Tea, Michelle 1971(?)–
Tea, Michelle 1971(?)–
Born c. 1971, in Chelsea, MA.
Home—San Francisco, CA.
Spoken-word poet and writer.
Cable Car Award for Best Critic, 1996, for writing in the San Francisco Bay Times; Rona Jaffe Award, 1999; Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, for Valencia; Top Twenty-five Books of 2000, Village Voice Literary Supplement, for Valencia.
The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (novel), Semiotexte (New York, NY), 1998.
Valencia (novel), Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 2000.
The Chelsea Whistle: A Memoir, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 2002.
(Editor) Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2003.
(Editor, with Clint Catalyst) Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person, Alyson Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2004.
The Beautiful: Collected Poems, Manic D Press (San Francisco, CA), 2004.
Rent Girl (illustrated novel), illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, Last Gasp (San Francisco, CA), 2004.
Rose of No Man's Land (novel), MacAdam/Cage (San Francisco, CA), 2006.
(Editor) Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2007.
Author of introduction, Best Lesbian Erotica 2004, edited by Tristan Taormino, Cleis Press (San Francisco, CA), 2003. Contributor to periodicals, including San Francisco Bay Guardian, On Our Backs, and Out magazine.
Michelle Tea grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and moved to the San Francisco Mission District in 1993. The following year she founded the all-girl spoken word group Sister Spit with Sini Anderson. The group's performances, both in San Francisco and throughout the United States and Canada, have made Tea a fixture on the literary performance scene. Tea has written novels featuring a lesbian protagonist living outside the mainstream. She is also the author of The Chelsea Whistle: A Memoir, which depicts Tea's life growing up poor on the East Coast. A reviewer writing in the Portland Mercury asserted that the author "is one of the best writers to emerge from a group of young women who use first-person linear narrative and unequivocal language—traditionally thought of as ‘male’ by feminist theorists—to present the reality of life as a girl."
Tea turned to her life in San Francisco's lesbian subculture for her first book, a stream-of-consciousness novel called The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America. "I had been writing poems, spoken word stuff, and I was having a good time with it and getting great responses from the open mics I hung out at, but at some point I wanted to shine a wider light on my experiences," Tea said in an interview on the Venus or Vixen Web site. She added that she was writing short stories and took one of them and "kind of squished it into a novel." Tea's effort to expand on a short story resulted in a novel focusing on the misadventures of Michelle, a heroine who spends her youth in the Gothic punk scene of Boston, becomes a prostitute, and has an abusive girlfriend. Writing in the Nation, Eileen Myles called the book "a gem of endangered narration from a loud and highly marginalized subculture, in particular the third wave of feminism. Tea's work resists categorization, and like all surprising vanguard literature, it's the news—a hunk of lyric information that coolly, then frantically, describes the car wreck of her generation and everything that surrounds it."
In her next novel, Valencia, Tea continues to flesh out the life of the fictional Michelle, who the Portland Mercury critic described as "a wry girl narrator." According to Tea in an article appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, the novel is based on her first year living in San Francisco. "It's about coming to the city fresh and having nothing to lose," she explained, "arriving already at some kind of bottom, and how instead of that being depressing, it's really freeing." Using what the Venus or Vixen contributor called a "rapid-fire, pull-no-punches style," Tea's alter ego describes her life in the girlie-punk culture and her search for a loving mate. As described by Amy Sickels in the Gay and Lesbian Review, Valencia "is a fast-paced journey into the bars, streets, and bedrooms of the San Francisco Mission District." Sickels had difficulty with the novel's many characters, pointing out that "the depiction of these women never quite rises above these descriptive tags, and so they remain character types instead of full personalities." However, Sickels continued: "What pulls the reader into Michelle's world is the vividness of the setting against which this fast-paced story is told." Sickels further commented on the novel's anticlimactic ending, but she added that "Tea's energetic language often raises this story above its flaws." A Publishers Weekly critic remarked that "Tea's writing is consistently uncommon and textured" but went on to comment that the novel is a "sometimes-superficial, stylized entry." Beth Barnes, writing in the Lambda Book Report, was more laudatory: "Despite a conventional narrative and properly placed paragraph breaks, the novel unfolds itself like a lyrical poem, a story that evokes a visceral, emotional response."
Tea's first two novels have autobiographical elements, but her next effort abandons the guise of fiction entirely. The Chelsea Whistle recounts Tea's real life growing up in a Boston working-class slum, where many of the youth try to escape through drugs and sex; it describes Tea's determination to leave this depressing world behind. Tea gives honest and frank accounts of life with her scrappy sister, her beleaguered mother, her alcoholic father, and voyeuristic stepfather, as well as of her time dealing with nuns in a Catholic school. "It's mainly about growing up a girl in a poor, weird New England town, feeling unsafe at home and on the street, where girls find safety for themselves or trick themselves into believing they're safe," Tea told Martin Wilson in a Lambda Book Report article. A Publishers Weekly critic noted that "the writing is well-honed" but also said that the book's "starts and stops, coupled with disappointing ending make her account ultimately unsatisfying." A Beyond the Closet reviewer, though, praised Tea's "trademark loose-tongued, lyrical style" in a book that "both celebrates and annihilates one girl's tightrope walk out of a working-class slum and the lessons she carries with her." "Tea writes with unrelenting candor and a lot of wry wit," concluded Outlook News contributor Richard Labonte.
Tea has served as editor on several volumes of short fiction or essays, most of which have a sexual and/or feminist sensibility. Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class collects a series of essays that illustrate the ways in which women are affected by poverty, even if they manage to escape the label and rise to a the middle or even upper class. Rachel Pepper, in a review for Curve, reported: "This collection contains nary a clunker. You can tell Tea handpicked these writers, cultivated them, and made sure their stories fit together like pieces of a puzzle." Writing for Herizons, Jennifer O'Connor remarked that the book "provides honest, insightful and entertaining stories of working-class women." Sheri Whatley, in a review for off our backs, wrote: "Within these stories, you hear the voices of women who have lived through the worst and are still surviving," and went on to state: "These are women who are not usually listened to … but within their stories lies the core of America."
Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person is a collection of short stories that Tea edited with Clint Catalyst; the unifying theme is that the fiction is all in the first person. Most of these works tell their stories from the viewpoint of an outsider. Topics range from narrators questioning their sexuality to experiences with rare cancer and reactions to drug and alcohol abuse. "Though wildly uneven, the collection is bound to make a splash with readers seeking edgy fiction," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Writing for Booklist, Whitney Scott remarked that the collection offers "life on the fringe, up close and perhaps too personal."
Tea moves on to a new medium with Rent Girl, which she refers to as an illustrated novel. This work marks her return to the subject of her own life spent on the street. Jane Ganahl, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked: "Tea's writing is addictive: lyrical yet straightforward, literate yet confessional, with a large helping of ironic humor." With this project, Tea's main objective was to balance her experiences with the raw reality of her situation at the time, particularly her work as a prostitute. She told Ganahl: "I wanted to talk about the reality of it as an occupation, a job." Abe Louise Young wrote in the Lambda Book Report that Tea merely scratches the surface of her experiences as a prostitute, commenting that "I want more from the story: more depth, more insight," and calling the book "strangely one-dimensional." Herizons reviewer Lisa Foad, however, called Tea's effort "a rich work of art and smarts, one that manages to tackle the difficult terrain of sex work without becoming an apologia, and without victimization or glamorization."
In Rose of No Man's Land Tea returns to the more traditional novel format, while instilling her writing with many of the ongoing themes of her earlier work. The book tells the story of life in modern-day American through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Trisha. Trisha seems destined to spend her days working at the local mall with her sister, while her mother lies around watching television with her boyfriend. What many might consider an average suburban life, Trisha somehow turns into a bizarre and unusual existence. In a review for Lambda Book Report, Carol Guess remarked: "What's missing from Trisha's life—and the culture Tea captures so adroitly—is authenticity." Guess went on to comment that "there's a loneliness to this life that seems visible only to Trisha and, through Tea's detailed prose, the reader." Booklist contributor Michael Cart felt that "too much is predictable," but went on to note that there are "flashes of brilliant writing." Jason Roush, in a review for Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, concluded: "As Michelle Tea continues to mark her territory as one of today's most important voices in lesbian writing, she's also constructing new realities in which young people can find ways of re-imagining their own lives."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Tea, Michelle, The Chelsea Whistle: A Memoir, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 2002.
Advocate, November 21, 2000, Matthew Link, review of Valencia, p. 58.
Booklist, September 15, 2002, June Pulliam, review of The Chelsea Whistle, p. 195; February 15, 2004, Whitney Scott, review of Pills, Chills, Thrills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person, p. 1038; December 15, 2005, Michael Cart, review of Rose of No Man's Land, p. 25.
Curve, June, 2004, Rachel Pepper, review of Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, p. 64.
Gay and Lesbian Review, fall, 2000, Amy Sickels, "Sleep-deprived in San Francisco," review of Valencia, p. 44; July-August, 2006, Jason Roush, "A Time for Speed," review of Rose of No Man's Land, p. 44.
Herizons, winter, 2005, Jennifer O'Connor, review of Without a Net, p. 42; spring, 2005, Lisa Foad, review of Rent Girl, p. 38.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of The Chelsea Whistle, p. 1019; December 1, 2005, review of Rose of No Man's Land, p. 1255.
Lambda Book Report, May, 2000, Beth Barnes, "A Dirt-smeared Poetic Perfection," review of Valencia, p. 17, and Elizabeth Stark, "Grrl Guide: An Interview with Michelle Tea," p. 18; May, 2001, Martin Wilson, "Very American Obsessions," p. 27; October, 2004, Abe Louise Young, "Room for Reflection," review of Rent Girl, p. 11; spring, 2006, Carol Guess, review of Rose of No Man's Land, p. 13.
Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Devon C. Thomas, review of Valencia, p. 125.
Nation, March 15, 1999, Eileen Myles, review of The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, p. 32.
off our backs, January-February, 2005, Sheri Whatley, review of Without a Net, p. 50.
Publishers Weekly, March 20, 2000, review of Valencia, p. 69; July 1, 2002, review of The Chelsea Whistle, p. 66; January 12, 2004, review of Pills, Chills, Thrills, and Heartache, p. 37.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 2004, Jane Ganahl, "Michelle Tea Mines Her Colorful Past for a Graphic Memoir," p. E1.
Beyond the Closet,http://www.beyondthecloset.com/ (October 23, 2002), review of The Chelsea Whistle.
Fabula Magazine,http://www.fabulamag.com/ (October 23, 2002), Jeff Johnson, review of Valencia.
Outlook News,http://www.outlooknews.com/ (October 23, 2002), Richard Labonte, review of The Chelsea Whistle.
Portland Mercury Online,http://www.portlandmercury.com/ (October 23, 2002), review of Valencia; Ariel Gore, "Nothing but the Truth: A Chat with Valencia Author Michelle Tea."
San Francisco Bay Guardian,http://www.sfbg.com/ (October 23, 2002), review of Valencia.
SFstation.com,http://www.sfstation.com/ (October 23, 2002), "Straight Outta Castro, Michelle Tea and Company Take on America."
Venus or Vixen, http://www.venusorvixen.com/ (October 23, 2002), review of Valencia and "Interview with Valencia Author Michelle Tea."