Carmen Maria Machado writes rich, fabulist fiction that draws on fairy tales and folklore. She has some exciting publications forthcoming–including a debut short story collection, Her Body & Other Parties (Graywolf Press), and a story in The Ochre Issue of Fairy Tale Review. For this interview, however, I decided to ask Machado about an older story– “The Husband Stitch,” published by Granta in October 2014, and inspired by a frightening children’s tale, urban legends, and the experience of being an awkward kid at Girl Scout Camp.
“The Husband Stitch,” is a variation on “The Green Ribbon,” a popular scary story (I remember it well from childhood!). How did you first encounter “The Green Ribbon”? Why did you decide to write your own version of it?
I first read “The Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, a children’s book in the vein of his Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. (Though with significantly less terrifying illustrations.) Anyway, In a Dark, Dark Room had a story called “The Green Ribbon,” by which I was simultaneously repulsed and entranced. Of all the urban legend and folktale retellings in Schwartz’s oeuvre, that’s the one that stuck with me the most.
Later, when I was in graduate school, I was hanging out with friends when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came up in conversation. That series pretty much scared everyone in my generation, and each person in my group had a different story from it that’d scared the bejeesus out of them as kids.
My brain kept returning to “The Green Ribbon,” and it occurred to me that there are all kinds of interesting currents about gender running beneath that story’s deceptively simple ice. That summer, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “The Husband Stitch.” At the time, it was just a straight re-telling of the protagonist’s story from meeting her future husband to her head falling off; the metafictional elements and retellings of other urban legends came later in the editing process.
Continue reading Interview: Carmen Maria Machado
by Lucy Randazzo
Traditionally, Japan has an extremely polite language and culture. Specific honorific and humble verb conjugations require knowing one’s place in the social structure, while an intricate system of bows changes the interpretation of interpersonal interactions by the adjustment of a few degrees. Grasping such a complex sociolinguistic structure takes a lifetime to master, and folklore teaches Japanese youth proper speech and behavior from an early age. In particular, the tale of the kuchisake-onna, or “slit-mouthed woman,” encourages children to properly beat around the bush linguistically under the violent threat of getting sliced from ear to ear.
This humanoid monster wears a mask over her mouth, confronting strangers to ask, “Am I beautiful?” If the answer is no, she immediately lashes out and slices up the person impertinent enough to be so rude, killing her victim with a blade or pair of scissors. An initial answer of “yes” is not the way to go either; even when given what someone from a Western culture would view as a compliment, she tears off the mask to reveal razor-sharp teeth in a mouth that has been slit open in a Glasgow smile. “What about now?” At this point, no matter what is said or done, the respondent is doomed to a grisly fate because the strict and immediate answer of “yes” is too enthusiastic and full of pressure, and the damage of that quick affirmation cannot be taken back. Except in the most intimate and close relationships, answering a question outright or too quickly shows a lack of concern or thought no matter what the answer may be.
A number of ways to avoid or escape the kuchisake-onna exist, varying regionally and individually. Wearing the color yellow prevents her from stalking you in the first place. Throwing hard candies sidetracks her like shiny objects distract crows. Yelling “pomade” at her three times makes her flee—something about her ex-boyfriend or the doctor who killed her wearing too much pomade in his hair (though speculations about her origins also include her being the vengeful spirit-lover of an unfaithful samurai; and getting hit by a car and mangled while chasing some children). The most prevalent solution when a confrontation with the slit-mouthed woman begins is to answer “maybe” or tell her that she looks “so-so,” which confuses the spirit long enough to escape. According to some versions, she is even polite enough to apologize for bothering her would-be victim if they respond that they have a prior engagement, very subtly insinuating that they cannot speak with her right then. Overhasty decisiveness is the courteous kuchisake-onna’s real pet peeve, but a mastery of how to answer questions or accept invitations keeps her wrath in check.
Lucy Randazzo is a senior studying English and creative writing with a minor in Japanese at the University of Arizona, her fiction thesis focusing on the interconnectivity of beauty and violence. Her short fiction prose has been published by Scribendi, the University of New Mexico’s honors undergraduate literary magazine. She is currently the managing editor of Persona, the University of Arizona undergraduate literary magazine, as well as an editorial assistant at Fairy Tale Review and an editing intern at the University of Arizona Press.
The notebook arrived a few months ago in a box of old things my mom sent from the house I grew up in. It was originally a gift from a high school sweetheart, filled with notes from friends about my talents and how much they appreciated me. It sounds, at first description, like the kind of thing that would fill me with nostalgia for my punkish teen years. But opening the notebook was excruciatingly awkward. The gift had been prompted by my low self-confidence and anxiety, which left me feeling like friends secretly despised me and regularly led them to actually despise me, after I confronted them for imagined transgressions. I didn’t even read the notes–I didn’t need to, I knew they were full of the same kind comments that had been used reassure me throughout my life (comments that I would not–or could not–believe). Instead, I tore those pages out and threw them away. The only thing that remains from the original gift is a Tolkien quote penned on the notebook’s inside cover:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
I recently watched Song of the Sea, an animated film by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. The film’s villain is the owl-witch Macha, who turns mythical creatures–like faeries and giants–into stone to “save” them from negative emotions. She stores her own difficult emotions and memories in bottles and jars. Of course (spoiler alert!), Song of the Sea is about a brother and sister’s successful attempt to turn Macha back into the good witch she once was and release the enchanted creatures from their stone holds. They’re able to do so when a magical song–sung by the sister who is, it turns out, a selkie– causes Macha’s bottles and jars to break. Macha’s forced to swallow up the despair she’s been hiding from, and this swallowing allows the desired transformation to take place.
My notebook feels a little like one of Macha’s shattered jars–a ghost of the emotions it once contained. The Tolkien quote on the inside cover doesn’t let me forget what this notebook was originally for; neither does my anxiety, which I’m learning to manage but continue to live with. Yet, I am able to re-inscribe it, re-purpose it, fill it up with something new. I’ve been using it as my Tiny Donkey notebook–where I jot down to-do lists or take notes during our editorial meetings. It’s a fitting use for it, I think. Reading, studying and writing about fairy tales has become, for me, a wondrous obsession, the kind of thing that serves as a temporary respite from a self-doubting and anxious brain.
This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.