As It Happens·Q&A

Author fights to keep her queer memoir on a Texas high school reading list — dildo and all

A couple weeks ago, author Carmen Maria Machado watched a video of an angry mom wielding a pink strap-on dildo. The clip was from a school board meeting in Leander, Texas. And the woman was upset that Machado’s memoir, In The Dream House, was on an approved reading list for high school students.

In The Dream House, about an abusive same-sex relationship, is one of 15 titles up for review in Leander

Author Carmen Maria Machado says her memoir about an abusive relationship is appropriate for teenage readers. (Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for PEN America)

Story Transcript

A couple weeks ago, author Carmen Maria Machado got a message from a friend that a video was circulating online that involved her memoir and an angry mom wielding a pink strap-on dildo.

The clip was from a Feb. 25 school board meeting in Leander, Texas. The woman was upset that Machado's memoir, In The Dream House, was on an approved reading list for high school students.

The book, which chronicles Machado's experience of being in an abusive relationship with another woman, contains a sex scene involving a dildo. The protesting parent read it aloud during the meeting while waving the sex toy around, according to the Austin American Statesman

That's how Machado learned that her book is one of several that are up for review in Leander because of parents' complaints. They are part of a book club program that allows students to pick and read one book each semester from a list of 15 chosen by their teachers for their grade level.

The school board told KVUE ABC that it has already removed six books from the program and is devising a policy to exclude "inappropriate literature for the assigned students' ages."

Also on the potential chopping block are books by Margaret Atwood, Jodi Picoult and Jacqueline Woodson, who, along with Machado, have penned an open letter with the free expression organization PEN America demanding the books remain available to students.

Machado spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Wednesday. Here is part of their conversation. 

After this particular meeting, there's a spokesperson for Leander [Independent] School District who said: "Our goal is to explore what the community feels are age-appropriate materials for classroom reading." Is there a valid argument? Do you think that In The Dream House is a book that is age-appropriate for that group?

Professional educators chose the book for their students. This all started because a bunch of teachers were like: We want this book on this list. And that is their job. That is what they're supposed to be doing.

Certainly there are books that are appropriate for certain ages, but I think saying that students at 17 and 18 can't read anything with sex in it, and that there's no value in a book like that for those students when your teachers have said otherwise, the people who you pay to educate your kids, that strikes me as very odd and very disingenuous.

The community is also not a monolith. Like, there are gay teens at that school. There are gay people in Leander, Texas. There gay people in Texas…. And it feels a little, I think, strange that this very conservative religious group can sort of make the agenda for all the other students.

Because the parents who want this, their kids did not have to read the book. They could have chosen a different book. They're trying to remove the book from the list for all the students. So I don't think it's really about age-appropriateness. I mean, there's a reason they they target books with gay content.

So the scenes with dildos notwithstanding, what do you think that the young people could get from this? Why do you think it would be useful for someone to read your book from that age group?

The book talks a lot about how, when I was a teen in the early 'aughts, I did not understand that I was queer. And I had a lot of gay feelings and experiences, but I didn't have language to put to what I was experiencing. And that created a real risk for me that took a long time to fix.

And I felt like the same thing sort of happened with this question of domestic violence, where I thought of domestic abuse as a thing that you see — it's very specific, it's very heterosexual. There's a very specific sort of dynamic that you see represented. And we don't really talk about that that can happen, that unhealthy relationships … can look like other things than what you normally see.

Literature does a lot of things, but one of the things it does is it gives students opportunities to access narratives that they are not super familiar with. And I think that it's really important to be able to talk about that.

I wish I had had a book like my book when I was in my teens or my early 20s, and I didn't. So I just feel like it's really important to give students a framework and a language and a history for how we talk about queer relationships, good and bad.

Machado holds a copy of her memoir In The Dream House, which has drawn the ire of some parents in Leander, Texas. (Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for PEN America)

There are parents and teachers in Leander, Texas who share your concerns. What have you heard from them?

I get messages from them all the time. There are a lot of teachers working both sort of in front of the cameras and also behind the scenes trying to make this right. A lot of educators who are really unhappy with these parents and with these people who are trying to set the agenda for their students. And also a lot of people behind the scenes who are just really sort of horrified by what's going on and are really glad that people are fighting back.

Students as well, which is really heartening to hear. I got a message from a student just a few days ago saying, like, "I'm a gay student at the school. And, like, it's just really lovely to hear you speaking out about this."

I'm writing for those people, you know. That's really important to me.

Yours is not the only book that's been "challenged for review and reconsideration" — that's the language. Among them are Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. There's a graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta. Is there a consistent theme among the books?

In [my] op-ed for The New York Times, I talked about how when books are challenged on this level, it almost always involves things like sex and gay themes. So it's not an accident, I think, that this book, that my book, has been targeted.

I know in of one of the graphic novels there's like a breast somewhere, and they were very upset about that. There's just, like, a lot weird, very like puritanical stuff. 

Canadian author Margaret Atwood has joined Machado and other authors in writing an open letter demanding their books remain on book club reading lists in Leander. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Is there not, I mean, on some level, a kind of cachet that comes from having your book challenged or banned? They become causes célèbres, don't they?

I do remember when I was a kid, I was very involved in my local library and I remember Banned Books Week back when I was a young person, and always like being really excited to read the books that people told me I wasn't allowed to read, and finding that a really exciting prospect.

So, yeah, I feel like, in some ways, it does feel like … an honour that it's ruffled feathers. But also I wish that students could just read it and there weren't people fighting to get rid of it. I would vastly prefer that.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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