Item #1: Capturing The Thought Processes and Fantasy Lives of Adolescent Girls: “Smoking Marlboros with Marisol, we planned our escape to New York City. We would wait till we were sixteen and had tits and were pretty, because the only way we could think to make money was to pose for Playboy. It was such a dirty thing, we figured not many girls would do it. Playboy would be desperate for models, and happy to have us. Me and Marisol would shave our heads into tall perfect Mohawks that stretched to the sky like the tall New York buildings. We would befriend Billy Idol. We had this plan, we would find out where he lived, ring his bell and pass out on his doorstep. He couldn’t leave two unconscious girls on his doorstep. He would have to carry us inside, touch us, lay us on his furniture, and when we came to, he would see what wild young things we were and he would want to be our boyfriend.”
Item #2: Embedding Rather Complicated Critiques in Stories About Having a Bad Trip at Lollapalooza:“The panic was not subsiding, it was growing, and I realized that it was only the beginning. I had just eaten the stuff, it hadn’t even fully dissolved, more and more of it would be released into my bloodstream and I would lose my mind. That’s what would happen. I was an idiot. I took this drug I knew nothing about, a drug that affects your brain, and like a fool I just ate it and now I would go mad. I was overcome with grief… Up on stage Ice-T was yelling at the audience. I say… what good is a beautiful girl if the bitch don’t fuck?! Oh no. He said it again. What good is a beautiful girl… IF THE BITCH DON’T FUCK, chanted frat row, the millions of white boys with baseball caps cheering Ice-T with their fists in the air, over and over. Oh god, I wanted to die. Ice-T was evil. I was on drugs and he was the devil. I looked over at Clive. That’s not cool, he said uncomfortably. Duh, Clive.” Item #3: Writing About Sex Work in a Way That Buys Into Neither the Third-Wave “Empowerment” Bullshit or the Second-Wave “Unenlightened Victims” Crap, Making It Clear That the Real Mind-Fuck of It, the Part That Can Screw You Up, Is the Way It Sheds Light Onto Men’s Secret Lives and the Relationships Between Men and Women in the “Normal,” Outside World: “It was a whirlwind, a blur. A landscape of heaving chests, scribbled with hair and hung with belly, corrugated with ribs. Each man astounded me, again and again, with his complete obliviousness to my hate and my absence. I was not there, except when a spool of rage would suddenly unfurl itself and shake me… It’s True, I thought. Everything You Hear About Men. Your Worst Fears, All Of It, It’s True. I lay back in a random bed and felt strangely vindicated. I thought about Ma, about all of the good women out there with their men, how their closeness to them sheltered them somehow from reality. How only the ruined girls knew, only the whores and the dykes and the crazy women, only they knew what this world was really like. I was slobbered on, my tits slick and spitty. I was sore.”
Seriously: this looks so easy, and it’s not. Whenever I give a friend a Michelle Tea book (something I do often), she’s either scandalized by all the queer sex and/or sex work, in which case I start to feel uncomfortable around that person and regret giving her the book, or she says something like “this reminds me of my diaries,” which is a feeling I also share, but which can be deceptive, because the genius of Michelle Tea lies in the fact that no matter who you are, she can make you feel as if you’re reading from your own diary.
She doesn’t use a “writerly” voice or retreat into academic language when she’s dealing with subjects like gender or sexuality or class or sex work – subjects which do invite high-flown prose, because using fancy diction can be a way of telling your reader, I am not a feminazi/a man-hating lesbian/white trash/a dumb whore: I am educated, and along with the privilege of education I have gained the privilege of being taken seriously. Like bell hooks, Tea doesn’t play that. Her prose is always accessible and conversational. The run-on sentences, the colloquial language, the non-standard grammar (people who hate Tea always harp on her “grammar mistakes”), the bluntness of her phrasing – all of these things make her voice seem like the voice of a friend, or the voice inside your own head. Which makes it, ultimately, harder to dodge the message – when the voice in your head talks about these things, how do you distance yourself from them? How do you turn back into the safety of your privilege? How can you refuse to hear?
I saw Augusten Burroughs read, not long ago, at an event in which a friend of mine participated. He was promoting his memoir about his abusive father. I haven’t read his work, but the brief excerpt he shared reminded me of everything I don’t like about the genre of Trauma Memoirs. It was self-consciously lyrical, stilted; it romanticized pain, tried to make it seem bizarre and theatrical and out of the ordinary, something you could take in as part of an evening’s entertainment. I’d met him backstage prior to the event, and had asked him if he could help me open my beer; I didn’t recognize him then, but he seemed offended by my request, in a way that told me he was probably Someone Important. On stage, I was struck by how much his voice changed, and became the voice of An Author Reading His Work. It was at least an octave deeper. That brought into focus the thing I like most about Michelle Tea, which is: her shamelessness.
I mean that she is shameless, in the most positive sense of the word. She does not allow shame to enter into her work, or to distort her truth, no matter how weird or dorky or stigmatized it might be. It would be so easy not to tell people about the crush on Billy Idol, or the melodramatic and embarrassing fantasies it inspired. It would be so easy to just gloss over the Goth phase in high school, or the fact that she lost her virginity to a dude who drove a hearse, or her early, ’70s-inflected feminism which verged, at times, on unrepentant Dworkinry. It is easy for a writer to just drop any portion of the truth that clashes with her current image, to heighten the dramatic bits whilst grooming them to fit into standard trauma-recovery dogma and to let the rest go unspoken. Michelle Tea does not do that. So, when she writes about her sexually abusive father, it exists in the context of stories about dance class and sneaking into neighbors’ pools to swim; when she writes about prostitution, it exists within the context of crushes on rock stars and buying liquor with a fake ID for her friends and learning to put on makeup. It all says, yes, all of this is real, we share the same context; yes, everyone has experienced some of this, although no-one has experienced it exactly as I have; yes, I am just like you, and yes, that is the point.
* All of this is from “The Chelsea Whistle,” which I’ve been told for years is her best book. I am slowly starting to agree with that consensus, although I (like everyone else) enjoy “Valencia” a lot, I guess because it is much more fun and the prose has a lot more velocity and weirdness to it. I cannot understand, by the way, why “Chelsea” is referred to as a “coming-out memoir” on the dust jacket, because (a) “Passionate Mistakes” was clearly the coming-out memoir, being as it was about her first sexual experiences, first boyfriend, first girlfriend, etc. and (b) even though the same period of her life is touched on here, this is quite explicitly meant to be a book about class, family, abuse, and creating a self. So, in my chronology/bibliography, “Passionate Mistakes” = coming-out, “Valencia” = sex & San Francisco, “Rent Girl” = sex work, “Chelsea Whistle” = class/childhood, “Rose of No Man’s Land” = first novel, which is something completely new & goes for a lot of these themes from a direction we haven’t seen before, for which I have no pithy summary.