For Books’ Sake Talks To: Michelle Tea

23rd Jan 2013

michelle tea

Poet, author and founder of Sister Spit –  ‘a multi-media explosion’ of live performance, celebrating queer culture, lesbianism and feminism – Michelle Tea is a serious talent at the heart of the alternative literary scene in America.

Tea’s latest release is her collaboration with Beth Ditto on the artist’s memoir, Coal To Diamonds, which was published in October last year. The pair developed the book through many in depth conversations about Ditto’s varied life experiences.

“I would basically ask a question that I thought would warrant a few sentences, but what I got was story after story after story, until I couldn’t even remember what I’d initially asked!” Tea says. “I just typed it all down like a maniac.”

Like all her projects, Coal To Diamonds is suitably aligned with Tea’s political stance. “I think Beth’s story is important from so many perspectives – class, queer, feminist, body-positive,” she says. “An artist’s story. I am very passionate about how important it is to get outsider stories into the world. Beth’s story is phenomenal, and it’s an outsider’s story.”

This theme is apparent in Tea’s forthcoming novel Mermaid in Chelsea Creek which falls into the young adult fantasy genre. What does she want to bring to the genre? “I think that probably, like all literary genres, it can use more strong female characters, and also more authentic working class perspectives and landscapes, so as usual, I’ll be bringing that.”

Tea’s desire to embed outsider voices in a variety of cultures was the inspiration for her founding RADAR Productions in 2003, a San Francisco-based, non-profit production hub for literary events.

At their core is the stimulation of queer and underground literature which aims to ‘heighten San Francisco’s reputation as national literary centre.’ As a result of this, she is hugely involved in the nurturing of queer writers at all stages of their careers.

“We help writers in a variety of ways,” she says. “We curate them into our monthly reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. That gives them exposure and it also pays them, and I think that offers validation. We help nurture and grow their visibility by taking them on the Sister Spit performance tour, which is a solid month of performances throughout the US and Canada.

Feminism should be embedded in every cultural corner, and I actually think it is, though many of those more mainstream or commercial areas shy away from naming it that.Everyone who works with us is eligible to apply to the RADAR LAB, a yearly queer-centric, free writers’ retreat in Mexico, on the beach, in paradise. And now, through a partnership with City Lights Books, we have Sister Spit Books, and we are actually able to publish 2-3 books a year.”

The Sister Spit Books project was Tea’s highlight of 2012. “We’ve been wanting to publish the excellent writers we work with for so long, but were hesitant to begin a small press during such a crazy time in publishing,” she explains.

“That we’ve lost a lot of queer and small presses made us really want to publish, but that also made us really cautious. Partnering with a stable publisher with such an incredible reputation and history is really our dream. We couldn’t dream bigger than City Lights.”

Tea founded Sister Spit in 1994 and twenty years later it’s still going strong with the Sister Spit – Next Generation tour starting in Spring 2013. Tea says the outfit has changed considerably over the last two decades. “It’s become a lot more professional,” she says.

“In the 90s, I would just pass out drunk on whatever floor we were crashing on, and we made no money, just barely sustained the effort via zine sales and money at the door. But now I’m 41 and sober, I need a nice bed at the end of the day and I need to get paid. And everyone else needs that, too. Also, we are no longer all-girl. As a response to so many of the writers we work with transitioning to male, we now bring all genders along for the ride.”

Tea’s drive to maintain and grow Sister Spit clearly comes, in part, from her love of live literature. “I just really enjoy the energy of live literature. It’s part storytelling and part performance art. It’s part cabaret and part stand up comedy. It can also be sort of a consciousness-raising group or a personal political action. It’s my favourite sort of entertainment – entertainment for sure, but with a lot of depth and heart.”

Of the challenges feminism faces in discovering ways to thrive outside of politically radical and academic circles, Tea says, “Feminism should be embedded in every cultural corner, and I actually think it is, though many of those more mainstream or commercial areas shy away from naming it that. I think this is undermining and is a result of the way women are still punished for identifying with feminism – even though they may be embodying a lot of feminism’s goals.”

Her response to this is varied. “Sometimes, I’m more about calling bullshit on it – I’m like, no, guess what, you’re a feminist, deal with it,” she explains. “And sometimes, I’m more understanding of how languages and labels can get trapped in time and culture and feel irrelevant to people – that sometimes the problem is semantic and maybe not as important.”

Tea’s queer classic, Valencia, details one girl’s search for love in San Francisco’s Mission District. The book is now being made in a feature film with twenty-one different film-makers each taking a chapter and creating a short film. What new perspectives has this form of story-telling brought to the original narrative?

“Well, it has opened up Michelle [the book’s protagonist] from a singular cis-gendered female to a multitudinous, many-gendered female, which I really love,” Tea says. “There are a lot of different Michelles and that is so exciting to me, because I think part of the appeal of the book is that it is universal.

One Michelle is a blow up doll, which speaks in an abject, darkly humorous way about being something or someone that gets projected upon. Another Michelle is Angelina Jolie, which speaks to the way queer cultures get so hungry for our own celebrities to claim.”

So what’s next for her? “I’m still tweaking an apocalyptic fictional memoir called Black Wave which will be published in 2014,” she says.

“And I’m about to begin the follow-up to Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, A Girl in the River Vistula. I’m also working on a proposal for a more entertaining book that explores how I got from the sort of alcoholic broke-ass dirtbag I was in my 20s to the more adult person I am today. It’s tentatively called How to Grow Up.”

Coals to Diamonds can be purchased from Foyles and all good bookshops. A Mermaid In Chelsea Creek is available on pre-order and Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road is available from City Lights.

Kate Kerrow