The women of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection Her Body and Other Parties are haunted, invisible, stitched together, loved, in love, alone, dead, and alive at the end of the world. The women who populate Machado’s short stories defy easy categorization, much like her book itself. Her Body and Other Parties is a queer feminist reboot of familiar narratives, a kind of thoughtful pastiche of fairy tales and ghost stories, with urban legends, science fiction, and Law & Order added for appealing effect. If it sounds surreal, it’s because it is. It’s also thrilling and page-turning, smart and fearless, and very likely the best book of the year.
Machado’s book, published just a few days ago, has already met with a flurry of success: a nomination for the Kirkus Prize as well as one for the National Book Award and a host of glowing reviews. Her Body and Other Parties deserves all of its early accolades. The eight stories that compose Machado’s book all tell the tale of women grappling with their identities and bodies, often haunted by both. In “Eight Bites,” a woman grapples with the size of her body, choosing to have bariatric surgery to haunted results. A couple in “Real Women Have Bodies,” struggle to accept a growing pandemic that ultimately renders women invisible. And in “The Husband Stitch,” Machado reworks the classic children’s story “The Green Ribbon,” recasting it through the lens of love and marriage. Though “The Husband Stitch” is likely the strongest of the eight stories, “Especially Heinous,” might be the most memorable. The longest story in the collection, “Especially Heinous” retells 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, transforming it into a surreal tale of being haunted by dead girls and the spectacles they render.
Machado is a natural storyteller; she conjures up ghosts and monsters with the same dizzying ease that she depicts both loneliness and vibrant sexuality. And yet, at the heart of Machado’s ghost stories are the realities of liminality, the vulnerability of gender and queerness. The ghosts in Her Body and Other Parties are often terrifying because we are intimately familiar with them, they are internalized more often than they are manifested.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Machado about ghost stories, Law & Order, genre, and feminist critique. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Congratulations on your nomination for the National Book Award. How did you react when you heard the news?
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: I was on a train heading from New York to Philadelphia, where I live. I couldn’t really do anything. I couldn’t start screaming, which is what I wanted to do. I was fielding tweets and, pretty soon, my agent called me and then my editor called me and then my wife called me and then a friend called. I was having a lot of hushed conversations that involved, “I’m on a train! I’m on a train!” I was and still remain flabbergasted. I still don’t quite believe it.
I was recently trying to describe Her Body and Other Parties to a friend of mine and the best description I could come up with is “queer, feminist ghost stories.”
But in many ways, I feel like this book really defies genre in many ways. How would you describe this book?
I feel like “queer, feminist ghost stories” is pretty damn close. I think of it as surreal, liminal horror about being a woman or a queer person in the world.
One thing very striking about this collection is that you draw from a lot of stories that we all know—urban legends and folktales, especially—but you rework them in a way that teases out a feminist critique, especially in “The Husband Stitch.” What is your attraction to urban legends; to this kind of feminist reworking of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
Like so many millennials, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the related books that were edited by Alvin Schwartz, were a huge part of my childhood. I think a lot about those stories. Growing up, I was a Girl Scout and told those stories around the campfire. I was horrified by the illustrations. I feel like they are a part of my life. In some ways, those books shaped my aesthetic sensibility in adulthood.
I was really drawn to this idea. I was interested in “The Green Ribbon”—which is actually not from Scary Stories series but in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories which is for younger readers—which I read as a kid. For some reason, “The Green Ribbon” really stuck with me. Years ago, I thought, ‘I’d love to rewrite that story.’ I thought about it for a long time before deciding to do it and see what form it would take.
“The Green Ribbon” has been following me around for a long time and, at some point, I became the writer that I needed to be in order to rewrite it. And then I got to do it which is still pretty cool!
Urban legends and folktales are really woven throughout the collection. One of the standout stories is “Especially Heinous,” which is a retelling of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I was wondering if you see that show (or, the police procedural) as a modern iteration of a folktale? In many respects, the show is didactic and teaches viewers about gender norms.
With Law & Order: SVU, I feel like there’s a strong argument to be made about the profound capital “W” weirdness of that show.
I’ve watched the show for a long time and feel like I’ve seen every episode at least five times. If you think about it, retelling an urban legend or fairy tale is a kind of fiction. I’m taking this narrative that exists and bending it to my own purposes and doing whatever I want with it. With “Especially Heinous,” I was doing that but instead of tapping into the collective conscious in folktale, I was working with a very specific property. It seemed like the best vehicle to talk about my feelings about media and sexual violence.
The ghosts in your book—the things that haunt us—are often very close to real life. It seems like the horror element in your stories is often just real life... as though real life is already terrifying and needs little embellishment.
I think of my book as horror but I also think it’s not that different from real life. We live in a real-life horror story. I’m not the first writer to point this out; I’ve read a lot of essays about how horror is one step removed from real life. We’re very much in that place right now. If you ask any person whose body is liminal, who is constantly having their humanity challenged, of course, they’re going to tell you that we’re in a horror story. Horror is the genre that’s most interesting to me as a way to approach this surreal moment.
Some of your stories, particularly those that have an element of dystopian science-fiction, aren’t set in fantastical timelines or alternative universes. They feel a heartbeat away from our current lives, as though they can be unraveled in a moment by plague or disease…
Genre—whether its horror or science fiction or fantasy—has a certain relationship to realism. For me, dystopia is a way of looking at realism. I feel like that was a tool I needed to use. I was thinking, “We’re already there anyway,” so I just needed some tweaking.
The body is a theme that you revisit throughout your stories, particularly issues surrounding women’s bodies. It seems to weigh on you heavily and you address it in two really striking stories, “Real Women Have Bodies,” and “Eight Bites.” There a real tension in your portrayal of women’s bodies. They are both invisible but ever-present. They need to disappear but they’re also something that needs to be fixed. I was wondering about the contrast between the physical form of the body and the ghost story itself. Is women’s physicality—our bodies—a ghost?
“Real Women Have Bodies” is about women’s bodies being chipped away at or made unreal against their will. In “Eight Bites,” it’s the same thing but with [the protagonist’s] consent. She seeks out the thing that makes her “less than.” I feel like the dynamic is between women who have no control versus women being taught to do that to themselves so that other people don’t have to. Those things are in synchronization with each other. I think I’m using the genre the way a lot of my foremothers did.
Who are the writers you read and admire in the genre?
Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. For contemporary writers, I really like Kelly Link, Alice Kim, Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, Bennett Sims (who is not a woman), and Jeff Vandermeer. I feel like using genre as a way of talking about particular social issues is what most genre writers are doing right now. And that’s pretty cool. Jeff Vandermeer is a really good example, he writes about environmental catastrophe.