Articulate

S5 E24 | CLIP

Carmen Maria Machado: Claiming Her Space

Carmen Maria Machado: Claiming Her Space
Carmen Maria Machado is self-assured and outspoken, often turning a mirror not only on herself but on society’s unchallenged biases to create immersive fiction.

AIRED: March 20, 2020 | 0:11:13
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(gentle music)

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Carmen Maria Machado

doesn't accept conventional narratives,

nor does she create them.

She has an unnerving talent for weaving the disturbing,

the provocative, the horrifying, into her stories.

But, she says, it's all in good fun.

- It's like playing, you know?

It gives me the same sensation as when I was a kid

and I was playing with a dollhouse, you know?

And so, it's that sort of same sense of creative control,

and sort of like generating a world

and generating characters, and generating conflict,

and creating this space,

and doing so to reflect something that's inside of me.

I actually think it's really fun.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Even as a child,

Carmen's play wasn't like most other little girls.

She's always had a distinctly macabre sensibility.

She and a friend liked to pretend they were doctors,

(heart monitor beeping)

saving their dolls, who were twin sisters,

from mysterious, deadly illnesses.

Now, as an adult, Machado still has the tendency

to look for the dark side in things.

- Whenever we drive past that billboard,

out on one of the highways where it's the Chick-fil-A,

and it's the cow that's painting,

and it says, "Eat Mor Chikin,"

and I always say to my wife,

"Oh my God, the cow doesn't want to die."

And so he's, this barely literate cow

is trying desperately to paint a sign

to encourage humans to kill

and eat another kind of animal to spare their lives.

That's so dark!

Who came up with that (laughing) advertising concept?

And so, I feel like that's just the way that my brain works.

I don't know why.

I mean, I think it's from reading,

and just being a weird kinda goth kid,

and thinking about death a lot, (laughs)

and thinking about the way the world is kind of a nightmare.

A world that I actually do mostly enjoy living in, you know,

but yeah, and I feel like

that just comes through in my work,

and I think that sort of eeriness,

even when the material isn't explicitly,

at that moment, horror,

there's still this sense of unease.

- [Tori] Take, for example,

"Difficult at Parties," a story from Machado's

National Book Award-nominated debut collection.

The narrator and her boyfriend, Paul,

approach a housewarming party for some of his friends,

but her PTSD makes even a mild encounter

with good-natured strangers pulse with menace.

- [Carmen] "We pull up next to a row of parked cars,

"in front of a renovated turn-of-the-century farmhouse.

"'It looks so homey,' says Paul,

"stepping out and rubbing his gloveless hands together.

"The windows are draped with gauzy curtains,

"and a creamy honey color throbs from within.

"The house looks like it's on fire.

(knocking)

(door squeaking)

"The hosts open the door.

"They are beautiful and have gleaming teeth.

"I have seen this before.

"I have not seen them before."

- [Tori] Machado doesn't always

cause unease to generate fear.

She often provokes discomfort

to prove some larger point about society.

Among her favorite topics to tangle with, sex.

Machado is a fierce proponent of the casual sex scene.

She believes that her characters work hard,

and therefore deserve a little roll in the hay.

- We literally are our bodies.

We live in our bodies.

Our bodies are the source of pain and pleasure,

and eventually, and our birth,

and eventually, our death, right?

And sexuality in some form, whatever it is,

is an essential part of the human experience.

And if you think about it that way,

it's like why wouldn't you write about sex

in the same way that you would write about eating, you know?

It's characters doing things

that bring them close to other people

or push them away from other people,

or this sort of moment with themselves,

or whatever it is.

And if you think about it that way,

it's just like, it's literally as important a part of craft

as any other sort of element of the human experience.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Carmen Maria Machado understands

that pleasure is as essential to life

as pain is to a good story,

so she advocates for many ideas

that push against received wisdom.

In an essay for Guernica magazine,

"The Trash Heap Has Spoken,"

she imagines a society where fatness

is seen as a virtue instead of a sin,

while exploring the many ways

that large bodies are diminished in America.

Along the way, she recalls a telling anecdote

from the biography of Shirley Jackson,

her favorite horror and mystery writer.

- [Carmen] A friend of Jackson's once said

that she "took up literally half the sofa,

"but when she opened her mouth, everything changed.

"She was witty, brilliant, she knew it, and she used it."

And that drives me bananas because I'm like,

"No, she's a genius and she's fat,"

and those two things are not,

they don't exist in opposition to each other.

Like it's, people think that because we've grown up,

I mean, if you look at

the sort of cultural representations of fat people,

they're bumbling, they're stupid, they're laughable.

You know, there's just this very,

there's this ease about the way we demean fat bodies.

- Do you refer to yourself as fat?

- I do, yes.

- So what does society think that that means,

and what do you think that that means?

- There's this interesting thing that happens,

and I think most people who are fat have experienced this,

where if you say that you're fat,

which to me is as simple as the fact

of saying I have brown hair or I have brown eyes,

people will be like, "No, you're not.

"No, no, no, don't worry.

"You're not, don't worry."

Or they have other words that they like to use.

You know, those like, "No, you're voluptuous,"

or, "You're this, you're that."

And to me, that's not interesting,

because what it, it sort of ties up what is, I think,

a fairly neutral descriptor about a person's body.

It's the same way you would say thin,

it's the same way you would say you have blonde hair.

You just, it's just a thing you say, right?

It's just a way of describing a person's body,

and there shouldn't be any judgment associated with it.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] But there is, in truth,

a whole lot of judgment associated with fatness.

In our culture, a thin body is assumed

to be healthy and hardworking.

A fat body, on the other hand,

is seen as lazy, indulgent, in constant danger of disease.

Neither is an absolute truth.

But studies have shown that even medical professionals

stereotype their patients in this way,

and it can lead to worse care.

Machado says she's experienced this firsthand.

- So years ago, I had swine flu when I lived in California.

I got really sick, I was out for two weeks.

It was really, really bad.

But after the swine flu was over, which had devastated me

and devastated also my entire office that I worked at,

I had this rasp in my chest

that was left over from the sickness,

and it wouldn't go away, and I was like,

"I need to go to the doctor

"and get an inhaler or something,"

'cause I can just feel this,

it's still kinda lingering, you know, right here.

And I had a coworker who was this tiny, petite woman,

and we both went to the same doctor,

we both had the same health insurance,

and she also had the same rasp.

She was like,

"Oh, I know, I got the same thing, it's really bad,"

'cause she had also gotten the swine flu.

And we'd both went to the doctor on two separate days,

and I went in, and the doctor said,

"Well, have you thought about losing weight?"

And I said, "I don't normally breathe like this.

"I just got, I was just,

"I was just ravaged by (laughing) swine flu.

"I had a fever of like 102.

"I was extremely ill for a very long time,

"and now I have this symptom that's lingering from it.

"Is there anything you can give me?"

And then he just kept talking about weight loss,

and talking about how I needed to lose weight,

and maybe I wasn't breathing right 'cause I was too fat,

and I was like, it was this fight, it was a fight.

Eventually they gave me an inhaler, and that was it.

My coworker went in the next day,

walked in, got an inhaler in five minutes, and walked out.

They didn't question it for one second.

And that kind of fat phobia,

the way that we focus on the fat body in this way

also kills people, right?

So years ago, there was a girl.

I read this story about a young girl

who was slightly overweight,

and they diagnosed her with the wrong kind of diabetes.

Like they, it's like,

they diagnosed her with the kind

that they thought she had because of her body,

and they never bothered testing, and she died.

She straight-up died.

Fat phobia kills people.

- [Tori] But in Machado's world,

the fat don't just live, they rule.

- I have an intermittent daydream

in which I'm a queen straight out of an epic fantasy novel.

I am draped in red silk and sit in a large baroque throne,

crowned with a grandiose headdress,

dripping gemstones that tick, tick, tick

like Yahtzee dice when I turn my head.

My feet rest on snoozing bears.

I am so fat, I can only leave the room

on a palanquin borne aloft by 20 men.

I am so fat, it takes the air out of the room.

I am so fat, no advisor tells me no.

I am so fat, would-be conquerors flee the room in fear.

I am so fat that members of their court

do their best to look like me

by eating onions cooked in lard,

but none can match my sweeping vista,

my strength, my power.

I am so fat, I can take as many lovers as I please.

I am so fat that fatness becomes culturally inextricable

from a firm, wise, no-nonsense attitude.

I am so fat, the citizens who come before me

for advice or assistance

feel safe in proximity to my orbit,

and afterwards, they go home to their families

and tell their children that I am even larger

and more exquisite in person.

I am so fat, their daughters shove pillows

under their clothes during play

and say, "I'm the queen,"

and then argue about how many monarchs

are allowed during their game.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Carmen Maria Machado

loves to press on our collective bruises.

She takes on our culture's implicit biases

and helps us to rethink the things we're often afraid

to even discuss in polite society.

All this with a rare combination

of emotional honesty and intellectual ferocity.

Long may the trash heap speak.

- [Narrator] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(inspiring music)

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