- Title: In the Dream House
- Author: Carmen Maria Machado
- Genre: Memoir
- Publisher: Strange Light
- Pages: 264
- Title: I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World
- Author: Kai Cheng Thom
- Genre: LGBT Studies
- Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
- Pages: 144
There is power in naming what happened to us.
When I first read Carmen Maria Machado’s debut, Her Body and Other Parties, I had a flint-strike of recognition. That gut-clench, numb-handed, hide-the-knives kind of fear the narrator experiences in the story Mothers as a shadow passes over her girlfriend’s face: I knew that fear.
For all the work done by #MeToo since 2017, it’s still an overwhelmingly straight movement. By contrast, Machado’s collection offers some of the best representations I’ve read of abuse in relationships where there are no men. The truth is, intimate partner violence – physical, psychological and sexual – is an all-too-common experience for LGBTQ people.
Two new books, In the Dream House and I Hope We Choose Love look at queer intimate partner abuse from different angles. In the Dream House is Machado’s memoirs about her relationship with a woman that slid into a nightmare of psychological torture. This is the relationship the author was in while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, writing stories that would become her aforementioned debut collection.
I think of her two books as companions to one another that together form a powerful commentary on trauma, all the forms of violence women are subjected to and the stories we tell around that violence. In the Dream House is non-fiction, but, as its title suggests, its style highlights the fever-dream quality of the experience of being gaslit. From footnotes that point out how motifs of fable and myth apply to Machado’s story, to a section that takes a choose-your-own-adventure format (which perversely highlights how emotional abuse saps a person of their agency), she draws on unconventional tools to immerse the reader in the particulars of her experience.
As bystanders crop up in Machado’s story, I wonder what they make of the evidence of real menace in front of them. Some do attempt to intervene.
The question of what LGBTQ communities are to do with situations of abuse is the subject of the essays and poetry in Kai Cheng Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love. Thom’s book, subtitled A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, takes a wider perspective than Machado’s, noting the preponderance of abuse among LGBTQ people: “Nearly half of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian report experiencing sexual violence or psychological abuse from a partner.”
The figures are higher among bisexual and trans people, especially high among trans-feminine people of colour. For all the ways queer community imagines itself as a social-justice utopia (“Queerlandia,” as Thom dubs it), it is rife with this lateral violence.
Thom is a two-time Lambda Literary Award nominee and the winner of the 2017 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQ Writers, but many readers will know her best as agony aunt for the Canadian LGBTQ online magazine Xtra, where earlier versions of some of these essays first appeared. She is also a social worker. If Thom is critical of queer activist spaces, it is because she is of them, having grown up in the Queerlandias of Montreal, Toronto and the internet.
“In queer community, we already know why our people die: we are killed by homophobia and transphobia,” Thom writes. “What we do not know is why we hurt each other – physically, psychologically, and sexually.”
Thom’s book outlines how attempts to confront this violence with “purity politics” – the refusal to acknowledge that we are, all of us, morally compromised creatures – has only cannibalized an already marginalized group (and yes, despite individual successes, queer people are still marginalized in Canada today). A cycle in which known abusers are allowed to act with impunity, only to be later called out and shunned in fits of performative outrage isn’t justice, and it does nothing to stop the harmful behaviour from happening in the first place. We live in what feel like end times, as the subtitle to this book reminds us. We need a better approach to conflict.
Thom’s book does not provide concrete solutions, but it is hard to disagree with her conclusion. A process that chooses love and healing for all parties, and recognizes the complexity of human relationships, would be better than a mode that prioritizes retribution and sees the world in absolutes.
An undercurrent runs through Thom’s and Machado’s books: the knowledge that so many people already hate us that our basic human rights are considered up for debate. In this context, abuse – but also the acknowledgment of abuse – feels like bad PR. Nevertheless, after years of immersion in the significant but limited #MeToo discourse, both these books come as a relief.
Still, I wonder why it took till 2019 for me to come across such a direct address to this topic. Thom writes, “I can attest that public call-outs of queer perpetrators of sexual violence have been going on since long before the mainstream, heterosexual #MeToo moment began.”
Meanwhile, Machado points to a body of literature about lesbian intimate partner abuse that goes back to the early 1980s. Particularly reading In the Dream House, I wonder about the waves of erasure that leave every generation to start this conversation anew.
A parting gift of these books is I am now reconsidering the shared elements of fable and myth in Machado’s and Thom’s fiction and poetry where I hadn’t considered these authors particularly connected before. In the Dream House shows how our fundamental building blocks of story, which might swerve into the fantastic, capture the essence of a world that is often violent and unjust, but also marvellous.
Thom writes about the resonance she finds in a line from poet Amber Dawn: “Lying is the work of those who have been taught that their truths have no value.” Thom is talking here about lying as a means of literal survival, but I also see in this quote an invitation. It invites us to read again the works of queer authors and find, hidden in the mythic and fabulous, the truths there are to be believed.
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