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The Big, Bad Truth of Michelle Tea

The writer's new essay collection "Against Memoir" brings the unwritten queer past to the light.

Rebecca Aranda

Let’s start with the bad so that we may hasten to the good: Queer swagger can be corny. The only bum note in Michelle Tea’s new essay collection Against Memoir is in a piece about her time on the road in the queer feminist spoken-word collective Sister Spit. She co-founded the group in 1994 with Sini Anderson (who directed the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer about Kathleen Hanna), and the crew crisscrossed America “delighting audiences and racking up adventures” from their rickety van,  inside crazy outfits. Sister Spit was a very, very cool project, and its members surely had glorious fun.

“We needed the right to ruin our lives and crawl out from the wreckage, maybe wiser,” Tea writes. She and her companions hit the road to get dirty and heroic. But romanticism is not always the happiest bedfellow to essay-writing, particularly when it veers into sentimentality. “We needed the right to start a stupid brawl and emerge victorious or with a black eye,” she writes. The essay reminded me of a person who can’t stop telling wild stories about themselves.

And yet the very problem with the Sister Spit essay—the mixing of feminist critique and queer nostalgia—is the glorious core of Against Memoir, the best essay collection I’ve read in years.

Tea is now a sober and married mom, but she turns again and again to her youth as a poor femme running drunkenly away from Chelsea, Massachusetts. The book is divided into sections: “Art and Music”; “Love and Queerness”; “Writing and Life.” But these subjects all overlap. The opening essay on Valerie Solanas is Tea in crystallized form. “I was thinking a certain way when I first came across the SCUM Manifesto,” she writes—and that way was determined by circumstances that were shaping her nascent identity. She had just discovered that her stepfather had been spying on her and her sister through holes in the wall of the family home.

From that trauma she loops back to Solanas, loops through her own time in sex work, loops through the connected circles that are poverty and queerness and wanting to make men suffer in revenge. “I wanted them to feel unsafe,” she writes, “to become vulnerable.” The stepfather revelation showed Tea that “men could do anything they wanted.” This truth upends her universe: “It’s easy to lose your grip on reality when your entire world is suddenly laid bare as a surreal conspiracy horror show.”

From this point of empathy, Tea lays out the mechanisms of Solanas’s insanity and her brilliant writing, mourning the fact that she died poor and young. “I’m thinking that going totally fucking insane is a completely rational outcome for an intelligent women in this society,” Tea writes, “and I think this idea only becomes more solid the farther back in history you go.”

Tea has not always been sober, and has written about her drunkenness in both her novels (Black Wave) and other memoir-y books (How to Grow Up, Rent Girl). In a recent review of Leslie Jamison’s addiction memoir The Recovering, Laura Miller wrote that alcoholism is a “narrative disorder; like many alcoholics, [Jamison] mistook anecdote (the misadventures, however colorful, of a drunk) for sinews of story (the struggle of a soul to overcome its own worst inclinations).” Miller writes that Jamison’s intellectualism and interest in story-telling form a barrier to the truth—to understanding how that very interest resembles, and indeed drives, her substance abuse.

By writing her life over and over, Tea manages precisely the realization that Miller laid out in her critique of Jamison. “Personal narrative is a mental illness, but you don’t want to be well,” Tea writes. In the title essay, she sees how memoir-writing resembles drinking:

When I was an alcoholic I didn’t want to get sober. I couldn’t imagine who I would be without alcohol. I realize how sad that sounds, like, literally pathetic. But it is true. Alcohol gave me everything. ... I don’t want to get sober from writing. I can’t imagine who I would be without writing. This I can embrace, it does not feel pathetic.

But if writing gives Tea everything, the way that alcohol did, what is writing? It’s a process of narrative self-constitution, continual re-constitution. “Memoir is the story line,” she writes. “Again and again I repeat to myself what has happened to me and what it has meant. This begins in my head and becomes material on the page and I repeat it forever as I read aloud from my work, perpetuating an idea about myself when, as Buddhism insists, there is no ‘self.’ This understanding provokes despair. Will I be compelled to give this up too?”

But Tea is not so concerned with the high-flown “struggle of a soul” of intellectual addiction-litearture. She writes, instead, about the daily glory and pain of queer life. The pieces in the “Love and Queerness” section are, for want of a fancier term, mind-blowing. “Transmissions from Camp Trans” describes the great Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) controversy, in which its leader banned trans women from the famous lesbian party. In response, Camp Trans set up down the way. Tea’s reporting from Camp Trans is the opposite of the broad and ignorant way that gender nonconformity is written about in mainstream news outlets. It is done from a position of deep understanding, of detail. Trans men dominated Camp Trans at the time that Tea visited, for example, marginalizing the trans women who had begun the rebellion. She talks about the way that MWFW leader Lisa Vogel sees her trans-exclusionary politics as a “class and age issue.” She predicts that trans women will come to the fore of the movement. She writes all this in 2003.

“HAGS in Your Face” is an unparalleled account of HAGS, a lesbian gang of San Francisco tough butches. The crew ran around the city tagging “HAGS” wherever they could, beating up Nazi skinheads, and doing drugs. Tea lovingly traces the life of Stacie Quijas, the ferocious and tiny roadie whose huge L7 leg tattoos are on the cover of the band’s “Pretend That We’re Dead” single; she follows other people with cool names like Kelly Kegger, Joan of Anarchy. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival comes up again, brilliantly: Tea heard that HAG Johanna Lee poured “vanilla extract around the tents of lesbian feminists who were trying to kick the SM dykes out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, calling forth a plague of raccoons.” The piece is about being a hero but also being constantly unsafe; Tea remembers seeing a patron of Esta Noche, the first Latinx gay bar in San Francisco, “getting walloped with a two-by-four on the street outside.”

The tragic truth is that many of the HAGS died, of poverty or of bad heroin. But Tea does not close her tribute there: She ends with the question of how the HAGS will be treated by San Francisco queer history. Will they make it into high school syllabuses, or will they be gentrified out of visibility? “Is there a place in the culture for such wild ruffians, a crew of wounded animals who bash back?”

Tea honors the HAGS gang because it’s personal, because it’s important, and because the bad, hard, beautiful life of poor queers doesn’t make it into history. Her writing about butch-femme romance extends one hand back to the history of punk lesbian publishing (try Lorrie Sprecher’s Sister Safety Pin or the SM classic Coming to Power) and another forward, into the future. She writes the lives of the SM dykes, the trans women excluded by normative lesbians, the poor butches who are for some reason never, ever on television. Swagger is a way of walking away from, or through, the tough conditions of a heteronormative world. If Tea over-romanticizes that walk for a moment, it’s a small price for so much truth.