This house is not a home
On In the Dream House and institutional violence
[Dear readers: Please note that this newsletter issue discusses physical and emotional abuse, homophobia, and white supremacy.]
“A house is never apolitical,” Carmen Maria Machado writes in her memoir In the Dream House (Graywolf, 2019). “It is conceived, constructed, occupied, and policed by people with power, needs, and fears” (Machado, 76). Such policing aims to erase history by way of whitewashed (and straight-washed, ableist-washed, xenophobic-washed, etc.) narratives. And so, Machado constructs her own house, building one that subverts white supremacist norms and becomes political in its own way.
Throughout the memoir, Machado emphasizes the lack of published documentation about abuse in LGBTQIA+ relationships, particularly between two women. “The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is even newer, and even more shadowed” (5). Though stories of domestic abuse have been around for as long as human beings have existed, Machado writes, the acknowledgment has not. And for queer relationships, the archival is even smaller. “Would knowing have made you dumber or smarter?...You didn’t listen to any of your smarter, wiser friends” (18). In a way, history’s erasure of violence in queer relationships causes Machado to normalize the violence she experiences. But until “queerness is so normal and accepted that finding it will feel less like entertaining paradise and more like the claiming of your own body: imperfect, but yours…we’re in the muck like everyone else” (109).
For Machado, establishing an archive is the foundation for her house. “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon…I speak into the silence” (5). And from here, she builds upwards. Her house’s building blocks are the stylistic choices she makes, and they break all norms. “You feel like you can jump from one idea to the next, searching for a kind of aggregate meaning. You know that if you break them and reposition them and unravel them and remove their gears you will be able to access their truths in a way you couldn’t before” (148). There are multiple ways Machado breaks and repositions convention: her use of the second person (“You were not always just a You. I was whole...”); her vignette chapters staged as tropes (“Dream House as Soap Opera,” for example); and her inclusion of footnotes to (almost comically) break down motifs in folk-lore (14). The book subverts all expectations and norms, breaking the rules that generations of (white, straight, cis, male) writers have set. In subverting these standards, Machado builds a house, a world, that enables the “other” to have a voice—a voice that historically has been dismissed. “If you need this book, it is for you,” Machado writes as her dedication.
A house is never apolitical. And in our world, a house can represent so many different institutional systems and structures: relationships, heteronormativity, history, etc. So it begs the question: how do we ensure the stories of those from historically marginalized communities are not only voiced, but heard? Are appreciated, disseminated, amplified? In her decision to rewrite (and rebuild), Machado makes clear that we can’t rely upon the modification of existing structures. The house she builds is something of a dream, something that does not necessarily exist in our current socio political state. In 2022, we are witnessing the erasure of history as book bans and challenges to critical race theory are put forward in schools across the country. Our Supreme Court is governing our country based on personal ideology and a document written by white men hundreds of years ago, not the will of the people. Politicians continue to pass laws that are direct attempts to further discriminate against marginalized communities. Clearly, the existing institutions are not fit to support individuals in an equitable manner. In the Dream House reinforces that we must act, record, and create change.
Ways to act, record, and create change
How we get started on creating the change Machado prompts is up to each of us. Here are some suggestions:
To support the literary endeavors of LGBTQIA2S+ individuals: Organizations such as Lambda Literary and We Need Diverse Books provide scholarships and grants to writers. We can also read and amplify LGBTQIA2S+-run literary magazines and platforms, such as Foglifter and So to Speak.
To help combat domestic and sexual violence: Donate to or volunteer for organizations such as The Network/La Red; The Los Angeles LGBT Center; Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women; Esperanza United; Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights; and The Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
For additional organizations to support and ways to get involved in the creation of a more equitable world, check out our recent newsletter on reproductive justice and this list of bookish spaces fighting for prison abolition.
What is the value of proof? What does it mean for something to be true? If a tree falls in the woods and pins a wood thrush to the earth, and she shrieks and shrieks but no one hears her, did she make a sound? Did she suffer? Who’s to say?
—In the Dream House, p226
Others’ thoughts on In the Dream House
Here are some think pieces on In the Dream House that have stuck with us:
“Carmen Maria Machado’s Many Haunted Stories of a Toxic Relationship” by Katy Waldman for The New Yorker
These words from Kat of @KatsFieldNotes
“There is something so familiar about the house and being a doll within the house.” — @Krithiques
This reflection from Olivia of @LivForReading
An interactive reflection by @AnniesLittleLibrary
If you liked In the Dream House, read…
Books that discuss institutional violence:
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Check out these new conversation pieces added to the site:
As always, thanks for reading. If you’d like to join in on our next read, we’ll be spotlighting Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker in a forthcoming issue.
Olivia and Fiona