‘Against Memoir’, or, Winning the War of Attrition

We just keep standing there, digging our heels into the mainstream D-list—also known as the queer A-list—and running our mouths for decade after decade at top volume.

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms
Michelle Tea
Amethyst Editions / Feminist Press
May 2018

Michelle Tea is next. I mean, after whenever Eileen Myles dies—and please for a long time still may they reign—Michelle Tea is going to step in and fill the void. The void: that very lonely captain’s chair on the constantly embattled and leaky mothership of queer feminism that one cannot sit in until all the badges have been collected. The badges: survival of a childhood rife with blatant abuses both emotional and financial, survival of a teenage girlhood clouded over by the dampening hands of selfish authorities and reckless consumption of whatever feels intensely good for half a second, survival of a young adulthood with no career prospects and no shoulders strong enough to cry on, survival of a publishing industry that can’t look in the eyes of one’s unawarded and unmarketable face, survival of envious coattail riders and very public breakups and society’s shockingly concentrated and organized disapproval of everything that one radiates.

We, the queer feminist motley crew, can collectively feel who is up next. We can’t tell by looking at best seller lists. Myles was over 60 when they finally got handed a Guggenheim. The rest of the world does not look at one of our kind at the precocious, ferocious age of 23 and say, “there stands a great American writer.” So we just keep standing there, digging our heels into the mainstream D-list—also known as the queer A-list—and running our mouths for decade after decade at top volume until our pile of contributions to the field of the written word is so enormous that whoever was born into the secret society of literary gatekeepers finally has to turn around and say, “Oh, I guess this weird little person has been chirping in the background long enough that it will look bad if we don’t wave and smile at their relevance pretty soon.”

Tea’s still totally timely and deeply underrated anthology, Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, just got the reprint treatment this year and now we have an awesome compendium of her greatest hits from the past two decades, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms. It’s got some of those xoJane pieces about her record collection and some of the stuff she wrote for Bold Italic. More evidence of Tea’s readiness for the big leagues is how great she is at writing introductions. The book includes her excellently pointy essay on Valerie Solanas published to introduce to the SCUM Manifesto as well as her background essay for the anthology she did on Sister Spit (and lest we forget: Tea is the one who put together that phenomenon of word warriors in the first place, by which contribution alone she’s secured her legacy in our queer history books). There are also some speeches she’s given at various forums and universities that even those of us who follow her relatively closely might have missed.

Here too is the very good long-form feature she did on Camp Trans, the protest site across from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, originally published in the Believer in 2013. She got there at a crucial point in the conversation about inclusivity, and her quite personal reportage on it is probably the most concise and objective overview of what kinds of penalties our community incurs in the ground game on that. That essay may already be considered an important historical document. The most exciting new piece in Against Memoir further develops both the themes and style of the comparatively longish Camp Trans essay and was also just published in the Believer, except this time Tea turns her attention to the HAGs. If you have heard of the HAGs, you’re no doubt squealing with unparalleled delight right now.

If you haven’t heard of the HAGs, Tea is precisely the person you want to tell you about them. They were a female gang of queer punks who roamed the Mission in San Fransisco in the ’90s. Their main activities included shooting heroin, beating the shit out of bigots, and arts and crafts (also know as sidewalk chalking and stencil graffiti). Tea was not one of them, but simply another admiring satellite in the outer rings of their orbit. Over a precisely detailed 44 pages, “HAGS In Your Face” provides an engrossing and beautiful portrait of these intimidating hooligans, rolling out each member one by one with heartrending details about where they came from and how they died. Most of them died in gruesome and tragic ways. The few survivors eventually became healers and life coaches in the suburbs. Tea needs to get to work on the screenplay version of this immediately and Mary Harron should direct it.

Tea doesn’t yet have enough literary laurels, but she is clearly not resting on what laurels she does have. The newer parts of Against Memoir demonstrate that she still wants to push herself and explore different avenues in her work. There’s a weird three pages on pigeons that reminds us she is still very much a poet. This book is divided into three sections—art and music, love and queerness, writing and life—and yet obviously, everything Tea publishes is infused with all six of these concepts. She knows herself. She reports on herself in a strangely accurate manner that should not necessarily fall easily into the category of memoir. She keeps one finger on the same few threads, no matter what the individual style or substance of any single piece of writing. She is aging well, and for her steadfastness in these matters she will someday be rewarded by a cabal of business people none of us has much cause to respect. She’ll have got there not by selling out, but by winning their war of attrition—because attitude is a renewable resource.

RATING 10 / 10