Carmen Maria Machado and her work is everything and everywhere at once. On a chaotic, snowy day on campus, I was grateful to finally catch her in UMMA’s Stern Auditorium.
Machado, the current guest in the Zell Visiting Writers Series, is known for her work across nearly every genre of writing: humor, comic books, short fiction, essay, memoir and journalism. Her work is featured in art exhibitions and album covers (most recently, Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher), and celebrated globally, recently awarded with the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction and The American Booksellers Association’s Indies Choice Book Awards.
Machado’s most famous work, a series of short stories titled “Her Body and Other Parties,” unpacks the lives of women through their bodily experiences in stunningly real science fiction. In her memoir, “In the Dream House,” she flips what we think we know about memoirs, depicting life and complex relationships through a surrealist lens. Her recent comic series, “The Low Low Woods,” addresses complex social issues through nightmare-ish comic strips. Her unmistakable genre-bending style is why The New York Times named her a member of The New Vanguard.
In this reading, Machado does what she does best: give readers a completely different worldview, in this case, literally. In her 2017 short story, Blur, a woman loses her glasses at a highway rest stop on the way to meet her girlfriend and blindly searches for hope in an unfamiliar world.
Machado takes us through this unfamiliar and unsettling experience as if we were experiencing it first hand. Her low whisper shakes the audience as we see reality through the narrator’s troubled eyes. The rich imagery (mostly auditory) snaps us back and forth between the harsh, and at times, funny, reality of the rest stop, and the narrator’s racing thoughts as she fears the fallout with her abusive girlfriend.
The darkness and disorientation pick up as Machado delves into a confusing bedlam of sounds, colors and feelings. Machado takes the audience out of their near trance-like states as she switches voices. Machado turns into key characters with no names: the rude mother who promises her children did not steal the glasses, the girlfriend who hypothetically screams at the narrator, begging to know “who she is fucking” at the rest stop, the woman in the bathroom who prays and the almost surreal “man in the blue suit.”
Machado slows her reading as the man in the blue suit hands the narrator a candy bar, the “sweetest thing I’ve tasted in years,” and later speeds up as they walk the distance to Indiana together. The narrator’s mind races with fear of the future and reflections on past moments. Her tone suddenly changes as if reading us a ghost story. The man in the blue suit narrates the story of a woman who could not see and devoted her life and love to a horrible monster. The clear parallels between the monster and the girlfriend make Machado’s narrative as a whole all the more haunting. As the narrator and the man in the blue suit continue their highway journey, the audience is left in painful suspense.
As Machado transitions to the Question & Answer portion of the night, her haunting tone suddenly switches to a jovial one. She sits for a talk with MFA student Anna Majeski that feels like an enriching dinner party conversation that the audience is allowed to watch. Machado discusses her love of others’ work, ranging from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to Shirley Jackson’s short stories, her struggles with anxiety and her dreams and nightmares that inspire all of her work.
Machado’s work famously deals with sickness, which she says is a “way into her own fear,” the “best space” for her to write. She laughs as she describes COVID-19 as something out of a story she wrote. She is honest, funny and nothing like the dark and horrifying scenes she creates for millions of readers around the world. She explains that these stories come directly from her fears, like her recent comic series, straight from her worst nightmare of leaving a movie theater with amnesia. Her stories also come from the frightening realities of life, especially the female experience. She calls the repeated themes of her work the things she “just can’t shake.”
Her constant anecdotes are reminiscent of her writing, in which a single page carries infinite stories. Yet, just like with her writing, every word she speaks has a purpose.
As the Q&A opens to the auditorium and Zoom audiences, everyone is starstruck. Nearly everyone who comes to the microphone calls her an inspiration. Yet she maintains her humility, laughing as she teaches the audience lessons on forming plots by “throwing things at the wall and seeing if they stick” and building upon character perspectives.
As the night ends, readers line up to chat with Machado and get her works autographed. The event goes over by nearly 30 minutes, and the audience hopes to follow Machado into whatever reality she creates next.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.