Award-winning author Carmen Maria Machado visits Scripps

A woman sits on the left of the stage and reads from a book while a man sits on the other side of the stage listening intently.
Award-winning author Carmen Maria Machado visited Scripps College on Oct. 3 to discuss her upcoming memoir “In the Dream House.” (Domenico Ottolia • The Student Life)

CW: mentions of domestic violence

Award-winning fiction writer Carmen Maria Machado kept her audience on their toes, haunting them with her writing and inspiring them with her confidence.

Machado, author of the acclaimed book of short stories “Her Body and Other Parties,” visited Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium on Oct. 3 to share a piece of her upcoming memoir “In the Dream House,” which chronicles Machado’s experiences with queer domestic violence.

Leila Mansouri, assistant professor of English at Scripps, began her introduction of Machado by noting her critical acclaim as a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.

“[Students] invariably respond to her work like nothing else I’ve ever assigned,” she said, acknowledging the impact of Machado’s writing. “These reactions speak not just to Machado’s talent as a writer but also to the ways her stories invest in women’s experiences and perspectives.”

After Machado launched into a reading of “In the Dream House,” she was quick to address the somber tone of the book, anticipating a skeptical reaction from her audience. 

“It is a memoir about queer domestic violence,” she said. “It’s super sad. It’s really weird to write a book that’s so sad.”

Machado, though, is no stranger to being called weird. Amidst widespread acclaim for her first book, Machado couldn’t escape the characterization of her writing as unusual, disconcerting, and, yes — weird. However, Machado said she thinks her horror-adjacent writing is perfectly suited for her, even if critics might perceive her haunting style as unorthodox.

“Women have been writing in the spooky tradition for an extremely long time,” she said. “I think there’s a reason for that. The idea of liminality, and what it means for your life to be a kind of horror story and to exist in this marginal, fragile place whether you’re queer, a woman, a person of color — there’s a rich tradition of people writing [eerily] because of that state.”

The excerpt Machado read aloud from her memoir showcased a style that teetered between outright ominous descriptions and humorous quips. A gruesome line like “dread gathers between your shoulder blades” is neutralized with a peculiar description of drunk college students compared to a gaggle of geese.

The post-reading discussion of her work was similar to her writing style: heavy topics marked by generous bits of dry humor.

At one point, when asked how to write a memoir about personal hardship, she said “go to therapy — [you’ll] get good at talking about yourself,” provoking laughter from the crowd.

Machado then pivoted immediately from self-deprecation to a sober, counseling tone. 

“Write when your pain is interesting, not when you’re too close to it,” Machado said.

Machado encouraged future writers in the audience to trust their own voices no matter how unconventional their writing choices may seem, referencing her own gruesome stories. 

“Those moments where I decided to write what felt right to me and trust my instincts, those are what gave me agency and literary authority,” she said. 

The event was well-attended by members of the Claremont and 5C communities alike, many students driven to the event by their love of the author’s previous work.

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Part of the reason why Sarah Nunez SC ’22 attended the event was because she wanted to see the face behind Machado’s writing. 

“Her voice when she’s writing is so authoritative,” she said. “[Machado] is just as eloquent as I thought she’d be, but more funny and poignant in person.”

Daniela Bond PO ’20 noted how unique Machado’s writing is, referencing her debut, “Her Body and Other Parties.”

“I’d never read anything like it before,” Bond said. “It is honest and personal yet still experimental, because it combines fiction and [unconventional writing].” 

Sanami Fendt PO ’20 echoed Bond’s admiration for “Her Body and Other Parties.”

“It touched on a part of magical realism that I had never encountered before,” Fendt said. “As I was reading it, I was [thinking], ‘Is this real or not real?’ until I realized it was hovering [between] the two. I’d never had that experience reading fiction before.”

Some attendees, although less familiar with her writing, were intrigued by Machado’s new book’s focus on queer domestic abuse.

“All my classes have recommended coming to [the talk] because the topics she’s discussing, like rape culture and the politics of the home, are so pertinent,” Katie Larson SC ’22 said.

Nunez noted that a personal retelling of domestic abuse can change people’s assumptions about who is impacted by abuse.

“Queer abuse is something that we don’t talk about enough because we often oversimplify abuse as ‘straight,’ or between a man and a woman,” said Nunez. “It’s so fascinating to hear a personal perspective.”

Nunez also purported that Machado’s sharing of personal experience with abuse signals a shift in the narratives of women-created media. 

“Understanding that every scene is something she’s gone through … does a lot in terms of empowering [future] female authors,” Nunez said. “It says a lot that we live in a society now where this is something that is being published. Thirty years ago, I don’t think this book would have happened.”

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