Late one evening early in October, I struggled to fall asleep. The sheets scratched, the cats in the empty lot next door screeched. These small irritations distracted me from sleep just long enough for all the big, looming concerns to descend. The presidency, the planet. Those who have wronged me and those whom I have wronged. Nothing, it seemed, could put my mind at rest.
Carmen Maria Machado might seem a strange companion for such a night. Her debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, conveyed the horrors of living in the world and inhabiting a body so vividly that it made her a finalist for the National Book Award. She is not a writer who will sing you to sleep. When I picked up her new book, In the Dream House, I was hoping, instead, for someone to sit with me in the dark of the night. I turned the final page just as the birds outside my window began to chirp.
In the Dream House is billed as a memoir, but the word hardly captures the variety within its pages. The book is centered around the narrative of an abusive relationship, and each chapter offers a new, illuminating metaphor: “Dream House as Omen,” “Dream House as Lost in Translation,” “Dream House as Exercise in Style.” These riveting fragments weave together folklore, fiction, and scholarship on queer domestic abuse. This book is bold yet nuanced, expansive yet specific. And perhaps most of all, it is an utterance that emerges from within deafening silence. That tells a story which has yet to be heard.
Machado and I spoke over the phone a few weeks ago. Even after a long day of teaching, she was a lively and generous interlocutor. Her frank speech carries a sort of bracing wakefulness, similar to how I felt that early morning—eager for the light of yet another perilous day.
You write in the prologue about Saidiya Hartman’s concept of archival silence, how some stories are “missing from our collective histories.” What is it like to write from within this silence? To tell a story that has a history, but which has not been entered into the collective archive because it is a queer history?
It’s very lonely. It’s lonely and strange and special. I wish I had a more exciting answer. It’s really hard. Of course, I worry about what I missed and I worry about how the book has failed and it gives me a lot of anxiety. It’s a very stressful place to be in.
I imagine. If you fear you failed at something, what is it that you were hoping to achieve? I’d love, also, to hear more about your research process.
When I first sold the book to Graywolf, it was mostly just the memoir pieces. I knew I wanted to do a heavy research element, but I didn’t know what exactly. And when I began my rewrites, I was looking for the history of the way we’ve talked about queer domestic violence. I was also looking for places where this conversation existed, but where it wouldn’t necessarily have been called that. The former part was a little easier. I managed to trace, as you saw in the book, this timeline of the way that the conversation evolved and devolved and moved in interesting ways within the community in the eighties and nineties, and into today.
But the latter part was much harder. I found myself researching a lot of woman-on-woman violence. As I was researching, it seemed people would really notice only when the violence was really salacious, like when one girl killed another and people would say: Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness, what is that all about?
I kept thinking about how many things happen behind closed doors. Domestic violence almost by definition happens in the home, and so you’re always reading between the lines. I’m not a professional historian, so it was difficult. This is not my area of expertise. But I wanted to create some context because just saying, This happened to me, wasn’t good enough. I wanted to try and figure out the framework around this thing that happened to me. How can I understand it as not just a thing that happened to me, a discrete thing, but also in the context of history and in queer history, and in the history of gender?
You acknowledge at several points how the language we use to discuss domestic violence has often lacked nuance. The legal term battered women, for example, was used for decades, despite its failure to address queer realities, which you wrote “discourag[ed] useful subtlety.” How can subtlety be useful, particularly when working in pursuit of justice?
I think the problem is that we crave order and we crave clarity. For example, #MeToo—while a useful movement in many ways—fails in really basic ways when it comes to everything that is not rape. We have developed this language that seems to say: There’s this thing and it’s really bad. And it is really bad!
But when it comes to things that are a little less obvious—like not rape but, oh, for example, a male boss steals a female employee’s ideas for her entire career and then eventually fires her. What is that? That’s not rape. It’s not sexual harassment per se. But it creates something and it destroys something, and I feel like we just don’t know how to deal with it.
My book hasn’t come out yet but even in some early reviews, reviewers don’t agree about whether the abuse I experienced was physical. We prioritize certain kinds of abuse and not others. And there’s just something—there’s something really gross about the way that we shut out people’s experiences. We want everything to be very clear.
We also often confuse right and legal. We think that if something is legal, then it must be okay. But a thing can be legal and also be fucked up. Those things are not the same. The legal system is only one avenue by which we define our grievances and define our experiences. But it’s definitely not the best and it’s definitely not the only one, right?
You’ve brought up clarity, and I agree that the pursuit of clarity can be very reductive. But you also write, “Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve wanted anything.” Throughout writing In the Dream House, did you find yourself working more in pursuit of clarity or in resistance to it?
It’s clear in my own head. Which is not the problem, right? My own head is my own head. What I wanted was something that was clear so that other people could understand. And maybe this book was my attempt to say, Okay, you didn’t understand it when I tried to explain it to you in a handful of sentences—here’s an entire book. Maybe now you’ll understand. Maybe this will be clearer for you.
But, of course, I wish I didn’t have to do that—to write an entire book trying to articulate it—I wish it had just been simpler. Or at least, I don’t wish it, but it would have been nice, in a way. Having to fight to have your experience recognized is really difficult. It’s stressful. It’s stressful in this persistent, nonstop way and that clarity would have been really intoxicating. Obviously, it’s fucked up to say, I wish she had just hit me. That would have been way easier. But it’s true. I wish she’d been a man. That would have been easier, it would have fit better into our preexisting narratives. There are all these things that I wish could have been true, because it would have made my experience clearer and simpler to understand, and the fact that I don’t have that simplicity is quite painful. It feels fucked up to say both of those things. But there’s just something about that simplicity that is very intoxicating, and if I said I didn’t want it, I would be lying. If I said it wouldn’t be useful to me, I would be lying.
You’re known for working across genres in your fiction, but it is particularly interesting to watch you do the same thing in a work of nonfiction. What did writing a memoir through a multitude of genres and narrative constraints make possible?
I tried to tell it in a straightforward way. I tried to write that way for years and it never caught fire. I would just read it back to myself and think: Oh, this is dreadful, this is dreadful. And I put it aside. It wasn’t until I thought of this structure that the whole thing opened up. It just felt right. I’m not describing it in a very technical way, I wish I could, but I literally thought: Oh, this is the shape it has to take. The experience was so complicated that trying to describe it in a straightforward way would be impossible. It feels more symphonic than that. It feels more scattered.
How did filtering these experiences through the constraints of genre change—if it did—how you understood those experiences?
The sections that are more analytical, where I am parsing something apart or playing around with an idea—a lot of those came from the titles themselves. I came up with them before they had content. For example, “Spy Thriller.” With “Spy Thriller,” I was thinking about the genre and the things that defined it for me. I realized a spy thriller is when someone has a secret and everything they do is infused with that secret. And that helped me to remember things. I don’t know that I would have ended up writing about that dynamic if I hadn’t had that prompt to set my brain into a certain place. These genre ideas gave me something to hold on to, to get myself into some different part of my memory and come out with something interesting.
One section I was particularly enamored with was “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.”
I was thinking a lot about an author who is really important to me, Kevin Brockmeier. He was my teacher at Iowa. He has a really incredible short story called “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” and it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story. It operates in a very different way, but he uses the form to very good effect. I remember reading it in grad school and then trying to write my own choose-your-own-adventure. I wrote a horror story about a woman in an art museum and it wasn’t very good.
So, I was thinking about what purpose a choose-your-own-adventure serves. Often it traps you in a cycle, right? There are all these different options, but a lot of the options are sort of fake. You’re making choices but according to a pre-prescribed set of options. You can end up at the same place over and over again.
I was interested in the form and I kept thinking about these moments—these mornings with my ex where she would scream at me for moving in the night while I was sleeping. And I did feel like it was this weird cycle I was trapped in, where no matter what I did or what choice I made, I would always end up in the same place. I wanted to use the structure to create a certain effect. I wanted a section where the book kind of gaslit the reader. This was my attempt at that, or my way of sort of fucking with the reader by inviting them to make decisions, but the decisions are completely pointless.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely felt fucked with.
That was my intention.
The words dream house conjure up many different associations—House Hunters, MASH, a beautiful future with some perfect future spouse, a queer utopia. But you also demonstrate how that dream can become a nightmare. How do our dreams come to betray us?
I talk in the book about fantasy, and the way in which fantasy is the ultimate cliché of queerness. How can we get so lost in fantasy that we can’t see the reality right in front of us? That sounds so cynical—I believe in dreams and fantasy and pleasure. But I didn’t understand the cost at which that could come. Part of the experience of writing this book was coming face to face with that young version of myself. And having to talk to her in this way and try to understand where it all went wrong.
Is that how you came to use the second person?
The initial draft was entirely in the second person. That’s how I wrote it. When Graywolf bought it, they told me we would need to talk about the second person: I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but sometimes it’s used as a distancing technique, and I don’t know if that’s right for this project.
When we went back, I thought I’d just turn it all to first person. And I tried, but a lot of it really resisted the first person. I was thinking a lot about We the Animals, by Justin Torres, which is told in the first-person plural. So it’s initially told in the “we” voice, and then there are these traumas that happen. The voice shatters and breaks into second and into first. That really moved me when I first read it. It was really devastating. I thought, Oh, I wonder if I could do that as well. I could sort of gesture to this fragmentation and then once I did, I thought, Oh, I see the second-person present is the one who is trapped in these cycles and the first-person past is me everywhere else. And that felt real and right. I needed to establish that break.
In some early interviews around Her Body and Other Parties you were referring to this book as “The House in Indiana,” which I assume was a working title. But it feels very different, conceptually, from In the Dream House. Is there a story behind that?
Yeah, “The House in Indiana” was what I was calling it for a really long time. It was what I called it when I came up with the idea for all the different genre bits. I actually changed the title because whenever it would get brought up in interviews or events, people would be like, Are you from Indiana? I’m from Indiana! My cousin’s from Indiana! Everyone wanted to talk about Indiana and I know nothing about Indiana.
But I knew I needed a title, and it needed to translate into this “blank as blank” format. Basically, I spent two days last summer when I was finishing up this book typing out every possible title—I mean, dozens and dozens and dozens of titles. Then I found “Dream House.” But it turned out that my publisher, many years ago in her career, had also published a book called “Dream House.” And then they offered “In the Dream House,” and I thought, Okay, yes. All right. Done. And now, of course, as I’ve started googling the title, I’ve found that it is also the name of a Barbie show. There is a show called Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, or something like that, and so I get results for my own book and also results about Barbie. Which is weird and funny.
Did you think about Barbie’s Dreamhouse at all?
I did not for one second. No. It did not even cross my mind.
Noor Qasim is a writer who lives in New York City. She is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
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