Writer Carmen Maria Machado
An unseasonal spring blizzard has dumped thick piles of snow across the east coast of the United States. Planes are grounded and Amtrak has cancelled train services. Writer Carmen Maria Machado has arrived in New York a day late, missing a reading gig. She hates not honouring her commitments – it is part of what she describes as her Type A personality, one of a number of anxieties she lists in a recent New York Times piece, along with “insects, germs, disease and mortal injury and death, messy rooms”. In the course of a two-hour conversation, each of these anxieties surfaces at least once.
Machado has been touring widely to promote her debut collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, an experience she describes as chaotic. The juggling of commitments gives her the feeling of going a little crazy. “I’m in this strange place,” she says. “It’s just a phenomenon of being a writer. You’re busy promoting and … it’s selling really well and getting nominations for things … it’s like, ‘Goddamn it. If the book had done less well I’d be right back to writing.’ ”
Machado writes between science fiction and fantasy, and squarely in the realm of literary fiction. Her work is reminiscent of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson, yet it is unique. While her elasticity sits alongside contemporaries such as Kelly Link and Jeff VanderMeer, her star is looking likely to eclipse both. So far, her debut has won the Bard Fiction Prize and John Leonard Prize, among others, and was a finalist in the National Book Award and Dylan Thomas Prize.
Ahead of meeting her, I see Machado’s book propped up on the top-selling and new fiction displays of every bookstore in Manhattan. While an occasional detractor calls the collection uneven, the acclaim has been almost universal, gushing even. The New York Times named her part of “the new vanguard” – one of 15 women shaping fiction in the 21st century, alongside Ferrante, Cusk, Moshfegh and Zadie Smith.
I meet her at Coffee Project, a tiny cafe in the East Village. She is early and waits outside for me in the cold, perched on a wooden bench. She greets me warmly and we go inside, navigating the cramped space with her luggage: a small suitcase and a pink handbag decorated with skulls. After removing our layers we order coffees and scones.
Machado has arrived by train from Philadelphia, where she is the writer-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives there with her wife, Val, also a writer, and grew up in nearby Allentown. Machado experimented with living in California, but it didn’t work. “It’s not my speed. People in California are too relaxed. I like neurotic and I like fast-paced, that’s the way that I function best.”
The waiter brings our coffees. Machado has ordered the cafe’s signature drink, a deconstructed latte: a glass of sparkling water, an espresso shot, warm unpasteurised milk, and a cafe latte served in a wine glass, all lined up on a wooden board. The waiter explains the types and sources of the coffee beans, the tasting notes, possible allergens, and the recommended drinking method. Machado is thrilled. “You’ll forgive me if I take a photo of this ridiculous thing … I love ridiculous things … I think it looks amazing but my wife would laugh at me … if she saw that I’d ordered this. She’d be like, ‘Of course you did.’ ” Machado refers to her wife regularly and her conversation is peppered with “likes” and punctuated by bursts of laughter. Backstreet Boys are playing on the sound system and Machado sings along. “Sorry, this song is very distracting because ... this was, like, my high-school soundtrack.”
As we talk, she takes her hair out of a ponytail. Later, she ties it back up again. She frequently breaks eye contact mid-sentence to stare into the middle distance. Warm and personable, in her early 30s, she looks less serious and younger than in her headshots.
In her stories, Machado blends science fiction, fairytale tropes and queer erotica. She pulls taut on fear and desire, collapsing these opposing forces in on one another. She invites the reader into strange and tender worlds that blur reality and fantasy, where metaphors cease to be symbols and become embodied in surreal relief. Gender politics ballast her fiction and essays, and violence against women – physical, psychological and social – is woven through. She also deftly switches registers between horror and humour. “I had this weird relationship with coming into myself as a funny writer …” she tells me. “I guess now I’m less surprised, but before, when I did readings, people would laugh and it would shock me.”
You can trace Machado’s path of self-exploration through her writing. On the page, she interrogates her anxieties and preoccupations – mostly centring around unruly minds and unruly bodies. She is also interested in examining subjects from new angles and adding to the discourse on difficult topics. “I think often people write what they think people want to read. Why would you do that? … What do you not see? That’s the only way to get to anything interesting, because if you’re just writing what you’re already seeing then who the fuck cares?”
Take fatness. Machado had wanted to write an essay about it for a long time. She says fatphobia is still relatively underexamined and undercritiqued. “The compulsive-reflexive nature of fatphobia is just really deep and I feel that it’s not a thing we talk about a lot … There’s different kinds of fat, there’s the kind of fat that I am, which is, like, bigger than is acceptable but also fits in plus-size clothing, and there’s the kind of fat that means the world is inaccessible to you.”
She could never figure out how to approach the topic: “I wrote a lot but none of it ever sounded good … It didn’t feel authentic and it … never felt new.” Instead, she wrote a short story, “Eight Bites”, about gastric band surgery. “It helped me unlock some stuff because I had the ability to write whatever I wanted.”
Writing fiction helped Machado arrive at a thesis about fatness and, earlier this year, she published an essay on the topic in Guernica, “The Trash Heap Has Spoken”. She says, “... in the end, I felt really good when I finished it ... like I had arrived at something interesting and new”. Machado received a lot of feedback on the piece; many people wrote to thank her. “I’m really proud of it because I feel that I pursued my own mind through the chaos … to get to my own philosophical ends and that was important to me.”
She feels as if we are in the midst of a fat writing renaissance, with authors such as Roxane Gay and Lindy West “writing really intelligently about these ideas and it’s really exciting to me … I look forward to more work coming out that examines it from different angles.” She mentions fat and trauma and fat and race. “People say this – and it’s wrong – that it’s the last prejudice.”
When her book tour finishes this month, Machado will be spending the summer at a residency in New Mexico working on a memoir. It will be, at least in part, about domestic violence in same-sex relationships. In precursor stories “Mothers” and “Blur”, she again used fiction as a key to unlock complex feelings about a topic, which, she says, hasn’t had much art devoted to it. “I know, because I’ve looked really hard … I’m writing it because I feel like it’s a space that demands a cultural and intellectual inquiry … Now I’m trying to go at it with a nonfiction angle and I’m very scared of that. I’m scared I won’t get it right.” She says it will be hard to be away from her wife for such a long time during the residency: “It’s just me finishing that stupid fucking memoir. I just need to purge it.”
What other issues does she regard as being due an exploration in literature? She thinks for a while before mentioning women’s perspectives on murder and menace, pain, medical and health issues. She reels off a list of recent books: Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus, and Tallulah Pomeroy’s A Girl’s Guide to Personal Hygiene, which Machado describes as an “illustrated guide to gross, pleasurable things” about women’s bodies. “It’s so gross and I love it.” She looks around the cafe, before adding: “I can’t talk about it here.”
I want to encourage her but we are already the loudest table and other customers are turning to eavesdrop on us. She continues: “There’s something really interesting about that visceral space. It’s like, let’s not just examine the body as an object but also the body as this beating, pulsing node in this larger net of womanhood.”
Machado views this kind of writing as evidence of a new generation of women embracing feminism and reclaiming their bodies, an indication of a shift from prudish anxiety towards a more open attitude, reminiscent of the first wave of feminism. Gender and sexuality are breezily fluid in Machado’s stories; she has been asked many times about the presence of sex in her writing and cannot understand why people are so fixated on it. “When I read sex in fiction written by men the majority of the time there’s such deep profound contempt for the female body … I just like the idea of queer sex being elevated to a higher literary art. Why would I not want that?”
Discussing queer sex leads us to the topic of same-sex marriage. When Machado’s home state of Pennsylvania legislated for change, she was out of town on a writer’s residency. Mid hike, her phone buzzed with the news. “I was sobbing on this mountain … I honestly did not think it would happen in my lifetime.” Now that same-sex marriage has been legalised across the whole of the United States, Machado says the detractors have given up on that debate and moved on to target other minorities, including transgender people.
With US politics a source of fascination for Australians, it seems likely she will be asked about Trump when she makes her first visit here in May to promote her book. Machado laughs at the cross-cultural heads-up: “I have a lot of thoughts about that – Trump is bad. But also tell me about the spiders you have, I hear they are huge ... I just imagine that everybody is a spider. Spiders instead of house cats.” Her sense of Australia came through a phase of watching odd Australian cinema, she says. “They all have a similar vibe to them – it’s like, very manic and weird, and I absolutely love it.”
Travelling widely is a keen ambition for Machado: “All of this, my whole career, is to just get me enough money to travel.” Her schedule has meant turning down offers, including a writers’ festival in New Zealand, which she hopes to later visit, inspired by The Lord of the Rings films. “I imagine New Zealand is just like Middle Earth.” She spent her honeymoon in Europe, and travelled to Cuba with her brother, where they have family. Scotland is high on her list, as is Iceland after having once enjoyed a brief stopover in Reykjavik, which she describes as “all golden light and purple flowers”. She is attracted to dramatic landscape but admits her love for drama is not limited to the environment. “Just any type of drama, really – I’m into it.”
Later that night I am observer to her dramatic mode of the finest kind: reading from her work. In the Soviet-themed KGB Bar on East 4th Street, she appears alongside four writers enrolled in New York University’s master of fine arts program. Machado is the main act. I squeeze into the only spare seat – the venue is packed with bodies pressed close together, people jostling for space at the bar to buy beers. Lenin hangs overhead. The sounds of Manhattan are a backing track to the readings. Outside, the day-old snow melts into puddles.
Machado delivers her story “Inventory”, an erotic tale of sex and an End Times epidemic, across a breathless 19 minutes. The crowd is spellbound. When she finishes her reading, a long line of fan girls wait to gush and seize her signature. I join the end of the tapering queue, say goodbye to Machado, and take the narrow steps down onto the street.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Body language". Subscribe here.