Michelle Tea

"I've always believed you can be your freaky self and have success on your own terms, and maybe I wasn't bullshitting myself."

Feature by Nine | 16 May 2006

Michelle Tea's name invokes certain keywords, such as queer, punk, sex work, tattoos, feminism, attitude, and doomed relationships; and she's very good at what she does, which is writing on these themes. Above all, she's prolific. If you're in the market for a new favourite writer, you'll enjoy not only checking out her own books, but tracing her progress through the many anthologies she's appeared in, leading you in turn to whole new worlds of queer writers who don't get a whole lot of exposure round these parts, either from the mainstream or from the Lesbian and Gay Community(™). In recent years she edited two anthologies - 'Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class', and (with Clint Catalyst) 'Pills, Thrills, Chills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person'. Added to these are three memoirs tracing her somewhat precarious steps from Massachusetts to San Francisco; 'Rent Girl', a graphic novel illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, which details Tea's experiences as a sex worker; and 'The Beautiful', a collection of Tea's poetry, comprised of equal parts heartbreak and fury.

Now Tea's latest offering is 'Rose Of No Man's Land', her first novel, which relates the adventures of Trisha, a fourteen-year-old loner with a dead-end life. Within a short space of time, the book sees Trisha get fired from her first job and take off on a spontaneous journey with Rose, a streetwise trouble-maker with no fear, no shame and no scruples. Narrated by Trisha, the story navigates the minefield of elation and disappointment that is teenage rebellion, including a spot-on stream-of-consciousness portrayal of the paranoid, complicated and ultimately pointless thoughts that arise from taking too many drugs. Added to this is a depiction of the intense emotions that come to the fore when you realise, all of a sudden, that maybe you're in love with someone you didn't expect you might fall in love with.

As fiction, 'Rose Of No Man's Land' marks a departure from most of Tea's previous work, but it can still be seen to share certain traits, showing glimpses of her own background and her feelings about the world at large. The urgency of her writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, demonstrates that any experience, even those that at first glance seem mundane, can be worth writing down and sharing with the world. "The whole point of being a writer is to make things sound dramatic," she states. "Even when something is being written about very simply, it's still to underscore the drama happening. Sometimes real life is just a little boring and you as a writer can see the potential of the scene if only people just ramped it up a notch, so you do. In real life lots of things are moving under the surface and I think in writing about them you have to chip away a bit to reveal what is really there." In practice, this may call for a slight employment of exaggeration when describing actual events, but she acknowledges the difference between "honestly balancing the requirements of art - writing - with the need to keep things authentic in memoir, and outright lying about shit and conjuring whole scenes and people that never existed."

Rather than resenting her categorisation as a queer writer, and the corresponding limits this may place on mainstream success, Tea believes "you just have to write the kind of stuff that you write, period, and hope for the best." Her stories are very universal at their core, and sexuality is not always so consequential to the plot, but while she recognises that in many ways being queer is just another character trait like being left-handed or blonde, "left-handed people aren't fucked with for being left-handed, blondes aren't scorned by their families for being blonde, and left-handed and blonde people are allowed to marry each other. All the old motherfuckers in power aren't sitting around writing up legislation to further oppress and deprive blonde people of their rights. Being queer marks the way I have lived, it determines my expectations for my life and influences what I perceive my options to be. It absolutely colours the way in which I am female and how I am related to by (and how I relate to) other people, especially straight men and women. So, while it's sort of no big whoop, it's also everything. It's my culture.

"That all said, I don't know if queerness per se has prevented me from mainstream success any more than my class background and class analysis or the way in which I'm female and feminist. Who knows? My new book is a very queer, female and poor tale, and is enjoying some mainstream success, so who knows? I've always believed you can be your freaky self and have success on your own terms, and maybe I wasn't bullshitting myself."

Rose of No Man's Land' is available now, published by MacAdam/Cage.