Heterosexual Horror Story: Carmen Maria Machado reads "The Husband Stitch" at Bennington
Prior to debut author Carmen Maria Machado’s reading at Bennington on September 20th, I pictured her as a wild-haired, colorfully dressed High Priestess with animated gestures and a gravelly, abrasive voice. This image, conjured by online descriptions of her short stories as being sexy-yet-cerebral, was quickly extinguished when I entered the infamously quiet common room of Franklin and saw the real Machado: a proper looking young Latina woman with a long black dress, thick-framed glasses, and hair pulled back in a loose bun. This disparity between my expectation and reality was enough to dissuade me from entering the raffle for an early copy of Machado’s much-anticipated short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties--a decision I would soon regret. I wanted to see if the real Machado could live up to her reputation first.
"The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties vibrate with originality, queerness, sensuality and the strange,” Roxanne Gay writes in one pre-publication blurb.
“Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties tells ancient fables of eros and female metamorphosis in fantastically new ways,” Karen Russell writes in another.
Settling into my chair in Franklin with my arms folded, I listened skeptically as she began to read from her story "The Husband Stitch."
My skepticism did not last long. “The Husband Stitch” immediately seized the room with the eerie chill of a gripping ghost story, Machado’s voice settling seamlessly into the plaintive cadence of her narrator. The short story, inspired by the famous contemporary folk story about a girl with green ribbon around her neck and infused with similarly haunting legends, follows the life of its ribbon-bedecked narrator through her teenage years, marriage, the birth of her son, and beyond. With much to say about gender and heteronormativity, the piece also reflects on storytelling as an art, a pastime, and a dangerous habit. The most noticeable evidence of this is the story’s repeated advice on how it should be read aloud (“move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners,” or, “shake [a soda can of pennies] loudly in the face of the person closest to you”). Unfortunately, Machado was not prepared to enact these directives. But then again, she didn’t have to.
The most striking moments to me were single lines, such as, “Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond.” Or, “stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.” Or simply, “I have always been a teller of stories.” That last line was especially relatable to me as an aspiring writer and a storyteller myself. I realized, staring anxiously at the raffle bowl across the room, that, just as the narrator’s obsession with myths, murders and anything macabre seemed detrimental to her, my own imagination could be detrimental to me. The Carmen Maria Machado I’d imagined had been so zany and bright and energetic that I’d underestimated the real Carmen Maria Machado, who simmers and glows with a surreal energy all her own.
During the Q&A following the reading, Machado’s wisdom and wit had its own kind of power. “You can’t write about death until you’ve written about life,” she asserted as an explanation for how fear can’t exist--in life or in fiction--until there is something to fear losing. In discussing her preference for short stories over novels, she noted how reading short fiction is “like a punch as opposed to being beaten for several hours” (she equates the longer beating with reading a novel). Later, when asked by a student why she’d set “The Husband Stitch” in such a heteronormative, Americana environment, Machado explained how she’d aimed “to write a horror story of heterosexuality." "Sorry about that," she joked to the heteronormative listeners in the crowd. In a collection of stories narrated primarily by Queer or gender non-conforming characters, the narrator of “The Husband Stitch” stands out for being heterosexual--and suffers on account of her comfort with traditional gender roles.
This last answer inspired my own question for Machado about how these diverse elements in the “The Husband Stitch”– the heterosexual horror story, the girl with ribbon around her neck, the disgusting trend of “husband stitches” after childbirth – are made to hold together. Her answer was simply that she doesn’t know. She explained how her stories are woven together over time from an actual list of ideas and quotes and facts that she keeps on her computer. She compared her process to how we tell stories when we’re children--how we pick up random objects and make them talk to each other. “It’s something people forget to do over time,” she explained, dropping the pen and water bottle she’d used to illustrate her point. “They have it beaten out of them by life.”
So, as beaten as I felt while watching the raffle take place without my name in the drawing, I consoled myself by picturing how I would buy my own copy of Her Body and Other Parties on October 3rd, the day of its release.