An interview with author Michelle Tea
Michelle Tea left the working-class suburbs of Boston with raw charisma, a poetic voice, and an adventurous spirit to fuel her stories. She landed on San Francisco's queer and literary scenes in the 1990s and came of age in the city's spoken-word community, where she developed her literary style and went on to co-found the Sister Spit Ramblin' Road Show, an all-girl performance group that hit the road in 1997.
At 34, Tea already has written and edited several books, and attracted a loyal fan-base drawn from San Francisco's open mics and spoken-word gatherings. You may not have encountered her work yet, but after picking up her most recent book, and first work of fiction, her distinctive, youthful voice will be difficult to forget. Set against the backdrop of the neon signs and strip-malls of a working-class town, Rose of No Man's Land , (MacAdam Cage) follows the story of Trisha, a thirteen-year-old girl who, after meeting Rose at the local mall where they both work, is thrust into a string of adolescent discoveries. The action takes place predominantly in the span of one day, in which Trisha discovers friendship, drugs, sex, and, consequently, her sexual identity.
Tea's queer, working-class perspective informs a simple, true-to-life prose that articulates an oft-ignored adolescent perspective and sets her apart from many young writers. But that perspective does not limit or define her. Similarly, she may be a darling of the San Francisco literary and queer scenes, but her charismatic voice begs a broader audience.
In addition to Rose of No Man's Land, which hit shelves in February, she is the author of the memoir Valencia -- which won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian fiction -- two other memoirs, a collection of poetry, a graphic novel, and has edited and contributed to numerous anthologies. Tea took some time out of her busy schedule while on the road with the Sex Workers' Art Show to talk with Utne.com about her first work of fiction.
Rose Miller: Tell me about your new book Rose of No Man's Land? How is it different from your previous writing?
Michelle Tea: Well, it's all made up. So it's tons different from my previous writing which has been all memoir. Nothing in this book is true. I mean, all of it's true, emotionally, socially, and culturally, but it's fiction. The characters, situations, and the landscape are created.
RM: Many of the people in your work are teenagers and young people. What about them draws your focus?
MT: I just think it comes really naturally to me to write in that voice. I feel like I only started feeling like a grown-up four months ago and I'm thirty-four-years old. So, I can really connect to a teenage voice, a teenage perspective, and a teenage aesthetic. I'm just starting to feel like a grown-up, and it's actually really exciting. But it's definitely a new thing, and it's really natural for me to write in a teenager's voice.
RM: Who inspired the characters Trisha and Rose in your newest book?
MT: Trisha honestly just kind of ended up happening. I didn't plan for Trisha to be who she is. I was going to write in the first person and have the narrator be a fourteen-year-old girl, but I didn't expect her to be Trish. I thought she was going to be more girly, not somebody who is uncomfortable with femininity. Trish just kind of came out on her own in that really cool and mysterious way that I have heard fiction writers talk about -- having their characters write themselves -- which I kind of never believed. I thought they were lying. But actually, she just came out, and it was really awesome. And Rose, Rose is kind of based on a million different people. Rose is kind of based on a girl who I knew when I was thirteen who was really mysterious and wild. She's based on my very first girlfriend. She's all these different people. I just feel like I'm really attracted to that relationship between the girl who's kind of scared, or shy, or withdrawn, or not worldly, and the girl who's really wild. I saw that movie Times Square when I was about twelve years old, and it was my favorite movie. And I think that dynamic between the two characters in that movie really marked me.
RM: Why did you choose to tell this particular coming-of-age story?
MT: I wanted to tell the story of a teenager. I wanted it to have a working-class environment that was based on and inspired by the city of Saugus in Massachusetts that neighbors the town I grew up in. ... And everything just evolved on its own in a really great way. I didn't even have a chapter outline when I sat down. I felt very much in the dark about what the plot was or even what I was doing. And it all came together. It was my first try at fiction, so I wanted to hold on to some of the themes that I know well and that I'm inspired by because I felt like I was going into totally unknown territory writing fiction. I wanted to keep something familiar, so that's why I stuck with the kind of aesthetic and characters.
RM: What was the most surprising thing about writing your first work of fiction?
MT: That people like it. I was so scared that it would suck. I really felt like I didn't know what I was doing while I was writing it, and it's just the most awesome delight that I'm getting good feedback about it, and people are connecting with the characters. When you're writing memoir, in a way, it's so easy. For me, it's really easy, anyway, because the story's already told. It's only my job to write it. And to go into a story that I was creating from scratch was so intimidating. I was so nervous the whole time I was writing it that I wasn't doing a good enough job, or that I was leaving out crucial things that would leave the reader in the dark, or confuse the reader, or bore the reader. And then I also had this total existential crisis while I was writing it, like what's the point of writing fiction, like why am I making these people up? Why am I making up this story when there are so many "real stories" that need to be told. I just had this whole head trip the whole time I was writing it. So I'm really happy that I came out the other side with it, and that it worked, that it held together. It's just an awesome, delightful surprise.
RM: How young were you when you began writing stories?
MT: Oh, really young, like five years old, six years old.
RM: Did these stories have recurring themes?
MT: Yes, children in turmoil. I was inspired a lot by what I was seeing around me and by my own experience. When I was really little, I had surgery to remove a birthmark on the back of my head. And the first thing I remember trying to write was the story of a girl who had a birthmark on the back of her head removed. It was really dramatic. I wrote a story about a girl who had been abused. I wrote a story about a girl who had a developmentally disabled sister who died, and the girl was racked with guilt because she had been made fun of at school for having a sister who was developmentally disabled -- all these super social drama kinds of stories.
RM: What role does your spoken-word work play in your writing?
MT: In the past, it played a huge role because all of the chapters of all of my memoirs originated as pieces that I was writing as spoken-word pieces. So for Passionate Mistakes, Valencia, and The Chelsea Whistle, and even most of Rent Girl, all of those stories were written with an audience in mind, not a readership but a live audience, so it really influenced the way that I wrote. You want to have a certain drama and you want things to move quickly. You only have so much time onstage, and you really want to hold the audience's attention, especially when a lot of the places are bars where people are getting drunk, and their minds are wandering. But now, I am finding that I can kind of trust that what I am writing will end up published, and I am writing a little bit more for the page, not really thinking about the audience, but more about a readership. So that's really fun and different for me to do. The weird thing is that I still have to read these pieces aloud. It's an adjustment learning how to read these pieces that I wrote more for the page than for a live reading.
RM: Who is this readership you envision?
MT: It isn't specific. I don't imagine certain people or a certain demographic or anything like that. I'm really just imagining a projection of my own self. I would like to write something that I would like to read. I have my own standards. I know what I enjoy. I know what I feel moved and inspired by. That's what I am looking towards writing.
RM: The heavy, serious situations you write about are often infused with humor. Why is humor important to you?
MT: I just think it's important for life. I think most people go through really heavy things in their lives, and if you don't have a sense of humor to help you through it, your life is going to be heavy and not so pleasant. I don't necessarily try to put humor into things when I am writing about heavy stuff. I also think it's important to not make a joke of things, to let a heavy situation be heavy if it needs to be. But sometimes a joke or something absurd is just there, and it's so apparent to me that there's this absurdity that's also happening, and I just include it because that's just how I am seeing it.
RM: How does place inform your writing?
MT: I think place is everything. There is that whole idea that all the stories have been written, and we're just rewriting and rewriting them, and that might be true, but I think that the landscape that the stories have in them makes a story that has been told before totally different because it is happening in a time and in a place that looks different and feels different. There are different implications about things depending on where the story is located. And plus, I just get really inspired by places.
RM: Do you consider your work to be political? What impact do you hope your work will have socially or culturally?
MT: I think it is too much for a writer to think like that. Let me just say that it is too much for me to think like that. If people feel politically inspired, I think that that's awesome. I think that sometimes if you are dispelling myths or telling stories that haven't ever been told or have been told incorrectly and you're doing something to correct that, I think that can be really political. But overall, I think that as a writer, it's your job to tell the truth. And if you are able to tell a truth that hasn't been told before, and that actually changes the way people think about other people and about the world, then you're super lucky and that's really, really amazing. I think it's a little dangerous for a writer to set out to write something that is [political], you know, as far as fiction or poetry and things like that, it can be a little dangerous, because you don't want to compromise your work. You need to make sure that the art is first. I feel like within that there's lots of space to be political and have a political impact, but I think you need to just cross your fingers and do your best and hope that it's a by-product of your effort rather than the primary intent.
RM: What does it mean to be a visionary? Who are the literary visionaries who inform your work, your life?
MT: Right now I'm traveling on the Sex Workers' Art Show tour and the woman who puts this together -- it started out as an annual show in Olympia, Washington, and for the past four years it's been a national tour -- is this woman Annie Oakley. She's a writer and an artist. And she's completely a visionary because she saw that there was this huge gap in social consciousness, and in our culture, and in our art, this enormous gap where there are no sex workers telling truths about what it is like to be a sex worker. All of the imagery that we get about sex workers are people who are in really awful crisis situations that turn up on news shows or [are] these complete fictions and fantasies and fetishes about sex workers that are not written by people who have actually been part of the industry. So, you know, at tremendous risks to herself both financially and energetically, she really puts herself out into the world as somebody who's completely promoting this occupation that people really don't see as an occupation, that's illegal. [She] takes tremendous risks in every little direction you could take. Right now we're traveling with two vans full of people who work in the sex industry and every night we do a different show in a different city and get to talk to people who have maybe never seen, to their knowledge, a real live sex worker. And it's completely incredibly important and political and it really, really does change things. So she's a huge visionary.
RM: How do you stay inspired?
MT: I read all the time. I am surrounded by really amazing creative people. My boyfriend is [the hip-hop artist] Katastrophe. He makes awesome hip hop, and I can hear him working on his music all day long at home, and all of my friends are writers and artists that I completely admire. And I go out into the world. The world is inspiring. There are always things going on. There are books being constantly published that are really great. I just participate.
RM: Is there anything that you're reading right now that you would like to share?
MT: I am about to start reading a book called House of Thieves (Penguin 2005) by Kaui Hemmings. She is a Bay Area writer who I have been in readings with, so I have heard her read her work, and it is amazing. She is really good. I haven't started the book yet, but I've heard her read from it and I'm really excited to get into it.
RM: Do you feel like you have been pigeonholed as a queer writer? How has this impacted your career?
MT: I don't think I've been pigeonholed. I am a queer writer, so I think that that's fine. I came into writing, I came into the publishing industry completely unconnected. I didn't go to school. I had no access to publishing. It's completely miraculous that I got published at all. I feel like that's been more of a struggle. Coming from this really lower working-class, not academic, not connected background and having to really learn and persevere my way into publishing. That's been a struggle much more than being queer has for me.
RM: Why should non-queer-identified readers want to read your work?
MT: Oh, I don't really want to answer that. I don't want to tell straight people why they should read queer writing. I just don't even like the division that much. That makes me feel pigeonholed. I understand why you would ask that question, but I just feel like, you know, Why should white people read the work of people of color? Why should men read women's experiences? Hopefully if you are a reader you just want to read about life. I just try to not even participate in that kind of thinking. I personally don't like queer authors being differentiated on bookshelves from non-queer authors. It creates lots of problems. If you have a queer author who has written a book where everyone's straight, do they still go on the queer shelf? What if you have a straight author who's written a really important queer book? I mean, what ends up happening is it ends up being a status/success thing. There will be bookstores that have a queer shelf, but do they put Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf on that shelf? Is Dorothy Allison even on that shelf? No, because those people have made it, and they are part of the larger world of literature. That ends up pigeonholing people, putting them on those little shelves instead of putting them out into the more general readership.
RM: Can you describe some of your involvement in the literary community in San Francisco? How have these activities bolstered your own writing? Why is this kind of community involvement important to you?
MT: When I first came to San Francisco, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't really know what that meant because, like I said, I didn't really go to college. I didn't know anyone who was a writer. I didn't know how a person went about becoming a writer. And then I found this really amazing, driving, spoken-word community that was happening every single night in different bars all throughout the city. And there were all these people who also came from really working-class backgrounds. They were kind of alienated from the world and certainly from the publishing world. And they were writers. They were publishing their own work and they were creating an audience for their work by coming to these events every night. I found this whole scene as a way for me to enter the world of writing. So I started working on pieces and making sure I had new pieces all the time to read so that I could participate in and keep being part of this community. And then I went on to host my own open mic and went on to host Sister Spit, which later became an all-girl performance tour that would tour the country. We did that for about four years. And since then, I've done other performance tours that aren't girl specific but always have my kind of aesthetic hand in it, so they are really girl centric or queer centric.
RM: Why is this involvement important to you?
MT: It's just life. It's [important] because I am a writer and I want to be a part of a literary world. It's just important to participate in the world.
RM: What are you working on at the moment?
MT: Right now I am working on a comic book -- or a graphic novel that is in a more traditional comic book style -- that's being illustrated by Lauren McCubbin, who illustrated Rent Girl. It's called Carrier. It's a sort of riff on the super-hero myth. It's about a girl -- a teenage girl -- who turns into a pigeon. I also wrote a screenplay a while ago based on The Chelsea Whistle, and I am working with a producer to get that made into a film. Oh, and I'm editing an anthology called Transforming Community. It's writing about the emerging trans and queer communities. I also have another anthology coming out called Baby Remember My Name. It's new writing by queer girls under thirty, and there are amazing, amazing pieces in it.