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?
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.
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?