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Carmen Maria Machado, The Wonder of Her Tragedies: A Guest Post by Cynthia Pelayo

Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today in The Madhouse, we're continuing along in our Pride Showcase by highlighting the work of Carmen Maria Machado. I first read Machado's work back in 2014 in Granta when I stumbled across her short story "The Husband Stitch." Not only has it stayed with me for these last six years, but it also turned me into an avid reader of her work. Turns out, my friend and colleague Cynthia Pelayo felt similar, and when I reached out to her to see if she felt like sharing her thoughts with us, she graciously agreed. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Cynthia or her work, Cynthia (Cina) Pelayo is the author of LOTERIA, SANTA MUERTE, THE MISSING, POEMS OF MY NIGHT, and the upcoming CHILDREN OF CHICAGO by Polis/Agora. Her work is beautiful, haunting, and it tackles themes of mystery and solace in an authentic and illustrious way, and I can think of no one better than her to take us into the world of Carmen Maria Machado and her genre-defying work.

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Carmen Maria Machado, The Wonder of Her Tragedies
by Cynthia Pelayo

Carmen Maria Machado’s biography speaks for itself. She is a brilliant essayist and fiction writer. She is the bestselling author of memoir In the Dream House and her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Tin House, The Paris Review, The New Yorker and more. She is a Guggenheim fellow, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, Bard Fiction Prize, Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and more, so much more.

Machado has been described as a “genre annihilator” destroying the ideas we may have around the definitions of how a horror, science fiction or literary story should be shaped and structured. She plays with form in her writing, switching from vignettes, to catalogues to lists. Her stories also sometimes hold a thread of delight, glowing in the disastrous, and the disastrous things are typically being experienced by women in her stories.

However, what is extraordinary about Machado’s works is that she paints them so that many of us can see ourselves in them. From her “Inventory,” a catalogue of a woman’s past sexual experiences through to a present-day virus that spreads across the continent to “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” a brilliant collection of vignettes following detectives who are tortured by the ghosts of murdered girls, failed cases, and guilt.

Machado writes widely about the identities of queer women and their bodies. While I identify as a heterosexual woman, I found myself greatly relating to her writings that touched upon the disregard of women’s desires and violence. She writes of the feminine experience, of sexual explorations, and sexual trauma, and of our bodies, how our bodies have violence inflicted upon them. I must also add that I rarely, if ever, read stories with sexual content. Perhaps it’s because I can find myself falling into one of Machado’s stories as a character, the somewhat prudish and traditional housewife.  Therefore, I admit that my readings of sexuality and sexual encounters is limited. However, when I do read about sex in a Machado story I do not feel uncomfortable. The sex is very often tied to the character’s development and is crucial in her stories.

I was drawn to Machado’s fiction works by way of her literary criticisms, essays and articles. She has said her early influences included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter and more. She was raised on magical realism and fairy tales, the same literary diet I have heavily consumed. Machado’s writing is political, and it’s important to note that because in her nonfiction, and her fiction, she challenges tropes that are harmful and hurtful to all of us.

Machado has criticized the destruction of women in media, from how women are portrayed in novels to how they are cut up and sliced on television and in movies. We love to see the destruction of the female form, sliced, stitched back up together and annihilated once again. And what Machado does is not only deconstruct the ideas around the ownership of a woman’s body but challenges us to think of what our bodies are capable of, like in her short story “Mothers,” about two women who have a baby together naturally.

For me, I fell into “The Husband Stitch” and could just not climb out. It’s a story about a traditional courtship between a woman and a man. While she is happy, or we believe she is, and the husband gives her everything she wants there is still one recurring question he asks – why does she wear a green ribbon around her neck? It’s that constant questioning in a story, thick in folklore, myth, fairy tales, and urban legends of things that somehow may be true, that highlight how a woman’s body is never truly hers. Because even though she has satisfied her husband’s desires, served the home, given him a child, and a traditional life - he is still compelled to have ownership of her entire being, and not just her body but her secrets. There is no boundary or space that she can occupy as her own. He consumes her in her entirety even if that means she will fall apart. Her protestations fall flat on him, and so she relinquishes, because that is what she has always done, even to her own detriment.

Machado spins the wheel of dread beautifully, and when the horrific happens, I am struck with a magical wonder and a sadness that I don’t quite feel many other writers can accomplish effectively. Her writing comes from a place of immense skill, beauty and pain.

Much of her writing also plays with the structure and form of the fairy tale, particularly this element of flatness in fairy tales. Many of her characters are not given emotions, and they are not in a psychological conflict. However, by creating a story with this structure of flatness and eliminating psychological conflict, that allows the reader to somehow add their own depth into the tale that Machado is weaving. Maybe that’s why so many of us can see ourselves in a Machado story.

Or maybe, the violence that she writes of is so widespread that many of us can connect with the tragedies she speaks of.


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