Criticism & Features

John Leonard Nominations

Carmen Maria Machado, John Leonard Award Winner

By Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf) was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre. Her acceptance speech is below.

Photo by John Midgley 

Most of the people in this room—maybe even all of us—understand that right now we live in a terrifying and precarious world. But only some of us know that we have always lived in a terrifying and precarious world. Only some of us know that we live in a world that does not treat our humanity as a given, and only some of us know that it’s been that way forever.

I know that Her Body and Other Parties is terrifyingly real right now. I wish it wasn’t. I would give this book up in one second if I thought I could make it less relevant, if I could undo my own need to have written it. But the fact is, it’s always been this real. The fact is, stories exist whether or not we decide to commit them to the page. I consider myself lucky to have coaxed a few of them out of the ether, if only to say: me, too. 

We like to think of history as progressive, but as any historian will tell you, history is cyclical. Things do not just amorphously “get better”—they get better, they retreat back, they get better for some people and not others, they retreat to a past decade or past century, they advance forwards or backwards suddenly through court decisions, they advance forwards or backwards slowly through cultural drift. Events trigger large-scale demonstrations, like we saw yesterday from our youngest and bravest generation; politicians fight back.

It goes without saying that, right now, we are experiencing a cultural and political contraction on a massive scale. It has been this way before; it will be this way again. All we can do is fight it; to fight it, we need to put words to it. This is what artists do. This is what critics do. So thank you also to the members of the National Book Critics Circle, who contribute such a valuable cultural service, not just to the literary world but to the project of the humanities—of humanity. 

I am deeply grateful to the family of John Leonard, whose support for this prize demonstrates his commitment to emerging writers, and to the other nominees, whose debut books asked difficult, important questions that continue to provoke and haunt me.

I am deeply grateful to my editor Ethan Nosowsky and the rest of the Graywolf team, who have been enthusiastic about and supportive of this book since the very beginning. I am also deeply grateful to my agent, Kent Wolf, who didn’t ask me if I had a novel, who believed in my weird short stories and had a vision for my career long before I did.

And mostly importantly, I am grateful to my incredible, gorgeous, brilliant wife, Val Howlett, who makes everything I write better and sharper and clearer and smarter and teaches me about my own history and approaches the world with compassion and tenderness when I approach it with profound crankiness. I love you, baby. You’re my favorite.

And thank you to everyone who has read and loved Her Body and Other Parties. She’s yours, now. 

Carmen Maria Machado holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.