Talking with Michelle Tea, Chronicler of Hip Young Dykes
Writer and performance artist Michelle Tea's Valencia (Seal Press, 256 pages, $13) is an hilarious, poignant and straight-shooting book that reads like an HBO Undercover episode on hip young dykes in San Francisco. Not content to preach only to the converted, however, Tea went on the road as a cofounder of Sister Spit, a traveling girl-poetry road show that took the poetry reading to a whole other level of performance. She's currently touring again and will be in New York this week.
Did you set out to write a book?
No. I was writing bunches of short stories, mainly to be read at open mics, so they had to be kind of fast-paced and ideally funny, because it's so good to hear people cracking up in the audience while you're sweating nervous on a stage. It was later that I realized I had a collection of writing that could be chronologically linked up into an actual book. The writing I'm working on now is different in that I understand that it'll probably be published at some point, so I'm writing more for the page than the mic, and it's so fun. I'm less rushed, and take more time being descriptive and lyrical.
I know I don't want to be labeled solely a "gay" writer. I am a writer and my sexuality is a separate thing. Plus I may turn into a lesbian one day. How do you feel about being known as a gay writer?
I'm pretty comfortable being known as a dyke writer?there aren't tons of dykes out there in print representing the tiny slice of scruffy dykeness that I write about, so I think it's important to be that, at least for Valencia. I mean, the entire book is about my love affair with girls, with being a girl, a queer girl, so it would be ridiculous for me to get upset about being referred to as a dyke writer. Since I write about my life firsthand, my writing is very much about my sexuality. The book I'm working on now is more about adolescence, when sexuality, or at least my sexuality, was more nebulous and foggy, so it's not going to be such a gay book, which is fine as well.
Would you like to have "mainstream" success, crossover?
Would I like to cross over? I'd like as many people to read my book as possible, but it's probably expecting too much from mainstream culture to hope that they'd be moved to pick it up and then get where I'm coming from. I think I may have too much of a grimy underground slant to have the well-scrubbed masses enjoy me. But who knows? I would certainly welcome it.
I heard you're working on a screenplay.
God, I'm hesitant to discuss the screenplay project at all because there's a very good chance that I won't see it through. It's very much in the brainstorming stages right now, and it's a dark, weird and ideally funny film about a group of goth kids, queer, hanging out together in the 80s. There's much drama and teenage mental illness, perverted sex and abuse of animals.
How did your parents react to your writing?
My mother grabbed my sister's copy of my first book and burst into tears after reading only a tiny bit. She thinks I portrayed her in a really ugly way, and it's true that I was very angry at her when I wrote it. But there is good stuff in it too, I think, but she may not have read that far. She hasn't read Valencia and I doubt she ever will. I used to be very hurt that she didn't ask about my writing, or want to read it, and then she surprised me by asking for a chapter from Valencia when I got the galleys back, and I totally freaked out and couldn't give it to her. I was like, oh, my mother and me have had such a terrible past 10 years together and things have stabilized a bit, why torture her with tales of my sexual and chemical excesses? But the book I'm working on now is about my family, and she knows that and it upsets her, but I've promised to be fair and balanced. It'll still upset her. Like most families, mine operates on a good dose of avoidance and denial, so it's always hard when someone starts getting real.
Here's the question I dislike the most, so, I'll turn it loose on you. How much of Valencia is autobiographical?
Everything I've written so far is pretty intensely autobiographic.
So then how did all those ladies feel about being in it?
The people I've written about are really good about it. I think I've only made two enemies from it, which actually upsets me?one is a girl I like very much, and I didn't think I said anything terrible about her, but her hellos have shrunk from big sloppy hugs to cold nods, so I imagine she wasn't happy. Also, an ex-girlfriend is insisting that everything I wrote about her is lies. I do think I merged my own experience of her with stories I heard from her later girlfriends, but it totally wasn't intentional! I honestly thought it had happened to me until I made myself think about it harder. But it still did happen, if that means anything. I try to stick to my own truths, but memory can be so tricky.
Personally, I am so excited to end up in a book. I get murdered in Dennis Cooper's Period and I am honored. Do you think folks you hang out with now have concerns about you writing about them?
I've certainly had people avoid me because they thought I was not so much pursuing a friendship as I was scouting new material. My last girlfriend has forbidden me to write anything about her at all. My present girlfriend, whom I've actually married, can't wait for me to write about her, and she doesn't care if I say terrible things about her or anything, which is so great and freeing that I probably will write about her. I was terrified when the book came out that people would hate me, because I am such a baby and really just want to be everyone's friend. But I've calmed down.
How is doing readings outside San Francisco?
I do love to read from it outside San Francisco, because then it's just stories and less loaded and people don't dash up to me wanting to know who so-and-so was.
How do you think the dot-com economy in San Francisco has changed the queer scene?
Post-dot-com SF?I think it's really fucked the queer scene up, the dot-com invasion. It's impossible to move to this city now without a trustfund or a good job lined up, which means that poor kids who aren't interested in a corporate career have no place, and this used to be the place to come if you were young and queer and against the system, and you wanted to do activism or art or simply drink too much and have sex with lots of other queer kids. I hate the gloss the dot-commers have brought to San Francisco.
In your book you talk a few times about passing as a boy. Or girls you're with doing it to scam on gay guys, which I love. Have you done it a lot, and how does it feel?
When I had my head shaved sometimes people would mistake me for a boy, but just for a minute 'cause I have a really girlish face. But people really use hairdos as gender indicators. I'm pretty girly, so I've never wanted to be a boy except maybe to be a trannygirl, because skirts and dresses look so much better on trannygirls because there's this fantastic punch behind it. I'm occasionally irked at myself for loving the traditional trappings of femininity as much as I do. Also, I have longed to be like certain emaciated goth or rocker boys, but it's pretty fleeting.
What is the traveling show like?
This road show, the Wasted Motel Tour, is different from Sister Spit, the tour I've worked on for the past four years. It's much smaller, so I expect it to be less chaotic, and it's very tightly knit?the bunch of us are all good friends and/or married to each other, so I expect it'll be like a traveling family vaudeville act.
I have so many insane stories from my years with Sister Spit. The time I flung a jar of mustard at some jock in Boston who was upset because Lynn Breedlove had pulled her cock out of her pants, and one of the friends we'd made at the bar?a circus performer?had taken out his teeth and was giving her a gumjob. We all almost got killed that night. That was the night we lost the van, too, and I got very hysterical about it, and when I found it the cops wouldn't let me inside because it was actually registered to my Spit partner Sini, not me. Then they tried to arrest me for disturbing the peace. I was in a rainbow-spangled tube top and I am just so sure they wanted to remove me from the state of Massachusetts. They were extra hateful because of our California plates, and they thought I was on drugs, but I'm from Massachusetts and kept thinking it would somehow help to let them know that. So I kept screaming, "I'm from Chelsea! I'm from Chelsea!" which actually made everything worse because everyone in Massachusetts is such crazy townies, especially the cops, and this was Cambridge, and they hate Chelsea. But I managed to avoid the clink, a strange but blessed talent I have.
Does the audience know what they're getting, or do you win them over the hard way?
Usually we perform in divey bars, and we have a way of really being charming and leveling with the audience and winning their hearts, so even in places where the audience was hostile, we usually ended up drinking beers with them afterwards. Except for a couple of working-class dyke bars in Buffalo and Cleveland, those chicks wanted to kill us. They thought we thought we were haughty academics because we were reading poetry, which was super-sad because if they'd just calmed down and listened, they would have heard that so much of what we all talk about is being poor, being uneducated, struggling, shit they could really relate to. Oh well.
Michelle Tea and others appear this Thurs., Oct. 19, 7 p.m, at Bluestockings, 172 Allen St. (betw. Rivington & Stanton Sts.), 777-6028.
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