person. Was it a conscious choice? 

When I sold an early version of the book to my publisher, it was skeletal: mostly just the autobiographical material, forty or fifty pages long. And my editor said: “So I notice, this is all in second person”, and I was like: “Is it?”. Because I had not realized. And he said: “You can absolutely write a book in second person, I’m not gonna stop you, but I want to make sure that you’re doing it because you want to and not because you’re so traumatized that you’re keeping the narrative pushed away”. It was a good point. So, I went back, and I started to try and move it into first person. But as I was reading it out loud to myself, which is how I read, it wasn’t working. It didn’t sound right. So, I ended up creating this mix of a first person and a second person. And part of the inspiration for that was Justin Torres’s We the Animals. It’s a novel about three brothers, told in the plural first  voice: “we, we, we”. Then towards the end of the book an act of trauma happens that ruptures the marrow of the story and sends one brother away from the others. The narrative goes into second person, then third person and eventually it ends with him saying “I”. It’s really devastating. So, I liked the idea of there being second-person pieces which were the “you” of my past that was a person still trapped in this weird cycle and the first person, which is me that went on with her life.  

The matter is sensitive in terms of potentially perpetuating stereotypes, such as “the lunatic lesbian”, which you mention in the book. How did you negotiate these issues in your creative process? 

It was incredibly hard, because there is this desire right now for uncomplicated positive narratives of marginalised groups. I understand that impulse, while also completely disagreeing with it, because the idea that we can only tell positive stories is so childish and that is not how art works. Queer people are human beings, we deserve to have our villains just as we deserve to have our heroes and we deserve to have complicated human stories that reflect the complicated human nature of queer people who are people. But I also wanted to address it; I wanted to talk about it. And I was thinking a lot about queer villains and queer characters who are evil or do bad things or are just complicated or hurt other people. That’s really interesting to me. It became my thing, and I would keep returning to this. 

You’re famous for pandemic and post-apocalyptic fiction. Do you still find it inspiring in the light of recent events? 

Right after Covid started I was getting a farm box from a local farm with vegetables in it. One day I pulled out the receipt they leave in the box, and someone had written on it: “Searching for an island off the coast of Maine”, which is a reference to my short story Inventory. I saved it because it was so heart-breaking and beautiful. Now that I’ve lived through a pandemic, maybe I’d write some things differently, but essentially the story would be the same, because I wrote about what it means to want to make human connections when you’re not supposed to be together. And that was also my experience of COVID. I’m a little exhausted by the pandemics, but I still find them very interesting.  

Carmen Maria Machado
American writer, teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. Her essays, short stories and critical texts are published in 
New Yorker, New York Times, Granta, Tin House, VQR and other periodicals. Winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, Lambda Literary Award and John Leonard Prize awarded by National Book Critics Circle, finalist for the National Book Award.  

Agata Hołobut
Translation scholar and translator, affiliated with the Institute of English Studies, Jagiellonian University. Her major fields of interest include literary and audiovisual translation, as well as intersections of literature, music and visual arts. One of this year’s awardees of Kraków UNESCO City of Literature Prize. 

Photo: Carmen Maria Machado by Art Streiber

The interview was published in the 3/2022 issue of "Kraków Culture" quarterly.



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