We sit down with the badass author, National Book Award finalist, and fellow Philly resident for a conversation about writing, working retail, believing in your own work, craving the company of other women, and so much more.
> The art of non-dominant groups can be trendy, but we think of men and whiteness and straightness as, like, eternal… And of course that’s fake, right? Like, that’s not real: men, and white, and straight, and cis, and all those things… are not neutral, but we think of them as neutral.
> —Carmen Maria Machado, author, Her Body and Other Parties
Here’s what we cover:
Plus: why city snobbery is bullshit, the incredible joys and health benefits of naps (seriously, just thinking about a nap can even lower your blood pressure)—and why y’all should just visit Philly already.Sponsors
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Jenn Lukas Hi! And welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
KL I’m Katel LeDû.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Today on No, You Go we’re talking with one of my favorite authors, Carmen Maria Machado. This first book of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was just listed as one of 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century by the New York Times. Like, seriously. Carmen’s also a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, which means she lives right here in Philly. And that got me thinking a lot about place. You know, like in a lot of industries we sort of expect people who are ambitious to live in a specific location. Like, you’re a writer, gotta move to New York! Oh you’re in tech? Well why aren’t you in San Francisco? But, like, Philly is great. There’s so much amazing stuff happening here, and I wish more people knew that.
JL Ugh! I love Philadelphia. You should see the Philadelphia tattoo I have across my abs. Just kidding [all laughing].
KL I was like, “What?!? Show me!!!”
SWB My god.
JL But I do in spirit. In spirit it’s there. Just, uh, just Ben Franklin hanging out [KL chuckles] eating a—Ben Franklin eating a pretzel right on my bicep.
KL Love it. Very on brand [laughs].
SWB Can we all get like matching Ben Franklin eating a pretzel tattoos?
KL Or just like a Liberty Bell? Something small, tasteful.
SWB What do you love so much about Philly, Jenn?
JL Ugh. I’ve been in Philadelphia for… woah. 18 years?
JL How’d that happen?
SWB Like your whole adult life!
JL Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. And at first I didn’t love Philadelphia. I came here from Boston and I was just like, “Why—what am I doing still in the cold?” I guess is what I was thinking. And, I don’t know, I felt like there’s just something that wasn’t great and then within like two years it just grew on me. I loved that it’s flat, it’s cheap, and it’s got a lot of great people, and so much good food. But it’s got that—Philadelphia has this interesting thing in that uh it has like, people will say like this inferiority complex of a city of where, you know, we’re between DC, New York, Boston, and always something to prove. I feel like there’s a lot of that which I think has led to a lot of great innovation. A lot of people just like building lots of stuff to be like, “No, look! Look at all this amazing things that like that we have here.” I had the chance once to work for visitphilly.com website, which was probably one of the best projects I ever worked on because there was just having a chance every day to come in and work on something that showcased our fine city. And I think it’s so important to have pride in where you live, because it’s where you [chuckles] spend your time.
KL I feel like—I lived in New York for five years of my life, like my late twenties, and I loved it, it was great. And coming from DC it was sort of like I got the sense that people were kind of like, “Oh, you finally moved to like a real city,” which totally felt like not at all. And then when I got back to DC after living in New York, people were kind of like, “Why would you ever leave New York?” And there are, you know, personally a lot—a million reasons why I left New York. I feel like it’s odd to get that reaction depending on where you live. And when I was in DC for that second time, I was working at National Geographic. So when I told people where I worked they were like, “Oh! Well that’s amazing.” And I’m like, “Yeah. That’s where HQ is. It’s in DC.” Like—
SWB I think one of the things that’s so frustrating to me about talking places is that—is that kind of reaction that you’re talking about, that like, “Oh! You live there!?” I remember this one time I was having brunch with a friend of a friend in New York, we were in Brooklyn, and she—this woman, I didn’t know her very well, she asked me where I lived, and I said I lived in Philly, and she goes, “Oh Philly? Well, it’s a good starter city for New York.” And I looked at her and I was just like, I just like dead-eyed her, and I was like, “Or it’s a place that people live by choice?” It was so—it was just like one of those throwaway comments for her, because in her head, her assumption was like basically everybody was just trying to move to New York, and, like, you would only live somewhere else if you like couldn’t make it in New York or whatever. And I’m like, “I don’t want to live in New York.” I like New York. It’s fine. But I—what I think is—is important to remember and I think about this a lot for the podcast is like there are people doing awesome shit literally everywhere, and one of the things that we can do is do a better job of seeking that out. You know? Finding folks in all kinds of places. Like, way back I think in our second episode we talked to Eileen Webb who lives in northern New Hampshire and is doing all of this awesome work on accessibility, and strategy, and the web, and like… she lives on a farm. And like why not? Why the hell not? Why can’t we look at people doing great stuff everywhere.
SWB [Continued] So that brings me back to something that I loved about talking with Carmen, who is doing this amazing work as an author and becoming like straight up a famous writer. And she’s right here in Philly! And I suspect in like all kinds of cities out there you would find people who are just like top of their game in their fields, working from all kinds of unexpected places.
JL And not just cities. I mean more rural areas, towns, I think one of the things that we always have to keep in mind that we do here is that there’s things about Philly that I love, obviously, and then there’s things about Philly that I don’t like, and that’s true of any place. And so I think the trick is finding that balance of someplace that you really like to be that helps you be the best you.
KL Thinking about the idea of a “starter city” assumes that, you know, everyone has the same resources or lifestyle that would allow you to just like move wherever you want to go and move to, you know, a really potentially expensive city or place that, you know, you might just not have the resources that kind of work in that area that you can—that you can really have access to. So, I don’t know, I think it’s—I want to pay more attention to, like Sara said, you know, the work that people are doing that aren’t on the coasts or aren’t, in the places that we know are networks and all of our friends are. I think it’s kinda cool that we start looking at that.
SWB Well, with that, can we go ahead and get to the interview because I am super hyped to have everybody listen to this interview with Carmen.
KL Agh! I can’t wait [music fades in, ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, ramps down].
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SWB Over a year ago I read this amazing essay in Guernica called “The Trash Heap Has Spoken” about women refuse to apologize for taking up space. “Fat woman with fat minds”, as the author, Carmen Maria Machado, put it. It was a gorgeous essay and it’s one that I actually still think about all the time. So when her book came out last year I devoured it immediately. Fast forward just a few months and Her Body and Other Parties, a book of stories that defy genre, that are fantastical, and erotic, and queer, and just were really captivating to me, has been awarded about a zillion prizes. It’s been a bestseller, it was a finalist for the National Book Award, and somehow, despite all of that huge success, we still managed to get Carmen Maria Machado here to be interviewed on No, You Go. And literally she is here today. She is in our studio, also known as my office in south Philadelphia, and I am extremely excited to chat with her and also a little bit nervous [laughter]. Carmen, welcome to No, You Go.
Carmen Maria Machado Thank you for having me.
SWB So, first up, ok, after I read that essay in Guernica I found out that you went to college with a friend of the show, Lara Hogan. And she said that you did photography together. So, first up, like when did you start pursuing writing as a career, and sort of what was that path for you?
CMM Yeah! Well, I’ve always sort of—I’ve been a writer or a person who writes, or sort of organizes her mind around writing, for my entire life. I’ve been that way since I was a kid. Um and when I got to college I thought to my—like I wanted to be a journalist, that was sort of my way out. Like, “Oh, I’ll have health insurance and also, you know, have a job, and like be a writer.” And of course this was like 2004, I got to school, I started journalism classes and I did not like them. I was like, “This is not me, I don’t like—I do not have a nose for news. I don’t like hunting news stories. I don’t like talking to people on the phone.” Like all of these things that would be required of me as a journalist are things that just bore me or make me too anxious, and I don’t want to do it, even though I like writing. So I sort of moved around, I switched majors a few times. I was like lit for a hot second, and then I switched to something else, and then finally I took a photography class and I absolutely loved, and so I ended up getting like an independent study major where I sort of combined a lot of things including writing and photography and fine arts, where I met Lara. And so, yeah, so then like I had this idea of like being a photographer [smacks lips] that did not last for long [laughs] but I’ve never supported myself doing it. I worked all kinds of jobs [chuckles] um it’s just never been a thing that really like worked out for me. So I have a really nice Instagram account. That’s like the way that my student loans that I’m still paying off [laughing] that’s what they’re still going towards is a really well curated Instagram account and that’s about it. And then after school I was living in California, just sort of working some random jobs, and it wasn’t until I went to grad school which would’ve been in 2010 that I really started thinking about writing as a career, and as a thing that I could pursue sort of more professionally.
SWB And you were in grad school in Iowa, right?
CMM Yes. Mm hmm.
SWB What was that experience because it’s a pretty intense program, right?
CMM Yeah I mean it’s the—so it’s the oldest program in the country which is sort of where it gets its reputation from. Um, you know, there’s a lot of really wonderful who’ve gone there. Uh I had a really good time. It was really nice to be able to go to a program that was funded, that I was able to just like write, and like not have to worry about work, and not have to worry about anything else. Like I was just—I had to do a little bit of teaching which also was nice because then I discovered that I really liked teaching um which before I did not realize.
SWB Speaking of teaching [mm hmm], I saw that after grad school you had ended up kind of back in the Philly area, adjuncting uh while also working at the mall, and—and I’m curious like when do you feel like it all started to come together for you, career wise?
CMM That’s a really good question. I mean it sort of happened in stages. So while I was in grad school, I— through a friend I met my now wife and we were dating long distance and decided after I was finished that we wanted to move in together wherever we would live. So she was living in Boston at the time, I was living in Iowa City, and we decided to do—to come to Philadelphia because it was like an affordable city we could live in and we had both—she had lived here before, I had never had but I grew up in Allentown. So not too far away. So yeah so we got here and in the beginning I mean, yeah, I was really struggling. Like she was working full-time and was more or less supporting us. I was, you know, adjuncting and working a retail job, and making like barely anything. I was really struggling. Yeah, I was going to King of Prussia mall… I was driving back and forth every week. And it was horrible. And I was very stressed out and sad and was, you know, sort of plugging away at some work, and was just writing some stories and, I don’t know, feeling like maybe I had made a mistake, or maybe like writing wasn’t in the cards for me professionally. And… it was really hard to write because I was physically exhausted all the time, just from the—from standing like teaching, you know, it is exhausting in its own way but like with working at the mall, I was just like on my feet all day, I was driving really really far back and forth and I was exhausted. So um at some point I applied for a writing residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts which is up in upstate New York and I got in for a session. So I quit my job, went there for a month, and like wrote a bunch of stuff. And that actually got me [smacks lips] back in this really nice headspace where I suddenly found myself able to be like, “I have a whole book here, and I can just kind of get it all pulled together.” And so I had written this story called “The Husband Stitch,” which is probably my most famous short story. I have a friend—someone has called it my hit single [laughter and laughing:] Like it is kind of like my hit single. It’s like the story people usually know of mine and so, yeah, and I had an agent at this point, and I sent it to him, and he submitted it to magazines and Granta ended up picking it up. And putting it on their website. And so that became—that was sort of like the trying point for me because that story did really well, people really responded to it, because it was online people were able to share it, and there was like a lot of sort of movement around that story. And, in fact, I believe last year they told me it was still their most read story at their website. But even though it’s three years old. Like it’s been out for three years but like, they were like, “Oh yeah, no, like there’s just a ton of traffic to that story. It’s like—it’s like a really highly trafficked page on the site.” So um so yeah so that was sort of the moment, like once I had that, and then I started putting together this collection and then, yeah, in about a year. So that would’ve been in 2014, so then I sold the book in 2015. Like in the fall.
CMM [Continued] So yeah and then once that happened and then I started—and then got like this offer at Penn where I’m now the Writer in Residence. So I suddenly had a teaching job where I had like health insurance. And like [laughs] a living salary [laughs], and like all these other things. Um and that was pretty awesome. So… so yeah. So that’s—it just ended up sort of working out nicely where that became like the place where my career sort of turned, and people started to pay attention, and sort of knew who I was, and everything has sort of followed from there.
SWB And I think for listeners who don’t know about the adjunct teaching market, it’s a, I don’t know, exploitative nightmare. I would say [chuckles]. So like if you’re curious what the difference is between adjuncting and having a fellowship at Penn where you have benefits, it’s like night and day. A lot of adjuncts are contingent faculty and it’s like a couple thousand dollars a semester to teach a course, and you end up making, I don’t know, probably less than minimum wage at a lot of places?
CMM Oh—oh absolutely! Absolutely you’re making less than that, because like you usually have office hours, and all the grading, everything you do outside of class, and prepping for class. Yeah, no, it’s actually really bad. And it’s funny because I think sometimes students—I’ll ask occasionally like see if students have a sense of what adjuncts—like who they are or what their situation is, and even now they really don’t. And, you know, when I was in college I also did not understand what adjuncts were. Like I had adjuncts and I didn’t realize it because like to a student it’s like, “Oh you’re my teacher! Like what’s the difference?” Well it’s like, oh the difference is huge. Like adjuncts are, you know, often like broke as hell, like they’re getting food stamps and they can like barely make ends meet. So, yeah, it’s like really—it’s one of those—you know it’s a labor issue that’s like getting a lot of traction and like in Philadelphia they’re actually like the—there’s an adjunct union that’s been um unionizing various schools and they’ve been actually pretty successful which is pretty awesome but, yeah, it’s a bad situation for sure.
SWB And I’m curious like you mentioned that you really loved teaching and was it difficult to balance out this feeling of like loving teaching but knowing that you’re doing it in this like kind of exploitative environment where you—you can’t actually make a living off of it?
CMM Yeah, I mean I think the hardest thing for me was that I couldn’t be there for my students in the way I wanted to be because I was just—it was just unpaid labor. So like… you know like I would grade, and I would do workshops, and I would prep lectures, and I would all this stuff, but then like if a student wanted like more feedback on something, like I wasn’t getting paid for that, you know? And so I had to say no to things. And the students didn’t understand, and some of them would be like, “Well, why can’t you do that thing for me? Like you’re my teacher.” And I was like, “Well, in normal circumstances, yes, certainly, like you know?” Yes, as a teacher, like for example if a student come to you for like a letter of recommendation or something like that—that’s part of the process, right? Of being a teacher. Is being like, “Yes, like I am at least open to the idea of writing a letter of recommendation,” for example. Um or like, “Talking to you, you know, within the semester about certain things.” Um but when you’re an adjunct like all bets are off because you’re not making any—You’re making, yeah, 3,000 dollars a class. Right? So it’s like what are you supposed to do? Like how are you supposed to like value and manage your time? That part is really, really hard and—and when students don’t understand that—and you can’t just say like, “Oh, by the way, like I’m an adjunct. Like your school does not care enough to like pay me a living wage and you need to take that up with them. It has nothing to do with me.” You know? Um so I think it’s a combination of like just because students don’t know um and then yeah, and then just like trying to decide like where do you value your time, you know, if you’re a good teacher like you want to be there for your students. Like you want to be able to help them during the semester in the way that you can but yeah like when you’re not making money or—I’m just giving them free time. Like I’m not… you know I’m not doing—So yeah it’s a bad, it’s a really bad situation.
SWB Well, so your situation has changed pretty [chuckles][yeah] dramatically since then and I would like to talk about that. So, in addition to be being a National Book Award Finalist which I like to say over and over again because I think it’s fucking awesome [laughter]. Um you were just called part of “the New Vanguard” by the New York Times… uh what’s—what’s that like?
CMM [Chuckles] That—well that was shock—that I was—I mean nothing that’s happened to me have I—have I expected any of it. Like if you told me like, “Oh, your weird, genre-bending short story collection that’s going to be out from an independent press is going to like do just crazily well in every respect.” I would’ve never ever ever, in a million years, I would’ve been like, “You’re crazy. That’s ridiculous. There’s no way.” Um but yeah everything that’s been happening and then, yeah, that New York Times piece where they were sort of talking about like women writers of the 21st century who have like—who are sort of showing us how we read and write—like and that my book being one of those 15 books is just completely unbelievable [chuckles]. Um—
SWB So, I mean when that happens, I assume you also have a lot of sudden like demands on your time and attention. How do you negotiate that? Like how do you figure out what you’re gonna say yes to?
CMM Oh, that’s a really good question. I mean you have to, like I’m learning to be more protective of my time. The thing is that what’s weird in the beginning was that, you know, I wasn’t sure how the book was gonna do and so I said yes to everything. And then at some point you have to—right, decided like I’m not going to do this, or I’m not going to do this. And I was lucky that my wife is actually very—she’s brilliant. And very, very good at knowing all my weak spots. So, for example, this spring, she made me build in three weekends where like I was not allowed to schedule anything and it was just weekends that I have off. And at the time, I was like very grouchy about that. I was like, “Oh I don’t want to do that.” But I’m so grateful that she did that because now there are weekends where I’m like, “I don’t have do anything. I can just— I can just relax. I can do laundry!” Right. I can just like do what I have to do.
SWB You can have a weekend.
CMM I can have a weekend!
SWB That’s called a weekend.
CMM Right, yeah, it’s called a weekend. Right [laughter], where I’m not traveling. But I’ve been traveling. Except for those weekends, I’ve traveled every single weekend for the last like six months. Like I’ve just been—you know, so it’s—it’s—it’s hard. And I think it’s also like remembering, right? Like it’s ok that right now I’m doing that, but then like knowing that this summer I’m going to a residency and I’m gonna go back to working because like I haven’t been writing and that’s been making me really sad. So like knowing that I have that on the horizon, you know, saying no to things. Like saying, you know, and like I sort of have a set of criteria so if I get asked to do something. It’s like, you know, do I know the person whose asking me? Is it something that I really want to do? Like I’m like, “Oh I want to be with that publication, or I want to—” You know there’s like a reason. Sometimes I think it’s just—it fun. Where it’s like, “Ooh that sounds really cool. Yeah I do want to try that.” Um so right now I’m judging this cookbook contest for Food52 and they like asked me to do it and I was like, “That’s so weird! Yes! I do want to do that!” [Laughter] Because like [laughs] I love cooking, and like they’re like, “We’ll send you these cookbooks and you can cook from them.” And there’s like a tournament—it’s like a tournament of cookbooks or whatever. And I was like, “Yeah! Yeah I do want to do that. That’s so weird.” So like I’ll say yes to that sort of thing. So it just becomes a matter of like figuring out what my priorities are, like, you know, so I sort of run every opportunity through like a little set of filters where I’m like, “Does it have this? Does it have this? Does it have this?” And I’ll say yes or no.
SWB Yes I’ve had those periods. I mean I travel a lot for work things and conferences and book things and it’s like… I’m mostly pretty good at it, and then I realize, I’m like, “Oh no. I have limits.” And like I need to remember them. I used to do things like book those like multi-stop trips. Like [yeah] three stops [yeah yeah yeah] and then I realized like, I’m fucking miserable every time I do it and it was like, “What if you just didn’t do that anymore?” [Right, right] “What if you just said no to things that would require that?” And I found that—that was like when you talk about finding criteria and stuff it’s like, oh, notice those patterns. Like, “what are the patterns that are making you unhappy?” and getting rid of them.
CMM Yeah, or like I had someone once tell me like, “You should never do anything where the amount of money you’re being paid to do it, you’re not excited to go.” So like if you are like—if you’re like, “I don’t want to get on a plane, go to this place, do all this work, get uh go on a plane back, lose a weekend, and it’s for like 500 bucks or whatever.” Like you know like learning what is it that you actually want. Um what is worth it to you to like get out of the house or like and like leave your loved ones, and like get a on a fucking airplane which is like it’s fucking hell, [laughter and laughing] you know?
SWB Yeah, I mean I also feel like um I definitely will say yes to things sometimes. I—I don’t do this anymore, but I used to have this problem where I would say yes to something and like, as I was writing the email saying yes, I had that like tight knot in my stomach—
CMM Yeah, you’re like, “I don’t want to do this.”
SWB Where yeah, like deep down [yeah] I didn’t actually want to say yes. And so now I try to be way more aware and like also let those emails sit a little longer.
CMM Yes! Yeah this is also a thing I’ve noticed is, right, if I like—if I like don’t answer it right away, and also like it—I sort of went through this phase where I felt a little guilty about this but I said yes to some things and then I actually thought about it and then I wrote them back and I’d write them back and I’d be like, “You know I’m so sorry. Like I know I agreed to do this yesterday but I’ve been thinking about it more and I think I actually don’t have the time.” And I did that—I did that earlier this year and I was so—I almost like cried from relief and she was—and the person was super nice about it. They were like, “Don’t even worry about it. Like you’re obviously so busy. It’s totally fine.” And then I was like so happy, I was like [cries out], “Oh I’m free! Free!” Like I could’ve been stressing about this for two weeks and instead I just like said, “Nope, actually I can’t do it. Sorry.” Uh—
KL And that feeling of relief is such a huge [chuckles][right! Right!] And it’s not like—it’s not like you’re waiting until the day before this thing [right, right, exactly, exactly] is going on, it’s like you are, you know, you’re—you’re paying attention to it and you’re like, “Ok, I need to just take this—remove this from my plate and my future for, you know, whatever reasons. And that’s ok.”
SWB There’s also like just the incredible unmatched joy of canceling plans [laughter]. So good. But yeah so I read a book review the other day of yours for Danielle Lazarin’s Backtalk [mm hmm] and I would love to talk about it a little bit because in there you know you talk about how it explores the “exhausting, slow poison of masculine power, the grind of the patriarchy on even the most privileged of women,” and you pose kind of a question in there, like, “How do writers divest themselves from the pressures of the dominant culture while also addressing the burdensome weight of that dominant culture?” And I think that piece and your—your Guernica essay last year, all of those things are sort of like attempting to wrangle with internalized misogyny, on some level, um and that’s something I feel like is sort of cropping up a—a good bit among feminist writers. So I’m wondering if you could talk more about that. Like, I feel like in that article you started to… you started to answer that question a little bit of like, “How do we divest ourselves of” that internalized misogyny is like… “Don’t be pleasant or easy to teach. Look mean for the camera. Just get up and go.” What does that look like? Like how do you get up and go?
CMM Ugh! That’s a really huge question. I mean I think [sighs] this is the—it’s so funny I feel like there’s this, right? This idea about like you become more conservative as you get older. And I think that’s a really weird idea because I feel like every woman I know gets more and more radical the older they get because it’s like the world—the bullshit of being a woman in today’s culture, or in any culture, or any time, or whatever, is so awful that like just the longer you’re alive, the more radical you become. So I feel like I’m way more radical in terms of like my thoughts about gender than I was like ten years ago which is amazing to me, and I think is sort of the opposite of what most people would expect. Yeah so I mean I think—yeah I think right now this topic of internalized misogyny and like I—I talk about in that essay like Claire Vaye Watkins essay “On Pandering,” and I also talk about “Cat Person” the—that story in The New Yorker. All of which also deal with concept of like internalized misogyny. So like I think what’s really interesting is that right now I have a lot of thoughts about like Hillary Clinton—like I feel—I feel like there’s like a lot of… what’s in the air right now is—is like post this election and like regardless of how you feel about… Bernie Sanders or Hillary specifically, I think we can all agree like the way that misogyny played out on this really massive scale during the election was like really traumatic for women. And I think we actually have not fully addressed that trauma and I think we just went to pure panic mode because, like Trump is president and suddenly like, you know, we just gotta get past it. But like I think there’s something about… like people talk about like women—like white women voting for Trump and I think it—that is interesting not just because obviously like it’s this way in which like race—like race alliances, racism sort of trump, no pun intended, this like gender element. And the way in which women loathe themselves so deeply, on this like deep sort of cultural level, right, that like even though Hillary Clinton is like the most privileged woman probably to ever walk the fucking planet [laughter]. That she couldn’t win that election against this like incompetent, blowhard, like caricature of a sexist guy from like an ’80s cartoon. Like that to me is just an illustration of like how broken it is. Again, regardless of how you think about her specifically. And I think that like “Cat Person” is another really good example of that, in terms of that story, like where it’s all about like… it’s like, again, not about rape exactly but it’s about like what does it mean that like women—it’s like easier to have sex with a man that you’re not really that into than to like say no and walk away… because it is! And like I have been there. I have personally been there. Where it’s like [absolutely!], “I don’t want to do this.” And most women I know have been there where there like, “I really don’t want to do this but I’d rather like just not have to deal with not saying no.” And literally like that Stormy Daniels interview, I don’t know if you guys have watched it but like—
SWB I specifically did not watch it but I read about it later. But yeah that’s kinda the story too, right, it’s like, [crosstalk] “Well, I might as well do this ’cause…”
CMM He’s like, “Were you attracted to him?” And she was like, “Oh no!” It’s just like [laughs] and then she was like—and then he was like, “Well, why’d you do it?” And she’s like, “Well I found myself like, ‘Here I am, like I’m stupid enough to get into his room like I might as well just like do this.’” And it’s the same like absolute like res—where it’s like ugh the resolve. It’s like, “I can’t fight this anymore. Like it just is what it is. It’s easier to have sex with this totally odious man than it to like just get out of here because he could do god knows what.” And so I feel like there’s something about that that’s really interesting and I feel like the Claire Vaye Watkins essay, again, dealing with with this idea of like women trying to align themselves with men which I think is also like a massive problem that we don’t really talk about a lot. And I feel like this narrative of sort of like, you know, women being like, “I’m just one of the guys!” I’m like I knew a woman like that in college, it was this woman who like that was literally like she was just like, “I’m just one of the dudes! Like I don’t know nuh nuh nuh,” and it always struck me as like deeply, profoundly sad and I feel like it—the more I sort of live like the more I’m like, “God! That’s the [yells] saddest, worst thing!” Um so, you know, like feminis—femininity and femaleness is so odious to somebody that they would just be like, “I reject that. Women are—” She was like, “Women are just drama queens. I rather like align myself with men.” And even queer women align themselves with like male power, so that women who aren’t even attracted to men necessarily being like, “Oh I need to like align myself in that way.” And so that to me is really interesting and I think that there’s something in there that we’re—we’re coming to this like… I don’t know if it’ll actually be a catharsis but I feel like [mm hmm]—we’re sort of—this is like sort of what’s in the air right now and I feel like we’re arriving in this place where we’re having to reckon with like… again, like not just like this cartoonish like male villainy that’s so—The problem is that like Trump is like… cartoonish male villainy, but what’s actually way worse is like, again, this slow, almost invisible grind, and the ways in which women then within themselves reinforce that, even when the, sort of, the power’s not directly not on them in that moment [mm hmm]. And I feel like that is something that we like need to figure out. And I don’t know if we will, I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s something that is—is very interesting to me as a writer and so it’s like what I write about and so of course that book—that essay—you know, writing that review gave me a little space to like talk about that because it was—I was like, “Oh this is exactly what this book is about so like [mm hmm]. Here, I’m also gonna like talk about this idea that I have.”
SWB Yeah I mean I feel like this comes up in all kinds of fields. I mean I definitely know early in my career I… spent a lot of time hanging out with the dudes in my office because the dudes in my office were like in positions of more power, oftentimes. And they were fun! They were nice. I mean they were—they were in lots of ways great people but I definitely had a couple of years in there where it was almost like I set aside a lot of the more… like overt feminist work that I had done prior to that and was like, “I’m kinda—I’m here to, you know, get shit done and move up and make space for myself and, you know, I’ll do that by fitting in at—for a round of beers with these dudes.” And I couldn’t really see it that way at the time. Like I could not have explained that was what I was doing but looking back it’s like that was definitely what I was doing. And there came this moment where I was just like, “I don’t fucking want to.” And then I realized is that over the past several years, I mean definitely since the election but even before that, I was going through a process of sort of like… reevaluating the men in my life [mm hmm]. Um like I have a husband. I love him. His great [laughter]. Still in my life. He stayed. Um but like I definitely cut out a lot of people who I thought I was like “supposed to” like [mm hmm], or people who were “important” in my field, or whatever. Right? Like I was just like, “Oh. Is this actually bringing me anything in my life?”
CMM And I do think that’s also—I think that’s part of getting older. I do feel like as you get older you’re like, “Well life is short, I will die one day [chuckling in background], I need—I can’t like waste time on people who are like making me miserable or like don’t—or don’t—you know they don’t, not that you like, not in like a self-serving way where you’ll like, ‘Only people who can help me,’ but like just being like, ‘No, like that person doesn’t give me any joy. That person like makes me feel bad about myself.’” You know, whoever. Like I want to—but then yeah, there’s this element also of like my tolerance for like, male masculine bullshit is like this big. People who are listening, you can’t see. I’m making a very tiny little notch [chuckling in background] with my fingers. It’s like almost nothing because I’m just like, “I can’t. I don’t have time for your weird shit.” [Laughter] Like, I don’t want to deal with that. I gotta live my life. I gotta make art. I got a life. But I—but I crave the company of other women. And I mean I’m queer but also like I just crave like… I think women are more interesting [laughs]. I think women are just more interesting and I feel like the—yeah, it’s like I don’t have to explain myself to women [yes]. I don’t have to explain… we just know.
KL Yeah, you don’t have to explain about being or existing in—in [right]—in small facets of [right]—of ways that like seem like they should be obvious but [yeah].
SWB Right. Like when you’re like, “Well, you know, sometimes you just had sex with somebody because it was easier than leaving.” And everybody’s just like [crosstalk and laughter], “Oh yeah—I get it.”
CMM [Inaudible][Laughter]—no man. Almost no—well, I’m sure some men. But almost [sure]. Probably a very tiny percentage but every woman knows what that’s like, every single woman. It’s like, “Oh yeah,” where you’re like, “I’d rather—I don’t know what this—I don’t know this guy, I don’t know what he’ll do if I say no.” Or having to deal with like the whining and the inevitable like bullshit that’s gonna come with me saying no is just like easier for me to just like have sex and then like go away. So like that, right, well woman know that and—and I think it’s really nice to have that um and I think what’s really nice about what’s happening sort of in terms of art and writing right now is like you are getting a lot of these narratives are sort of being presented um like well before like “Cat Person” and like all these other stuff that’s been in the last couple of years. There was this really amazing piece I want to say in Buzzfeed maybe like two or three years ago that was also about this idea where it’s like not rape… but it’s like what about this exact phenomenon where it’s like it’s not rape, it’s not sexual assault, like you consent, technically, but you’re consenting because of this like larger power structure that like is totally out of your control and like, all things being equal, you would say no but like you just don’t want to deal with—You know so it’s like I’ve—this is like a thing that’s just in the air and I think we’re just like thinking about it a lot.
SWB Well I think that there’s kind of a lot of stuff in the air right, you know, you touched on some of it and one of the things that—that seems to be like definitely in the air is just I mean women’s stories are—are selling now. Like in a way that, I don’t know, maybe they probably never had the opportunity to before, they probably [chuckles] would’ve sold if they had been out there in the world [mm hmm] but I feel like there’s—there’s suddenly a lot more space? I’m not sure if that’s the way right way to look at it though but I feel like there’s um so many more women authors from all kinds of backgrounds who are like getting a lot of attention and who are kind of becoming, well like “the new vanguard” or whatever, right? Like there’s like—there’s—there’s sort of an appetite for that and a—and a—more of a, I don’t know, there’s an appetite for it which maybe was always there but there’s maybe more of a willingness to publish it and more of a willingness to promote it?
CMM Yeah I mean it—I feel like it’s sort of actually a bunch of different things, like I mean on one hand, not to be um, not to be cynical, but like feminism is a brand that sells. Like there is a sort of level of like… it is accept—it is a thing that is acceptable… for like companies to make money on, you know? And like so the reason, for example, that we’re seeing like so many like gay st—we’re seeing more like gay stories and more feminist stories is because right now, we’re in a place where that sort of thing is permissible and is even, like, profitable. But I don’t think that necessarily means that like, it—I don’t know if that’s as much as changing, it’s just like technology’s permitting this, certain sort of independent groups but there’s like just sort of weird little pockets that like are permitting it, and so it is like happening, but I don’t necessarily know if that means that like it’s different now, “everything’s better,” like I don’t—I don’t actually know if that’s the case. I’m also very cynical about all this.
SWB And I wonder, right, like I wonder if there’s a moment where people are like, “Oooh! We can—if we buy this book, right, like if we buy this author’s work, we think that’s gonna sell because it’s going to fit into this like group of like [totally] women of color writers who’ve sold well in previous years.” That’s a moment. That may not be a change that lasts.
CMM Right. The problem is that we think, and by we I just mean like culture. We think of like, minority—the art of non-dominant groups can be trendy, but we think of men and whiteness and straightness as, like, eternal and not trendy, and just like that is—that is the natural baseline, and anything else is like a trend. So like publishing—and publishing and other sorts of art forms—might follow those trends, but ultimately we will always return to this baseline. And of course that’s fake, right? Like, that’s not real: men, and white, and straight, and cis, and all those things are not like—are not neutral, but we think of them as neutral. So I feel like, yeah, I feel like we’re in this place where like, you know, there are these like spikes, but it’s because of this trendiness that—but it doesn’t mean that’s gonna be that way forever, right? So until we re-conceive of what is neutral, like, what is the center? And if we keep thinking of maleness and whiteness, et cetera, et cetera as the center, then we’re gonna keep like cycling back to that, you know? And so I think there’s like a different way to conceive of it that is like—but again, that’s about divesting. That’s about, like, rejecting the structure altogether, of everything, which is like really different than just being like, “Rah rah!” Like, “yay!” Like it’s actually more about like pulling everything out from the roots and like starting again, and how do we that? And I don’t know. Look, I don’t know how we do that. I think that’s like a big question and I think um… you know, we’ll see.
SWB Yeah. If—if the question is basically like, ok, well if we redefine what neutral is or like sort of what—what normal is and we cannot do that unless we can deal with our internalized misogyny. [Right] Right? And so it’s like, ok, well then how do we deal with that? And that’s such a huge question. Then—then, you know, it’s like—it’s a long haul to get back around to like, ok then what—what—what does the world look like after that [right] and like who the hell knows. But I’m—I’m curious: what has that meant in your personal work in your life? So, like, how did you get to a place where you felt like you had the confidence to show up with, you know, your, I’ll use your quote from earlier, with your “fat mind,” [chuckling in background and chuckles] and like and to say like, “I’m here and I’m going to take up space and I’m going to tell the stories that I want to tell, and I’m going to do them in these genres that don’t—that haven’t really been recognized, or I’m going to take genre and I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I want with it.” Like how did you get to a place where you felt like that was something that you could do?
CMM I wish I could say that it was all internal because certainly part of the process is like, being like, “I am going to do this thing.” Part of it was actually—but part—a lot of it was other people, you know? I was lucky in that like I had like my girlfriend slash wife who’s like brilliant and I trust and love, like being like, “This is really awesome. This is really different.” There were other people in my life like really encouraging me and like, you know, readers who read my work and wrote to me and, you know, so there were like these other sort of forces working. And then at some point I—I feel like I was looking at what I was doing and I was like, “I have something to say.” And, you know, the interesting thing about being like a writer or being any kind of artist is like you have to have an ego. Because, you know, you have to say like, “What I’m creating is important enough that I think other people should pay for it, should read it. It should be published, or it should be presented,” or whatever, and like that requires an amount of ego where you’re like, “I think that what I have to say is that important.” Um and I think sometimes people forget that element of it or they—or they—they’re like, “Oh like this person is so arrogant,” or whatever but it’s like no, no, you have to believe that, or else why the fuck are you writing? What’s the point? Or why are you making whatever art? So at some point I had to be like, “Yes, like I’m really good at this. I’m gonna—I’m gonna do it and I’m just gonna make this happen.” And that felt really amazing, and it felt really—and it felt right. And now—so it’s like I had to get over this hump, and then at some point, like obviously like the books are doing really well and I was like, “Ok so I wasn’t—” But even the book hadn’t done well I think I still would’ve felt that way like, “I’m good at what I do.” Like I know that I’m good at—I’m not good at a lot of things. Like, you know, I can’t draw to save my life. Like, you know, I’m really bad at dancing, like I’m not a fast runner, when I paint walls it’s always really crooked, like there I do not have a lot of skills but I know that I’m a good writer. And that—I can say that and like I know that’s true. And I would never—you know, I don’t ever say things like I, yeah, I would never claim to be anything that I’m not and like—but I know I’m a good writer. And I have that. I have that. And so… I can sort of move forward that and that’s like in my arsenal of like getting through my life and like getting through everything um and knowing that and believing that. So… yeah. I don’t know. So I think it is like—it’s, yeah, it’s partially like sort of taking from other people what they are handing to you because I think oftentimes people will say to you like, “You’re really good at this thing.” And you want to be like—especially women want to be like, [uptalking:] “No, no, no. Like I’m not—I’m not—oh, oh, you know, like I—thank you. I’m just doing what I do.” You know? And it’s like you want to—because you’re trained to like minimize yourself in that way and it’s like—it’s like saying, “Oh thank you, I worked really hard on that. So thanks so much. I really appreciate it.” And it can be scary and also for me like I get really scared when I have to admit like—Like, for example, like right now I’m working on this new book and I’m really scared that I’m not smart enough to write it and that’s really hard to admit. Because it’s like, oh my god, like, what if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew? Like what if, you know? And so now I’ve gotta like rapidly make myself the kind of writer who can get through this project, and that’s like a very terrifying challenge. But also, that’s how I know I’m getting better, because I’m like pushing myself through like these new stages of—of art and of—you know, and I read my book—my book came out in October. When I read it I’m like, “I’m already a better writer than I was when I wrote this book.” And that’s really exciting too, being like, “Oh no, like I, you know, I’m already better.” … Like I’m already sick of reading from it because I’m like, “Oh I can do better than this,” you know? [Laughs] So yeah so I feel like it’s like taking what people give you… sort of, you know, challenging yourself and pushing yourself and, you know, knowing what you’re good at, and I think also like a lot of that in—involves like being bad at things. Like, I don’t know, my dad is a chemical engineer and the poor man was trying to get me to be a scientist for like my entire life and of course I like at every turn just resisted him in [chuckles] in every way [chuckling in background].
CMM [Continued] And I’m ba—I’m not good at math, I’m not good at, you know? [Laughs] You know like I’m not good at any of that stuff. Um but I do remember like getting I think a C in chemistry in high school and I had like a—I had like a conniption, like I was having like a nervous breakdown, and my dad was like, “Look,” he said, “Ye—did you do your best?” And I said, “I did!” Like I was going to school, I was like. He’s like, “That’s all you can do. It’s ok. You don’t—you’re not good—no one’s—no one’s good at everything.” He’s like, “I never trust people who have like straight As in absolutely everything because it’s like… it’s like you’ve gotta fail, you’ve gotta,” well he didn’t say—he didn’t say “fuck up” but I would say you gotta fuck up sometimes. You gotta be like, “I’m gonna try this thing, maybe I’ll get a little better, maybe not. Like, I’m—but also I can do this.” Or, “This thing gives me pleasure, I’m gonna do it anyway.” And I feel like there’s this way of just like figuring out like, yeah, like how you occupy your space and like being ok with bad at things and also being comfortable with being good at something and men are good at both those things. Men are really good at being like super confident in everything that they’re doing and also like fucking up royally at the same time.
SWB And they just move on!
CMM They’re just going on! Right! And like women are just like, “Aaaaaah!” [Laughter in background] And I feel like it’s like because we’re just taught to do that, we’re taught to like [inaudible crosstalk] freak out and agonize at every turn. And it’s like you don’t have to live your life that way. That’s like a prison. That’s fake. So, yeah, so I don’t know, and this is all stuff that I’ve only realized in the last like few years of my life, you know? And so there’s something really freeing about that.
SWB I love it so much.
CMM I’m so glad [laughs].
SWB I love it so much because, you know, we talk about this a lot on the show. This sort of like… having other—like when other people come to you and tell you you’re doing great, and like how important it is to actually listen to them and take that seriously because it’s so easy to brush it off and, again, like to come back to what—what I mentioned at the beginning, like, to reduce your own successes to luck, right? [Yeah] And to like, “Oh yeah I wasn’t—” No, like, sure, I mean, it’s not to say like there are some ways in which we all get lucky, there are ways in which we happen to have this moment, and the right thing at the right time but like, things have happened for me in ways that were good because I worked my ass off, right? [Right, yes] Like I’m good at things and that is why I’ve gotten a lot of it.
CMM And I think also recognizing because for me like people will ask me like, “What is—you’re having this moment, what does that mean?” And I’m like, “Well, like it’s a lot of things.” Like it is some amount of luck. Like there’s timing. Timing is a thing you often can’t but like good timing. Yes, I’ve worked my ass off. I’m also really privileged in a lot of ways. Like I grew up, you know, I was educated, like I grew up in a certain kind of household. Like I’ve never like been hungry, I’ve never like been homeless. Like there’s like all these things sort of working for me um so it’s like, you know, and also, yeah, I’m working really hard, and also I have some talent. And I think there’s like, like saying like, “I have a talent,” which is a thing that like is sort of nebulous and is hard to pin down and like where does it come from? And can you teach it and like I mean that’s kind of beyond purview and I could talk about that for like ten hours but there’s like that element, there’s privilege which you can’t control, there’s luck which you also can’t control, all you can control is like the hard work element.
SWB Yeah, I mean I don’t know if you can teach this necessarily but it seems like something you can give to someone.
CMM Or like—yeah or like let someone know about it. Yeah, no, for sure.
KL Talk about it more like you’re saying, I mean I think talking to each other and talking to other women who may not just may not ha—have experience talking about this stuff or listening to people who have experienced it [yeah]. It’s, you know.
SWB Or also it’s like we’ve sort of been taught to be ashamed of it. Like something [exactly] we talk about a lot is how common it is for women to feel like they shouldn’t talk about their ambitions, or talk [yes] about things they want, or like to like—yeah, like to—to—to be able to say out loud like the intentionality that they have [yeah] and put into things [yeah].
CMM Right it’s—it’s very gauche to be like, “This is what I want.” Or, “This is my goal.”
SWB And I’m kind of fucking tired of that [yeah] like I don’t—I’m not interested in that. I want to hear what—what women want and [yeah] like what they’re—what they’re doing—
CMM But not like in a Mel Gibson kind of way [boisterous laughter].
KL No. Never.
SWB Never. Literally never in a Mel Gibson kind of way. Carmen, thank you so much for being on the show today.
CMM Oh of course! No problem, thank you [music fades in, ramps up, plays for five seconds alone, fades out].
SWB Is everybody ready for the Fuck Yeah of the Week?
JL I’m so ready.
SWB I’m always ready for the Fuck Yeah this week, because the Fuck Yeah this week is: naps.
SWB Ugh uh do you—ok…
JL How do you feel right now just saying the word “naps”?
SWB I feel like I want a nap.
JL You know what thinking about napping does? It can reduce your blood pressure.
KL Just thinking about it?
JL Just thinking about a nap!
KL Oh my god.
JL There was a recent study that found that just people anticipating naps was enough to lower your blood pressure.
KL So we should be thinking more about snoozing.
SWB Maybe this is why my blood pressure is so great because I think about naps a lot [KL laughs].
JL Everyone just stop for a second… think about a nap [sigh of relief from KL]…
SWB So I don’t nap like all people nap. Like some people are like, “Oh my gosh, if I sit down for a nap it’s like two hours.” And I’m like I don’t have that kinda time. But when I take a nap, I—I take a micro nap. And—
JL What is a micro nap? And tell me more!
SWB Ok. So, you know, I work at home, and, you know, sometimes you get like that afternoon lull where your brain doesn’t work that well, it’s like after lunch and you just need a minute. If I have a little bit of time something that I’ll often do is I will set my alarm for 12 or 15 minutes, and… I’ll just kind of doze off. And when I wake back up 12 to 15 minutes later, I feel so much better. And I know it sounds wild. Right? Like I know it sounds wild to be like, “Wait, you nap for 12 minutes?”
JL Stop. Does this work? Is this real?
SWB So it works for me and—and I’ll tell you when it works: it works when I’m having an afternoon where I’m just—I get that sluggish, tired feeling and where I’m feeling so sleepy already that I’m like, “I just can’t.” So I’m already like already pretty sleepy feeling and I figure like, instead of trying to fight it, I just lean into it, and then come back bounced back. And so for me, when I’m in that zone, I found that that kind of little break is much more productive than like trying to fight through it. So—so here’s my 12-minute story, ok: two minutes to fall asleep. Ten minutes of napping.
JL And it wor—and you fall asleep within those two minutes?
SWB Oftentimes I can fall into like a light sleep.
JL Mmm… I’m—I feel like my blood pressure’s dropped just listening to you tell that story.
KL I know! I—yeah, I have not usually been able to do that and I think now I’m listening to you say this and I’m wondering if it’s something that I could maybe just like try to practice a little bit more because when I have napped and just like been able to do it for like half an hour or something, even that is, you know, really nice and—and I feel refreshed. But I feel like I was always one of those people who I would go to sl—like go to sleep to nap and I would two hours later I would [chuckles] wake up and I’d be like, “Ah! Everything’s shot!” And then you feel terrible.
SWB Yeah, I mean I can do that if I lie down for that long it’s like you’re just you’re brain foggy because you go into those deep sleep cycles. I don’t do that—it’s just like a real quick thing. Here’s the thing: you know my number one tip for getting good at the micro nap? I mean I don’t know if micro naps are gonna work for you or not, maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But my tip is like, first up… learn to feel really good about the idea. Like don’t feel bad or guilty about taking a little nap [KL absolutely]. Don’t feel like you should be doing something else, don’t feel like it’s sort of like indulgent. Feel like sometimes that is the most productive way that you could spending your time.
JL There’s so many studies about how good naps are for you. I mean like things like just being more alert, increasing your patience, reducing heart disease.
SWB Oh my god, I need way more patience. So should I take a lot more naps [laughs]?
JL Maybe you need to up it to [inaudible over crosstalk]—
KL Yeah, definitely.
SWB You know the other thing I think, though, like you were saying, Katel, like you need to practice a little bit. I do think it’s the kind of thing, like, even if you’ve mentally given yourself permission, you may not have kind of physically let go of this idea that—that taking nap is a—is, like, a weird thing to be doing. So like normalize it, and then it might get easier to fall asleep.
KL Completely. I think that is absolutely true. And I think also just doing some sort of physical hygiene around that, where, you know, I’m putting myself in like a very comfortable place, and making it conducive to doing that instead of being like, “I’m gonna—I’m sitting on couch already, I’m just gonna like lay my head down,” that doesn’t always work.
JL One of the things that always frustrated me as a new mom is everyone was like, “Sleep when baby sleeps.” And I’m like, “Buuut I can’t just sleep on demand,” and that would be so annoying because you can’t predict the sleep schedule of your newborn or toddler, it turns out um [laughs] and so he would go to sleep and I’d be like, “Well, I want to sleep,” but I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep and so like and I would give myself two minutes, ten minutes, 15 and I wouldn’t fall asleep and then I would just get frustrated and think about that and then I would just give up and—and do something else like eat or shower which was fine. Other necessities. But I—then I eventually realized that for me it wasn’t just about falling asleep, the idea of just lying down and giving my body and sometimes my mind a chance to just relax also was really refreshing. So I’ve gotten way better at that. So maybe not falling asleep but this idea of just breaks and resting and giving myself a chance to do that. And like you were saying, Sara, being ok with that. And also being ok if I don’t fall asleep. And I think that was one of the thing that was one of my biggest battles is I’d be like, “Napping’s not working. I’m not falling asleep.” But being like, “You know what? I’m just gonna lie here for ten minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, whenever he decided to wake back up and I’m just gonna—I’m just gonna be.”
SWB Did you ever think that you would be just like looking forward to when he’s like a surly tween or teen [laughter] and like won’t get up until 11:30 or [laughs]? So yeah, naps. I recommend it. They are Sara approved. I think you should take ‘em. I think you should feel good about them. I recognize if you work like in a traditional office, you may not be able to do what I do in the middle of the day as easily, and that’s ok. But I do think giving yourself those little breaks and like letting yourself try to relax. It’s like, I had to get over the feeling of like I was wasting time and to think like, “Man, I’m actually saving time because I’m not gonna be productive for the next like 90 minutes if I try to push through this tired period.”
JL That reset button is so important.
SWB Fuck yeah naps!
KL Fuck yeah!
JL I’m gonna take a nap now [laughter].
KL That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together, and naps. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Carmen Maria Machado for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us on your podcast provider. Your support helps us spread the word. We’ll be back again next week [music fades in, ramps up, plays alone for 32 seconds, fades out to end].
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