Visiting Writers: Carmen Maria Machado
By: Jessica Sullivan
There are times when a book reminds you of another book. Maybe it’s the plot, or the characters, or some déjà vu moment that leaves you questioning if you’ve already read it. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dreamhouse, is not one of those books. Machado invents her own place for her book, an experiment in form, genre, and language.
The memoir chronicles Machado’s experience in a horrifying, abusive relationship. When asked on NRP’s CodeSwitch to describe In the Dreamhouse, Machado described it as “an experimental memoir about many things, including queer intimate partner violence, that uses genre as a mode of interrogation.” Machado constructs a haunting narrative that places the reader in a reverie, so much so that it’s easy to miss the warning signs, to realize that it’s already begun.
According to Machado, the concept of “archival silence” captures the idea that certain histories never enter the cultural record. Before she met her ex-girlfriend, Machado hadn’t encountered narratives of queer abuse. When a relationship is supposed to be idyllic, full of laughter and happiness, what do you do when it’s not? What books can you turn to, if there are none written about the shattering of this fantasy? To make sense of her experience, she invented her own language to tell of the pain. To construct In the Dream House, Machado turns to academic texts to show that abuse in queer relationships is not new.
The book itself is a stunning skyscraper. Each chapter examines its content through a lens that’s summarized by a heading: “Dream House as Appetite,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.” Some chapters sample tropes and tones of their professed genre, some act as metaphors to show the appetite for desire and love, and others show the cyclical nature of abuse. These shifting angles of illumination make the subject seem fully represented, while still acknowledging that we are more than what happens to us. Machado uses a quote from Zora Neale Hurston on the second page of the memoir that says, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Although this book broaches dark subject material, Machado breaks the silence, giving us comfort, solace, and refuge, while also starting a necessary conversation.
Carmen Maria Machado, whose first short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017, will be participating in the Visiting Writers’ Series at American University on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 7:00pm in the Katzen Recital Hall, Katzen Hall.
Photo credit: NPR WHYY’s Radio Times