Valencia (Seal Press, $13) is literary genius cleverly disguised as gossipy dyke drama. It's all about Michelle's search for love and high times in a world of girls where everything and nothing matters. Along the way we meet a Petra, who's into knife-wielding radical sex; self mutilators; tormented poets; yuppie prostitutes; Iris, the lovely boy-dyke who ran away from the South in a dust cloud of drama; and Iris's ex, Magdalena Squalor, to whom Michelle turns when Iris breaks her heart.
A 28-year-old self-educated working-class dyke from Massachusetts, Tea is probably best known as the hyperactive co-founder of Sister Spit, an all-girl open mic and traveling road show. Her first book, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (Semiotext(e), 1998) graphically chronicled her journey from small town goth teen to Boston feminist lesbian to Tucson prostitute.
She belongs to a vibrant San Francisco lit scene that traces its roots from Charles Bukowski and Dorothy Allison, to the famed dead Beats and to girls like Eileen Myles and Cookie Mueller. It happened, so it's history. And this is her document, chronicled in real time.
But the coolest thing about Tea's electric narrative is that it encourages us to spill our own guts. She passes the mic, invites us to spit back. As one customer reviewer wrote on Amazon.com, Valencia "makes you want to writefor a long while after, I sort of looked at everything around me a little differently--like there was a story waiting to be told in every nook and cranny."
Ariel Gore: Are you in need of a safe house these days?
Michelle Tea: I have been feeling a little under siege since the book came out, but most of it is my own paranoia and insecurity. Someone wrote anonymous mean little things about me on a flyer on my street, so I was feeling like, you know, the whole world hated my guts and I should never write again, but I am melodramatic and a baby also. I've gotten great feedback mostly. I think there is only one ex-girlfriend portrayed in my book who wants me dead. The others have a sense of humor and, beyond that, I think they just liked being written about.
Do you obscure things to protect people's privacy?
I try not to obscure much, unless it is really going to be too revealing for people and hurt them. Reality is what I am compelled to write about. I do change people's names, and at times I have changed their hairdos and occupations, but often the things that really drew me to a certain person, the things I want to write about, are very defining. I don't really ask people if I can include them in a story--at this point people need to know what they're getting into when they hang out with me. After all, I've been doing this for years! I did ask "Gwynn" if I could write about her cutting her arms, because that chapter was one of the first stories I wrote when I switched from poetry to longer pieces, and I wasn't sure what was okay to write about. So I asked her and, being a writer herself, she just told me to write the truth, and that's what I try to do.
Valencia is classified as fiction.
I don't know why.
In Japan they have a whole genre that is neither fiction nor memoir, just "I-novel." And, apparently, everyone has agreed not to ask or worry about the distinction between author and narrator, fact and fiction.
I love the I-novel! That is fabulous! Maybe we can get everyone here in America to agree not to give so much of a shit about the genre thing.
Valencia is refreshing in that you don't seem to make even a half-assed attempt to make yourself look good.
I really wasn't trying to paint a grand mural of all the bad girls who ruined my holy heart. I totally participated in every aspect of all those relationships, and brought all my own fucked up ways of communicating and coping, and all my illusions and dumb expectations. I think everyone always tries their best and, ultimately, I didn't want to make anyone look bad. I wanted to present myself as honestly as I presented anyone, and I can be a stupid jerk, of course.
There's a lot of graphic sex in your books--I read your first one on a plane to Kansas City and the girl who met me on the other end was shocked..."You read it on the PLANE?" Like reading your work was an intrinsically intimate act...
That's funny--I don't think of the sex as being that graphic, but I guess it is. I like writing about sex that's just honest, not all dolled up to get someone off. I'm most interested in the awkward or weird sexual moments. I'd prefer, of course, to have sex that is not awkward and is weird in a great, perverse way. But it's hard for me to write about great sex, especially in a sexy way. It's not my strong point.
What are your favorite books right now?
Maybe JT Leroy's Sarah. I just read Violette LeDuc's La Batarde and found that very inspiring also. Right now I'm reading Crystal Diary by Frankie Hucklenbroich, the story of this butch dyke in the '60s and '70s and her speed habit and illegal activities and love affairs. It's a great book, like Stone Butch Blues meets The Basketball Diaries.
Do you keep extensive diaries?
I can't keep a diary. I can't bear to--I've tried, and it's so painful to crack it open every day and see the carnage of yesterday's pathetic thought processes smeared across the page. It just really depresses me. [When I write stories] I make a list of incidents, places, and people that seem like they would be interesting or important, and then I do eeny meeny miny mo and land on a story. Then I walk to the bar trying in my head to get back to the place I was when I had that experience, and then, once in the bar, I read something short and inspiring, and then I set down to writing 'til they kick me out. For real, it is such a scam that I can say I've written two "novels"--all the chapters were originally short stories, stuff I wrote to read at Sister Spit back when it was a weekly open mic.
What's going on with Sister Spit now?
Sister Spit started as an all-girl open mic in San Francisco, a weekly alternative for girls who didn't want to suffer the male-dominated open mics the city offered. We went on for two years. A lot of really amazing writers discovered their voices and really honed them by coming every week and reading. I know it helped me tremendously. We got burnt out (me and Sini Anderson, we started it together) and took a break, and came back with the idea to do a spoken word tour, the way all our friends in bands do those little DIY tours and have these great road trips. So we've been doing that since 1997, and we'll be at the Michigan Women's Music Festival this August.
Last question--Somewhere in Valencia you say you don't believe in true love anymore. Do you think that long term relationships are something people settle for, settle into, acceptInga Muscio has been talking about the idea of cathexis, or periodic obsession; do you think that is preferable to true love?
I used to believe in true love, and I think that the way people communicate is so complicated and so many compromises need to be made to stay with people sometimes, that for me, that really wore down my belief in true love. I thought it was a concept to grow out of. But I actually don't think that way anymore, I'm with a girl now who I do believe is my soulmate; she makes me believe in and feel all these great crazy magical things that I thought I was over, like past lives and forever and stuff like that. We actually eloped this past winter. I feel like she really rejuvenated my brain and the way I thought about love. I hadn't realized how jaded I'd become and how I'd really, in many ways, settled for settling, and gave up on my ideal because I thought it was childish and unrealistic. But she is my ideal, the way we relate and live our lives together. It's very exciting and makes me really happy.
Ariel Gore is the author of The Hip Mama Survival Guide, The Mother Trip and the editor of Hip Mama (www.hipmama.com).