Carmen Maria Machado's Queer Horror Stories
ZAKIYA: Hey, Nancy listeners. We want to give y'all a heads-up that intimate partner violence is discussed in the second half of this episode.
[NANCY THEME PLAYS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: Hello, hello? Kathy?
TOBIN: How you doing? Are you recording?
KATHY: I am recording, yes.
TOBIN: Is your dog out of the room? My dog is out of the room.
KATHY: She is not at the mic right now. Yes, she is out of the room.
TOBIN: Okay, okay. Great. We can start. [KATHY LAUGHS] Why [PAUSE] don’t we talk about our amazing guest?
KATHY: Okay! Let’s!
[BOUNCY MUSIC PLAYS MUSIC]
TOBIN: So we are super excited to talk to author Carmen Maria Machado.
KATHY: When we first invited Carmen on the show, we wanted to talk about her memoir that came out a couple months ago, In the Dream House. The book is about her experience in an abusive lesbian relationship — and plays with genres like fantasy and horror.
TOBIN: It's such a good book, and we're still gonna chat with her about it. But, right before we were scheduled to interview her, the pandemic took hold, and we were all told to social distance.
KATHY: And this whole experience with the coronavirus pandemic really reminded us of two stories in Carmen's first book, a book of short stories called Her Body and Other Parties.
TOBIN: Yeah. Like, these two stories are literally about pandemics, and they are eerily similar to what's happening today, so we had to ask her about them.
KATHY: Okay. So, Carmen, your first book came out in 2017. It's called Her Body and Other Parties, and in it, there are — not one — but two stories about pandemics. One is called "Real Women Have Bodies,” and the other is called "Inventory". So my first question for you is: Did you know that this was gonna happen?
CARMEN: Yeah. [LAUGHING] You know, part of what you're good at if you're a good writer i that you pay attention. And I feel like, when stuff like this happens, like, obviously, I didn't know it was going to happen. But I think just, like, generally being, like, an observer of human behavior and an observer of society and an observer of just sort of what's going on and sort of drawing from that and the idea of, like, what happens if, like, you're a person who, like, you know, sort of runs on, like, human contact like so many people, and then suddenly you're not able to have that contact. I mean, you know, I've done a lot of reading of, like, you know, And the Band Played On, and, like, the AIDS crisis, and, like, I think I was thinking about that when I was writing “Inventory.”
TOBIN: So that story, ”Inventory,” is about a mysterious pandemic that's sweeping the world and killing people. And the story is written like a journal. Like, you get these brief entries written by the main character, and what she's doing is recounting every sexual partner she's ever had. What we found really interesting is that by telling each of these stories chronologically, you get these little details about what's going on with the pandemic around her. I'm wondering, how did you come up with that form and format for this story?
CARMEN: So, I wrote the story at a workshop that I went to and it was a few weeks in. And early on in the workshop, another student had workshopped a story, which was ... it had a lot of sexual content and was also very sexist. And during the critique, I sort of commented on, you know, the sexism of the story, and later, he sort of made an offhand comment about how obviously I hated the story because I was prudish or that, like, I didn't like sex in fiction.
KATHY: [LAUGHING] You’re like, "Challenge accepted.”
CARMEN: Exactly. So, then I was like, you know, “I'm gonna write a story that's entirely sex scenes.” Like, “I'm gonna use the sex scene as a unit of measurement — [KATHY LAUGHS] um, for — for this next story.” And so I sat down, and I — I began thinking about, “How would you sort of release little dribbles of information where, like, you know, the reader is sort of getting some little pieces of, um, a story that’s, like, much bigger?” Um, like, alongside the big stuff, there's always the small stuff. You're always doing things, like having sex while something really bad happens in the world around you. Like, that's always true. You know, you're always — you’re always making noodles while somebody's being blown apart in another country. You know what I mean? Or in your country. You know, that tension always exists. You're living your life in these small ways always alongside huge, huge, large-scale tragedy, like war and death and loss. So, the story sort of shifts focus between what's happening in the background, but, like, this young woman's sort of, like, sexual journey and sexual awakening is, like, the lens through which the, um, the, sort of — the material's being examined. And it eventually sort of collides in this thematic way because it's about, like, touch and human contact.
KATHY: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
CARMEN: And there’s, like, a part where she sleeps with this, like, former CDC employee who's like, "If people would just stay apart, we would not have this virus."
CARMEN: But — but people won't do it. And so it continues.
TOBIN: Uh, sort of, like, you know, “The world is falling apart, and — and yet, like, your — your junk is still gonna be your junk.” [CARMEN INHALES AS IF TO LAUGH] Like, you're still dealing with being a person, and …
KATHY: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
CARMEN: I like that. [LAUGHS] Your junk is still your junk. [KATHY LAUGHS, TOO] No, it's true. I mean, “Inventory” and also, like, my other pandemic story, um, “Where Women Have Bodies,” like, I feel like those sort of address those, like ... it's like, what does it mean to, like, have a job while that's going on, or to, like, be nursing a crush on somebody, or starting to date someone, or whatever.
[MOVING, DRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: We asked Carmen to read an excerpt from "Real Women Have Bodies." In the story, young women are inexplicably disappearing. As it turns out, this disease is causing them to literally fade away.
CARMEN: The first report started at the height of the recession. The first victims, the first women, had not been seen in public for weeks. Many of the concerned friends and family who broke into their homes and apartments were expecting to find dead bodies. I guess what they actually found was worse.
There was a video that went viral a few years back, amateur footage from a landlord in Cincinnati who brought a video camera with him in order to cover his ass as he evicted a woman who had fallen behind on the rent. He walked from room to room calling her name, swinging the camera this way and that and making wise cracks. He had a lot of things to say about her artwork, her dirty dishes, the vibrator on her nightstand. You could almost miss the punchline to the whole meandering affair if you were not looking closely enough.
Then the camera spun around, and there she was in the most sun-drenched corner of her bedroom, hidden by the light. She was naked and trying to conceal it. You could see her breasts through her arm, the wall through her torso. She was crying. The sound was so soft that the inane chatter of the landlord had covered it until then. But then you could hear it, miserable, terrified.
No one knows what causes it. It's not passed in the air. It's not sexually transmitted. It's not a virus or a bacteria. Or if it is, it's nothing scientists have been able to find. At first, everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millennials, and finally, the water. But the water's been tested. The millennials aren't the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn't do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can't put clothes on air, not that they haven't tried.
TOBIN: You know, I was just thinking about what we're going through right now and how, as unexplained as COVID-19 is, there's also starting to be this moment where I think there's an awareness that it's mostly affecting marginalized communities, and therefore —
TOBIN: — certain folks feel liberated from a little bit of their worry, or a little bit of their care.
CARMEN: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
TOBIN: Um, and there’s — there's tones of that in this story, that, like, once — once it's figured out that it's a woman's disease, that's talked about in a certain way. Um …
TOBIN: And I was wondering if that's something you thought about as you were constructing the story, in — in making it a disease that primarily affected women.
CARMEN: So there's this line where they're sort of talking. The — the protagonist and her girlfriend, or the person she's sleeping with, are — are watching TV. And, um — and there — and there's pundits, sort of talking on the television, and it says, um, "They're talking about how we can't trust the faded women, women who can't be touched but can stand on the earth, which means they must be lying about something; they must be deceiving us somehow. ‘I don't trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn't dead,' one of them says."
Um, and then I was thinking about that horrible thing. You know, it's so weird how, like, sometimes people say horrible things that just lodge in your brain and never go away. And one of them is that thing, "I don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die” —
CARMEN: — which is a thing that I heard when I was maybe — I don't know — 13, and I’ve, like, never forgotten it. Like, it’s just, like, in my brain. [LAUGHS]
CARMEN: And in this case, like, I was more interested in sort of the pandemic as this, like, sort of living, breathing, moving metaphor —
KATHY: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
CARMEN: — of what women can be, how women can leverage their power, how women's power is taken from them, what makes us trust women or not trust women.
TOBIN: Yeah. We were talking earlier about these stories and how, you know, horror genres at its most basic can be somebody running away from a monster or, like —
CARMEN: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
TOBIN: — some embodiment of their fear.
CARMEN: [AFFIRMATIVELY AGAIN] Mhm.
TOBIN: Um, and we were sort of thinking, like, well, does it ... it feels almost like, in this case, the — the monster is the patriarchy. [ALL CHUCKLE, THEN LAUGH] And we were wondering if that's how you would define the monster in your horror stories, or … ?
CARMEN: I think there's a — there's a lot of monsters in these stories. I mean, I think that certainly the patriarchy is one of them. Um, and I think what makes the patriarchy so interesting, to sort of expand on this monster metaphor, like, it's the kind of monster where it exists, it affects so many people, but other people do not believe it exists. And other people are constantly insisting that they've seen it, that they know it's there, or that it's real. Other people are like, "You're so crazy. Like, what are you talking about?" Or, like, "It's not that bad. Like, you're exaggerating." Or, you know … And you're like, "Oh, no, this creature — this thing has, like, shaped every inch of my existence has been shaped by this presence, um, and this thing, this creature … Um, and a lot of people don't believe me or don't believe it's as bad as I'm saying it is." And — and that's a very, like, real experience. Um, I mean, I think there’s other ... I mean, also, I think, like, a monster in these books is the body, just in general.
CARMEN: Just the body as a thing that can sort of betray you, um, which is a thing that I think about a lot.
KATHY: You know how in classic horror films there's always that moment where the “true monster” is revealed, and, like, the “monster” is “society,” and it's always a big revelation for the audience and the characters in the movie. But, like, for queer people, when it's revealed that the monster is society, we’re kinda like, "Yeah. We — we know that. We know.” [ALL LAUGH, A LOT]
CARMEN: Yeah. Like, obviously. Right. [LAUGHS EVEN HARDER]
KATHY: That's not a — a leap.
CARMEN: Yeah. I mean, yes. [LAUGHS] I think there ... You know, honestly, like, I’m — I’m watching a lot of horror movies recently, and I'm really thinking about queer horror as, like, I want queer horror in the way that, like … I feel like there needs to be a queer version of Jordan Peele, where there's like —
KATHY: Oh, yes!
CARMEN: There's been, like ... So there’s, like, a — there’s, like, a beautiful sort of movement around, like, Jordan Peele and, like, the way that he's thinking about, like, race and horror, which is, like, incredible, and so exciting. And I'm like, "Where's the queer version of that? I want it so bad I can taste it in my mouth." So, like — [KATHY LAUGHS] — I don't know where that person is. Please help.
KATHY: Please make a film.
CARMEN: Please make eight films.
TOBIN: Amazing. [KATHY AND CARMEN LAUGH]
[MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: After the break, we talk about Carmen's deeply personal memoir, In The Dream House, and the conversation she wishes we were having more as a queer community.
TOBIN: Nancy will be back in a minute.
[WHISTLE, THEN MIDROLL]
KATHY: And we're back!
TOBIN: We're talking to the writer Carmen Maria Machado; She recently came out with a memoir that chronicles a relationship she had in her 20s with an abusive ex-girlfriend.
KATHY: It's a topic that's been on our minds. As shutdowns started happening around the world, and people were asked to stay at home, there’s been an uptick in reported cases of intimate partner abuse.
TOBIN: And even before the pandemic, up to a third of queer people in the US reported experience with this kind of violence.
[MIDROLL MUSIC OUT]
TOBIN: We do want to talk about In the Dream House.
CARMEN: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
TOBIN: I guess it's a departure from your first book in that it is more memoir-istic. And in the prologue you write about how, specifically, uh, same-sex violence is not talked about, um, and it's not in the archive. Why do you think this is so, and why did you want to talk about it?
CARMEN: So — so, I mean, I think there's a few reasons for that. I think, and sort of what I argue in the book, is that we have no cultural investment in giving queer folks context for their experiences. And so archives have gaps and spaces that exist because we don't value certain stories. We don't record them. Or we don't archive them. You know, the archivist, who has their own perspective, like, decides what's important, what's not important. And certain stories are not committed to the page. And so part of — part of the thing that I'm sort of addressing is the fact that we have never considered queer people's stories to be as valuable as other kinds of stories, so there’s, like, necessarily sort of a dearth of them in the record, right? Um …
CARMEN: There's also been sort of a historical, sort of, refusal to understand, the book sort of focuses on lesbians particularly, and sort of, you know, a refusal of understanding about female sexuality and, like, queer female sexualities. And then you add that to the fact that we've historically really struggled with, like, what domestic violence is, and, like, what to call it, and how to define it, and who can commit it. So — and then you also add to that, like, certain kinds of domestic violence also are historically, um, not as — taken as seriously. So, like, we also think of it as very physical. Like, we imagine, like, the black eye, you know?
CARMEN: But we don't imagine you know, somebody being sort of verbally terrorized or someone experiencing, like, psychological violence.
KATHY: I've always felt like the term “domestic violence” makes it seem like it's a lesser violence than any other violence. I've always felt like it's not the right thing. It minimizes what happens —
KATHY: — uh, within a household.
CARMEN: I feel like the more, the newer term is, like, intimate partner violence, which I think I see a little more.
Um ... I mean, it’s — it's interesting because, like, all these phrases have associations with them, right? And, like, domestic violence also has this implication of home, right, and the idea of domesticity.
CARMEN: And I mean, it's interesting ‘cause, like, you know, part of the — part of a problem is, like, I remember, you know, back when I was sort of in the process of trying to leave my girlfriend, and I remember looking ... I was looking briefly into restraining [A BREATH] orders. And I was looking into the laws of the state that I was living at the time. And it was like, you couldn't get a restraining order against somebody who you hadn't [PAUSE] already lived with or were not married to.
CARMEN: There was, like, a weird set of legal framework to define what you could do. And because I was a gay woman, you know, pre-, you know, marriage equality, um, in the United States, who was not married to the person that I was trying to get a restraining order from, like, there was just, like, all these ways in which I suddenly — like, I just didn't quite fit. And I realized like, “Oh, I wouldn't be able to do this in the way that I'd want.” And, like, it was just, like, a really weird realization that, like, “I just don't fit.” I kept thinking about language and the words we use, and so much of those conversations were about, like, semantics and, like ... Like, there was a woman who — she had been convicted of murdering her abusive girlfriend. And then when they were trying to take her before to get, like, leniency saying, like, she was battered or she was abused, like, she shouldn’t be in jail for this crime. And the lawyers, like, did their best to be like, "Okay, we know that she's a lesbian. So you, this panel, do not understand what that means. But, like, she was the woman. Like, she did all the cooking and cleaning.”
KATHY: Hmm. [FRUSTRATED] Jeez.
CARMEN: "The woman who she killed was like the man." So, like, even in that context, like, trying to, like, draw these really, like, heterosexual sort of circles around everybody so — so people could understand. I kept writing this book and thinking ... it was like that scene from Contact where she's like, "They should've sent a poet." I was like, "They should've sent a historian, ‘cause, like, I don't even know. There’s so much material here, and, like, I know I'm only scratching the surface."
KATHY: I mean, I can't imagine that your — your stories haven't been optioned for film that could one day star Jodie Foster. Like it's gotta — it's gotta be happening soon.
CARMEN: Oh my god. Don't even — oh, don't even! Oh, my — my heart just, like, did a little — did a little pitter-patter when you said that. [KATHY AND TOBIN LAUGH]
[A MOMENT OF BREATH]
TOBIN: One of the things we also wanted to ask is, you know, you were talking about the narratives we're sort of familiar with when it comes to, uh, talking about domestic violence. And I imagine one of the complicated things to figure out in terms of this own experience you had was that it started off in, sort of — in a sweet way, and then descended into what it became. Um, and us, as readers, sort of go along with you on that transformation. Um, did you consider starting the story in a different way, or, like, how did you decide where to start the telling of this — this story?
CARMEN: You know, it's weird. One of the hardest parts of writing the book was writing the good stuff. Because writing the hard stuff and the sad stuff and the stuff that was very painful and scary, like, I mean, that sucked. It was not good. But it was — it’s really hard to sort of recall how good it felt when it was good, if that makes any sense.
TOBIN: [AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
CARMEN: Like, it ... you know, it was, like, painful to sort of conjure up the kind of ... You know, in a way, it's like a past, sort of dead version of yourself, right? That, like — that does not exist anymore. Like, there was this, you know, 24-year-old Carmen who was, like, really sweet and, like, pretty naïve about a lot of things in the world, and, like, had a certain glow about her, and the world had a certain sheen that doesn't exist anymore. And so, like ... which is, like, fine. It's just, like, human experience, like, getting older, right? And, like, having experiences. But — but, you know, I had to learn how to conjure her. And then I had to sort of remember what it felt like to be just, like, head-over-heels in love, in lust, feeling like the world made sense and the world was amazing, and, like, feeling happy and content and excited about the potential of how great the world could be. And, like, it's painful to conjure that, you know? Um, but it also felt important to me to start that way because I — I also wanted the reader to sort of understand and feel. And part of — part of ... you know, the engine of the book, or one of the engines, is the cycle, right? The cycle of domestic abuse. Which is, like, you know, love bombing, and then, you know, these sort of slowly escalating sort of red flags and, like, you know, a bad thing, and then the bad thing is followed by contrition and followed by, you know, sweetness, and then, like, it goes bad again, you know? And there's this, like, cycle that is the thing that keeps people in abusive relationships.
KATHY: Do you feel, like, at all that ... I mean, you’ve — you’ve now, like, contributed to that archive you were talking about. But do you feel like the queer community is talking about domestic violence more?
CARMEN: You know — [LAUGHS LIGHTLY AND GENTLY] I did this event once, with this older queer activist. And she was like, "You know, this book is so exciting. It’s, like, an awakening." She was like, "But I also feel like we have an awakening about this every like five or ten years.”
KATHY: Hmm. Interesting.
CARMEN: "And then we sort of forget it," you know.
CARMEN: And I was like, "Yeah." I mean, 'cause it's true. Because, I mean, like, all the books that I was reading — I was reading books that would come out in these, like, bursts. And it would be, like, “Breaking the silence on, like, queer — you know, LGBT domestic violence or whatever, or lesbian battering.” And then, like, another five years would go by, and they'd be like, "We're doing a series of articles on, like, various lesbian complications about breaking the silence about queer …” you know. And — and it would sort of happen, kind of over and over.
CARMEN: Um, and I don't really know what that means, except that I — I think that people are — not just queer people, people in general — are very bad at learning from their mistakes. I also have this, like, personal theory that, like, part of the problem is that, obviously, the sex ed in — in the United States is very, like, patchy and weird and, like —
KATHY: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
CARMEN: — in some places completely non-existent. And I also think that I really wish that relationship ed was, like, mandatory in school.
KATHY: Hmm! Oh my god.
CARMEN: Like, all schools.
KATHY: That would be so helpful.
CARMEN: Yeah. Because I feel like, you know, even if you've learned, like, how to put a condom on or, like, how to — you know, what certain STIs are, like, you know, um, and what pregnancy is, like, it’s, like, I think really useful to say, like, "Hey, domestic violence does not just look like this one thing that you're imagining. It can look like a lot of things. And, like, here's what things you can do, and, like, here's what you can look for." And, like, giving, like, young people who are entering into relationships for the first time, like, the kind of context that they — that they could use, I think that actually would be, like, really effective.
KATHY: Have you had the experience, um, since this book came out of, like, queer people coming to you with their own, um, domestic violence stories? And what happened to them?
CARMEN: [SADLY] Yeah.
CAMREN: People have come up to me and they're like, "This book really spoke to me." And I'm like, "I'm sorry," you know, "I wish that wasn't true."
CARMEN: Like, "I wish this book didn't speak to you at all." And — and I've also had a lot of people come up to me who aren't necessarily queer, which has actually been the most interesting part of it. Um, I've had a lot of feedback from people — or, not feedback, but sort of things people have said to me where, like, I had this — this guy email me, and he was like, you know, "I'm a straight man. I was abused by my ex-wife. I know you didn't write this book for me, but, like, I really appreciated seeing, like, violence — [STAMMERING SLIGHTLY] a woman perpetrating violence, like, written about, 'cause you don't see that very often."
CARMEN: “In this sort of context.” And I had another woman email me, and she said, "I'm a straight woman. I know you did not write this book for me, but, like, I had just never seen psychological abuse written about so clearly and so, sort of, understandably, and thank you," you know. And so, like, those were two people who like —
CARMEN: — I was not thinking about them when I was writing the book. But that doesn't mean that, you know, the book isn't useful, or for them in some way. You know, like I — it — because it — it's sort of covering, again, a lot of — a lot of, um, gaps, right? A lot of these archival silences. There are many of them, you know?
CARMEN: And I think that a lot of people have found pieces of themselves, even if they themselves are not queer.
[A PAUSE, A BREATH, A TRANSITION — AND THEN BOUNCY MUSIC ENTERS]
TOBIN: We like to ask our guests what they would add to the queer cannon. The only rule is you have to choose something very stupid. [KATHY AND CARMEN LAUGH] So, if you could add something completely inconsequential to the queer cannon that we can claim — [KATHY LAUGHS AGAIN] — what would you choose?
CARMEN: Oh, I know. Mochi ice cream. With the little rice balls?
TOBIN: Yes, mochi. Yes! Yes.
KATHY: I love those so much.
CARMEN: Mochi, yes. Mochi. The green tea mochis feel extremely, extremely gay to me. [TOBIN LAUGHS BREATHLESSLY]
KATHY: Huh. I love that.
CARMEN: The process of eating them is very gay, I feel. [KATHY LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Gotcha. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
KATHY: Wait, just the green tea? Or just generally?
CARMEN: You know, I only like the green tea, so I'm gonna say just the green tea.
KATHY: Just the green tea. I love it.
TOBIN: Great. We love it.
KATHY: I love it.
TOBIN: Carmen, thank you so much for making the time to talk to us.
CARMEN: Oh, it was my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
KATHY: This was so much fun.
CARMEN: Of course! And I hope to get to do something with y'all when, you know, we are all able to, like, see each other's faces.
KATHY: Yeah. Out of quarantine.
TOBIN: Yes. [CARMEN LAUGHS] Please! [KATHY CHUCKLES]
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: Alright, that's our show! Just an FYI, we've added some resources to our website on intimate partner abuse.
KATHY: Producers —
TOBIN: Zakiya Gibbons, and B.A. Parker!
KATHY: Editor —
TOBIN: Sarah Geis!
KATHY: Sound Designer —
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Executive Producer —
TOBIN: Suzie Lechtenberg!
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I'm Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS OUT, THEN A FEW NOTES OF SILENCE BEFORE AUDIO REENTERS]
TOBIN: I’m a fucking good host! [LAUGHS]
KATHY: Yeah, that’s right. It’s right!