Arts Books Muse

Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Camila Hernandez examines a collection of stories that focus on the complex narratives of womanhood and queerhood alike.

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Image Credit: Profile Books Ltd

Carmen Maria Machado is a revolution. Her fiction is at its richest when it delves into those internal, haunting moments that mark a woman’s life. As Russell put it, her work shows ‘how the violence migrates inward, from the wider culture into women’s private minds and bodies. It’s wonderful that we have these stories in the era of MeToo, when there is a need and an appetite for the truths that only fiction can tell.’

She has further been described as an 'uplifting anti-Lovecraft who observes in the everyday oppressions of heteropatriarchy and late capitalism what is truly horrifying.' (Guynes). As a queer Latina woman, Machado writes between and for a myriad of worlds. Interestingly, she deviates from realistically outlined experiences and instead delves into the realm of the fantastic and of the surreal is manoeuvred in order to hyperbolise and reveal the mystery of our contemporary culture's horrific undertones. In this way, Her Body & Other Parties supersedes genre, dipping into the margins of becoming a kind of a portrait poem that rehearses and destabilises binary categorisations and transgresses the conventions of realism.

This collage of surrealism and artistic revisions of popular media allows for Machado's authorial voice to ascend to an enriched practice of storytelling about women, queer relationships, inconsequential bodies, monstrous humans, and erotic anger. Bodies, in particular, are, as described by The NY Times, 'covered in sequins and scales, blazing.' Gothic bodies, motherly bodies, and womanly bodies are entrenched and enchanted both by social and cultural constructions.

The space of gender occupied by the bodies illustrated through Machado's collection is also distinctively unconventional. They are given a characteristically malleable quality; existing in the intersection of real and hyperreal. They can be violated, yet, at another moment, they can be violent, abhorrent, and even sub- or super-human in the most tragic way.

The first story featured in the collection, The Husband Stitch, follows a young woman who falls in love, marries, has children, and maintains one rule in her household: no one is to touch the green ribbon around her neck. The mutually desirable marriage between the narrator and her husband is bitterly withstood by the former due to the fact that, '[h]e is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him. And yet —'.

The title of this particular story is Machado's inference to the additional stitch sometimes given to a woman after the area between her genitals and anus is either torn or cut out during childbirth. The purpose of the extra stitch, in the broader cultural discourse, is to consequently increase the husband's pleasure during sex.

At the end of the story, her husband is finally given permission to untie it, yet the action is fatal, and she is decapitated. Machado's story is written in parallel to an excerpt from the 1984 children's book A Dark Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz. However, though the adoption of Machado's ribbon motif seems uncannily extracted from Schwartz's tale, a more significant reference is more emphatically and similarly grounded outside of the very realm of literary works themselves.

During the later years of the French Revolution (1789-99), many fashionable adolescents and young adults of the upper and middle classes adopted a style termed à la victime, or "like the victim." This fashion imitated the look of the thousands of people who were executed by the government during the bloodiest period of the revolution. Sporting scarlet ribbons to symbolize the blood of the dead, and cutting their hair short the way the executioners cut their victims' hair, these young people celebrated the fall of the old government while upholding themselves and their cultural and individual values through a daunting period in history.

As much as the French Revolution was about systematically removing everything that was a symbol of the monarchy, so were the ladies' ribbons and other revolutionaries' fashion pieces a statement of a newly emerging political platform. In terms of reading Machado's adoption of the symbol of the ribbon, this reading becomes so much richer in meaning and political weight.

'Her body was manipulated and stitched for pleasure, treated like something subhuman and lifeless, that could be taken apart and put back together by and for the men surrounding her.'

The Husband Stitch also challenges and discomforts its reader through a shameless rendition of women's sexuality being expressed openly. Yet, this supposedly liberating idea on paper does not manifest a happy ending for itself. Hence, Machado's story, in turn, becomes a commentary on body politics, as well as a metaphor driven by a cultural discourse surrounding sexual assault.

Though The Husband Stitch may seem elusive on a superficial front, Machado's intent appears to be the converse effect. It is profoundly and horrifically infused with urgent, contemporary concerns about womanhood and the trappings of such constructs. In this way, the narrator of The Husband Stitch is shown to be interchangeable with all other women, as per the writer's own bracketed instructions on '(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices: [....] All other women: interchangeable with my own.)'

Another story that, to me, was so tragically true and devastatingly beautiful, was Mothers. 'Of all the stories I know about mothers, this is the most real,' Machado's narrator solemnly begins this excerpt, and goes on to tell a story of a mother and daughter travelling to Paris. An interesting detail about Mothers is that the narrator offers several alternate endings to the narrative, and, ultimately, closes the story with, 'I would tell you the moral, but I think you already know.'

Here, Machado also seems to raise several questions for us as readers in terms of our relationship to our social spheres and climate. Do you feel it, too? The perils of living in a world constructed by a different gender? The justified and unjustified mistrust? The near-constant experience of being disbelieved, of feeling that compulsion to question your own sanity? Why are we disbelieved? Why have we grown to be so skeptical of women's experiences? Of their voices?

Perhaps, the answer lies in James Baldwin's beautiful articulation of the African-American experience in his 1979 article If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Baldwin writes: “There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.”

This, I suggest, may be why we are less eager to believe women rather than their male counterparts — if their experiences are true, we can't stand to see our role in it. But Machado chooses to abandon this damaging narrative, and serves us a platter of macabre yet inviting prose that refuses to dilute the hidden or the complex facets of womanhood and queerhood alike. And, as Mothers’ narrator proclaims, to ‘believe in a world where impossible things happen,’ is to carve out a space for the unspoken about, and this, at its core, is the beauty of Machado’s not-so-alternate worlds.

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