How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

9th Feb 2015

Michelle Tea has been around. Although only in her forties, she's published memoirs, novels and a poetry collection, curated thousands of literary events, co-founded cult international queer spoken word roadshow Sister Spit, edited numerous anthologies and set up her own City Lights imprint.

Renowned worldwide for her innovative, award-winning approach to championing marginalised voices and her fearless take on taboo issues such as sex work, poverty, and addiction, Michelle Tea is undeniably prolific, with a reputation that precedes her.

And on that basis – as long as you didn’t delve too deep into her messy and murky past – you’d assume she’d done her growing up a long, long time ago.

But in How to Grow Up, Tea’s new memoir-in-essays, she shows – with trademark candour, bravery and bite – that that’s definitely not the case, chronicling her transition from being almost forty in a filthy shared house with a maggot-infested fridge to living by the beach with her wife; spiritual, sober and undergoing fertility treatments to try to start a family.

This journey forms the overall narrative, but – like Michelle Tea’s own experiences – How to Grow Up is not a simple, chronologically linear, trip from A to B. Instead, individual essays explore themes that readers attempting to do their own growing up will surely recognise.

From instructions on how to break up with a toxic partner (“stop this drain of your life force… tell this sucker to take his cat and leave”) to dating advice (“beware of sex” and “don’t hit on your tattoo artist”) and Michelle’s experiences as a misfit during her school days, Tea’s voice is relatable, sharp, unapologetic and addictive.

Many will have struggled with the topics she covers on their own journeys to adulthood, and Tea’s accounts of including overcoming childhood scarcity issues to develop a more stable relationship with money, the challenges of balancing a ‘day job’ with being creative, and maintaining passion and energy for social justice while still being fascinated with fashion and other aspects of contemporary culture are full of humour and hope.

At times the book could’ve been tighter; a series of anecdotes about the seemingly impossible quest for the perfect wedding venue, for instance, give comic relief and sweet insights into her relationship, but feel unnecessary alongside more illuminating episodes.

When it’s hard for you to grow up — because you’re poor and can’t afford the trinkets and milestones of adulthood, or you’re gay and the mating rites of passage don’t seem to apply to you, or you are sensitive to the world’s injustices and decided long ago that if being a grown-up means being an asshole you’ll carry out your days in Neverland with the rest of the Lost Children, thank you very much — when adulthood seems somehow off-limits to you, growing up takes time.In recent interviews to promote How to Grow Up, Tea’s mentioned being anxious about readers’ reactions, concerned they might find some aspects of the book “braggy” and “arrogant.”

And it’s true that her tales of getting botox and buying designer clothes – things she’d previously never seen herself as being ‘adult’ enough to do – are a world away from the meth-addicted alcoholic trapped in a toxic relationship she depicts in earlier stages.

But the idea of punk-rock performer Michelle Tea navigating such conventional elements of contemporary womanhood is what makes How To Grow Up so authentic and engaging; it doesn’t shy from the good or the bad, even when that causes questions or discomfort.

Similarly, some might challenge the fact that getting married and starting a family formed significant steps towards adulthood for Tea (like Liz Lemon wanting to have it all, her version of growing up looks at first glance to be a traditional picture of settling down).

But in a world where marriage and parenthood are still far from accessible for many queer couples, there’s something radical and necessary about their self-belief; Michelle and her partner know what they want and need, and their conviction and strength is palpable and powerful.

This makes the chapter about their marriage all the more moving, especially when Michelle reveals that the majority of attendees were queer, saying “it felt magical to be in the midst of this controversial tradition, doing it our way, making it meaningful not only for us but for a community of friends alienated from the rites of love and commitment.”

As she concludes the chapter, “even slutty girls settle down sometimes.” And if Michelle Tea can reconcile her fierce politics and sense of purpose with the upsides of convention, fashion, self-care and occasionally being a material girl, readers should be able to too.

The question of how to grow up might seem open-ended, abstract and unanswerable, but in Michelle Tea’s capable hands it all seems so simple: in your own terms and in your own way.

While her own experiences show that the journey is usually anything but so straightforward, the rollercoaster ride showcases an older and wiser Michelle Tea than we’ve encountered in earlier works.

She may not be down-and-out anymore, but How to Grow Up proves she’s as strong, sincere and original as ever; honest, wise, still brilliant and brilliantly resilient.

How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea is published by Plume later this week.