All fiction writers need imagination. Carmen Maria Machado’s is so vivid, she sometimes passes it on to her characters.
“Sometimes I sat on the porch and gave imaginary interviews to NPR personalities,” says the narrator of “The Resident,” a short story in Machado’s debut collection “Her Body and Other Parties.” “”When I write, I feel like I’m being hypnotized,’ I told Terry Gross. ‘It was at that moment I knew everything was going to change,’ I told Ira Glass.’”
For most writers, such daydreams remain mere fantasies. Few authors become literary superstars or suddenly find themselves under the spotlight on NPR. Yet this is what happened to Machado, a 31-year-old queer writer.
Her short story collection “Her Body and Other Parties” (Graywolf Press), released in October, has received the attention usually bestowed on the work of literary giants such as Toni Morrison or Michael Cunningham. “Parties” was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. It won the Bard Fiction Prize. It’s her first full-length work though she has had many of her stories published in various outlets.
“Parties” is unlike any previous short story collection. Women’s bodies, queerness and feminism pulsate through the tales in “Parties” from “Inventory” to “Difficult at Parties.” Yet the book isn’t didactic or the least bit doctrinaire. Like the horror movie “Get Out,” the stories pop with horror and comedy.
Women have joyous sex, even as people die worldwide from a virus spread by physical contact. A sexual assault survivor hears the inner thoughts of characters in porn. A novella “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” is a piercing, but hilarious send up of “Law & Order: SVU” and its fascination with sexually traumatized women.
“The collection is that hallowed thing: an example of almost preposterous talent,” the Los Angeles Times said of “Her Body and Other Parties,” “that also encapsulates something vital but previously diffuse about the moment.”
Storytelling, Machado says during a Blade phone interview, is part of her family tradition. Her paternal grandfather came to the U.S. from Cuba; his wife was from Austria. They met as immigrants in New York. Her mother’s family is white.
“Storytelling, especially on the Cuban side of the family, is important,” Machado, an Allentown, Pa., native who now lives with her wife Val in Philadelphia, says. “My grandfather has dementia, but we can still recite stories back to him and he remembers.”
She incorporates that oral storytelling tradition in her work. Her love of reading and writing, as one might imagine, has deep roots.
As a child, Machado read voraciously. She went to the library and devoured books like candy, reading at breakneck speed, she says.
“All kids write stories. I wrote them and typed them out. I always loved the idea of being a writer.”
Machado sent her stories to publishers and authors. Her letters yielded no publishing offers, but, “my wife who works in publishing says that some delighted interns at the publishing houses must have loved my letters.”
To her surprise and delight, Machado heard back from Livia Bitton-Jackson, a Holocaust survivor and author of the memoir “I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust.”
“In the book, Bitton-Jackson talked about how the poems she wrote were left behind when she was taken by the Nazis,” she says. “I wrote to her and asked what happened to her poems. One day, my mom, who was confused by it, said, ‘There’s a letter for you from Israel.’”
Bitton-Jackson told Machado that she didn’t get her poems back, but that she’d kept on writing.
“She asked me about myself,” she says. “It felt magical that a real person — a writer — wrote back to me.”
When she was young in the 1990s, Machado didn’t understand that she was queer.
“I had crushes on girls, but I didn’t think of it in that way. I didn’t have any framework,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone who was out and queer until I went to college.”
Machado graduated from American University in 2008 with a degree in visual media. During her years in Washington, she read the Blade as she was coming out.
“I thought, ‘Oh this is who I am,’” she says. “My parents were pretty chill, though they were a bit confused because I was lesbian/bi. They didn’t quite understand why I would date a guy, but they were great about it.”
Attitudes about being queer were different for some of Machado’s extended family.
“Some of them were very religious,” she says, “but I didn’t have to deal with a lot of that kind of nonsense. I feel extremely lucky.”
Machado went to college to study journalism, but quickly realized that wasn’t what she wanted to do, so she switched to literature and photography.
“I wanted to get loose with my sentences,” Machado says. “I didn’t have the blood thirst, the nose for news, to be a reporter.”
After graduating, Machado moved to Berkeley, Calif., working random jobs during the recession and enduring a bad break-up, which she says made her miserable. But she didn’t stop writing. A creative writing teacher, whom she calls “a lovely human being,” encouraged her to keep writing stories.
Her stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2010-2012, where she earned a master’s degree, changed everything professionally for her.
“Suddenly, I was getting paid to be in grad school and write,” she says. “I didn’t have to worry about finding jobs. I had good health insurance. I could go to therapy and figure out my aesthetic.”
And, of course, her success with “Her Body” has helped fuel ongoing efforts. “House in Indiana,” a memoir about same-sex domestic violence is due in 2019.
“Same-sex violence isn’t talked about,” Machado says. “I wanted to talk about it.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.