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‘Queer villainy’ and domestic abuse: In The Dream House

CW: domestic abuse

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is a bold and blistering memoir, and has been announced as the 2021 Rathbones Folio prize winner. The prize is open to writers within any form, and the recipient wins £30,000.

Machado’s work is radical at the level of content and form. In The Dream House blends together memoir with essay writing, exploring domestic abuse, genre fiction, friendship, and ‘Queer Villainy’.

The discussion of domestic abuse within LGBTQIA+ relationships is central to the memoir. In particular, Machado breaks taboos around abuse in lesbian relationships by focusing on her past relationship with her abuser.

The book opens with the past romance. Machado details how she met the woman who later transpires to be her abuser. In the course of the memoir Machado details how they formed deep bonds in their polyamorous relationship. However, as the narrative unfolds the emotional manipulation seeps out and demolishes the love story.

In The Dream House is narrated through the dual lens of past victim and then survivor of domestic abuse. As a result, the memoir makes an intervention into the gendered assumptions which overpower the conversations around abuse, by showing how it can develop between two women.

‘There isn’t a lot of writing about queer domestic abuse and sexual assault’

Machado’s work operates as a memoir with an activist twist. By bringing her own story to light about abuse in a queer relationship Machado also opens up the conversation surrounding emotional manipulation and physical abuse in LGBTQIA+ relationships. In The Dream House is a crucial publication because, as Machado writes, ‘There isn’t a lot of writing about queer domestic abuse and sexual assault’.

Machado discusses the need to include positive and negative representations of queer characters. The essay titled ‘Dream House as Queer Villany’ unpicks the ‘problem and pleasure’ of queer villains. In particular, Machado exposes the representational bind LGBTQIA+ characters are forced into by disproportionately being forced to play the villain. Machado urges to keep the queer villains coming, but to place them alongside a diverse range of LGBTQIA+ characters, rather than include them in isolation.

In the Dream House focuses on the powerful work of queer theorists, and the interventions that are yet to be made. The book is born out of Machado’s frustration with the existing literature which renders queer domestic abuse invisible. In ‘Dream House as Equivocation’ Machado breaks the snare of silence: ‘Women have abused other women. And queers needed to take this issue seriously, because no one else would’.

Mainstream prizes and queer writing

The Rathbones Folio prize win helps to bring Machado’s story of survival to a wide readership. In the aftermath of her win Machado shared that: ‘I feel excited that this is a large mainstream prize. Obviously I’m really honoured to have received awards from the queer community, but I feel like this is a story that applies to a lot of people’.

The memoir deserves the spotlight that the mainstream prize has provided. However, at times the book is weighed down by its academic jargon and footnotes. Whilst recognising the need to appropriately reference the folklore and various academics that Machado cites, I found the footnotes slightly intrusive.

The footnotes offer a way to weave academia and folklore into the text. But, the extra academic weight seems to be an unnecessary addition. Despite the obstruction of the footnotes there is pleasure to be found in Machado’s merging of various genres, including memoir and essay writing.

Machado’s memoir is structured by numerous chapters which work as mini essays. Multiple chapters focus on genre experimentation within the memoir form. For example, ‘Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel’ and ‘Dream House as Mrs Dalloway’. Machado blends together memoir and the essay form in radical ways in these chapters. As a result, literary theory is brought to life In the Dream House.

Gender and genre are both held to scrutiny in Machado’s work. In the Dream House is an essential read, as it radically re-centres the narratives that surround the mainstream discussions of domestic abuse. By focalising abuse through a queer lens, Machado adds nuance and new directions to the existing discourse.

If you’re after further recommendations following reading In The Dream House, then check out All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui from our LGBTQIA+ history month spotlight.

Tags: domestic abuse, lgbtqia+, memoir, Queer, Rathbones Folio Prize

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