We’re in a Rough Place in History Right Now: The Millions Interviews Carmen Maria Machado

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Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a National Book Award finalist and is being developed by FX for television. Her memoir, In the Dream House, publishes in November. In the meantime, Machado is the guest editor of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019, which Publishers Weekly called “a masterful showcase of what’s possible.”
We spoke with Machado about the difference between literary fiction and speculative fiction and the importance of reading outside our comfort zones.
The Millions: How did you select which stories to include in the anthology?
Carmen Maria Machado: The series editor, John Joseph Adams, does the first cull. He pulled together an initial list, stripped them of any identifying information, and sent them to me. I got 80, and selected 20. It’s not impossible that I’d recognize a short story, but in theory it’s blind so that the guest editor isn’t influenced by the author name or the publication name.
TM: What themes jumped out at you when selecting the stories?
CMM: We’re in a rough place in history right now, and people are responding to it, but not in ways that feel on the nose, preachy, or didactic. A lot of authors are asking what it means to be a person, especially of a marginalized identity, living in our world today, and there’s a lot of discussion about living in a fascist country, or a country that’s moving toward fascism. One story, “Skinned” by Lesley Nneka Arimah, talks about misogyny and revolution, but also about female friendship and about one woman trying to figure out who she is in this world. Another story, “Hard Mary” by Sofia Samatar, follows a girl in an Amish community who discovers an android. I want speculative fiction to have grandeur and scale, plus a sense of intimacy; that really makes it tick for me.

TM: You’ve written in a space some would position between literary fiction and speculative fiction. Do you see a difference between the two?
CMM: Genre is a mix of expectation and rules. If I tell you a story is realist, and then a dragon shows up, I’ve broken those expectations and rules. The same is true of SF/F and horror. Genre is a taxonomy. It’s a way to describe a story. People assign value, but there is no inherent value. Commercial fiction delivers plot-driven stories; what they are on the face of it is what they are. Literary fiction is concerned with language, and with psychology. You can have commercial realism and literary science fiction. They don’t exist in tension with each other. I’m really interested in sentences and language, and when I see that an author isn’t, I bounce out of the work. The conversation around this is exhausting. It’s endless. It’s no longer 1993, why are we still focused on it?
TM: Is categorizing this way helpful to the reader?

CMM: We’d all be better served by reading outside of our comfort zones. I’m thinking of Toni Morrison; Beloved is one of our great horror novels, but no one thinks of it that way. Genres have communities that circle around them, and I hope that the anthology will help create this sense of mixing, where people can discover new writers. This is the beauty of having a person who works at an indie bookstore, or a librarian—someone who can do the work of creating connections.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.