The Chelsea Whistle
by Michelle Tea
Fri Sep 6, Powell's City of Books, 7:30 pm
Fri Sep 6, Meow Meow, 9 pm
It may seem like a leap for Michelle Tea, well known for Valencia--her sexually explicit last novel about the dyke scene in San Francisco--to deliver a 300-page memoir about growing up working class in Chelsea, Massachusetts. But the two books aren't actually that different. Both Valencia and The Chelsea Whistle are written in Michelle's cutting style, and both are extremely autobiographical. In Valencia, Michelle's honest voice gave us the intimate details of fucking women, and now she gives us the story of growing up abused, scared, and very smart.
This week, Michelle starts her American book tour, during which she'll be all over the map, and is even planning a stop in her hometown of Chelsea, which is the subject of the book. Portland is one of her first stops, and she'll be accompanied by a hiphop group called End of the Road, which Michelle describes as "Midwest, white, queer, tranny hiphop." Nice.
Is it therapeutic to write a book about your childhood like this?
It kind of purges things, but in the situation with my family, I've given up trying to arrive at a static place with it. It's complicated, I'm all over the map with how I feel about it on any day, so it's hard to say I've gotten to this good place. But at least I'm not running away with it.
This is a cliché question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: What did your family think about this?
I was most concerned about my sister, because I really love and respect her, and I was really scared she wouldn't like it. It's hard for her to read, and she had to relive it a bit more than me in reading it, but she really loves it and really believes in it. As for my mother and my stepfather, I hope they don't even know it exists. There's no point in it. I've tried to get my mother to read my work in the past, but she's terrified of the subject matter, afraid that it's all about her. Usually I try to tell her it's not, but now it is, and so I'm not telling her.
It seems like your book is a part of a memoir-explosion. All of a sudden, there are all these memoirs being published. What do you think about that?
Actually, I think there's always been a lot of memoirs out; women have been writing about our own lives forever.
What is it then, about memoirs and women?
It's hard to make generalizations because they sound really cliché, but I think that we are really comfortable in the world of emotions, and that's what memoirs are, your own inner world and the cause and effect, and how that connects us to the larger world. Plus, we have to, you know, tell our stories, so other people don't tell them for us.
Your book deals a lot with abuse, and I recently heard David Sterry, author of Chicken, speak about his book which also deals with abuse. He said that people are constantly unloading their personal stories of abuse on him because of the book.
After Valencia, I had people instant-messaging me about how wasted they got, so it might be a nice change to read something else about the people who were reading my books. The abuse that I went through is such an odd, vague abuse, and I read a lot of abuse literature after what had happened to me--There's not a lot of abuse literature about non-physical abuse out there, so I hope this does help some people out.
Do you anticipate any criticism about the fact that it was non-physical abuse? It seems like people might think that less significant than physical abuse.
I didn't write this book to convince the world that the experience I had was abusive. If people disregard it, I don't care to explain it, and that's okay. I'm really proud of it, and I'm also really sensitive. When you write a book like this, not only are you putting your book out there for critique, but you're also putting your life out there for critique.
Anything else you want to add?
I don't want to detract from the abuse theme. But for me, it's also talking about growing up poor and working class, about how unsafe females are in the world. That's intense, because you're not safe on the street, and it gets progressively harder when you realize you're unsafe at home as well. I think there are probably a lot of fathers and stepfathers who have very inappropriate relationships with their daughters. Girls have to find a way to protect themselves.