Monday, October 10, 2011

Author Feature: Michelle Tea Speaks at USF

Michelle Tea, editor of several anthologies and author of 5 novels, a collection of poetry and a few memoirs--including The Chelsea Whistle, which I recently read in my narrating nonfiction class--was the featured speaker at the USF MFA author series last week. Tea's tiny stature belies her enormous (as in boisterous & generous) personality. Bringing a theatrical presence to the stage, she's quite comfortable in her own tattooed skin, delivering prose with a sharp tongue, quick wit and speedy pace.

Tea, who has lived large, doesn't shy away from edgy topics, particularly on gender and sexuality--from her graphic memoir Rent Girl (illustrated by artist Lauren McCubbin of Kitchen Sink magazine), about Tea's past experiences as a sex worker, to her edited anthologies including Best Lesbian Erotica 2004 and Baby, Remember My Name: New Queer Girl Writing.

Tea's autobiographical novel, Valencia, about her baby-dyke days in San Francisco's Mission district during the '90s, takes place when I also lived on that street amid the grrrl punk/queer/lit scene she emerged into. That book won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, but Tea says in an Oasis magazine interview, "None of it's fiction, except for the unintentional fictions the mind creates when it thinks it's remembering something." Now she's hired 21 independent filmmakers to create a 5-minute short from each one of its chapters, called The Valencia Project:
"The end result, I imagine, is going to be like a crazed hallucination of the story, coming in and out of fantastical focus with its 21 different Michelles and locations and styles and interpretations," she writes on her RADAR blog, where she interviews each director.
Tea shared a chapter from her current project, a YA novel called Little Faggot, told from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old boy. When she got burnt out on writing memoir, Tea explained, she started writing YA fiction--what she calls "a different stance, a different approach to the writing." Citing Judy Blume, Sylvia Plath and Lynda Barry among her early influences, Tea said, "I can't write a normal adult book. I don't understand how normal adults live." But she can clearly get into the head of an adolescent. Tea also spoke about her intuitive, experiential process of writing, claiming not to be good with story structure. Rather than map out a novel, she trusts "it's moving forward. I just get into it and see where it's going."

Tea's first form was poetry. Her published collection of early poems, The Beautiful, she irreverently called "the equivalent of writing a diary when young--for sale." But she wanted to shine a wider light on her stories, and only prose could fulfill that. "Writing poetry," she said, "requires slowness and space."

In response to her admitted early bravado as a writer breaking silences on family secrets, I asked her to speak about the risks and repercussions of writing memoir that reveals topics others don't want addressed. Her advice was to first just write it without consideration of others' objections: "Don't hold back, worrying about what others will think, or it will be watered down. Then, in the editing process, you can decide what do to--cut, change names, fictionalize parts. But you have to be true to yourself as a writer."

Coming from a working class background, (she also edited Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class), Tea understands the necessity of carving out one's own community. Without formal schooling, she "found the things that moved me" and created her own success. In 1994 Tea co-founded Sister Spit all-female open mics with Sini Anderson, and from 1997 to 2003 Sister Spit’s Ramblin’ Road Show--"an all-gendered and trans-inclusive national tour that presents queer and queer-influenced artists before audiences in universities, art galleries, performance venues, bookstores and community spaces throughout North America," according to her website at RADAR Productions--a queer literary arts organization where she is founding artistic director.

In its early days, Tea said, Sister Spit used obscure gay travel guides to find performance venues across the country. The crew, mostly penniless and traveling by van, partied hard and crashed on couches. In 2007 Tea relaunched Sister Spit: Next Generation, now funded with grants and professionalized--including becoming an imprint of City Lights publishing. Though literary luminaries like Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, have come aboard, the spoken word tours haven't veered from their original mission: to provide opportunities for outsider/experimental voices to be heard:
When I moved to San Francisco and I realized that there was this whole other way of being a writer that wasn’t going to college or getting your book published by a press, all these things that felt out of my reach. I realized you can be this other kind of writer who writes and brings your stuff out into the streets and reads in bars and publishes your own poetry. I really feel like because I didn’t go to college and I didn’t get the connections that a person gets... then I would have to make my own audience by going out into the world and reading my stuff. -- 2004 interview from
For more Michelle Tea wisdom on creating space, time and community, check out her PRACTICAL ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME A WRITER.

Don't miss the RADAR reader series, hosted by MT, including these events at SF Litquake:
Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market St. at 6th St: Wed, Oct. 12 at 7 pm, $5
Litcrawl at Lexington Club, Sat, Oct. 15 at 7 pm, FREE

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