In almost every shared house I’ve ever lived in there have been dog-eared, over-thumbed copies of Michelle Tea books on a living room shelf. Michelle Tea’s books have watched me get drunk, have parties, pass out, lie in a bundle of humans on a sofa watching movies, hungover and gross. Now I am in my thirties and only share space with my girlfriend, Michelle Tea’s books watch me do really boring things like wash up after dinner or read or drink wine from a proper glass. My point is, from the age of eighteen onward, or for as long as I have had a queer family, Tea has been a constant staple in my life. And I’m sure this is the case for many LGBTQ people– for ages it felt like Tea’s was the only voice from our community published regularly and the easiest to pick up from a bookshop.
In 2000 she published Valencia, part fiction, part memoir, about a bunch of lesbians in San Francisco in the 90s. The book is unruly and fast-paced and full of sex, gender-ambiguity, drugs and booze. It won the 2000 Lambda Award for lesbian fiction (beating Sarah Waters) and made Tea famous amongst queers and readers of subcultural literature. Since Valencia she has published books with regularity, and has written essays for magazines and journals from xoJane to McSweeny’s to Granta. When Black Wave came out in 2017 (in the UK, published by And Other Stories), it reached a much wider audience than her previous books had, and was very keenly reviewed. I’m not surprised – it is BRILLIANT. It was the first time I saw such an inherently queer book read on the tube (by someone other than me, I mean).
In the wake of Black Wave comes Against Memoir, which was published this May by the Feminist Press. A collection of her essays, Against Memoir feels like taking a walk with Michelle Tea and listening to her talk about really interesting things. I got hooked on it very quickly. The book is split into three parts: Art & Music, Love & Queerness, Writing & Life. Although they span different subjects, times, and places, each essay is characteristically witty, loud, hopeful (even through the tragic parts) and unapologetic. Every time I finished an essay and tried to move on with my life, I had to read another. They are so energetic and addictive and hilarious, and they say so much about so many things!
I started Against Memoir in the middle, with an essay titled How Not to Be a Queer Douchebag. Although we don’t really use that word here, the title spoke to me because I have both, at one time or another, either been a Queer Douchebag or wished someone I knew would stop being one. The essay was originally a speech given by a 40 year-old Tea to a group of younger queers. In it, she imparts the wisdom she has learned, being completely transparent about the fact the audience seem to have their shit much more together than she did at their age, when she was an alcoholic. The essay is self-deprecating, funny, wise, smart, and a real tonic, and I take it as a sign of my growth that I think it is 100% right.
I jumped back and forth throughout the book and particularly enjoyed the essays On Chelsea Girls, about Eileen Myles’ 1994 fiction-memoir (that and Valencia are both intertwined in my brain); Polishness, about Tea’s trip to her ancestral Poland to give a writer’s talk; Telling Your Friends You’re Sober, about alcoholism and the monumental switch to sobriety, and Summer of Lost Jobs because we’ve all been there. Also: Transmissions from Camp Trans, about a camp set up to protest the transphobic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, is exceptional.
Among all of the essays, the standout for me is HAGS In Your Face. This one blew me away. I had heard of the HAGS but knew nothing about them other than they were a girl gang in the 90s. More accurately, as HAGS In Your Face discloses, they were a badass gang of queer girl punks who took a lot of drugs, looked after each other, and beat up anyone who hurt them. Michelle Tea was not part of the gang (it was quite exclusive) but she admired them from afar. She admired their punk attitudes and their stencils, and they were really hot. They were also scary hooligans who seemed to have no boundaries when it came to being intoxicated; soon most of them were shooting heroin and speed. The essay turns from being fast-paced, fun, and energetic to showing how brave the HAGS were, and how much shit they had to deal with. Most had run away from home, been abused and were still abused and bashed in the street regularly and intensely. In the end, sand I’m certain that every queer person should read it in remembrance of the HAGS.ome of them died tragically from a bad batch of heroin. Others got clean and well; a few have now transitioned. Tea interviewed some of the surviving HAGS for this essay, and writes about what they meant to her. Overall, it is a tribute and a history. It’s tragic but also optimistic and hilarious,
There are still one or two essays I haven’t read yet – I’m saving them for a time I need them, like when I’m pissed off or grumpy. I’d recommend you do the same! No matter what kind of thing you are in to, I’ll bet there are essays in here that you will love.
“Gorgeously punk-rock rebellious.”
– The A.V. Club
“Tea’s writing continues to make the world worth living in.”
– Lambda Literary Review
“From its opening sentence to its finish, Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir is a bracing, heaven-sent tonic for deeply troubled times. Its clarity, hilarity, range, nonchalant brilliance, and decades of experience in ‘art and music, love and queerness, writing and life’ remind me over and over again of the adventure, the party of it all — the joy of raucous thinking and loving and making — that’s fundamentally ours.”
– Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
“These essays blow my mind with their algebraic rhythms by which Michelle Tea manages pain and bliss. They take turns erupting in a pulpy and marvelous parade: landscape, passion, morality, family, cigarettes — each cited frankly and exquisitely like a smart kid with a dirty crayon explaining to us all how she sees god.”
– Eileen Myles, author of Chelsea Girls
Against Memoir was published in the UK in May by The Feminist Press (9781936932184, £15.99, Paperback)