Chatting up Michelle Tea
The queer icon talks about the dyke punk scene in the '90s, sobriety, getting pregnant and therapy with a rockstar.
Michelle Tea is the San Francisco bay area’s literary pride and joy, and easily their most groundbreaking queer writer in the last 20 years. She’s the classic rags to riches tale without all the sappy clichés—from the 40s chugging, zine-making, ass-kicking queer twenty-something, to the 42-year-old sober prolific writer, with nine published books and counting under her belt, a successful traveling queer poetry group, an upcoming film adaptation of her memoir, Valencia, and an intensely symbiotic relationship with the underdogs of the literary community. Looking at all her rapid progress, Curve had to ask Tea, how did she become such a super heroine?
Of course we had no other option but to talk to Tea about working with The Gossip’s fabulous body positive Beth Ditto on the memoir, Coal to Diamonds. Tea recalls a year’s worth of virtual, phone, and face-to-face meetings with Ditto before the book’s release in October of 2012. “I’d basically just ask her questions and it would trigger in her, like, a massive story where I was writing everything down for a minute and she would just go,” says Tea. It was up to her to sort through Ditto’s stream of consciousness storytelling, and piece everything together while maintaining Ditto’s voice—a job that was originally assigned by Ditto’s manager to a British man who just didn’t capture Ditto’s essence. Tea was up for the mission. “Her story is really intense, and there were definitely points afterward where I felt exhausted,” Tea recalls. “It’s a lot to hash through your entire life, especially the dark parts of it. And I’d just check in with her and be like, ‘okay, thanks…are we OK?’ At the end, it felt like a really intense therapy session but I didn’t know who was in therapy.“
Speaking of finished projects, Tea is also preparing for the launch of the film adaptation of her infamous San Francisco memoir, Valencia. With each of the 18 chapters interpreted by a different filmmaker, the film takes on a narrative but varied perspective of Tea’s humorous, hazy and heartbreaking account of life in the ‘90s Bay area dyke punk scene. The film is premiering at the Frameline Film Festival in June, after receiving a grant from Frameline to produce the film. “They (filmmakers) all took it on with me just like, ‘I have nothing for you. Do you want to do this?’” Tea recounts. “And they did, and it was incredible that people were excited about the project.” Now in the post-production stages, Tea is planning a series of events around Valencia’s launch, including a shorts night showcasing the 18 filmmakers’ talents, and a film debut after party with queercore band The Need, who will be playing together in San Francisco for the first time since the ‘90s.
Tea is also slaving away at her first young adult fantasy series, with the May debut of the first volume, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, and the second volume, A Girl in the River Vistula, launching in June 2013. Tea explains the premise of the series: “It kind of plays with that classic trope of the one who doesn’t know they’re the one. And they’re going to come into their powers and save the world sort of deal. And the one in this instance is a girl named Sophie who’s a young, kind of scrubby girl. She’s 13, and she lives in my real hometown, Chelsea, Massachusetts.”
The series deals with a lot of the themes that appear in much of Tea’s other work—life in the lower class, dysfunctional families and abuse, immigrant heritage and the simultaneous wonders and horrors of the childhood of a developing girl. “All of those things,” Tea says, “but now they’re just imposed in this magical landscape.” The basis of the story stems from a Polish legend of a mystical mermaid.
“In the Vistula River in Warsaw, there’s this legend of the mermaid Syrena—this guardian of the city in Poland. So in the book she comes from Poland into Chelsea to get the girl and bring her back.”
“Basically there’s this kind of magic undercurrent that she (Sophie) was oblivious to, and once she wakes up to it, she’s sort of being coached by all these different people, and learning about her own family history which has been hidden from her.”
As if working on a new book series wasn’t enough, Tea just finished Sister Spit’s spring 2013 tour. If you don’t already know about Sister Spit, you should. Back story: Tea founded the traveling, all queer literary group back in the ‘90s with fellow writer Sini Anderson, at a time when spoken-word street poetry was exploding. “The scene was very vibrant,” Tea notes, “It was also very male and very heterosexual.” And while Tea enjoyed engaging in post-reading brawls with testosterone-driven male writers, she and other queer writers were aware of the lack of non-threatening spaces for queer and female writers to showcase their work.
“It was weird being in San Francisco where there were so many girls and queer girls, and there were only, like, four of us going to these things,” Tea says. “So Sini Anderson had moved here from Chicago where she had been involved in the equivalent scene in Chicago—she went to an all-girl open mic.”
“I was just going to hook her up with a bunch of writers I thought were great that she should invite, and she was like, ‘do you want to do it with me?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, that sounds really fun.’ So we started Sister Spit, it ran once a week for two years. It was always free.”
After those two years, Sister Spit came to a halt, Tea joined a math punk band she proclaims as “awful,” and went on a Pacific Northwest tour. “I loved being on tour,” Tea says. “And I just came back and thought, ‘why can’t we do this with poets and writers?’ Our band was so obscure, you really needed to like this one particular kind of music to even want to see us, but there’s something so universal in storytelling and in poetry. So we put together our first tour in 1997.”
Now, Sister Spit continues the tour, and has paired up with City Lights Press to start the imprint Sister Spit Books, publishing new books or putting old books back into print, like Ali Liebegott’s award-winning The Beautifully Worthless, and Cha Ching. Next up for print is Beth Lisick’s book, Yokohama Three Way: A Collection of Small Shames. As Tea describes it, “it’s all these little vignettes of all these memories you can have of stupid things you did, or dumb things that happened to you that just make you cringe when you remember them,” She explains. “It’s a really icky book.”
As far as her personal life goes, Tea has been trying for the past two years to get pregnant, as she’s chronicled on the website, XO Jane. “I’m thinking a lot about having a female body. And my body has already undergone changes; it’s appearing to get pregnant.” Tea also notes, “what I’m signing up for is like having zero control of my body for the unforeseeable future. And have no idea if the pregnancy is going to agree with me or not, I have no idea what state my body will be left in after that, I know that I’m going to probably be some sort of weird milk machine for a while. I’m really open to the adventure of it. I’m a sober drug addict, and part of the experience of drugs is the sort of alteration of your body and your mind, and there’s an element of it all that feels like going into an altered state, physically and mentally.”
Tea also mentions her partner in her blog entries as sticking out the process together, doctor exams and all. And surprisingly enough, her partner came into the picture post pregnancy decision. “I was sort of getting ready to start right when I met my partner,” Tea says.
“I didn’t have a lot of faith in dating right then. So I was like whatever, this probably isn’t going to go anywhere and that’s fine, I’m just going to have the baby anyway. And then quite to my shock, she just turned out to be the most amazing person I’ve ever met or dated in my whole entire life. And then I got really scared, like, oh god, I gotta’ tell her I’m trying to get pregnant. I kept putting it off, and then you’re like, oh no, has too much time passed? Now it’s going to be really weird when I tell her! It was this horrible moment. I was asking all of my friends, when do I tell her? And my friends were like, ‘you should have told her right away!’ Some were like, ‘it’s none of her business, don’t tell her anything yet.’ And when I finally told her, it was this amazing thing because, as it turns out, her jam is she wants to have kids. She wants it so bad that her friends were like, ‘don’t tell Michelle, you’re going to scare her away.’ We were both keeping this weird little secret. It took a minute to integrate her into what I was doing because we were still getting to know each other. And it felt really right that she would be involved, but I didn’t know how much to trust that because we were too fickly in relationships before, and the stakes are too high when you’re talking about a baby. But it just organically came together, and now we’re in it together.”
And not just in it together, the pair is now engaged, planning for a ceremony this fall. “We’re going to totally do it up,” Tea says with a grin. “Which is both really fun and exciting to plan, and also really overwhelming and scary.” As though Michelle Tea can’t get through planning a wedding. At this point, we’re pretty sure she could successfully plan colonizing the moon.