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Michelle Tea: Cult Author and Organiser Talks Queer Culture, Class and Capitalism

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Photo by Gretchen Sayers

Writer and creative producer Michelle Tea came over from LA in October to talk about her new book, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions, and Criticisms, at Off the Shelf Festival.

Michelle and I met a decade ago when she was in town for the Sister Spit Tour she'd organised with US and UK writers on a shoestring. She contributed a story to issue five of my zine, Adventures in Menstruating, and we stayed in contact.

It was awesome to catch up with Michelle again after the event. We talked about writing, capitalism, what she's been up to for the past decade - and how Sheffield seems like her kinda town.

I see you visibly checking your privilege all the time and I think it's very cool. How would you recommend other people do that in a way that doesn't bring them into shame?

Thank you for saying that. I'm 48 so I've had a lot of time to practice, to make mistakes. I definitely made lots of mistakes. I know that I have and I feel for anyone who had to be around me while I was making them, but there are resources out there that can help people figure all of this out.

If you find a way to detach a little bit emotionally from it, the facts are: we live in a culture that is white supremacist, it's ableist, it's fat negative, it's heteronormative. Wherever you fit into that mold, or wherever your identity is 'acceptable', you're going to have privileges in those places. And that's that. It's good to think about it. It just makes you more aware, and less likely to be an asshole - an inadvertent asshole.

You got a round of applause tonight for your comment on trans-inclusionary radical feminism [TERF]. There's a problem with TERFy women spreading disinformation [about trans people], using their privilege to fund campaigns, leaflet events and hold their own events.

I mean, they're on the wrong side of history. They're dying off, literally. We're not going to inherit their world - we're going to inherit our world. The next generations our going to inherit our trans positive, gender spectrum world, not their world, so I feel like they're almost just sad. Except I know they wreak too much havoc and bring too much hurt to just be sad. They're a menace.

there was a world of art and action happening and I just wanted to be there

Within capitalism, and in the queer outsider art aesthetic, is it a radical act to take up space within the commercial sphere?

I just feel like sometimes the commercial sphere wants you and sometimes they don't want you, and ideally you just keep doing what you're doing.

I am not striving to be radical. I'm striving to be authentic. A lot of what I'm authentically interested in - or have done, or will do, or want to do - falls under the auspices of 'radical', but I think to pursue radicalism for its own purpose to me feels unnatural.

Would you ever want to get to a point where you didn't need to write?

I don't have the intense drive, like, 'I must write that down.' It's so sporadic now.

That's not to say that once I have a project and sit down and write, that I don't have those great moments of flow where it's just coming. But yeah, I can't rely on that sort of intense drive to write to get me to write. I have to take it more seriously, and make time for it.

At one point it was what I did in own my time and own my life, because I had these jobs and that could not be my life. I had to have a meaningful life. And now writing's the job, so what do you do to own your life? I remember I was in therapy once and this woman was asking me about hobbies, and I was like, "Hobbies? I monetise my hobbies. I don't have hobbies!"

What is your class background?

Very working class - on welfare at various points, off welfare, with my mom, single mom after divorce. No support from my father, so when she got sick and was out of work, we would end up on food stamps for a bit. My dad worked for the post office, my birth father, and then they divorced. [My mom's] a nurse and she married another nurse.

That's a very Sheffield story.

Yeah, I really relate to the class vibe of the north of England and of Scotland. It feels really familiar to me.

You took an unusual route into your career because you did not go to college, which everybody expects everyone from the US has done. Was it a conscious choice or were you doing other stuff?

I saved up enough money to pay for one year at two different state schools, so two semesters. It seemed like so much work and stress without any support and I didn't enjoy it. I knew that there was a world of art and action happening and I just wanted to be there. I wasn't getting a very good education at all, anyway.

I had a History class, a World History class, with this awful racist man who was also a misogynist. I wanted to do my piece on women in Egypt and he was like, "Well, women weren't rulers." I was so shot down and just felt so disempowered that it wasn't until after I was out of that class that I was like motherfucking Cleopatra! What the fuck? I could have done it on Cleopatra!

It was just terrible. I had a Psychology 101 class where we watched a movie about why men are gay - like, 'maybe it's because their mother gets startled when they're in the womb'.

What? And this is, what, the early 90s?

Yeah, early 90s, state schools in Massachusetts.

That's so bizarre to me. That's horrific.

I wanted readers to know about Mutha magazine. I like that you started it and I like that you've stepped away from it. How do you step away from a great project? How could you give away your baby?

Well, I have so many babies, and I'm so fertile I'm going to keep having more babies! I was really lucky that Meg Lemke, the editor [...] just had the space in her life for it at that time to really take it on, and after a point you realise, 'Oh ,this person's doing all this work and I'm actually not and I'm dropping a lot of balls, and if I care about the project, it can't be about my ego.'

I've done the same thing with Drag Queen Story Hour [drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and book shops]. I mean, I am working on certain Drag Queen Story Hour...

I didn't know you did that! They do it here now! I had no idea.

I know, they do it everywhere. It's incredible. It started in San Francisco. December 2013 was the first one. I had to step down from managing the Los Angeles chapter, I still retain the copyright for it and I'm working on other related projects with it.

The New York chapter has come up with best practices guidelines, training and stuff. So they're a good resource for people looking to start chapters in their area. They can reach out to them and get that.

I feel like this interview is just a list of instructions for how people can do everything that you say...

Do anything they wanna do, and then stop doing it when you don't want to do it anymore. Live your best life.

Chella Quint

Against Memoir is available now via Sheffield publisher And Other Stories.

Next article in issue 141

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