Ribbons

4 DECEMBER 2018 | KAREN KAO

Carmen Maria Machado is a fabulist, a teller of horror stories, a queer porn queen and a damned fine writer. Her Body & Other Parties is a collection of stories about women. But these are not the sorts of women you run into in a Harlequin romance. Machado writes about fading women, girls-with-eyes-for-bells and an ex-girlfriend named Bad. These women fail as wives, mothers, daughters and lovers. This is no fairy tale.

Or maybe it is. We once used fairy tales to explain truths to children. As fiction writer and teacher Kit Haggard observes:

Fairytales and fables have always been a way of working out or working through, of presenting what is complex and thorny in neat, allegorical packages that anyone can understand.

Kit Haggard, “How a queer fabulism came to dominate contemporary women’s literature,” The Outline, 8 Aug 2018

the first time

“The Husband Stitch” is Machado’s retelling of an old fable called “The Green Ribbon.” In both versions, the narrator wears a green ribbon around her neck. She refuses to explain its purpose to her husband nor is he allowed to touch it. This becomes a source of marital tension.

In “The Husband Stitch,” many women wear ribbons. One mother has a yellow ribbon around her finger that constantly gets caught in her sewing. Another woman wraps a red ribbon around her ankle even when she poses nude for art class. When the narrator gives birth, the first thing she looks for is the tell-tale ribbon. There’s none and the narrator is relieved: it’s a boy.

The titular husband stitch is a surgical procedure performed on the narrator after the birth of her son. According to Jane Dykema, another fiction writer and teacher reporting in October 2017

Reliable information about, or even an official definition of, the husband stitch is conspicuously missing from the internet. No entry in Wikipedia, nothing in WebMD. Instead there are pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites, and a pretty good definition on Urban Dictionary.

Jane Dykema, “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch’,” Electric Lit, 10 October 2017

But we all know what it is, at least, the women in the room do. Back in the day, when I was a partner at a law firm, we were debating the wisdom of entering into a joint venture with a foreign law firm. One of my partners advised caution, saying you can only lose your virginity once. Well, Eberhard, I said, there are operations for that. And now, there’s a Wikipedia page on the topic, too.

sign of the times

Machado is an unflinching witness of our times. Here are just three examples.

First, in “Especially Heinous: 227 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” Machado recreates the act of binge-watching and the horror of being watched. The characters of Law & Order know all about us

about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop but they won’t, so we can’t.

My second example is “Inventory,” a listicle of sexual partners (One girl. One boy, one girl. Two boys, one girl. One man.) But the point is anything but prurient. “Inventory” addresses our most primal fears of an increasingly unhealthy world. In this story, a pandemic breaks out while the narrator is on a date in a diner. A TV gives them the bad news.

We watched as the newscaster blinked away and was replaced with a list of symptoms of the virus blossoming a state away, in northern California. When he came back, he repeated that planes had been grounded, the border of the state had been closed, and the virus appeared to be isolated. When the waitress walked over, she seemed distracted. “Do you have people there?” I asked, and she nodded, her eyes filling with tears.

Last but not least is “The Resident.” It’s about pettiness, manipulation and competition. It sure cured me of any desire to apply for a residency in an artist colony. Think Fatal Attraction goes to Yaddo, complete with the cute fuzzy animal left eviscerated by the front door.

storytime

I have Dieuwke van Turenhout to thank for my copy of the Machado collection. Dieuwke is a podcaster and a short story writer with a brand new collection out in Dutch. She gave me Her Body & Other Parties for coming to the studio to talk about my favorite short story writer, Yoko Ogawa.

Well, now I have a new favorite. Machado weaves stories within stories. She tells us fables, pimped up for our modern times. There is a story they tell. I am reminded of the story. There is a story I love. Machado is not afraid to tell a story that ends unhappily. To show men who want what they are not offered. To show women in all their vulnerability. The closing story, “Difficult at Parties,” is about a woman struggling to overcome rape, though Machado never uses the word rape.

Haggard describes Machado’s writing as fabulism, a method of inserting elements of myth and fable into the real world. It makes sense to her that the authors of fabulist fiction are overwhelmingly female, since it’s

a mode that’s ideally suited to capture the inherent strangeness of a marginalized experience

Add to that equation the overt queerness of many of Machado’s stories and we have a perfect match.

Surrealism — the queering of reality — has become a tool for accessing or depicting the reality of inhabiting a queer body.

So, rock on Carmen Maria Machado. Tell me a bedtime story. Make it scary. Make it weird. You know how to do that.

I have heard all the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.

“The Husband Stitch,” p. 7