Published on November 2nd, 2016 | by Andrea Lawlor0
RUTHLESS HONESTY—Michelle Tea Talks to Andrea Lawlor About BLACK WAVE
You might know a bit (or a lot) about Michelle Tea’s life, even if you’ve never met her. From her early days as a young queer poet in the Bay Area open mic scene, starting Sister Spit with Sini Anderson, through five memoirs, a collection of poetry, a live-blogged pregnancy journey, founding MUTHA Magazine, and countless personal essays, Tea has crafted the intimate moments of her life into a prodigous body of work, an ongoing multi-volume portrait of the struggle of one writer in America. She has written about work, sex, addiction, recovery, pregnancy, and family in a startlingly honest, relentlessly funny voice without ever seeming to hold back out of delicacy or vanity.
And yet deep into her sixth memoir, the book that would ultimately become her latest, Black Wave, Tea scrapped hundreds of pages out of respect for an ex who asked not to be immortalized (again). When Tea began writing into that hole, the result was a category-creating book critics have described as apocalyptic or dystopian fictionalized memoir.
Black Wave is also a return to Tea’s avant garde origins. In its playful blurring of the line between fiction and life-writing, Black Wave employs many of the conventions of the New Narrative, that venerable queer movement whose lineage includes Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, Kevin Killian, Pamela Lu, and, of course, Eileen Myles. To this tradition, Tea brings a punk enthusiasm for the low as well as the high, mobilizing not only meta-fictional and poetic literary devices but also the tropes of speculative fiction. We hear the echo of Tea’s earliest work, the fresh young voice from the plains saying all the things you’re not supposed to say, only now all grown up and in command of the story. In other words, stop reading this interview immediately and go buy Black Wave right now if you haven’t already, and maybe call in sick to work. But bookmark this page first! – Andrea Lawlor
MUTHA: I remember sitting next to you at the kitchen counter in Mexico, at the Radar residency. Every morning you would be there, typing away. How has your writing process changed since you became a parent?
MICHELLE TEA: Well, Atticus is going to be two. The first year I was the one who was home with him, and at first it was easy, I wouldn’t say really easy, but he just lived in his little bassinet. I was like, this is cool, what are people complaining about?
But then once he got mobile! You can’t do anything except chase the baby around. I still did a lot of writing; I wrote a really shitty screenplay while the baby was sleeping at night. I would work between nine and midnight, and I was already so tired, you know what I mean, and I did it for a month and cranked out this shitty, shitty first draft. At the end, I was like, this is not sustainable, this can’t become my writing process. When I was younger I did most of my writing at night, in bars. Now, forget it. Even before the baby, I was tired. I need to work in the morning or the daytime.
This past year, [my partner] Dashiell stopped working and now I’m the one who’s working and that’s why we moved to LA—so I could hustle and follow up on entertainment world opportunities. So now I just wake up and go to this scabby garage attached to our house that is in no way a “renovated office” and absolutely has nails sticking out of the wood. A lizard ran out from under my desk the other day with no tail!
I’ve had periods before when I wasn’t doing any writing but I have the ability, when I do sit down, to produce a lot of text in a sitting. My editing brain and my creative writing brain don’t really interfere with each other very much, which is a huge gift. And writing mostly memoir, the story’s there. Even with Black Wave, which is fictionalized, I kind of knew the moves, where the book was going. When I’ve written fiction I’ve definitely gotten more moments when I’m sitting there, going, “what should they do now?” and that slows it down.
MUTHA: Has having Atticus made you think about the world in new ways? Does being a parent rather than remembering being a child change your relationship to your characters?
MICHELLE TEA: You know, Black Wave was in the works before Atti came around. I’ve been working on it forever. But inevitably, the future stories I write will be impacted: I’m thinking about doing another book that’s life writing and about family. And my ideas about family have shifted. I can’t even say it without sounding stupid, but my family got divorced. My parents got divorced. And thank god! My father was a terrible father and a depressing person to be in the house. I guess I always had some sort of whatever feeling about it growing up, and a toughness around it. But ever since having Atti, I’m like, it’s so tragic that that happened. Divorce is actually tragic, in a way that I never felt before. I feel a real sadness I hadn’t been in touch with, probably because of my own bravado to some extent and protective measures in my own family. So that’s kind of a profound change, in the way I see my own family, my own childhood.
There’s so much hope that comes together when you start a family. It’s so fragile. I remember the moments after Atticus was born I just felt how fragile life was. And there was a huge duct tape of hope sticking everything together. It’s really changed the way I see families that don’t work out in that way. Thenk I wonder, “Oh my god, am I turning into some Christian stereotype thinking divorce is terrible”?
MUTHA: In Black Wave, “Michelle” has two moms and a gay brother. I’m so interested in how you’re working through ideas about queer families and queer kinship while also defamiliarizing your own family in fiction.
MICHELLE TEA: I thought, “Oh my god, am I going to pull my family into my story again?” I know my mother is wounded by it. My sister is a freaking champ, she never complains. But I also feel like I don’t need to make her vulnerable again. I felt much more in touch with how vulnerable I’ve made people with my writing. I’m glad I was not as in touch with that before or didn’t consider it as deeply or didn’t feel affected by it. Because I’m happy with the books that I’ve written and I wouldn’t have been able to write them in that way if I was feeling their feelings more. For whatever reason, I do feel it now and so I wanted to find a way to write about the emotional truth of the situation. Even though the Michelle in the book has these lesbian mothers, her emotional connection, at least to one of them, is very similar to my connection to my mother. I have this fantasy I’m sure most queer people who aren’t in queer families have, like, “Wouldn’t it have been so cool to be raised by queer moms?” And then you think, but actually there’s all kinds of lesbians in the world. It doesn’t mean you’ll get to go to art shows and live this bohemian life. What about the queer women who are living in places like Chelsea, Massachusetts, and basically are of that town and happen to be gay. I liked playing with that idea. It was also fun to think of the experiences that my sister has had in the world, to imagine her as a gay boy. It became someone who’s obviously not my sister at all, but there’s some sort of little spark of her in there. After writing so many memoirs and trying to hew so closely to the truth it was really fun to do this.
MUTHA: I bet! I’ve always been terrified to write memoir.
MICHELLE TEA: As you should be!
MUTHA: You do need that bravery, that ruthless honesty. Do you think recovery has played a part in your shift to fiction?
MICHELLE TEA: I’m sure. At the very least recovery keeps you kind of honest, always pushes you to ask yourself, “what was my part?” Memoirists should always be thinking, “what was my part?” when writing about conflict. It’s so much more true. It complicates your character, ideally complicates the situation, which is more life-like and more interesting to a reader.
What made me feel more destabilized about being a memoir writer was Buddhism. When I lived in San Francisco I had a period where I was frequently going to the Zen Center. I had these existential quandaries. There’s this whole thing, especially when you’re reading Pema Chödrön (like all American Buddhists—white Buddhists probably). Do you know her saying, “Drop your storyline?” Memoir cements the storyline, nurtures the storyline. Writing memoir is basically the least Buddhist thing you can do. You’re cementing this one perspective in time. You’re deciding that it’s true. If there’s not even a “you,” really, you’re just nurturing the wounds and resentments of this person who’s perceiving everything incorrectly. You know what I mean?
MUTHA: Oh, absolutely. I went through something related, when I was first learning about Buddhism and thinking about right speech. I thought, “Oh, it seems like actually there’s no way to write fiction that is right speech.” I stopped writing completely for a while.
MICHELLE TEA: Really? Stop it! Will you help me through the thought process that lead you to that?
MUTHA: I was getting more into Buddhism and recovery. There’s that slogan, not only “How important is it?” but is it…
MICHELLE TEA: Is it helpful?
MUTHA: Is it helpful! Yeah. At the time, I was influenced by the idea that I shouldn’t write anything that wasn’t true or anything that might be harmful. I remember worrying that making something up was inherently problematic, and on the other hand I was struggling with the ethics of using elements of my own life, which by necessity involves other people’s experiences or representations, however disguised.
MICHELLE TEA: That’s an existential black hole to fall down. I’m sorry that that happened to you.
MUTHA: It was a bad understanding of Buddhist thinking on my part. Ultimately I came to realize that even in traditional Buddhism there are fables, that there’s a place for stories.
MICHELLE TEA: Certain spiritual teachings or philosophical teachings that feel true, if you follow them, if you take them to the next logical conclusion, end up meaning that you’re paralyzed and there’s no way for you to live on the planet. There’s no way for you to live in this culture. I feel like that has to be misunderstanding. Or that while intellectually or spiritually true, a philosophy does not actually translate to this physical material realm where we live.
MUTHA: In Black Wave you grapple with writing about recovery in general, and writing about AA in particular. The narrator talks about trying to make “Michelle,” the character, sober without AA, and about what’s at stake artistically and ethically in not showing the process. But then there’s a 12-step tradition of anonymity, of attraction rather than promotion, so the narrator’s conflicted.
MICHELLE TEA: I did a public conversation with the writer Alan Kaufman, and he wrote this whole book about his alcoholism and getting sober. He’s really rigorous in his recovery so I was like, “how did you figure that out?” And he was like, “well I never say AA, I just say recovery.” But it seems like a weird euphemism, aren’t you still just saying AA? Everyone knows that that’s what you’re saying, right?
I understand why there’s a tradition of anonymity, and you don’t walk around blabbering that you are a member of this group. Because then you’re Lindsay Lohan and you’re going out and getting wasted again and people think, “AA is a joke.” But then again, as a memoirist, I guess it’s that same ruthlessness where I’m going to tell the truth and I’m sorry if it hurts my family, and I’m just going to tell the truth and I’m sorry if it hurts some people in AA. I’m not saying that’s awesome or that I feel great about it, but I just saw no other way around it. I’ve written so much about being wasted and doing drugs and celebrating this sort of debauchery and then getting so tangled and drowning in it. To act like I just pulled myself out and got sober and didn’t have any help…? One of the primary purposes of AA is that once you’re in there, you want to help other alcoholics, and what a huge disservice to anybody who reads my writing and thinks, “Oh, Michelle just got wasted all the time and then just stopped and I can just stop.”
I think there’s such a horrible misunderstanding of alcoholism in our culture. The idea remains that you can just stop or change up your drinking, that you have control over it, and it’s just not true. I’ve found that to be so not true. The reality is, I read statistics in an article a long time ago and I can’t remember the source, but basically how it breaks down is that you’re kind of fucked if you’re an alcoholic. (Laughs). Most people who are alcoholics do not get clean and sober. Most people who go to AA do not stay in AA, but AA has the best rate of success. So the odds are kind of stacked against you, and your best bet is AA. I find that to be true in my life and even in my experience of watching other people struggle with their addictions. People who go into recovery and practice it, their lives get transformed and the hold that drugs and alcohol has on them, it actually goes away. It’s miraculous. So I hated not being able to speak to that in my writing, because it seemed dangerously untrue. It ran the risk of creating some sort of mythology that the individual can barrel through it and “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and you’ll be fine.” It’s not true.
MUTHA: I think in Black Wave at least you’re balancing the attraction and promotion. Maybe it’s a queer move to say I’m going to take what works from AA. And leave the rest. I know you have a much wider audience now, but I wonder if you feel a particular responsibility to those young queer readers?
MICHELLE TEA: I mostly do. I think young queers are doing so good, they seem to be, but then they’re also killing themselves. It depends on so many factors including where you’re living, who your family is…. I feel responsibility, definitely, for queer kids who are alcoholics. Knowing that I put out my earlier work that really celebrates unbridled excess, while I love those books and that’s my story, I felt publishing part two was incredibly important—representing that you might also have a problem, and there’s a way to deal with that and figure out life.
MUTHA: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what sort of effects my work might have for my kid, later on. Has having a child affected how you think about what you’ve published and what you’re writing now? Do you think about what’s it going to be like for our kids in, say, middle school? Or do you just have to say, “I am who I am?”
MICHELLE TEA: At this point, I definitely have to say “I am who I am.” Because I already have a body of work that explores the sex industry, for example. He came into this family and this is how it is.
MUTHA: He lucked out, obviously.
MICHELLE TEA: (Laughs) I hope so! I do wonder, how will I explain those things to him? I’m trusting that it will be organically clear, because he is growing up in this family and in this culture, so it’s not going to be a huge shocker. It’s not like I’m going to be plucking a middle schooler from some other family. The reason I’m not tripping now is also because he’s two years old and he doesn’t understand the world. Even explaining what I do for work, he doesn’t understand. “Mommy wrote a book and she has to go have story time with people,” you know what I mean? (Laughs)
I’m open to the idea that there could be conflict in the future, and I’ll figure that out as it goes along. Look at Susie Bright, who co-wrote a book with her daughter. As long as you have a strong and honest relationship with your kid, you’ll be able to navigate whatever weird issue pops up. People wonder, do you write about your kid? I think yeah, until I’m told not to. Obviously, I’ve never written about the people I live with in a way that would bother them, because who wants that conflict in your home? That goes for Atticus. I would always respect if he didn’t want me to write about something that has impacted him.
MUTHA: Early on in Black Wave, “Michelle” talks about the shame of having her story taking up all this space, what I’d call the shame of being known. I’ve been wondering if in this new moment, with Facebook and social media, when expectations about privacy have really changed, if everyone’s in that position now? I run into someone at the playground or the farmer’s market or wherever I am, and I’m like, “Oh, how’s your new job? How’s your mom?” And we’ve met twice! I wonder if this moment of omnipresent memoir is part of your move to fiction?
MICHELLE TEA: Not consciously. But you’re totally right. This morning Atticus woke up so early and Dashiell took him and I went back to sleep. And when I woke up, Dashiell’s asleep on the couch and Atticus is sitting in the crook of her leg eating a banana. He’s obsessed with animals so he has all of these little animal figures, and they’re all piled in a big pile behind Dashiell’s head. He’s sitting there on Dashiell, playing with these animals. I thought it was so funny. Why is it that my urge is to take a picture and put it on Instagram? What is that? I did it, and I’m not completely mindless when I’m doing it. But it’s interesting that that’s what you want to do. You see this moment and you think it’s striking, so you want other people to see it. But it’s not unlike being a writer, too, because I don’t know that I would write if I didn’t have a platform to share it. My writing follows a similar impulse: I want to share my life and the things that I see with the world. We’re all like that, we’re all wired like that, or else we wouldn’t have social media. It’s not just the weird compulsive mental illness of a writer. I’m not a person who’s super conflicted about my presence on the Internet. I have friends who commit Facebook suicide all the time or take themselves off and then go back on.
MUTHA: Or they’re not on Facebook but they’ll write very personally in a book. Like Maggie Nelson.
MICHELLE TEA: I understand people get angst and anxiety from it. Of course I get annoyed by people, like everybody else does, but overall I think it’s kind of beautiful that we all get to reach out to each other and share these little blips of our lives. I like seeing other people’s lives. I like seeing what other people are doing. I’ll have a moment where I’m on Facebook on my phone, and I’m liking everything and then I’m like, stop liking everything! Isn’t that weird? But I do, I like everything. I’m happy to see everybody alive and doing their thing and visiting places and picking flowers or whatever, stupid things. It’s sweet. I love seeing everyone’s kids. As a queer person, too, I like to see our queer community nationally, it’s like a queer diaspora. Especially now with the way our cities have become so increasingly unlivable for artists and queer people, we’re scattered everywhere.
MUTHA: Most reviewers have described Black Wave as apocalyptic or dystopian, but for me there’s a utopian section towards the end of the book slash world, when everyone’s finding their Craigslist missed connections in their dreams. I see a real appreciation for the magical quality of the Internet, these electronic connections with other people having so much potential for beauty.
MICHELLE TEA: During that time period, I was affected by being in a relationship with somebody who was transitioning, and the way that trans men find each other on the Internet, literally they share their bodies with each other online. Queer people have used the Internet to find each other, more so possibly than any other group who are reaching out for real life-saving connections. I like this idea of the Internet being able to provide people with something that’s life-sustaining in a material and physical way, like you find your soulmate.
MUTHA: In your book, there’s this feeling of the multiverse, all these different Michelles happening at once. I found that so moving and powerful. It’s a great way to think about a relationship ending, sobriety, a new life beginning, the end of a book, and all of these things coming together…I should probably not talk too much about the end here! I don’t want spoilers.
MICHELLE TEA: I’m not worried.