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"As If Children Are Little Machines": An Interview with Alba Machado

Alba Machado just submitted her thesis project to Columbia College Chicago. It's a satirical novel inspired by her experiences as a Chicago Public School teacher, and her last step towards earning her MFA in creative writing. So. Any day now. There's forms and fees. It's very exciting. While she waits, she's Trumpifying her writing and engaging in Facebook activism—no, really! It's more than just rant posts, you guys! Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Gapers Block, and others.

Her story, "A Limited Time," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Alba Machado talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about teaching inner-city youths, unicycles, and satire in a 'post-truth' society.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “A Limited Time”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

It’s an idea that came up four years ago, back when I was teaching. One of my kids—my “not-son,” Joey—he started teaching himself to ride the unicycle, which is unusual for an inner-city, working class, Latinx boy. I was supportive but also kind of worried about his skull, especially since I couldn’t convince him to wear protective gear. At the same time, there were other kids facing other dangers, as well as traumatic, soul-crushing situations, and most of them, unlike Joey, were not in the gifted program and not in a position to join the academic clubs and connect with their teachers the way he could. And we did nothing for them. Nothing. Or, rather, we waited until their situations became dire enough that social workers and DCFS needed to be called in, because we were too busy jumping through ridiculous, mandated hoops designed to raise test scores. As if physical and emotional health doesn’t impact learning. As if children are little machines being calibrated for optimal performance. These are the thoughts I was grappling with when “A Limited Time” started to emerge.

This story contains only about a hundred words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such brevity, or is it natural for you to write concise pieces? How much revision and/or restraint did it require to achieve this economy of language?

Before it was a 101-word story, it was an 8,000-word story arc in my novel. So I’d been sitting with and toying with the material for quite some time. But I didn’t hack away at the longer piece. Instead, I broke it up into parts, summarized each part into just a phrase, and then—after time away—I came back to this list of summaries and used it as a prompt for something entirely new. That meant switching point of view. And emphasizing tone and style in a way that’s very much inspired by Donald Barthelme. His short story, “The School,” is one of my all-time favorites.

What makes a unicycle irresistible to one young boy after another? What would you do if you came across the unicycle lying in the grass (sans nearby dead bodies)?

Well, it's so shiny. One of my friends told me that the contrast between the unicycle and the bogo donut is what stood out to him; that the unicycle is a solitary thing and the donuts, at least “for a limited time,” are bought in pairs, and so, to him, this piece is about the tragedy of dying alone. And I’ve heard other takes that are very different: it’s about growing up and being independent; it’s about staying young and preserving a childhood sense of wonder and whimsy; it’s about making a spectacle of yourself to get much needed attention; it’s about being individual and different when, really, there’s so much sameness. And so on. As archetypes and symbols, there are a number of ways the boys and the unicycle could be read—and a number of reasons these boys might find a unicycle irresistible. I’d rather not lend any one interpretation more validity than another by divulging my authorial intent. And by that I mean I don’t want any one of my friends or family to be able to say to the others, “Aha! I got it right! Neener-neener-neener!” That said, if I personally came across a unicycle lying in the grass, I’d first try to find the owner, and, failing that, I’d sell it on eBay for $39.99.

Your bio says that you are finishing up a satirical novel. How does satire remain relevant in a so-called “post-truth” world where false, easily debunked news stories attract as much attention as (or more attention than) credible, accurate ones?

The day that Trump was elected president, I was on the brink of submitting a satirical novel on American education as my MFA thesis project—and it was set in a world where a man like Trump could never be president. I assumed Clinton would win. I assumed Clinton would mostly continue Obama’s education policies. So now, suddenly, my criticism of those policies seemed quaint. Aw, you thought that was bad? How cute. I joked that I should have written a Wild West zombie romance instead. But, really, the reality of Trump and our “post-truth” world is something that all writers and artists are dealing with now to varying degrees; we all have to consider the context in which our work will be received and how that will affect our meaning. Because it’s all political. Whether you mean it to be or not. Every story from the most personal to the most fantastic and otherworldly has its political implications. The Wild West zombie romance would have had them, too. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the book’s origin, saying, “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” She had her chaos, and we have ours. In her chaos, the medical community believed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria—and treatment included doctors masturbating female patients to orgasm. In our chaos, the president-elect Tweets that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese—and he’ll very likely have the power to shape policy which ignores this very real threat to our survival as a planet. Oh, plus he asks, How come no nuking? And he’s getting the nuclear codes. So. Yeah. Maybe the stakes are higher now. But there’s always been chaos and there’s always been artists responding to it. Satire will still have to find a way to make its targets laughable without diminishing our concerns or downplaying the very real threats they pose. It will still have to shame the shameless. That’s nothing new. What is new is that satire now has to distinguish itself from those false, easily debunked news stories, so that readers can actually tell them apart. And maybe in some cases it won’t be able to pursue a problematic thought or policy to its logical but absurd conclusion, as it has in the past; it will now have to accept the absurd as its starting point—and where do you go from there? We’ll see.

Are you working on any other writing projects that you can tell us about (or, any that you would like to embark upon after you complete your MFA)?

Yes! It feels a bit silly to count a Facebook group as a “writing project,” but it is. Not long after the election, my friend, Jess Millman, and I started a Facebook group specifically for writers interested in activist literature, which, of course, can exist in any form, style, or genre. The group is called “CAW: Chicago Activist Writers,” although, as Jess put it, “it may be our perch, but a Chicago address is not required—just a Chicago heart.” I love working with her. Ultimately, we're hoping to publish an activist journal. And, of course, we're not the only ones. On Inauguration Day, Anna March and friends will be launching ROAR, a “magazine of intersectional feminist resistance”—which sounds amazing. And there are others. So we'll see how the dust settles after this election, what emerges, and where we'll fit in with our work and our new publication. Aside from that, I'm also in the early stages of creating a collection of short stories.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Christine Rice’s novel-in-stories, Swarm Theory. It was recommended to me by my thesis advisor, since it’s doing a lot of what I am trying to do in my own novel—juggle a big cast of characters, switch points of view, tell a larger story through a series of smaller ones—and Rice does all this in a way that’s both inspiring and intimidating. It’s one of those books I’ll definitely come back to again and again.

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