MICHELLE TEA in conversation with Yvonne C Garrett
(Feminist Press 2018)
Michelle Tea, queer countercultural icon, has a new book out. Against Memoir (Feminist Press, 2018) is a collection of essays and articles written for various places (some new for this book) and various audiences. All share Tea’s ability to get at the heart of difficult topics: struggles for non-binary people to survive in a largely unwelcoming binary world, women making space for themselves in punk rock, and fights over definitions of “feminism” and “woman.” Some pieces are also wonderfully touching including her often funny musings on music (everyone from Minor Threat to Prince). Tea is both journalistic in her explorations of groups left out of larger histories (including Camp Trans and the HAGS) while also writing deeply personal pieces on miscarriage, her family, writing, and how it is to live in a world that hates women, the poor, and anyone who defines themselves outside the norm.
Tea and I come from opposite sides of the country but, as contemporaries, we grew up listening to a lot of the same music and struggling with a lot of the same issues. Although we’ve never met, reading Against Memoir often felt like having a conversation with any number of close female punk friends from “back in the day.” Tea’s conversational tone and her way of writing deeply personal experience appeal to a certain universal that is also countercultural, subversive, and presents a very necessary counter-narrative to mainstream histories of American punk, feminism, and sexual identity.
This interview took place via email in the midst of Tea’s current book tour.
Yvonne C. Garrett (Rail): How did your new book Against Memoir come about? I’ve read that the book is a collection of previously published and new work. How did you choose which pieces to include?
Michelle Tea: I wanted a place for all these little pieces I'd written for the internet or The Believer or to deliver at universities to live together in one place. AND it seemed like a great, lazy way for me to have a new book! But then my editors had me write new pieces and I am so grateful for the push, because they are my favorite pieces in the book. I selected the pieces with the help of my awesome editor Lauren Hook.
Rail: I’m also curious about the chronological decisions in Against Memoir. Did you decide on the order of the pieces in the book or was your editor involved in that process?
Tea: That actually was my editor's decision. I could have weighed in but honestly don't know what is the best or most interesting way to order things, so I was happy that they took that over.
Rail: Carley Moore describes Against Memoir as a project that works to create “a queer archive of lost voices.” Do you think that’s an accurate description both of your initial intention with the book and the way it’s turned out?
Tea: I honestly didn't intend for it to be that, and it was cool and illuminating to see how much my work focused on queer voices, lost or otherwise. It made me happy that the book has a coherent theme that I wasn't even intending! And it makes sense. I love queer history and culture, the more obscure and potentially overlooked the more it tends to captivate me.
Rail: You’re a prolific writer with a strong voice that carries throughout all of your work. Why the title Against Memoir? And can you talk a little about your process? Do you write pieces specifically for assignments or write and then pitch them afterwards? Do you always write with a project in mind?
Tea: It felt like a strong, provocative, cheeky title for the book, and it is the title of one of the essays in the collection. I was teaching a memoir workshop at Tin House a couple years ago, and had been feeling so many conflicted emotions about my own relationship with the genre, as well as learning more about the way talking about yourself—and, I presume, writing about yourself—affects your brain. As a sober addict I am so interested in this, and the way that my drive to write memoir mirrors my alcoholism. So those are the ideas I'm playing with in that piece.
Rail: As someone who grew up and later worked in the punk and goth scenes of the 1980s-1990s myself, I find your music writing exhibits a level of authenticity often missing from work on music subcultures and gender and/or sexuality. In “HAGS in Your Face” you use the phrase “the macho landscape of punk rock.” I didn’t experience punk rock as particularly macho although the histories that exist mostly are—certainly that was the case when hardcore came onto the scene. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of writing the HAGS into any history of punk in the U.S. and why people should care about women’s narratives of punk and/or goth?
Tea: The HAGS were and are emblematic of the culture I inhabited and am marked by, and I want my history to be documented and represented, like all people do. Who is to say what is important, and I'm not one to tell people what they should or shouldn't care about. Stories like “HAGS In Your Face” or “The City to a Young Girl” were really compelling to me as a writer because they fell under the “write what you know” instruction—I know queers and punks and San Francisco, and I know misogyny and small New England towns and resistance—but there was a lot of unknown for me to dig into in a more journalistic sense, and everything I learned felt very meaningful to me personally, so it was a rewarding process even though some of the work, like the HAGs piece, was also really difficult to write as well.
Rail: There were points in Against Memoir where I was so deeply affected by what I was reading that I had to take a break. One such instance was in reading “The City to a Young Girl.” Can you talk about the idea of “activism” and how you define it in this essay? What does it mean to be a woman and a writer and why do you say the title activist “never feels correct?” Is it just the physical aspect of activism that you refer to in the piece or is it something more? Couldn’t it be said that the act of a woman (or any other non-male or non-white person) writing or speaking out loud is in itself a very important type of activism?
Tea: I have in my lifetime done actual activism where you put your body on the line in the street, in a kiss-in or die-in or keeping a women's health clinic open or protesting in the street, risking arrest, etc. So for me, writing might be in support of these efforts but they don't usually take the place of them—at least my personal writings in this place and time have not. Obviously writings that come out of more repressive regimes where the writers risk death or incarceration, and there is journalism that works to actually change particular situations that it is documenting, but as for my own writings, I don't consider them activism. Maybe the “Transmissions from Camp Trans” piece, a little. I don't believe that any woman speaking out loud in America is automatically activism, especially me—a white woman, able-bodied, etc. I actually have a lot of privilege, and a lot of American women have a lot of privilege, even under this heinous administration. Women of color, immigrant women, Muslim women, trans women, I think that is a different story.
Rail: In the final piece of Against Memoir you state “Writing is a mental illness.” For some of us, writing saves our lives again and again. Can you talk a little bit about what writing is for you?
Tea: I have had the urge to write for as long as I can remember, as a child, and it feels to me so wholly wired into who I am, the way my mind operates. In particular that I am compelled to write so heavily about my own experience, which has a connection to hypergraphia, a type of mental state that compels people to write maniacally about themselves. Again, having alcoholism, a type of mental illness, as well as anxiety and what not, to me my drive to write just feels like another of these tendencies that are so rooted in my body and have a host of expressions that become, in part, my personality. I feel like I am a writer the way I feel like I am female or queer. It is in me and needs to be expressed, and I feel really grateful that I have found a way to consistently engage in it, even as I sometimes have to reckon with all the ways it is so weird, too.
Rail: Is there anyone you’re reading right now that you find particularly compelling? What about music—is there anyone you’re listening to that feeds into your writing, inspires you, or is just plain good music?
Tea: On my book tour I brought along Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, so I am working my way through that creepy epic. I also acquired Carley Moore's 16 Pills on my travels, which I blurbed but am re-reading now that it's out. I'm excited to get home to the pile of books I left half-read—The Island Dwellers byJen Silverman is really great, and Lillian Faderman's new biography of Harvey Milk, Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing. Plain good music—I am obsessed with the new album by Sons of an Illustrious Father, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla. A cacophony of dancey and deep queer brilliance.
ContributorYvonne C. Garrett
YVONNE C. GARRETT holds an MLIS (Palmer), an MFA (The New School), two MAs (NYU), and is currently working on a PhD in History & Culture at Drew University where her dissertation focuses on women & gender identity in 1980s American punk rock. She is Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press.