Carmen Maria Machado is Greensboro bound
On first reading Carmen Maria Machado’s much-acclaimed 2014 short story “The Husband Stitch,” I thought of the great Angela Carter, whose “The Bloody Chamber” remains the best psycho-sexual reimagining of classic fairy tales in English literature. “The Husband Stitch” might have been written by a Carter who grew up reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark instead of the Brothers Grimm.
Some may recognize Machado’s name from her widely-shared tweets about the alleged misogyny of the Pulitzer-winning Junot Díaz, but that’s all she wants to say about Díaz, and this article is about her, not him. A National Book Award finalist for her acclaimed 2017 story collection Her Body and Other Parties, Machado is a headliner at the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, a three-day national book festival in downtown Greensboro May 18-20.
In a Monday phone call, I asked Machado about the award-nominated “The Husband Stitch,” which was reprinted in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and New Voices of Fantasy and leads off Her Body and Other Parties. It combines the classic campfire story of the girl with the ribbon around her neck and the infamous surgical procedure in which an extra stitch was once allegedly used to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, to “tighten” her vagina for her husband’s pleasure. How, I asked, did these threads get sewn together in Machado’s brain?
She’d said that she’d wanted to write about the green ribbon, the woman who doesn’t want it untied, and the husband who insists on doing so, ever since she first heard that tale as a Girl Scout. “The thing I loved most about scouting was hearing and telling spooky stories around the campfire, and one night I heard that one, pretty much the same version famously retold by Alvin Schwartz.” Schwartz is the author of In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, a 1984 collection of horror tales retold for beginning readers. “Years later, my aunt, who is an OB-GYN, told me about the ‘Husband Stitch.’”
She said story threads often come together that way. “You think you’re going to write about one thing, and maybe about another thing, and then realize they’re the same story. I’d been wanting to write about urban legends, and about a ‘50s suburban housewife who just really likes sex, and I wanted to write about the damaging power of benevolent sexism, and those were the threads.”
Something similar happened with “Most Heinous,” a much longer story in Her Body and Other Parties that creepily riffs on Law and Order: SVU by offering alternate storylines for every single episode in the show’s 12-season run.
“I had the flu, and Netflix had just started that thing where the next episode automatically began, and I lay there deliriously absorbing the show.” Her first idea, of taking the show’s existing plot synopses on the IMDB and “tweaking them into the surreal,” proved too restrictive, but seeing that every episode had a one-word title became the springboard, and she ended up writing a mini-story for each title. “I’d been thinking a lot about sexual violence, about how we talk about it and portray it, and I got to use those thoughts in one piece.”
I told Machado I’m looking forward to a story she’s not finished writing yet, which she described as being about “queer BDSM power dynamics in the Grand Guignol.” Grand Guignol is the common name for Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (the Theater of the Great Puppet), a tiny Parisian performance space that staged violent and gruesome short plays from 1887 to its closing in 1962 when increasingly explicit films made it obsolete. Having been fascinated by the Guignol ever since I saw the perverse 1930s horror film Mad Love, whose heroine performs there, on T.V. as a kid, I can’t wait to see what Machado does with the material
The sex isn’t entirely new material for Machado, a self-identified queer writer, but the historical setting is. She said, as with the memoir she’s also writing, this work of historical imagination is uncharted territory. “The research is both daunting and exhilarating.” She also said it’s the first time that she, whose grandfather is Cuban, has written about women of color, as the protagonist of the story is mixed-race.
I asked her to recommend a female writer, either new or established; whom she thinks hasn’t gotten the attention she deserved. “You may have heard Kelly Link talk about Kathryn Davis,” Machado said. “Davis wrote five novels since the ‘80s, and has won multiple prizes, but she’s still not nearly as known as she should be. Her latest novel, “Duplex,” came out in 2013, but I just read it, the first thing I’d ever read by her, and was blown away. It’s just wonderfully, indescribably strange, profoundly literary and profoundly weird, and I can’t recommend it enough.”
Machado will appear this weekend at the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival. On May 19, she will give an Author Talk at 2 p.m. in the Van Dyke Performance Space in the Greensboro Cultural Center located at 200 N. Davie Street. On May 20th, she will participate in a feminist panel in the same space. Both events are free and open to the public. For more info about the festival, go to greensborobound.com.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.