Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is as strong, and strange, a short story collection as any you’ll read this year. From story to story, often from paragraph to paragraph, Machado mixes and matches genres—a fairy tale here and a post-apocalyptic vision there, a little science fiction sprinkled with a little body horror—reconfiguring old tropes and helping us to see what is at stake in them. In one story, a husband urges his wife to remove the “green and glossy” ribbon that she wraps around her neck—and that might be keeping her head on her shoulders. In another, scary things happen in the wilderness around a writer’s retreat. In others, women fade into nothingness, or hear the thoughts of others, or have impossible children.
If you had to identify a literary antecedent, Angela Carter might be the one, especially in Machado’s persistent attention to the pleasures and dangers of female embodiment. (There’s a lot of sex here, but there’s also a lot of violence, and the book argues that our imaginations find it hard to separate the two.) But it’s a truly original work, especially and paradoxically when it’s reworking our most familiar figures: ghosts and monsters and haunted spaces.
In “Especially Heinous,” one of the best stories in the collection, Machado offers a novella-length reimagining of 12 seasons, and 272 episodes, of Law & Order: SUV, all in the form of episode recaps. Some of these recaps are funny, drawing attention to the clichés of the police procedural. The summary of the episode “Bad Blood,” for example, reads in its entirety: “Stabler and Benson will never forget the case where solving the crime was so much worse than the crime itself.” Others are as dark as dark can be: “The ghost of one of the murdered, misburied underaged models begins to haunt Benson.” Still others, the best, blend the dark and the comic in delightfully disturbing ways: “A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.” All are profoundly weird and, despite the rigid formal constraints, continually surprising.
I spoke with Machado recently by e-mail.
Anthony Domestico: This isn’t just a collection of stories but a collection about stories—about why we tell stories to ourselves and to others, about how storytelling can be both a pleasure and a compulsion. When did you first recognize yourself as a teller of stories? Are there particular stories from your childhood that made you think, “Ah, I want to do that, too?”
Carmen Maria Machado: All children have the instinct for storytelling. Kids are constantly working out their growing perception of the world around them through toy analogues—dolls, action figures, stuffed animals. At some point, some people—maybe most of them—lose this instinct. The playfulness, the sense of approaching the world as full of potential stories, it just vanishes.
But it didn’t for me. I think this is for a few reasons. Everybody read to me as a kid—my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my parents. None of those people are particularly voracious readers, but reading was an intellectual priority in my house growing up. That’s a bit of luck and a lot of privilege in action. So I was able to grow up being read to, and eventually reading on my own, alongside this natural sense of play. Pretty soon I was writing “books” on my father’s stationery and writing poems for my teachers. Everyone encouraged the hell out of me. Again—a bit of luck, a lot of privilege. At the same time, storytelling as an oral tradition was also very alive in my family. My grandfather was indefatigable storyteller, and his stories about Cuba and coming to the United States were some of my earliest exposures to constructing narrative, complete with red herrings, tension, dramatic irony. My father is the same way.
It never occurred to me not to be a writer. That’s weird, right? Like, I never just said, “Okay, I’d like to do this thing.” I just transitioned seamlessly from “playing a lot and being read to a lot” to “reading everything in sight and writing my own stories.” I handwrote stories on loose-leaf paper, and then when my father got our first computer (in 1993; it ran Windows 3.1) I took to typing up everything. I wrote chapters of “novels” and then neatly printed cover letters on the personalized jungle-themed stationery I’d received from my godmother, in which I detailed my plans for the rest of my novel, and sent them to the addresses of publishers I found on the copyright pages of the Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club books. When my fifth grade teacher taught us how to write letters to authors I got very excited and wrote letters to every author of every book I read, including quite a few who were (decades) dead. One of them wrote back, many months later—Livia Bitton-Jackson, author of I Have Lived a Thousand Years. (I was really into children’s Holocaust books for a while.) My mother came inside very confused with a letter postmarked from Israel, and I started jumping up and down when I realized who it was from.
I asked Livia if she’d ever gotten her poems back from the Nazis, and she’d written to tell me no, she hadn’t. (I was very fixated on the Little Women storyline about Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, which I considered unbelievably horrifying.) She asked me about my own writing. It was the first time someone had reached back, and it was a real watershed moment. I don’t think I wouldn’t have been a writer without it, but still, it reinforced the idea that the limbs of art stretched wide—across time, across experiences. She was a girl before I was born, living half a world away from where I would one day live, and then when I was a girl I got to read about her being a girl and ask her questions about her art, which then led her to ask me about mine, which had started so late in her life, even though she lived a (different) half a world away. And she was a real-life writer and she wrote to me. It was really magical. It’s also the reason that I do my absolute best to respond to people who write to me about my own work.
Anyway, when I hit my teen years, I started keeping a Livejournal, and that was honestly one of my best educations in writing for an audience. I learned to shape my experience for the page. For a while, I got this crazy idea that I’d be a doctor—I read one too many Lurlene McDaniel novels—but even then I reasoned I could write “on the side.” Then I nearly failed chemistry and realized that being a doctor probably wasn’t in the cards, and at least if I did badly as a writer, no one would die.