Michelle Tea Brings Her Latest Book to UT
Iconic queer memoirist reflects on her past and future writing career
By Beth Sullivan,
11:19AM, Wed. Oct. 24, 2018
Michelle Tea, our patron saint of queer, feminist writing, has penned everything from cult classics like Valencia and Black Wave to Modern Tarot,p a how-to guide on taroting reading.
During the Nineties, Tea captured the queer, punk subculture of then-gritty San Francisco. Though heralded for her memoir work (à la Valencia), Tea is a prolific writer who’s covered such topics as the legacy of queer misfit (and Andy Warhol’s failed assassin) Valerie Solanas, the history of San Francisco’s lesbian street gang HAGS, and the fallout – and controversy – of the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest. Her newest work, Against Memoir, is a collection of essays, conference talks, and remarks from throughout her writing career that fall outside her trademark medium.
This Friday, she joins UT professor Ann Cvetkovich and artist Gretchen Phillips for a reading of Against Memoir and conversation on “queer, subcultural lives,” as part of UT’s LGBTQ Studies Program. It’s been a few years since Qmmunity last touched base with Tea and we figured this was the perfect time to catch up with her. We talked shop about the joys (and perils) of revisiting old work, what it’s like to be queer today, and Tea’s latest move to screenwriting.
Austin Chronicle: What’s the origin story of Against Memoir?
Michelle Tea: I have a lot of essays and articles and one-offs floating out there in the world. I wanted them all to live together in one book. Frankly, I thought it would be an easy, lazy way to have a new book come out. I learned I was wrong when my publisher made me write a whole bunch of new new pieces for it, which I’m glad they did because they're my favorite pieces in the book.
Austin Chronicle: Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Michelle Tea: I guess my favorite pieces are the newest pieces, because their novelty has not worn off as much as the others one. They're probably also more reflective of my perspective. And the HAGS piece – the lesbian street gang in the Nineties that really impacted me and a lot of people who were there at the time, but have really been forgotten by history – I'm really proud of. It was a really difficult piece to write. I know I didn't do a perfect job of it, but I worked really hard on that piece. “The City to a Young Girl” was a real revelation to me … I'm now friends with Jody Caravaglia who wrote that poem. I'm working on a screenplay about it and trying to get her photographs published, because they're incredible. That's just opened up a whole world for me.
I loved the title piece Against Memoir. I was really happy to muse on the strangeness of writing memoir and what a compulsion it has felt like to me as somebody who is an addict and alcoholic and so is very familiar with feelings of compulsion and the ways that they interact, the ways that writing and addiction sort of play out in my body. I really liked having a place to put those thoughts and questions.
Austin Chronicle: Is it ever cringey for you to revisit old work, like "Ew, I wrote that, and I can't believe I worded it that way?"
Michelle Tea: There’s one piece that I actually really like, and I wrote it in real time when I was visiting Paris during a breakup. I ended up having unexpected affairs while I was there when I thought I was going to be having a very sad, depressed, solitary Parisian adventure. It ended up being a sex-crazed, wild time. I wrote about it very bluntly. To look back at it, I was like, "Wow, I was really in a certain place when I wrote that." I still would have published it, except ... I took too many liberties, I think, with the people I was writing about. It didn't end up sitting well with me to put it in the book.
Austin Chronicle: You talk with Ann Cvetkovich and Gretchen Phillips is part of UT's new LGBTQ Studies Program. If you could teach an LGBTQ studies course, what would that syllabus look like?
Michelle Tea: I feel like I get to do that when I'm brought into these schools, and also when I teach workshops. [Tea is currently a writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute.] As far as queer history goes, I really like to look at what hasn't been looked at quite as much. That’s reflected in the book with my pieces about Valerie Solanas, my piece about the HAGS. There’s so much great small-press, queer writing in the world like Brontez Purnell. I would teach Eileen Miles. I would teach Violette Leduc, Jean Genet, James Baldwin.
Austin Chronicle: You didn't graduate from college, correct? [But] you often end up in academic environments. Does that ever feel weird or alienating to you?
Michelle Tea: No, I feel like I'm being invited there specifically for what I represent and what I have to offer to the conversation: a point of view not from the institution and it's not from the academy, which is really valuable. Most professors recognize that it's valuable, and students definitely recognize that it's valuable, because some of these students struggle with staying in school. It's hard not to wonder, "Should I be taking a different route?" It's not like I'm showing up to get people to dropout of college, but it is refreshing to see another perspective – there are other routes to learning and other routes to being an artist of the world.
Austin Chronicle: There's a line in one of the essays, “How to Not be a Queer Douchebag” – I'm paraphrasing – where you ask something along the lines of, "Why are queers so attracted to disasters?” You point to seeing [1980 film] Times Square when you were really young. Now, queer representation in pop culture, it's not perfect, but it's more positive than what happens in Times Square.
Michelle Tea: I love what happens in Times Square! I would prefer many, many, many more Times Square’s than more Will and Grace’s or The L Word’s. I came of age as a queer person in the Nineties where I feel like there were two tracks that you could be on when dealing with how hateful and homophobic the culture was. One: Make the case that we're really not that different and we want the same things and you should let us in.
The other would say, "Actually, there are so many systemic problems with your culture, and we actually don't want to be part of it. We’d rather create our own culture and different ways of relating and different ways of communicating, different ways of expressing ourselves with different codes of ethics." That's definitely the camp that I come out of.
I don't see the portrayal [in Times Square] as negative. I see it as realistic. I'm definitely not interested in forgetting about the trauma that queers carry with them. ... I don't really see any portrayals of queer PTSD or queer trauma in our culture. It's this ridiculous thing. We've been allowed – to some degree – into the larger culture and we just get to be happy, healthy people that like to party and brunch and go to Pride….The way the culture works is like, okay, the larger straight, white, middle-class culture will – at best – ignore you and – at worst – make your life terribly hard and criminalize you. You fight like hell to get in, and then you're [supposed to be] like, "Everything's cool. I'm totally not traumatized."
I really am more into complicated and realistic portrayals of queer people in the media. I like to shut my brain off and watch comedy as much as everybody else does, but Times Square's my favorite movie for a reason. I love the characters. They're archetypes for me.
Austin Chronicle: I came of age around 2008 – gay marriage was legalized in California and then it was repealed. There was Brokeback Mountain, which received Oscar buzz, but somebody died in it. At the same time, Autostraddle was getting really popular. I hadn't thought about how coming of the age in the Nineties, as a queer, must have been totally different.
Michelle Tea: Oh God, yeah. It was insanely different. There was no internet. People didn't really have cell phones. Politicians could basically go out and say that you were disgusting and horrifying. … There was no groundswell of other people who had some sort of platform. ... It was very hard to have a voice that countered the messaging.
Austin Chronicle: You write about finding yourself in queer, punk subculture. How do you see that subculture living on today?
Michelle Tea: There are always little queer miscreants living in the margins in all cities. They're still there. They're creating punk clubs and being in bands and living by their wits. I think class plays into this a lot. I think that when you grow up very middle class, you presume that your life is going to give you a certain thing because of what you were raised to believe. I hesitate to sing the praises of how far we've come right now, because everything feels way too precarious, especially with the Supreme Court majority conservative right now.
Austin Chronicle: I first heard about your writing through Valencia. It’s a novel, but heavily autobiographical. What is it like looking back on that?
Michelle Tea: Valencia is a memoir. I never asked for it to be presented as fiction or as a novel. It was always a memoir for me. Nobody really asked me for more detail. It won a fiction award, which I didn't want to give away. When I look it now, I'm like, "Oh my god, this book is such a mess. I can't believe it's in the world." My impulse is to edit the shit out of it, but that's not necessarily a good or helpful impulse.
As a writer, it's your job to do the best you can in the moment and understand that anything that comes out of you is shaped by place and time. Just the way that wine is shaped by the taste of the grapes, which depends on the quality of the soil they were grown it and if it was sunny that year or if there was a frost. When you sit down to write, all of these things about where you are right then completely influence you're writing. Not just how experienced of a writer you are, how your craft has grown or the places that it needs to grow, but also where you're at, where you're headed, where you physically are in the world. These things influence it. The thought that I could go back and edit Valencia and improve upon it is very misguided. It would be a very different book. Would it be a better book or a less better book? I don't know.
Austin Chronicle: What can people expect from Friday’s event? Do you know Ann and Gretchen?
Michelle Tea: I do. … I met them in the Nineties when Sister Spit would come through Austin and Gretchen would let us stay at her house. We would spread out all over her house and sleep on her floor and she’d make us food in the morning. She’s always been such a wonderful host to traveling queers. I love her, I love Ann’s writing. I think she’s such an important brain – I feel like we’re so lucky, as queers, to have her. I think [the reading] is going to be smart and funny, because they’re smart and funny.
Austin Chronicle: What is something about you and your writing that you think a lot of people think is true but isn’t, like a misconception?
Michelle Tea: I don’t know … people seem to be surprised when I tell them I don’t feel like I have a very strong writing practice. I go forever without writing; I’m not very disciplined. I manage to produce a lot because, when I do sit down to write, I write really fast and I don’t get in my way. … I’ve never been up at 5am, writing until 11:30am, stopping for some toast – I’m not like that. Partly because I don’t make a living off of my writing. I mean, I make part of my living off my writing, but I’ve always had to do other work as well.
Austin Chronicle: What is some of the other work that you do?
Michelle Tea: Well, right now, my family and I are living off of my savings while I try to find work writing for film and TV. But prior to that, I ran a nonprofit for 13 years. Before that, I worked at book stores for many years. [I worked in] telephone fundraising. I was a prostitute for a while. I was a receptionist in a phone sex place, I worked in cafes. I did all of the things that broke, liberated queer girls do to pay their rent.
Austin Chronicle: What sparked the desire to move to television and film writing?
Michelle Tea: It’s always been a dream to be able to take storytelling to that level. When I moved [to Los Angeles from San Francisco] a few years ago, I got a deal to create a show. It didn’t end up happening – most things don’t. But it was enough to get me out here and get me running.
Austin Chronicle: If you could give advice to young, aspiring queer writers, what would it be?
Michelle Tea: To just write. Just write, and put your writing first. Put it before social activities, put it before going to the bar, put it before dating. Just put it first. If you’re serious about it, you have to put it first. And then just write, and keep writing. And voila, you have a book.
Austin Chronicle: What is your ideal solution to getting more queer writers published and getting more queer voices out there?
Michelle Tea: I think publishers need to take more chances on younger, newer writers. I run a publishing imprint with Feminist Press. They’re amazing, and I get to bring in a lot of new queer writers. But it’s just a matter of people need to write books so that these publishers get supported. There are a lot of writers I’ve known through the years who have written wonderful, amazing pieces that really electrified me, but they don’t go on to write a book. … We need people buying queer literature, we need publishers publishing queer literature, and we need queer writers to actually finish their book.
Join Michelle Tea in conversation with LGBTQ Studies Director Ann Cvetkovich and artist Gretchen Phillips about Tea’s latest book, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms this Fri., Oct. 26 at 4pm. UT-Austin, Glickman Conference Center, 305 E. 23rd. Free.