Author Q&A: Michelle Tea

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The new novel from Michelle Tea, Black Wave (And Other Stories £10) reads much like memoir – and even its impending doomsday doesn’t seem too fanciful given current events in the US. Tea, who emerged out of the punk music and queer scenes of nineties San Francisco, tells the fictional story of Michelle who, battling addiction, holes up in an abandoned bookstore to write a universal story against a universal deadline. 

Memoir meets the apocalypse in your new book. Is there as much truth in your fiction as there is in your memoirs?
There are emotional and cultural truths in all of my fiction, whether that be the truth of growing up female in a downtrodden town or the truth of a painful family dynamic or the truth of the struggle with addiction. In memoir I deal with these themes head on while in fiction I build fictional scenarios around a core truth that I’ve experienced. That said, there is a lot in Black Wave that is literally true.

Does the end of the world in the book, in the year 2000, symbolise the end of a chapter of your life, the end of a movement or something else?
It was an end of a chapter of sorts, but a messier ending with a lot more loose ends. The ending of a phase of life is a lot more clear-cut in the book – life itself ends! For me, it took crawling back to San Francisco and getting a little sicker with my addictions and then slowly getting sober and finding my way back. But the pacing of real life can make for a draggy novel!

You publicly blogged about your IVF, marriage, miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy and birth. How do you feel about a new president who threatens some of the fundamental rights that have shaped your life?
I feel like I’m trapped in a nightmare I can’t wake up from, like absolutely everyone I know. It’s important to remember that Clinton won the popular vote, that most Americans are in fact horrified right now, that the worst case scenario we are experiencing is the result of an archaic system that needs to be abolished, the electoral college. But it is also worth noting that my life has been more profoundly shaped by having to fight for basic rights than having had them. Obama was a burst of sunlight through the clouds but I’m 45 years old and have been protesting the slow-moving, dim-witted American power structures my whole life.

Will queer fiction become less of a genre in itself as conversation around gender fluidity evolves, or is it important to retain a space on the bookshelves for the community?
Time will tell. I personally don’t believe in queer shelves in bookstores for queer fiction. It creates a weird hierarchy of success – I’ve worked in bookstores, and it’s never Jeanette Winterson or David Sedaris on the queer shelves. Once straight people embrace you, you’re moved to fiction, which creates a metaphorical ghetto of smaller press writers whose obscurity is then ensured by their placement on those very shelves. Queer readers find out about queer books through lots of means and don’t require a special shelf so much as straight people need to be reading more queer literature!
What is the lasting impact of the Riot Grrrl movement and is there a need for a resurgence or a fresh movement now?
There is always a need for feminist activism. We live in a culture globally that is in various states of denial about how it hates women, and feminist movements bring light to that. And that at the very least empowers other women and helps us all feel less crazy in our reality. All feminist movements have been incredibly important and lay the groundwork for the next generation of resistance. I actually think there is even more feminist activism and expression happening now than in the 1990s but it is more diffuse, not just a single movement – it’s actually more common and less likely to stir a trend-based media frenzy, which is great. But do we need both more activism and more media representation of feminist perspective? Hell yes. Always.

How has San Francisco changed over the past 20 years and how does that reflect on wider society?
The growing disparity of wealth in the US, which has been building for decades, with the loss of good working-class jobs and union power and a rise of corporate greed and tech sector power, has resulted in the deep gentrification of all our American cities, an ousting of poor and working class people, unaffordable housing, eviction of artists, a lack of accessibility for young people unless they are already in these pipelines of privilege. San Francisco is a poster city for how a culture is decimated by wealth that comes from outside rather than up through an existing community. With much respect to the brilliant artists who are fighting for their place, the city is all but a cultural ghost town.

The book explores the ethics of writing about other people. How have you reconciled this in your autobiographical work?
You make a certain peace with the ruthlessness that being a writer occasionally requires. You balance with a sometimes harsh honesty the impact of hurting a feeling versus the impact of feeding your writing. Different relationships require different loyalties or privacies and with others you make peace with the possibility of sacrificing a friendship, or someone’s opinion of you. It’s harsh but it is the real truth.

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