Last summer, after an eight-hour shift with barely enough time for a piss break, I walked out of a yet another café job. This wasn’t something I was in any kind of financial position to do, but the expectations placed on me vastly outstripped my hourly wage, and I at least try to maintain a certain standard in the cesspool that is the post-austerity job market. As a consequence, I have spent the last few months pursuing money by other means. In July, I listed clothes on eBay, purchased in times of fleeting affluence. In August, I cycled through alternating waves of heat and sheets of rain to throw buckets of boiling water down mysteriously blocked urinals and mop floors until my jeans were damp with sweat. In between these crumbs of work, and spikes of tight-chested panic, I’ve been reading Michelle Tea.
I often return to Michelle Tea’s writing when I’m sick of my place in the world. The chaos of her writing, and the scrappy eloquence with which she describes her own working-class background, remind me that a bad or boring experience, when written down, can become a story. I was at university in a small English seaside town when I discovered Tea and her lesbian feminist punk-poetry collective, Sister Spit – who toured the US in an infamously raucous van during the mid-nineties and also included writers such as New York’s cult lesbian poet Eileen Myles and riot-grrrl documentary maker Sini Anderson. Following their internet trail revealed a grainy YouTube video of a young Michelle with dirty hair, her heavily tattooed arms wrapped around a mic stand, reciting poetry with all the urgency of a planet about to implode. Michelle Tea was the first scruffy, working-class queer woman I had heard speak out about being a scruffy, working-class queer woman. Her voice shot up like a bright, tenacious weed from beneath the rubble of almost-exclusively male beat poets that had, up to that point, comprised my poetry education. If poetry was something that could be extracted from experiences so similar to my own, then perhaps poetry was no longer something I needed to regard in voiceless awe, whilst I waited for my own life to become more worthy of documentation.
At twenty-one, I consumed Michelle Tea’s books as though they were self-help manuals. Speeding through her early memoir, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (1998), I was captivated by the unflattering honesty of her prose. Wasn’t I just like Michelle? Wasn’t I always the rattling drunk, the scorned lover and the lifeblood of the party? I was working-class, financially illiterate and ill-equipped for the world of badly paid, low-skilled work that awaited me. I wanted desperately for my own life to be imbued with the chaotic energy of Michelle’s San Francisco. Reading her anecdotes, each one sopping with drink and drugs, I began to mythologise aspects of my own life. Being released into early adulthood, untethered from a strict working-class family, felt a lot like being given a free pass at the funfair, and I wanted to ride the Waltzer every night until I puked. Discovering Michelle Tea, and the rest of Sister Spit, dignified my search for something profound in routine, shallow acts of adolescent indulgence. Bathroom hook-ups and licking the chemical edges of overdrawn debit cards became forms of research. So too, was waking up in the muddy darkness of early morning to find my friend having sloppy sex, under a single duvet, with the person I was going to take my chances with before I passed out. If I could survive the hangover, I thought, then even vomiting into the Thames in broad daylight was potential fuel for writing.
It feels auspicious then, that Michelle Tea’s latest book, Against Memoir, should be released in the final year of my twenties. Having navigated this tumultuous decade alongside her earlier writing, closing it with this retrospective of ‘Complaints, Confessions and Criticism’ – as told through a collection of personal essays, public presentations and manifestoes spanning the past fifteen years of her career – represents, on both our parts, a reflective shift. In an essay entitled ‘Sister Spit Feminism’, Tea looks back at the origins of Sister Spit as a travelling microcosm of her own queer San Francisco. ‘We were the lavender menace and the broke ass menace, we were the never-been-to-college menace and the drunken menace, we were the shove-your-dogma menace and the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory-menace.’ As queer women existing on the fringes of society, making themselves vulnerable to countless audiences across America at a time when homophobia had been stirred by the recent AIDS crisis, was as much an exercise in personal catharsis and identity assertion as it was a performance.
The character of the literary ‘outsider’ that Sister Spit purposefully embodied with their performative rebellion is deeply entrenched in our culture. Typically, this character is a white, straight, liberal male, ideally one who suffers for his art. Maybe he’s a beat poet wearing a garland of marigolds. If he’s not actually Bukowski then he is, at the very least, a chronically unfulfillable drunk and a philanderer. I’m not suggesting that all this writing is bad, or even that it forms bad people — I love Henry Miller, and I have also loved men who love Henry Miller. Still, the notion that only straight white men – buckled under the weight of responsibility to articulate a universe of experience that the rest of us had barely dipped our toes in – could shun society and create something smart and beautiful is, let’s be honest, bullshit. As Michelle writes in ‘Sister Spit Feminism’: ‘As female artists we required the same opportunities to fuck up and get fucked up as dudes have always had and been forgiven for; we need access to the same hard road of trial and error our male peers and literary inspirations stumbled down.’ Though I feel some embarrassment at my literal interpretations of Michelle’s writing during my early twenties, for so many women I have known – especially those from households where patriarchal notions of ‘proper’ feminine conduct still stand – getting black-out drunk and publicly propagating your sexuality was a rite of passage. We worked with what we had, carving out an alternative allegiance to the canonised behaviour of those male outsiders we had once idolised.
In her years as a memoirist, Michelle Tea located herself at the centre of a subculture that formed a radical world all of its own. Throughout The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Michelle traces the insurgent counterculture of the San Francisco punk dyke scene that came to define over a decade of her post-adolescence. Passionate Mistakes reveals the intricate ecosystem of girls, parties, drugs, bars, fights and romances that seduced queer people towards the Bay Area ‘as if a pulsing, magnetic stone were lodged beneath the water there’. Anybody without easy access to money or familial support will know how quickly the new value systems you take on when you leave home can become gospel. And, despite their flaws and dysfunctionality, outgrowing them can be a slow and difficult process. For Michelle and the San Francisco queer community of the 1990s, the mechanisms for navigating a society that was still baiting and bashing queer people revolved as heavily around drugs and alcohol as they did around activism, occupying the dangerous liminal space between liberation and dependence. In Valencia (2000), Tea speaks knowingly of her own trauma and that of others around her: ‘I of course had been a prostitute, and had a girlfriend go straight on me and a peeping Tom stepfather.’ This inventory of poverty, substance abuse and sexual trauma that racks up between Michelle and her friends becomes a currency that fuels her early work, one that she repeatedly seeks to address throughout Against Memoir. She opens the essay ‘How Not To Be A Queer Douchebag’, a keynote speech given at a Queer, Gender and Sexuality conference in 2011, ‘I am here to give you advice you have not asked for because I am forty years old and you are not.’ Her allusion to the trope of the worldly queer elder may seem purely playful, but it’s well-earned. ‘Let’s not pathologise each others’ differences,’ she begs. Michelle preaches from the precipice of the leftist callout and cancel cultures that have since consumed the internet. Speaking of her own community’s hawkishly vigilant calls for defence, she notes that ‘[it’s] important to point out when they are fucking up. What I ask is, can we not enjoy it so much?’ Tea has borne witness first-hand to the San Francisco tech boom that has sanitised the area’s historically racially and sexually diverse culture and drained the lifeblood from her beloved city. Yet she is ultimately hopeful, ending her generous tirade by encouraging her audience to allow themselves to be vulnerable and ‘lean in’ to change: ‘the reality is that everything is imperfect and evolving, we are making up whole new lives and identities, new ways of being human, new ways of having sex and talking about sex, we are making all of it up right here right now and isn’t it an exciting time to be queer?’
In her apocalypse novel, Black Wave, Tea’s capacity for prophesising scrapes uncomfortably close to the bone. Black Wave was published in 2015, three years before the explosion of Extinction Rebellion and the twelve-year ‘tipping point’ – the threshold at which climate scientists predict that, if we continue burning through natural resources at our current rate, the resulting damage will be unmitigated and irreversible. Although Black Wave is set in San Francisco in 1999, it bears an uncanny resemblance to our present-day world. The novel opens with a fictional Michelle, the daughter of working-class, lesbian mothers, smoking crack in the back of a friend’s van. ‘As a writer, Michelle was happy to have smoked the crack. Having been unable to get it together and apply to college, she knew her literary education would happen on the streets.’ A broke memoirist living in the shadows of a city rendered barely recognisable through layers of aggressive gentrification, Michelle decides to use the end of the world as an excuse to break out of San Francisco and makes her way through the desert, beneath the killer sun. This pilgrimage lands her in LA, where she takes refuge ‘working’ in a bookshop, armed with a Magnum .44 revolver and a small list of things to achieve before both she and the earth dies. Turning her back on the fatalistic looting, shooting and mass suicides around every corner, Michelle quits drinking. She rides out the Apocalypse sober, finally writing her memoir in reconciliation and harmony with the world crumbling around her.
The decimation of the material and ecological world represented in Black Wave is reminiscent of the tragic demise of the HAGS gang, detailed in Tea’s essay ‘HAGS in Your Face’. The HAGS, known for territory-marking tags that decorated the bathroom stalls, phone booths and brick walls of San Francisco’s Mission District in the nineties, were a gang of tough, punk queers who bashed back. The Breeders song ‘HAG’ was written about their tag. Original HAG, Stacey Quijas’s tattooed legs appear on the cover for the band L7’S 1992 single, ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, a skeletal hand making up the band’s L and 7 on the back of each skinny calf. (The HAGS themselves were named after John Waters’s short film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket). ‘You knew a HAG was a HAG,’ writes Tea, ‘because they moved in a pack, as all wild animals do, and the backs of their motorcycle jackets and denim vests all proclaimed their affiliation: HAGS.’ It’s easy to see the appeal of HAGS through the eyes of a young Michelle. Given her passion for drama, corruption and the subversive, she details how she was instantly seduced by their presence: ‘If this was the place this group of magnificent and terrifying dykes thought best to call home, it was where I wanted to call home too.’
Silas Howard, who ran a popular HAGS hangout in the Mission, has suggested in an interview with Tea that the formation of HAGS was, in part, a radical internalised response to the bile directed at the queer community by the culture at large, and to the violent inaction of American conservatives during the AIDS epidemic. This culture war, played out in movies, on television and in the streets, entailed the conservative arm of the battle platforming some of the most heinous racist, sexist homophobes of the late twentieth century. Senator Jesse Helms infamously rallied against those engaging in homosexual acts, claiming that they were ‘degenerates’ and morally ‘sick’. For Howard, ‘the answer to such hostility was not to be respectable, to continue working to convince these bigots we were “just like them”, but to become the degenerate beasts they accused us of being, to take delight in our monstrous power, to say fuck you and goodbye to the possibility of living a “normal” life in this culture.’ Applying hatred as a balm for anger is a bit like starting a war to gain peace, and the HAGS became a swirling vortex of addiction, crime and self-destruction that swept up the lost and vulnerable. This reactionary self-harm as a form of societal neglect and public shaming is closely echoed in Black Wave, where ‘being cast out of society early on made you see civilisation for the farce it was, a theatre of cruelty you were free to drop out of. Instead of playing along you became a fuck up.’ It is this grand progressive failure to include and respect the diverse biome of life in Black Wave that results in seismic ecological breakdown, and in the end of human life on earth.
The demise of the HAGS presents us with a microcosmic version of societal collapse as a direct result of governmental and societal neglect. Consumed by addiction, a few remaining members began to develop tiny open wounds all over their bodies. These wounds, most likely the result of injecting a bad batch of black tar heroin, were caused by a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria at the mercy of which only a few survived. In her last words on HAGS, Tea writes: ‘When facing down the drooling and ferocious wild beast of homophobia, the HAGS became gorgeous monsters. The strategy was not sustainable.’ This notion of sobriety as the only sustainable means of survival is threaded throughout the ecological collapse in Black Wave. Despite Tea’s own struggles with addiction, the same critical distance that has allowed her to document and memorialise everything in her life – from drunken, toilet-cubicle stranger-fucking to the more tender edges of romance – is also what saved her from a volatile subculture whose best response to the pain caused by the outside world was self-sabotage. In order to tell stories, or to tell the stories of those who didn’t survive, we must live.
The irony of writing about myself in a review of a book entitled Against Memoir is not lost on me, but doing so felt unavoidable. Perhaps the narcissistic bent that drives the urge to create memoir cuts both ways; in our attempts to impose a sleek narrative onto the chaos of reality, we search for our own reflections in the words of other writers, like a snake eating its tail. In the final, titular essay in Against Memoir, Tea strikes a compelling comparison between her alcoholism and her desire to write, exploring how complicated and bodily both processes can be. ‘I know what it is to crave, and the need to take this story into my body was consuming.’ In this essay, Against Memoir poses a question: could Michelle Tea, after decades of devoting her life and writing to personal narrative, actually be against memoir? After years of succumbing to the intoxicating neurological state of hypergrafia – an overpowering desire to write — and despite the grief and anger that the searing honesty of her work has caused to her exes, family and friends, the answer, we are led to believe, is no.
Tea’s commitment to the mythmaking that builds on, and preserves, vital queer and countercultural histories is matched only by the magnitude of her compulsion to keep writing, no matter what. Against Memoir boldly attempts to turn the huge, scary, stinky, fleshy, horny, breathing, brooding, loving, drunk, sober and bleeding reality of being alive into a folkloric oral history that drills down into the marrow of your bones. When I finished reading Against Memoir for the first time, a sigh heaved out of my lungs as though I’d been holding my breath the whole time. My compulsion to read her books is as strong as the compulsion with which they were written, afraid to set the work down for fear that the words will charge restlessly ahead and leave me behind. In Michelle’s own words: ‘Personal narrative is mental illness, but you don’t want to be well.’