San Francisco is not a city that is the centre of anything in the art world but it does attract many people who care deeply about the arts. This is only one of the city’s contradictions. It is a city that not just tolerates otherness but embraces it. San Francisco is a cold foggy city perversely perched on a peninsula in Sunny California as if poised to pounce out of the Continent and do its own thing. And it does. Away from the mass media radars of New York and LA, talent can be developed and flourish without being tamed and packaged as soon as it squeezes out into the consciousness of the world. There is genuine counter culture here in a way there can never be in many of the so-called Art Mecca’s. This city’s sensibility is raw, infuriating, radical, painfully self conscious, gender bending, contrary, pierced-tongue–in– cheek.
You can get cut on the edges.
When you slice yourself in San Francisco the blood might be a different colour than you expect.
You could bleed rainbows here.
I am about to meet a quintessentially San Francisco writer whom I have always been inspired by. A writer who has lived and wrote on the edges in a unique and compelling way. She writes like a woman – in almost diary form. She is a talented writer with a generous spirit and boundless energy who routinely brings people together. You won’t find her published by any mainstream publisher, because she couldn’t be packaged for the tediously safe New Yorker market or the titillating soul sucking female People Magazine market. This writer is not and will never be mainstream – hers is a voice as underground as the mysterious Cenotes that flow in delicious chilled darkness under the tropical Mexican peninsula in which she spends each summer writing.
I am confronted with big black iron gates, a buzzer and a keypad with cryptic instructions, thank God for cell phones, I call Michele Tea, and after a few minutes she appears smiling with tattooed limbs behind the iron gates to let me in. Upstairs in her cool new apartment she makes green tea and slices a pear for me. A few years ago I came across Michelle when I read with herself and Irvine Welsh at the Edinburgh Castle in the Tenderloin. I was pursuing a Masters in Fine art in San Francisco State and one of my friends and fellow students,who had impeccable taste, was in the process of becoming a man. He was never impressed with anything I did until I gave him a flyer inviting him to my reading with Michelle Tea. “Michelle Tea is my hero.” He said simply. I took note of his approval and wasn’t disappointed. Michelle was a unique and talented spirit and her work was challenging and wild. I remember us standing outside the door after that reading and watching a prostitute ply her trade in a wheel chair. We agreed that it was a very San Francisco image. Baffling, sad, dark and funny all at the same time.
This city makes me shiver and lures me in all at once.
It’s hard to meet a native. We’re all blow-ins. Or maybe only the blow-ins talk to me. But Michelle has become San Francisco in a very good way.
Though born in Massachusetts she personifies the best of this small fiercely individual city. Her work explores queer culture, feminism, race, class and the sex industry all through her own personal experience. She is the poet laureate of the queercore community. A community that grew up in the mid eighties worldwide, but especially strong in SF, that fuses punk with queer politics.
Michelle and I swap books. She gives me Rent Girl which rescues me from the Franzen book I’ve been trudging dutifully through. Rent Girl is an illustrated memoir of Michelle’s days when her girlfriend announced that she was a hooker and, Michelle, who was one broke baby dyke followed her into the world of paid sex. Frankly, I’ve never understood people’s shock at prostitution, in a way we all pay for sex one way or another. There’s no such thing as free love, especially here, 40 odd years after THE Summer of Love turned into a bad acid trip.
Rent girl is a wise and funny book, a very graphic novel. There is a part where the narrator surmises that it is much less effort to be a hooker than to be a stripper. Strippers, she claims, have to give so much of themselves in the performance. Hookers can lie back and let their minds wander. That’s an insider perspective, something I would have never guessed. And I love learning new things that surprise me.
This is not the sort of fiction you’ll find on the front shelves in Eason’s. If it weren’t for the small presses Michelle Tea’s voice would not be heard.
Michelle is a legend in the underground world and I’m struck when I meet her at how grounded and focused she is and what easy company. But not surprised, for the last few years she has run, RADAR, a reading series in San Francisco, (just voted the Best Literary Night in the SF Guardian’s Reader Poll) and has set up and got funding for a writers’ retreat in Mexico near Tulum. Now she’s branching out in a yet a new direction.
“RADAR will begin publishing in 2012 as a Sister Spit imprint with City Lights! I’m lucky my friends are really good writers. I’m always reading their stuff and with their kind of material they’ll never get published so I wanted to do something more for them. We can do only a few books a year. I’d love to do more.”
“Pretty much ALL my experience has been with small publishers, or midsized, and it’s been varied but mostly good. I’ve had help with publicity with some publishers, and not with others. San Francisco is home to City Lights, McSweeney’s, Manic D press, MacAdam/Cage.”
So what are you working on now?
“I was going to write something completely new when I got to Mexico. I’m doing another fictionalized edit on this book that I’ve written that’s given me such a problem. I was in a relationship and the one thing my partner asked was that I wouldn’t write about them. But I did. We’ve broken up and I’ve fictionalized it but I don’t know if I should go on with it. They would be pretty upset. We’re both known in the counter cultural world, so I don’t know if I can do it. Maybe I should just write something new when I’m down in Mexico and put it aside. There are different story lines in it. It’s fiction and it’s in the third person but the main character is called Michelle, and she’s a female small press writer. But she has an affair with Matt Dillon. All this crazy shit which is clearly not true. I don’t want to hurt anybody…. It’s weird to have written a book you can’t show.”
“You should just go for it,” I advise. “A man wouldn’t hesitate. It’s very female of you to put it in a drawer and never let it see the light of day.”
She nods vociferously and says” Yes, yes.” She writes my advice down.
As Oscar Wilde says, I always pass on good advice because I’ll have nothing whatsoever to do with it myself.
“There’s parts of the book I can just concentrate on…. like being a drug addict alcoholic, and writing about that, you know kind of like those memoirs people love to read, and maybe to be successful with them you have to be famous or a man because readers like to watch you fall, but if you’re queer, female, fucked up, and broke people just go eewwww.”
On that note of fucked up memoirs I bring up the strange story of Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy. JT LeRoy was a fake identity concocted by an American writer Laura Albert. Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things came out ostensibly as the work of a young male prostitute drug addict who had been repeatedly abused as a child. Laura Albert sent her partner’s sister, the 18 year old Samantha Knoop out in a big wig and glasses to hide under desks while other writers did his readings. She was pretending she was a terminally shy writer. She only communicated by phone. The hoax was eventually exposed by the New York Times in 2006 and left a lot of people angry.
Albert claimed it was a veil not a hoax. She had her defenders. At first is looked like a brilliant literary coup but then a more sinister side to it was revealed. Albert was a master manipulator who, as her alter ego JT, befriended many sympathetic celebrities and public figures over the phone and really drew them into his life made them care about him. Many talk about how he knew just what to say to engage with each person. This was all very intriguing and entertaining for those of us on the outside but I hadn’t realized that Michelle was one of those who felt betrayed and used by it all.
“I was involved in that, I was one of those she called and manipulated, she was adopting this persona – a young, HIV positive, homeless, sexworker, drug addict and she knew I’d be sympathetic to that, and I gave a lot of time and energy on lengthy phone conversations. I was like – What Can I do for you? – She really fucked with me; I was doing damage control on the phone with this person. I was giving a lot of care, I thought I was talking to a very damaged genius kid and I was generous with my time and emotions, and I was giving a lot of myself, a lot that I wouldn’t have been giving to this fucking 43 year old con-artist woman. What did she get out of it? How twisted was she?
It wasn’t just me; she was on to Dave Eggers. She hustled him. He works with kids and is very generous. She knew that. He gave her a bunch of computers. I don’t know what she wanted from me. I didn’t have anything. She hustled people in the counter culture world who she knew would have compassion and who she knew would be tender towards that particular character and so she embodied that. It was very creepy.
It would have been interesting if it was this hoax to show how memoir is prized over fiction in our reality TV culture, which it is, in the current industry, but it was so much more gnarlier than that.
She’s facebooked me twice trying to befriend me, saying – Michelle we need to talk – But I’m like, I don’t even know you, you are crazy, we haven’t had a relationship, that was a chimera.
What’s funny is that I ended up being friends with the girl who played JT Leroy in public. This girl Savannah Knoop. She went out into public and acted all shy. She was only 18 and she didn’t understand the implications of it. She was getting her photo taken for Vanity Fair and being interviewed by Tom Waits, all this glamorous shit.
She is a very masculine girl, she’s queer, she’s boyish so she was pretending to be a boy who was a transgendered female, a boy who was born a boy who was living as a girl, but she was really a girl pretending to be a boy who was living an a girl. Her story is interesting.”
She shows me Samantha’s book. GIRL/BOY/Girl. I am struck by her open heartedness. She was obviously hurt but Michelle talks about other people’s work in a way that most writers don’t. Most writers can’t bear their contemporaries unless they’re deeply dead or trapped in a remote prison and only available through obscure translation. Michelle gives much of herself to other people’s talent. A rare trait indeed. She continues to talk about Samantha Knoop.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a film in the works. It would be a great story. So much to it.
I had such a fucking chip on my shoulder about it all, I thought fuck all those bitches, but when I met her she was a real person, smart, and an artist and really talented. She was so young when it all happened. I wouldn’t have got it at all at 18 either.”
I remark that all teenagers are sociopaths. She writes that down too.
“Do you have any teenagers?” She asks.
“No, but I was a teenage sociopath. I woke up at 21 and realized with horror at what I’d done to people.”
We swap teenage sociopath stories.
“I did all this weird shit. I felt invincible when I was younger. I felt immortal.” She says.
We talk girly talk. I’ve just got a haircut from a hairdresser named Sunshine and came out of the hairdresser looking like an American. I realize that’s why Americans look like that – it’s the fucking hair! My partner took one look at me and commented. “That’s interesting – is that what you asked for?”
We also agree that if someone calls your work “Interesting” it means they hate it.
“Yes, yes.” She nods. “Or if they call it “strong”. My agent just called my book ”a bit strong”. It opened in a van with me smoking crack. She was horrified. Now it opens with me writing about smoking crack in a van and knowing my agent would hate me for starting my book smoking crack in a van.”
Michelle Tea then reads my cards. She’s been reading Tarot cards since she was 15.
“I wanted to read Tarot cards but the apartment I was living in was so crumby I just didn’t feel I could bring people there. It wasn’t professional. But when I was considering this apartment, I never paid that much for rent, but I did a Tarot card reading and I got the wealth card. So I can subsidize my rent with it. It’s steady it’s nice; I don’t really have time for it but its ok, not overwhelming. That’s how I like it.”
I tell her the last reading I got I pulled the death card and they always say that it doesn’t mean death but I don’t buy it.
I pull the joker. She tells me it’s her favorite card. There’s a guy in a joker costume walking off a cliff with a big cat eating his leg.
I’m not so sure.
She takes my picture for her blog. I’m glad I’m blogging this month so that I can bring news of writers such as Michelle to other readers far away from these streets. It feels good to be able to support a voice that I think is vital.
I linger at her door; we’re still talking walking down the stairs. We are swapping Mexican Shaman stories. I want to go to Mexico with her and meet more wild Shamans in the jungle, or just out on the rip in San Francisco and end up in a heap somewhere. But Michelle is so together she’s actually off to a book club, so I wander off by myself and sit on a church step and start reading Rent Girl.
This isn’t chick lit, sex-in-the-city bullshit. Michelle is the real deal. Check it out.
I never really dress up warm enough for San Francisco in the summer but my afternoon has left me feeling warm. I’m glad there are people like Michelle Tea in the world. I’m glad there are the small presses to put her work out there. I don’t get up off the church step till I’ve read the whole book and as I get up the world has shifted as it always does with good books. I’m no longer back in my old Lower Haight San Francisco stomping ground. I am on the edge of a cliff. I walk off as a tiger eats my leg.
Emer Martin is a Dubliner who has lived in Paris, London, the Middle East, and various places in the U.S. Her first novel Breakfast in Babylon won Book of the Year 1996 in her native Ireland at the prestigious Listowel Writers’ Week. Houghton Mifflin released Breakfast in Babylon in the U.S. in 1997. More Bread Or I’ll Appear, her second novel was published internationally in 1999. Emer studied painting in New York and has had a sell-out solo show of her paintings at the Origin Gallery in Harcourt St, Dublin. Her new book is Baby Zero, published March 07. She has just completed her third short film Unaccompanied. She produced Irvine Welsh’s directorial debut NUTS in 2007. Emer was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. She now lives in the jungles of Co. Meath, Ireland.