Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Babusha reviews Falling Into Place by Sheryn Munir

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir cover

HALLELUJAH !HALLELUJAH! THERE IS AN INDIAN LESBIAN ROMANCE NOVEL!!!

First of all, this review will contain rapturous joy on just the existence of such a book. It may even be half of this review and to everyone who points this out to me, deal with it idc.

In the last year or so, India has made such amazing strides when it comes to LGBTQ issues. First of all the Supreme Court stated homosexuality is a fundamental right and then within months legalized it by striking down the old colonial rule that originally deemed it illegal, Section 377. So for me, reading this novel written by a native Indian author with such genuinely compelling writing and relatable characters was the best chocolate chip cookie on the side of a piping hot brownie with vanilla ice cream cheesecake that was the last year.

Okay rapture over, to the review.

After a super unconventional meet-cute involving an actual car hijack in the streets of Delhi, Sameen Siddiqui and Tara Dixit become carpool and foodie buddies. Tara, who is my kind of introverted and cynical lesbian is initially is a little standoffish, mostly because Sameen is too cute and sweet to not have a crush on and unfortunately also too seemingly straight for it not to go wrong.

Sheryn Munir does such a vivid job of describing and showing Delhi around- both from a native Tara’s eyes and also from the Bangalorean Sameen’s using both locations and food. Honestly, Falling into Place uses food in such an intersecting way–like a connecting string and aesthetic between the two characters; it’s almost like a third protagonist of the story. Also, like most desis, I have a special place in our heart for North-South Indian romances and this book is definitely no exception.

As an Indian, in most LGBTQ romance novels I’ve ever read that are centered on Indian or Middle Eastern communities, the elephant in the room is the shadow of physical danger due to a backwards law. The level of fear and cynicism that comes with living under such a law is both realistic and a trope present in this book as well.  Tara’s cynicism has marred her romantic past and also creates obstacles in her initial friendship. But the story does a great job of also deconstructing Tara’s fear when she realizes she has fallen in love with Sameen. She is afraid–of heartbreak, of life-changing love-as are we all.

I swear this book is like every single one of my fave Hayley Kiyoko songs.

Relatable and empathetic characters in a familiar setting with cute and light humour, Sheryn Munir tells a story using all my catnip–grounded, flawed character with a ‘disaster run away’ setting at pretty girls near them lol, a joyfully familiar setting and a story that is grounded in its characters and their personal journey rather than of the struggles and oppressions of the outside world bring with it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that!

Four stars all around!

Please note: This does involve “toaster-oven- converting the straight girl” plot-line.

Danika reviews Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

undertheudalatree

Under the Udala Trees is set in Nigeria during and in the aftermath of the civil war. Ijeoma is sent to live in a safer area of the country with people she’s never meant. She acts as a servant to earn her keep. When she befriends a girl from another ethnic group–in fact, from the community on the other side of the war–this relationship is only barely tolerated. When it’s discovered that her and Amina’s relationship has changed into a romance, Ijeoma’s life is irrevocably changed.

This is not a light read. Under the Udala Trees deals both with living through war and dealing with brutal homophobia. In fact, these two types of violence get intertwined. We first meet Ijeoma in her childhood, when she lived with her mother and father. We see how war devastates her family and eventually takes her father from them. This is just the precursor to her later struggles with a culture and family that refuses to allow her to be an authentic version of herself. Her mother stresses the importance of marriage and makes her study the Bible daily, stressing any passages that can be interpreted as forbidding same sex relationships.

What I found especially difficult was how much Ijeoma internalized this messages even when didn’t consciously believe them. She questions how the Bible is being interpreted and doesn’t see how her actions or feelings could be sinful, but she still feels guilt and doubt. That is the damage a hateful statement repeated over and over can do. She ends up feeling the best parts of love and intimacy juxtaposed with shame and self-consciousness.

This does feel like a bleak read through most of the book. Ijeoma does not have a lot of options available to her, not just as a lesbian, but as a woman–and an unmarried one at that. Every choice that she makes seems to come with awful consequences. I don’t think I’ll be able to forget the scene where she and other gay friends hide in a bunker left over from the war in order to avoid a crowd intent on punishing or even killing any queer people that they find. It shows how much Ijeoma is still living within her own war.

I’ll admit that my first impression when I read this book was that it felt like a coming out story from earlier decades, mostly because the extreme backlash as well as the way the plot is mostly centered around her sexuality. But I had to reexamine that reaction when I got to the brief author’s note, which explains that in 2014 Nigeria criminalized same-sex relationships, and that Nigeria is the second most religious country in the world. With that context, the story line makes a lot more sense, and it reminded me that although I am lucky enough to live in a community that is fairly accepting of queer people, my situation is not universal. For many people, that backlash is the reality of their coming out, and these stories are therefore needed just as much now as they were in earlier decades. This is why we need more stories of the queer experience from a global viewpoint, and Under the Udala Trees is a necessary step forward down that path.

Danika reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

bodymap

I don’t typically read poetry, and this was a collection that made me realize what a mistake that is. Bodymap is about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life as a queer disabled femme of colour. It’s political, but it’s politics rooted in everyday experiences of injustice and survival, not abstract theorizing. Although her poetry experiments with style, they all are accessible and grounded (which as a poetry novice, I always appreciate).

There are some books that I enjoy so much that I want to draw out the experience of reading them as long as possible, and there are some that I love to the extent that I want to inhale them all in one gasp, and Bodymap was the latter. I found myself in the bizarre situation of being impatient to reread it as I was reading it for the first time. It’s definitely going to be a collection I revisit multiple times, and I know I’ll get more out of it on every read.

This is poetry that punches you in the gut. It’s hard and bright and unapologetic. There is humour and light, but most of all, Bodymap is passionate and honest. And despite the fact that this collection is unapologetically about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s intersectional identity, it has a lot to say just about surviving in this world. This was my favourite read of the month and one I can’t recommend it highly enough.

(Also check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s review!)