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Michelle Tea by Kelly Davidson
Michelle TeaPhotography Kelly Davidson

Queer punk author Michelle Tea on being the voice of misfit America

Against Memoir is a series of essays about outsider artists like Eileen Myles and Valerie Solanas, San Francisco in the 90s, sobriety, and what it means to tell your own story

How many ways can you tell your own life story? It’s a question that sums up the work of queer punk author Michelle Tea, who has dedicated her life to memoir in its many forms. There was her famous book Valencia, a million-miles-per-hour snapshot of her coming of age in 90s San Francisco, packed full of booze, drugs, and destructive lesbian relationships. A few memoirs later, there was Rent Girl, the story of “one broke baby dyke trying to make a buck in the surreal world of the sex industry”. And then, a few memoirs after that, Black Wave, the cult meta-literary apocalypse novel about trying to make love and art before doomsday comes. 

Tea’s latest book is Against Memoir, a collection of her nonfiction writing for journals and web platforms over the years. Essays from the first section, “Art & Music”, cover Valerie Solanas, Erin Markey, Eileen Myles, Prince and Minor Threat. The second section, “Love & Queerness”, features an incredible pseudo-oral history of a criminal San Francisco street gang called HAGS, as well as “Transmissions From Camp Trans”, a report from the protest camp that set itself up outside a trans-exclusionary women-only music festival. In “Writing & Life’, the last section, Tea turns inwards – she explores her own sobriety, miscarriage and, of course, urge to write memoir. All of these essays are, in her own words, “linked together by a particular queer life, lived on the margins of queer culture – even as queer people have made inroads to the mainstream”.

Below, we talk to Tea about young queer voices in 2019, subcultural writing, and the importance of documenting the fact that women can be criminals, addicts, punks, and drunks just like men can.

To start with, why is it called Against Memoir, what does that mean to you? 

Michelle Tea: I’ve been writing memoir for four decades, which is maybe crazy, right? Most people write one book about their life. It’s a strange project to be so self-reflective. I have thought deeply about my life, but more of it is about capturing the urgency of moment and things we feel as they’re happening. When you write memoir there’s a risk to you as a writer of getting stuck in the perspective of that moment – like a bug in amber. The title is a bit about that: we all write stories about ourselves whether we’re printing them or not and I think it’s important to look at them and question; does that still feel true? What are the other angles? 

One other thing I have come to realise after writing memoir for a long time is that it creates a certain amount of wreckage in your life, with people who turn up in your stories. I encourage people to write their story, but in order to do that you have to have a certain amount of ruthlessness or coldness. I thought it was time to have a bit of a reckoning with those effects it has on other people, and the effects they had on me...

Against Memoir is memoir, but it’s also very outward facing – you’re writing about culture and art and social movements. Tell us about "HAGS In Your Face", the longest piece...

Michelle Tea: It’s focussed on a group of dykes in San Francisco in the 90s that gathered themselves together in a gang and called themselves HAGS. They ran around doing petty crime, drugs, vandalising – a violent entity at queer punk shows. They got progressively out of control, many got really sick from drugs and a few people died, but they represented something to me when I moved to San Francisco, they solidified that this was the place that it was a city that could hold these beautiful raw rufians that were living outside of the law, a rational response to a culture that hated queer people, women, gender variant people, poor people. They had no respect for society, law or capitalism. That really resonated with me. At the time I had just come out of doing sex work and I unsderstood how laws forced people into criminal activity ‘cause there were no better options for people from poor backgrounds.

So I loved the HAGS, but I was scared of them. I wanted to write their history for a long time. Queer history, it’s like how all histories get told: by the winners. I mean arguably there are no real winners in queer history but we have people like Harvey Milk, who I adore, and then we have people like the HAGS who were underground, gender outlaws and addicts. For me, that’s my queer history. But it was a hard story to write, really emotionally taxing. I felt like I needed to do a good job of representing people and not be sensationalist because the folks who died died in a really sensationalistic way (from a bacterial disease contracted through heroin) and I didn’t want to replicate the way that the media attached to that story. When I finished writing that I took to my bed and wept for an hour, which I’ve never done on the heels of writing anything, not even my own trauma. 

“I grew up reading Hunter S. Thompson and The Beats and Jim Carrol’s Basketball Diaries, these wild men who got to live these wild lives with freedom and I was very aware that there wasn’t a female equivalent of these writers” – Michelle Tea

You write a lot about these kinds of subcultures – how do you feel about the state of radical subcultures today? 

Michelle Tea: I think there are still radical subcultures thriving because the world we live in is a garbage fire and it’s so horrible here in the US. We have concentration camps right now where children’s rights are being removed – they can't get flu shots while they’re being stuffed in this overcrowded warehouses. It’s terrifying. Capitalism is insane and not working and there’s a response to that. It might look different to how it looked in the 90s, but I feel like there’s a lot of radical activism happening, art and music responding to it – to me that’s subculture. However, I would say it’s not as sub, because we have access to things more readily because of the internet. 

I grew up in Boston, it was all boring normally lesbians, straightlaced and academic. I mean there were queerdos in Boston but there just weren’t a lot of us. So when I came to San Francisco and went to a bar and saw an entire bar of queer female gender fucking punks I was like ‘oh my god, this is incredible, I didn’t even know this was here!’ It felt like a magic thing happening like I was permitted entry into a secret world. But these worlds are just made up of individuals and now we see these individuals because we follow them on Instagram or we like their art. It doesn’t feel quite as clubby. 

It was interesting to read about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In England there’s quite a severe ‘debate’ raging about who can use single sex spaces and I think that chapter is a good reminder that this conversation has been going on a while...

Michelle Tea: “Transmissions from Camp Trans” is the name of that piece. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival had begun as this very lesbian but also women’s separatist space. Even at a certain age little boys weren’t allowed into the festival. Like any space that is based on gender essentialism, it was problematic. [In 1991] a trans woman called Nancy Jean Burkholder came to the festival looking to hang out with other women and was basically policed in this horrible way and asked to show her ID and kicked out the festival and not even allowed to go back to get her tent because people had surmised that she was trans. It’s just so fascist and scary. Her friends didn’t know what had happened to her. It was just such a violence. 

As a response to that, the next year, her and some friends created some handouts for the line to the festival trying to bust myths about trans women. That was the beginning of Camp Trans, which became a fully-fledged protest camp set up outside of the festival, down the road a bit. I went to Camp Trans one year and observed things and wrote about it. I dont want to speak to it too intensely because it was by and for trans people specifically – but it was a gathering of people who wanted to make it so that the women and leadership at Michigan had to deal with the fact that they were banning a type of woman from their festival. Michigan was so successful for so long because there was this magical feeling of safety and being in the woods with other people, and feeling free. But of course, that experience was only open to people with cisgender privilege. So Camp Trans became the alternative festival, where trans people could go and be with other trans people and allies in the woods. 

What happened to Michigan?

Michigan Womyn’s Festival no longer exists – it was like, ‘we’d rather die than change vibe’ – but there are now festivals that really embrace what queer culture looks like today; there’s Autostraddle Camp, and Rocco Kayiatos, one of the editors of (trans men’s magazine) Original Plumbing has a camp for trans men that sounds like it’s incredible.  

“I was living in a way that historically women have not been allowed to live and still are pressured not to live. Whether that’s to have sexual agency or be promiscuous or to be queer or to experiment with their bodies, take drugs or do sex work. You’re not supposed to do these things and giggle about it” – Michelle Tea

My next question is about Valencia. It was a rare discovery to find a book about a woman basically having loads of sex, taking up space, and if you don’t mind me saying… being a mess. I just wondered, did that feel deliberate or political to write, or just your truth? 

Michelle Tea: Thank you! I was a mess (laughs). All of those things. I was living in a way that historically women have not been allowed to live and still are pressured not to live. Whether that’s to have sexual agency or be promiscuous or to be queer or to experiment with their bodies, take drugs or do sex work. You’re not supposed to do these things and giggle about it, but that’s what was happening. 

I grew up reading Hunter S. Thompson and The Beats and Jim Carrol’s Basketball Diaries, these wild men who got to live these wild lives with freedom and I was very aware that there wasn’t a female equivalent of these writers. There was Eileen Myles but at the time she, unfortunately, didn’t have the cultural cache that she has today. There was Dorothy Allison who writes about sex. But there wasn’t a lot affirming women’s access to this counterculture of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that men have had flamboyant access to and never been punished for. Like, even though Charles Bukowski or William Burroughs died we don’t really say, ‘oh, he died a sad life as an addict!’ And I hated that Jack Kerouac got to write on the road while I was supposed to write something where I was sad at the end, like, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe I let myself become a prostitute!’ 

So I understood there was a political dimension to it and that emboldened my writing. I would have written anyway cause I’m a writer and that’s just what’s in me, but I felt really excited to make a space for these experiences that was unapologetic and not tragic.

You were an addict yourself but now you are sober, how has your relationship with alcohol affected your writing over the years?

Michelle Tea: I was probably more productive at the start of my writing. I don’t know if that was drinking or because it was new and I had youthful bravado or purpose, I thought my agenda was important. If you’re an alcoholic, people say it’s a progressive disease. It gets worse. So when I was first writing and drinking it was fine really. I wrote Valencia drunk, and I wrote Past Mistakes drunk and I wrote Chelsea Whistle drunk and on cocaine.

I used to think I loved writing, but I loved drinking and smoking and that’s what I did while I wrote. It kept me there. I would get lost in the story because I was drunk and sometimes you have delusions of grandeur – that helped! It made me feel like I was doing something important and loosened me up. I think writers have the creative brain that wants to barf sentences onto the page and the editorial brain that wants to fix it. Being drunk I lost the editorial part of my brain so I could just write and write. When I first stopped drinking it was painful to write as I had to sit with my antsiness, tame the editorial part of my brain, and the self-doubt that all writers get. But I can still get into the flow. 

Who are some emerging queer writers you would recommend to readers? 

Michelle Tea: In that category, Brontes Pernell is astounding. I worked with City Lights and The Feminist Press to curate imprints – I bring them books and we publish them – so I published a couple of Brontez’s works. He’s a queer black Southern punk and he’s everything. I’m constantly inspired by his life. Juliana Delgado Lopera is another - she’s queer and Columbian and from a family of immigrants and writes about that and being a weirdo. She’s doing something new.

I’m also in the middle of reading a memoir by Cyrus Grace Dunham called A Year Without A Name and it’s a sort of memoir about coming to terms with being trans – they’re writing about it in a way that feels very fresh and psychological. Carley Moore wrote a book of essays I love called 16 Pills and she has a new book out called The Not Wives, which is a novel centred around The Occupy Movement – it’s a super cool book. And I just finished Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I feel changed by it. 

What are you working on next? 

Michelle Tea: The majority of my energy right now is going on crafting a TV Pilot inspired by the HAGS story. And also an unfinished young adult book called Little Faggot. I hope to keep that name, but I understand if I can’t.