By Jeff Walsh
If Michelle Tea ever has any regrets in life, it certainly won't be that she didn't live life to its fullest. Tea recently won the Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian fiction for her novel, Valencia, which documents one year in her life in San Francisco's Mission District. Valencia is a roller coaster ride through the urban dyke scene with Tea giving a guided tour of relationships, rubber gloves, sex work, and dead-end jobs. Any of our readers who want to wonder what it would be like to move to San Francisco and jump into the scene, Valencia is a good entry point. It will excite and scare you, as anything good in life should.
A founding member of Sister Spit (more on that later), Tea has become a San Francisco institution, with people actually invoking her in local personal ads as they seek other girls "who will go to Michelle Tea readings with me." For all the time I saw Tea on and off in San Francisco, mainly working at a local independent bookstore, when I finally went to set up this interview, I learned she was gone. Moved to L.A. So, we conducted this interview over e-mail (mainly because a friend said an interview with her shouldn't take too long because Michelle talks so fast, and I got had awful flashbacks to transcribing my Camille Paglia interview). So, e-mail and its built-in transcription sounded like a good idea when Tea offered it as her preference.
First of all, congratulations on winning the Lambda Literary Award, it’s so cool that the top honors went to you and Karl Soehnlein. I was going to say it was great the award went to two San Franciscans, but you recently moved to Los Angeles. What prompted that?
Oh God, I think I'm still a San Franciscan, I'm just living in L.A.! I needed a change, I was feeling restless and like the walls of San Francisco were closing in on me. I get restless easily -- I never thought I'd stay in SF for as long as I did, 8 years. It's a hard place to leave because, despite all the shitty recent changes, it's still just about perfect. But I can't stay in the same place for the rest of my life. Me and my girl Kassy wanted to live together, and like not in 'share my tiny bedroom in a house with a million other people.' We wanted to be domestic and shit, and now we cook dinners in a tiny, clean kitchen, and it's very quaint and novel.
One of the things I loved most about Valencia was that it felt very “lived,” in that even though this is incredibly far removed from my experience, you pulled me into this world and gave me all the information I needed to understand where I was and what was going on. It does seem odd saying this is very far removed from my own world, considering I live half a block off of Valencia, but how do you quantify your writing. I mean, it says fiction on the side of the book, but how much of this is reality?
Oh, none of it's fiction, except for the unintentional fictions the mind creates when it thinks it's remembering something. It's all true, and it probably should be on the biography shelf but I just was afraid nobody would find it there.
When you write something like this, which is coming from such a reality base, how does it impact your friends and acquaintances when it comes out? Was it all positive or did people think you sold them out in some way? Even on your amazon.com page for Valencia, one reviewer from SF took you to task for exposing specific people in the SF dyke scene. How do you react to all of that?
Well, I wrote most of Valencia at the same time as I wrote my first book, which was more about abusive relationships and family, and I was really rebelling against the notion that I should have to protect anyone, that the only thing I have in this world at all is my experience, my life, and then my ability and passion to write about it. I felt really defensive about it, because I felt like, 'well, shit, if I can't do this then like what am I on this planet to do? Work shit jobs til' I die?' I mean, I will do that as well no doubt, but you need a passion to carry you through it. I felt like everyone should be able to stand by things they've done, and if they don't like what they see in my book than fuck them they should've behaved better.
I felt also that I was exposing myself, too, so it wasn't like I wasn't dishing it out fairly to myself. But these are all a bit naive, I think, and a bit reactionary and a bit coming from a place of defensive panic, like 'oh shit, I've been writing all these stories for rinky-dink open mic and now it's gonna be a book and fuck I'm going to get in trouble.' I wish I'd handled different parts of it in a more respectful manner, even though at the time I thought I was.
I didn't realize, for instance in the chapter about the woman 'Suzanne' who died, that I was really outing her in a bunch of ways that probably weren't right for me to do. I regret that. She deserved a better eulogy than the one she got from me. The point is, I didn't realize I was writing her eulogy. I was just riffing about my life and all the crazy overwhelming shit I'd seen and done in the past year. You don't realize the longer-term consequences. I know one ex-girlfriend is really upset and I actually suspect her of writing that Amazon essay, and I feel badly about that but the truth of our relationship was that it was pretty fucked up, and also very sweet, and I had to be true to that.
There's this stupid idea that you can't ever say anything lousy about you know a dyke or a woman or whatever, even if it's true, because we have to present a united front or something, but give me break. The front is not united, and you have to be real about that.
On the flip side, were there any stories that you purposefully didn’t include? Or is everything that happens to you in real life potentially going to end up in a future book?
I didn't not include stories, but I did definitely remove certain details, especially things that I knew about people, things from their past, that while it did inform you about who they were, I still felt like it was too revealing and not my place to do that. I doubt anything from here out will end up in a book because I am totally fucking sick of writing about myself. I'm done with my third book, it is autobiographical and that's the end of that. No doubt any fiction I write will be heavily influenced by real life because that is unfortunately just where my inspiration lies, but it will be very very cloaked and morphed and different from my previous writings.
Do you think Valencia is a definitive guide to the urban dyke scene in San Francisco, or is this just your story?
Valencia is in no way the definitive guide to anything but my momentary perceptions of one fleeting year of my life.
Although there is a lot of sex in the book, there weren’t, as I recall, a lot of detailed sex scenes. It was just something that happened, and then you would jump right to going to the coffee shop or whatever. It just seemed, to someone not well connected to the urban dyke scene, to almost be the same as the gay male scene in that the sex just occurs like anything else throughout the day. Was that intentional? A lot of the feedback you see in the “gay community” is that men are more about the sexual, whereas the women are more emotional/spiritual. Are you going on the record as debunking that myth?
I'm not debunking anything, I hate generalizations like that, I think they're so tired and silly and I can't be bothered to tangle with them. Some men are sex maniacs and some women are players and some men need to hold hands for eight weeks before giving it up and some women take even longer than that. Most people I think go through lots of different stages as what they need, or what they want to experience, shifts. I didn't set out to intentionally portray a certain scene, even though that is what ended up happening. I was just writing about what I saw around me. Dykes fuck all the time. We just don't get as much media attention as the rest of the world so nobody knows we're fucking each other raw in public restrooms. I'm going to make a big gay t-shirt of that: Nobody Knows I Just Got Fucked Raw In A Public Restroom.
A lot of people come to San Francisco to reinvent themselves. Having met you on a few occasions, at your Bearded Lady reading, a leather bar in SOMA, and at the bookstore a few times, you just seem to have this amazing rock star vibe, just with your look, your energy, your vitality. Were you always like that, or is that who you became when you got here?
That is so super sweet of you, thank you! I don't know, I can't think about myself too much or I get really neurotic. I'm actually incredibly neurotic right now as a result of all the thinking about myself Valencia has forced me to do this year, I'm a goddamn nervous wreck from it. I just read this great article in Atlantic Monthly today about McClean, the funny farm for genteel poets of yore outside Cambridge. My more privileged goth friends when I was a teenager got to take retreats there, like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. I was like, I totally want a McClean vacation. Anne Sexton wanted one too, but she only ended up teaching there, which I imagine only made her more bitter.
I’m not entirely familiar with Sister Spit, although it’s something I would like to educate our readers about, can you walk me through how it got started, and its future?
Sister Spit started as a weekly free open mic for girls that ran for two years at various SF venues, mainly the dearly departed CoCo Club. Since 1997 it's been a fairly regular national tour, with different troupes of girls performing all over the US and Canada. I don't know where it's future lies--I believe there will be a tour this fall in support of the new CD Greatest Spits, but I'm bowing out of that one because I need a break from the road.
Is The Chelsea Whistle still your next project? What can you tell us about it and when can we expect to read it?
Yes, I still have the Chelsea Whistle and I really like it but its 500 fucking pages long and I need to edit the crap out of it and feel very adrift and neurotic about that whole process. It's about being from a working class, sort of rough place, being a girl, catholic school, boys, fucked up families, betrayal, sex work, death rock, the works. I wish you could read it soon, but my love for small presses has gotten into a car crash with my deep despair at being thirty years old and still commanding only $7 an hour for work, so I don't know whether to let the beloved small press have it or try, possibly in vain, to sell it off to a big house so me and my girl can stop having endless money depressions.
As a lot of our writers and readers at Oasis want to get into writing novels and books of essays, what advice do you have for them? What is your own writing process like?
Just do it cause you love it, do it a lot, find a community of writers to commiserate with/ Start open mics or go read at them, and self publish a lot and get your shit out there. You make a lot of contacts that way and your name gets out and then its easier for a press to take a chance on you. My process is constantly changing. I used to go write at bars and write little stories for open mics, and those stories became my two books. they were written more for the stage than the page. What I'm writing now is more for the page I think, and its really fun to feel the shift. I still love writing at bars but its harder now in California since they don't let you smoke.
What was your own coming out like? Anything interesting, boring, traumatic?
I was so weirdly blasé about it, I think because I just really didn't take my parents seriously as authority figures, I felt a lot older than them. So I was like oh hey, I'm gay or whatever and then skipped out the door and left them to deal with it. Unfortunately, my family was having lots of more serious problems right then, and not only did that obscure my lesbianism but I think it imprinted it to my family, so they see it as a result of trauma instead of the big fun thing that it is. Which is a bummer but I hate trying to explain reality to my parents, so I don't anymore.
And, are should the L.A. Dyke scene start worrying about any books you’re going to write in the future?
Oh I don't think so. You can't keep writing the same story again and again with a different locale--ok I guess you can, people probably get book deals that way and shit, but I am sick to death of my own dramas, and feel a bit overexposed and guilty for exposing others so I'm moving on to fiction from here.