I have read two of Carmen Maria Machado’s works: her memoir In the Dream House and a short story from her forthcoming collection, The Tour. Both times her words almost brought me to tears. It’s not explicitly the content of her works that causes the swell of tears in my eyes, though their storylines are certainly powerful in and of themselves.
Rather, it is Machado’s style, her ability to interweave choice words in a way that powerfully deploys language, that leaves me gasping, clinging to her words one by one, for meaning and sense. Indeed, both times that I devoured her work, Carmen’s words seemed to articulate the meaning of personal experiences and thoughts that, prior to the salvation of her words, existed in a twisted jumble of confusion.
However, this experience of having coherent sense slapped to thoughts that normally threaten to drown me, is not limited to myself. Carmen Maria Machado holds the distinct ability to manipulate language to create meaning in the context of culture in general. For everyone.
Her memoir, In the Dream House, skillfully plays with different genres, perspectives, and motives to present an unconventional exploration of queer abuse between two women. The chapters of the memoir come to constitute the “dream house,” which is brought to life through the very substance of the book. Namely, its content, language, and structure, come to embody Carmen’s body and its colonization by her abusive ex.
What is most striking in the memoir—and most poignant to my considerations here—is Carmen’s ability to provide vocabulary and language, to bring meaning, to the often–overlooked reality of queer abuse. Indeed, her references to legal cases on the matter, her personal confessions of the confusion involved with abuse, her taxonomy of folk tale motifs used to decode her immediate phenomenology, and the convoluted and metaphorically loose representation of the dream house in the book’s structure all culminate in a pastiche language that elucidates the forgotten reality of queer abuse.
Just as she helped give words to my own experience of queerness, Carmen’s use of language renders real a form of abuse often–overlooked. What power she holds in playing with language, reality, and social norms! In Western societies, heteronormativity is fundamental to preserving capitalism. Indeed, the nuclear family acts as the base unit for the complex reality of capitalism to unfold, ensuring the private (free) upbringings of children by the family, pushing for individual homes over commune—style housing, and ensuring a privatized, sheltered monoculture and the preservation of wealth and property over generations. It is then no surprise that culture over time has often failed to represent queerness.
However, whether it be the lack of queer representation in movies, music, or other media, the fundamental impact of the dominance of capitalism as a system is that language itself often lacks the ability to articulate the experience of queerness and other minority experiences. Carmen’s memoir counters this by giving meaning to the very realities that the everyday monolithic culture of society insists upon denying or ignoring by simply failing to name it.
"The Tour," a short story part of Carmen Maria Machado’s yet unreleased future collection, has the similar ability to bring language to realities often left unarticulated. "The Tour" concerns itself with an exploration of Carmen’s experience along various temporal–spatial "timelines" that constitute her lived experience. In other words, these timelines come to reflexively (and rather critically) represent her reflections on her existence, which she views in a fragmented way, unable to conceive of herself in totality and continuity. For example, she reflects on the non–fiction aspect of her memoir In The Dream House and comments on her inability to relate to her persona at the time of writing—now alienated and dissociated from a previous iteration of herself. In contrast, she comments that fiction writing might have enabled her multiplicities to exist in greater ambiguity within her characters, which she would imbue with elements of herself. In other words, "The Tour" and the plot of timelines come to represent a means of reflexively engaging with dissociative iterations of ourselves.
What is the meaning unearthed here? As a third culture kid I relate to this notion of our fragmented selves as a natural consequence of having lived in four countries while being from a fifth, where my unstructured upbringing often makes me unable to fully associate to past iterations of myself. Rather than viewing myself holistically, I cannot help but judge snapshots of myself, my personhood, my personality frozen in various static periods of my life. Awkward lanky Indonesia Giulia, confused freshman Giulia, compulsively heterosexual sorority Giulia, Giulia today. However, what is the significance of this more broadly? This fragmented self–exploration recalls the personal confusion one might feel in attempting to relate to the pastiche and overly fragmented reality of postmodernism. Rather than providing a solution for appeasing this tension, Carmen gives words to articulate how the individual subject experiences this fragmentation. She assuages the confusion that comes with attempting to relate to an imagined totality of what it means to exist in today’s day and age.
Beyond her gripping writing, her creative deployment of different genres, and her story lines themselves, Carmen Maria Machado’s greatest strength lies in her ability to give meaning to that which is meaningless by the dominant fabric of society, to give meaning to the very tensions existing as byproducts of our historical period. Machado uses language to bring truth to the fore, and in doing so, saves us many trips to therapy.