4 min

Michelle Tea’s intense occupation

Memoirist's life & art assails Church St

“It’s my nature and my natural instinct to be completely transparent about my life,” says US author Michelle Tea. “I don’t feel any sort of shame about anything I’ve done so it doesn’t occur to me to not talk about it.” Tea’s first two memoirs, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and Valencia, follow her through hookups and relationships, temp jobs and sex work, and through myriad drunken nights in San Francisco, Boston and Tucson.

This month Tea appears at Toronto’s Writing Outside the Margins, a one-day festival of queer literary arts presented by Xtra, also featuring readings from the creator and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell, and Canadian MC, spoken-word performer and singer Kinnie Starr.

Tea’s books provide much-needed proof that it’s not just middle-class male intellectuals who can meander across America making love and poetry and relying upon a combination of their wits and luck to get by. But as she gets older Tea’s writing and her life are changing.

“I’m sitting against my wall completely hemmed in by boxes,” says Tea on the phone from San Francisco where she has just finished moving house. “Yesterday I spent like $150 on this do-it-yourself put-it-together clothing rack, and it fell on me and I broke three parts of it. I just rigged up this crazy busted rack using a pole and a bike rack, it’s totally going to collapse on me. You have to lean on these particular skills when you’re moving and I don’t have them. I don’t have real-world skills.”

Having made her name with tales from her often haphazard and always compelling life, Tea has begun to branch out into fiction. Her most recent book is a novel, Rose of No Man’s Land, which follows 24 hours in the life of a teenage dyke whose life is transformed by a wild and charismatic figure named Rose, who transports her beyond her dull suburban existence. Tea has also edited several anthologies, including It’s So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style and Baby Remember My Name, an anthology of writing by young queer women.

“I had this feeling I had overexposed myself through my memoirs,” says Tea of her move to fiction. “Not that I had regrets, but I needed a break from my own self. The idea of writing another book that was all about me and going on tour and talking about myself on a stage ? I’d done it for many years and suddenly I felt completely burnt out on it.”

Another factor was the changes in her lifestyle since the days of Valencia and Passionate Mistakes. “I think the main thing about getting older and writing memoirs is that life stabilizes. When I was younger I was moving through the world very fast, and moving through people and relationships very fast. Then when you have relationships that last longer it gets very hard to write them because the people you’re exposing are people who are in your life and going to remain in your life.”

But Tea says that so far nobody’s fallen out with her over their appearance in one of her books.

“I have one ex who had a real problem and we don’t talk anymore, but we weren’t really talking that much anyway,” she says. “The girl who I’m dating now has been wonderful. Sometimes people from her past will find my books and they’ll have all this information about her life. I regret that that happened to her but she’s only ever been a wonderful understanding sport about it.”

Continuing her focus on fiction writing, Tea has just finished work on a graphic novel called Carrier which will be illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin. “[McCubbin]’s had a lot of changes in the process of working on it, she’s moved twice and is getting married, so I can’t really say when it’ll be done. I hope soon, because I like the story a lot and I’m excited to see how she illustrates it.”

McCubbin’s artwork also appeared in Rent Girl, Tea’s last graphic novel, an honest and by turns funny and horrifying account of the time she spent as a sex worker.

“It’s an intense occupation, to use your body sexually like that,” she says. “I had calls that were like, ‘That was really awful,’ or, ‘Oh my God that was so fun and weird, I can’t believe I just made cash off that.'”

Rent Girl’s graphic novel format didn’t allow for extra commentary on the issues surrounding sex work, but that doesn’t mean Tea herself hasn’t given them plenty of thought. “I think if we didn’t live in a culture that really hated and distrusted women, that honestly hates and distrusts sex, we’d have a completely different sex industry,” she says. “The problem with the sex industry is the men who use it who hate women.”

Now Tea is able to make her entire living from her own writing or from other people’s, like the work she does for Radar Productions, a nonprofit she founded to put on queer literary events every month.

“I feel that all the best opportunities of my career come to me because I’m a queer writer,” says Tea. “Queer writing communities support their own so beautifully.” She feels Writing Outside the Margins is a perfect example. “Writing can be really isolating, so having these kind of events is incredibly important. And it’s fun and important to have big fun parties, it rejuvenates people’s enthusiasm and commitment to the work they’re doing,” says Tea. “It celebrates that these communities exist and puts people together so we can all meet each other.”