Michelle Tea on Failure, Trump Voters, and Her Fantasy for the World
"Stop Being so Uptight and Boring and Xenophobic and Just
Let People Figure Out How to Live their Best Lives"
Maybe it was my dear friend, the playwright Madeleine George, who gave me my first Michelle Tea book. She’d long been smuggling queer texts into my too-straight life. It was Valencia, and I read it—no, inhaled it—in the way I inhaled all of Tea’s books. I lay on whatever shitty couch I owned at the time and read until I was done, stopping only to eat snacks and pee.
It was probably my ex-husband who brought home Rent Girl. He’d checked it out from the library and gave it to me first because he knew I would be blown away, and I was. The vivid wash of watercolors and ink drawings by Laurenn McCubbin paired with Tea’s unflinching accounts of her life as a sex worker pulled me under. Another day lost to a book, another fuck-you to capitalism and the four different jobs I held down to make rent. I loved her for distracting me in that way, for creating books about loving girls, being femme, making money, and growing up misunderstood in shitty white working-class towns.
I’ve read most of Tea’s books lying on my back and hypnotized until the end. How to Grow Up: A Memoir made me understand that I probably needed to go on Lexapro, among other complex realizations. Black Wave helped me see a structure for my own novel-in-progress, amid its hypnotic decaying, lush garden of sex, drugs, and San Francisco gentrification. Her most recent book, Against Memoir, works a similar kind of magic, but here we see Michelle as an essayist at full-tilt, working with ethnography, personal experience, research, data, and a constellation of written, sonic, and visual texts to create a queer counter-history. The book, at turns sad and laugh out loud funny, and offers readers a deep dive into questions of addiction, family, genre, love, money, sexuality, and subculture. I sometimes think of Michelle’s work as a spirit guide, as tarot written down to move us through confusion and darkness and into something painful and true, so I was thrilled to speak with her about failure, humor, and her hopes for the future.
Carley Moore: Halfway through Against Memoir, I started to understand that part of the project was creating a queer archive of lost voices. I thought of Jack Halberstam’s radical call in his book The Queer Art of Failure to make new archives and see failure as queer, anti-capitalist, and radical. You interview some these radical legends and activists. Can you talk about your desire to center these stories and why you used much of their own language in both of these essays?
Michelle Tea: Because these pieces were created for publication in magazines, there is sometimes a little push-back on using so much of people’s own words, and I’d feel like, Oh no, I’m a shitty journalist, I should be MAGNIFICENTLY SUMMARIZING! But I am very conscious that I was speaking with people historically spoken for, whose voices are often discounted, and it felt really important to be a sort of facilitator for them telling their own stories. Maybe the pieces operate as a sort of mash-up of journalism and oral history. I love oral histories, especially from queer time, because that is my world and our histories have been kept from us, demolished, deemed unworthy of study, etc.
Also, I have a lot of thoughts about “failure,” and its shadow-side, “success.” For a long time I would maintain there are no such things, they are just destructive human conjurings that people set about believing in and worshipping and really organizing their lives around to their vast detriment. But I am of course not immune. I feel best when shit is going my way, and when it seems like nothing is, I put my whole life under a microscope. Because of this, I think it’s great to have a practice of respecting and celebrating failure (and I love what Jack Halberstam has done in that arena). I think celebrating failure actually does a lot to erode the whole concept. We are all fish swimming in the waters of capitalism thinking this is all there is, this success and failure binary; it’s so ingrained in us that even the most woke among us carry huge blind spots. But our purpose isn’t to “succeed.” I think our purpose, if we have one, absolutely encompasses the experience of failure and everything we get from that. I think of so many moments in my life that could be categorized as failure and can see the really wonderful things that derived from that, and I just feel delighted by how mysterious life is. We don’t know shit.“I think of so many moments in my life that could be categorized as failure and can see the really wonderful things that derived from that, and I just feel delighted by how mysterious life is.”
CM: Sometimes I read essays for guidance, as a kind of self-help manual. In “How Not to Be a Queer Douchebag” you offer up so much good advice! One favorite line is, “What’s great about life is that you can absolutely find someone who is into the same twisted fun as you are into. You don’t have to put up with someone sort of mopily fisting your butt like I did to my first boyfriend.” Lol, so true. Can you talk about the relationship between essays, self-help, and the queer femme, who is sometimes helping everyone around her to the point of exhaustion?
MT: I learned about the world and how to be, how I could expect other people to be, from library books and later from goth songs and punk songs. I love advice—I love getting that guidance and I love doling it out! One of my favorite things is getting to be a guest on my friend Nicole J. Georges’ podcast Sagittarian Matters and answering advice questions from her callers. I think people turn to personal narratives, be they essays or memoirs or poetry, to gleam some sort of truth or wisdom that can be applied to their own experiences. I think when people talk about certain works saving their life, that’s what we’re talking about.
Queer femmes tend to have a lot on this particular—being raised female with all those caretaking expectations internalized, plus whatever truth there might be in feminine energy being healing, femmes being healers of sorts—witches, a lot of us—and then existing in communities of people who have endured so much trauma. I’m really, really happy that self-care and mindfulness and witchery have become such buzzwords in femme and feminist culture. I think women and in particular trans women, women of color, queer women, women whose bodies have been shamed or whose work in the world carries stigma, women who deal with disabilities—all women are charged with caretaking the people in their communities, and generally we want to, right? We want to help. And I am glad that it seems there is a lot of conversation and suggestion and examples of how to turn that healing energy on ourselves and get a fucking massage or something.
CM: You’ve always written so honestly about money and being working class. I grew up in a shitty working-class town where I was mostly hated and misunderstood. Can you say more about the relationship between the working class and the artist or the working-class artist? What do they understand that maybe is missing from some of our political conversations right now, particularly around Trump voters?
MT: The only thing I have to say about Trump voters is they are racist, pure and simple, and misogynist, they are white people who want to preserve white supremacy. They are not working-class people concerned about trade or whatever fucking thing the media likes to grab onto, like it’s a big Bruce Springsteen song. From these conversations (if that’s what they even are) you would think there are no working-class people of color, no working-class people whose jobs have been displaced by globalism. Are you kidding me? My family, for all their problems, and I think I’ve documented that there are many, were always strong Democrats. I was raised to vote for whoever had the strongest plan for the working person and to look through the bullshit rhetoric of politicians and instead see how they voted. My mother drove me into Boston to defend clinics from Operation Rescue in the 90s. But, in my extended family, I have an uncle who votes Republican because the guy who ran the factory he worked in since he dropped out of high school at 16 told him to. Because only rich people could give jobs to poor people like him so they better vote to keep his life good, so that it trickled down. Such bullshit, but a scared and poor and not very deep-thinking 16-year-old buys it.
But it’s more than that. I think that between the mythos of the American dream, the promises of white privilege, and maybe, like, reality television, there is something that happens to the psyches of a lot of white people. Even if they are dirt-poor working some shitty job with truly no hopes of raising themselves up financially, they still think they are due something, and that it will come to them, and they identify with someone like Trump, who embodies their id, more than, say, their Brown neighbor who is on the same economic footing as they are. It is really depressing. White people are truly the worst.
As for being a misunderstood writer/artist-type who came up in such a culture, it is a head fuck for sure. In a way, you never belong anywhere in the culture. I don’t belong in my hometown culture, which I am always seeing through and calling out. And the larger literary/arts culture always will feel somewhat alien and off-limits, because I have no college education or anything like that. I feel scrappy, though I know that to some extent all artists feel like this, because our culture hates art and is suspicious of artists. But I appreciate my vantage point, certainly, and that it has given me a real place to write from.
CM: There is so much in this book about brain chemistry, like how alcoholics crave dopamine and how writing about ourselves changes our brain chemistry. Can you talk about the titular essay of the collection, “Against Memoir” and how you locate memoir and the personal essay among other genres? Is it a drug of sorts, a high to replace other lost highs? Or a dopamine rush? Or maybe something else altogether?
MT: We’ve always known that people, generally, like to talk about themselves. Just the way people, generally, enjoy a glass of wine. And then there are people, I among them, who take it too far. It has been revelatory to understand that talking about yourself—and, by extension, writing about yourself—activates the same parts of my brain that have craved sex and drugs and alcohol and food and shopping and, you know, anything that brings pleasure. I really link my compulsion to write, my identity as a writer, to my compulsion to drink and my identity as an alcoholic. And all of this is sort of mysterious stuff, but we also have long tracked writers’ attraction to and problems with alcohol and other substances, and we’ve tracked writers and artists’ tendencies towards mental illness, and now we are beginning to understand more and more about the genetic links to these things, our DNA. It feels deeply true to me that my “writer-ness” and my alcoholism, and the kind of writer I am, I’m writing largely if not entirely about myself, these things are rooted in my body, in my brain, in my neuro-chemistry.“I did my time as a humorless lesbian in my early 20s, reading Dworkin, and it was a relief to learn I could still be profoundly upset by the world and still laugh.”
CM: I’m interested to know why you begin the book with an essay about Valerie Solonas, who is such a vexed figure. You pair your initial interest in her with your own “Radical Lesbian Feminist Nervous Breakdown.” How can breakdowns or illnesses illuminate certain texts or moments for us as writers or readers?
MT: Well, it was actually a decision on the part of an editor to lead with that piece, but I think it’s a strong choice, and I like making strong statements. I have a history with these second-wave feminists, these problematic ones like Valerie or like Andrea Dworkin. They got it wrong, they got it way wrong, but there is like a kernel of gold in the turd. I don’t by any means think others are required to have any respect for them. I think contemporary TERFs are loathsome and have as much credibility as white supremacists. But I can’t not acknowledge the way second-wave feminist work impacted me in my early twenties. I am grateful that feminists (and people gaining such a consciousness) have trans feminism accessible to them today, as well as sex and sex-work-positive feminisms.
It was tough in the early 90s! There was no internet. In my pain at misogyny, I found writing by these women who had essentially allowed misogyny to drive them mad in the most wild, radical, brave, literary ways, and I appreciated their extreme responses to what to me felt like an extreme situation – the hatred of women in our culture. So books like SCUM and Mercy and Lesbian Land really spoke to me. I never co-signed the transphobia I saw in these works because I had always knew trans people and always considered trans people part of my queer, punk, outsider community, but my cis-privilege certainly allowed me to overlook their transphobia in ways trans people are not able to. And as for Andrea Dworkin, I was reading her while making my living as a prostitute, and I kind of got it. I thought the men I saw were hideous, and believe they hated women and hated me especially for taking money to sleep with them. And I didn’t think they ought to have a right to my body, but I believed—and still believe—that it’s anyone’s right to do whatever they want with their body, and we make choices under capitalism that perhaps we wouldn’t make otherwise, and that is fine. I’m here to survive; thrive, even.
CM: You are so funny in so many of these essays and as a performer; you clearly enjoy connecting with your audience and getting a laugh to push us to some deeper, probably more painful truth. I wonder if you could talk about the ways in which your sense of humor has helped, hindered, or shaped your journey as a writer?
MT: I think I have a sort of Queeny dark humor, certainly shaped by my best friends during my formative teenaged years, many of whom were fags, and by the sort of ironic, camp sensibility of John Waters films. But seeing the absurd in even truly dark moments is a survival skill of sorts, and it is a part of queer culture that I love. I did my time as a humorless lesbian in my early 20s, reading Dworkin, and it was a relief to learn I could still be profoundly upset by the world and still laugh.
CM: One of your talents as a writer is your ability to make fun of your past self, or rather to reflect on who you were in a young, sometimes drunken moment and make sense of that younger self, who resides in all of us. How have you cultivated this reflective practice both in your writing and non-writing life?
MT: I have always tried to take a detached and cinematic view of my life. Even when something shitty happens, I think, if this was a movie, this would be the part where it really starts to get good. It is personally helpful to have this kind of detachment from the ups and downs of life, and it is crucial when writing about yourself—it is important not to be protecting yourself when you’re writing about yourself. You’ve got to be vulnerable. For me, it’s easier for me to let it all hang out than it is to cultivate a sense of privacy. If I see myself more like a character, a sort of stand-in for all of humanity, there is sort of no bad thing “I” can say or do, because it’s been done before.
CM: In many of your essays, you help the reader reimagine the family as a queer and shifting landscape, one that needs new language, and also deals with trauma, familial abuse, recovery, and forgiveness. I’m interested in alternative kinship structures, co-parenting, queer marriage, divorce, and all manner of new iterations for family life. What are your fantasies for future families or for your own family?
MT: My over-arching fantasy, which encompasses family and everything else, is that people stop being so uptight and boring and xenophobic and just let people figure out how to live their best lives. Not to be cliché, but truly, all kids need is love, respect, food and shelter. They need to be treated like individuals with autonomy whose experiences matter. They matter right now, when they’re three years old—it’s not like, sometime in the future they get older and then are worthy of respect. This is another aspect of patriarchy, where anything without brute force or buying power is seen as useless, and that’s how culture sort of looks at kids. My sister is studying early childhood development and was doing some experiments with my son, having him play these little games, and at the end she was like, he’s a genius. And her kids have tested genius. And they are, but they are just these normal kids who were well loved and had their intellect fed and respected, and boom, genius. It’s not like you luck out and get a good brain. All kids have this ability, they’re just not respected. Wait—this is a tangent! My fantasy for my family is my son has some great gender that hasn’t even occurred to me and that by the time he dates sexual orientation is a non-issue and he dates everyone. And we have WILD MATERIAL SUCCESS and travel a bunch. But probably he is cis-gendered and my life will continue as it has, which is actually pretty wonderful.