Rent Girl Grows Up

An interview with the writer Michelle Tea.

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I have had 38 roommates over the course of my life, including a girl who built a papier-mâché cave in her room to nap in and a 60-year-old community-college professor whose only house rule was that I couldn't use his shampoo. But Michelle Tea was the most memorable by far. We lived together in the very early aughts in a San Francisco flat that was, to put it generously, gross. We'd first met on a street corner when Michelle saw me and had a "psychic feeling" that I would be the roadie for Sister Spit, her all-female spoken-word collective. She was right. I spent the summer of 1999 traveling across the country with a band of mismatched female-bodied queer poets — what better luck could befall a women's-college sophomore?

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Michelle is a writer in the deepest, juiciest sense of the word. Her books, including her memoirs The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and Valencia, have helped define queerness for a generation of women. She's also rendered unsparing portraits of San Francisco in the 1990s. I was charmed, if not exactly flattered, when I realized I'd worked my way into her book Rent Girl as an uptight character named Marcia (of all the pseudonyms, "Marcia"? Really, Michelle??)

Her latest book, Black Wave, is an apocalyptic novel/memoir as bold and beautiful as anything she's written. In it, Michelle weaves strands of her own life story into a tragic narrative about a dying planet. I sat down with Michelle in her Los Angeles home to chat about the queer bubble we once resided in together, and how this book both departs from and expands on her earlier work.

Kira Garcia: First, I have to thank you because you completely changed the course of my life. Do you remember how we met?

Michelle Tea: I do! It was the only time I've had a psychic flash of info that was meaningful in any way.

KG: I was supposed to do this internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian that was kind of a big deal and I dumped it. I was like, "Sorry, just kidding, I'm going to be a roadie because a lady on a street corner said she had a psychic feeling and I said OK." I've never had a moment's regret. Also it was big for my queer identity because previously I had thought, Oh, I'm a lesbian, that means I have to wear cargo shorts.

MT: I feel like San Francisco did that for a lot of people. It was astounding to me when I first saw actual punk-rock lesbians.

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KG: And then we were roommates! I remember you sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, wearing your vintage slip, and writing in a notebook after partying all night, and I was like, "How is this possible?" I couldn't summon the strength to write anything, and you were SO prolific. AND I'm in one of your books!

MT: Which one are you in?!

KG: I'm in Rent Girl! If it's not me, I'm having an identity crisis. I'm pretty sure I'm Marcia.

MT: Who's Marcia?!

KG: I cleaned the house.

MT: Oh yeah, it's you. If she cleaned the house, it's you. Because that's how I remember you — as a force against the willful protected entropy of the house. That place was like a halfway house, and you were like Cinderella.

KG: Yes! OK, fast-forwarding to the present day and your new book, Black Wave: I want to be careful to distinguish between your personal history and the history of this book. To what degree would you call Black Wave a memoir?

MT: I would call it a memoir and I would call it fiction. I had no concern for the truth, but I was always going for emotional truth. So I made different things happen to me, but I wanted to talk about the same emotional situations.

I had no concern for the truth, but I was always going for emotional truth.

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KG: It feels like you weren't always empathetic with the Michelle in Black Wave. There were moments when I was like, "Does Michelle Tea like this Michelle?"

MT: I always feel like that. It's important to show yourself as flawed in memoir, and [using] third person made it so easy to be bald and humorous about what a jackass I often thought I was.

KG: And how did your use of the third person come about in Black Wave?

MT: I was sick of the "I," and I'd been working on a proper novel that was kind of fantastical, and in the midst, because of a breakup, I became really obsessed with writing my experience again. I ended up merging them but kept a lot of the tropes of fiction.

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KG: There's a moment in the book where your character is talking to the character Quinn, her lover, and you break the fourth wall to say, "Oh, it wasn't you, it was somebody else who I moved to LA with, and they asked to be written out." Why make that process transparent?

MT: The person who was [originally] in it was like, "I don't want to be in your book," and I was like, "Fuck, I don't want you to be in the book either!" I have more sympathy for people's vulnerability than I used to. So I had to go into the text and rip the roof off of it to keep barreling through the narrative. And even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I still had this kind of rage-y energy inside me. So I took this crazy whack to the book.

KG: Which is much healthier than taking it out on the person who's mad at you.

MT: Totally. And it already had some fantastical elements. I'd sort of merged an apocalyptic story I was basing on the Ziggy Stardust album into this. The first song [on that album] is called "Five Years"; it's about how the planet has five years left. [Black Wave] was supposed to be about a girl who wanted to be a pop star before the world ended. Then I went through this huge breakup with somebody who had been interested in being a pop star and realized I didn't really care about her story in that way. I also became obsessed with impermanence. The backstory in my mind was that all the world governments had acknowledged that we're past the point of no return, so they decided to blow the world up so no one would be forced to have these hideous end times. It was kind of like a global suicide pact.

KG: And you're seeing everything through the narrator, Michelle, and she doesn't exactly have her shit together enough to find out what's going on with geopolitics. She's looking out her window and seeing people crash their cars on purpose.

MT: Yeah, that seemed like an easy way to kill the world.

KG: Well, easy and uncomfortably realistic! I also loved that passage about being over being poor. There's this old cliché about poverty being good for creativity. I'm wondering how you feel about that now?

MT: Having grown up poor and having come into adulthood really poor, there was this romanticized notion of poverty, which was great for me. I could see that I could be a writer or an artist. And in your 20s, everything's romantic, and I was drunk all the time, which made everything easier to romanticize. Once I got sober, it was just me and the bare reality of: "I don't have any money and I don't know how to get money. I don't want to live like this forever." It was a reckoning, and I didn't know what my next steps would be.

KG: I'm having this midlife moment — not that I'm planning on dying when I'm 80 — of tenderness toward myself in my 20s and 30s. Do you feel that too?

MT: I feel like I got to write really honestly about her. I was able to acknowledge and appreciate all of her weird bravado and problems and insanity and then also see the bigger picture. So the holistic-ness of it made me feel very tender about it, whereas when I wrote Valencia [Tea's Lambda Literary Award winning autobiographical novel from 2000], I was invested in presenting myself as a certain kind of person. I was angry and I wanted to impose myself on the literary world. This book, I thought, was stripped of that.

KG: There's something very profound about being so naked with your presentation of self. It's really beautiful. Oh, and one last thing! How do you feel about '90s nostalgia? It's fucking blowing my mind. Now I know how my mom felt when I wore thrifted bell-bottoms as a teenager and she was like, "Those are disgusting."

MT: [Laughs.] I have a few ideas about it. There's this fashion-world maxim that if you wore it the first time around, you can't wear it the second time, and I do kind of feel like that. Also a lot of the '90s clothing looks so ugly to me. Like those chokers!

KG: I hate those.

MT: It's like a garrote or something. But there's a nostalgia among queers for the '90s, and I'm really glad that era is being recognized as culturally important. I think things changed and got more materialistic on the heels of our scene. Some [younger] queers who have an activist heart say, "I missed the '90s." And I look back at, like, the Lower East Side and say, "Oh, I missed the '70s or the '80s." So it's nice to say, "Oh, I was part of this other scene," but I didn't know it at the time. I really saw that when people were shooting the Valencia film. They were recreating the '90s so lovingly. It was really cool to see that this era wasn't just important to me because of my youth.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is old enough to remember when Ellen Degeneres was presumed to be straight.

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