Stalking Michelle Tea

I have a friend who went through a “stalking Michelle Tea” phase. Not in a trench coat, sunglasses and binoculars kind of way; she was more of a literary groupie. Which is funny because Valencia is the only book I’ve known her to read from start to finish. Ever. (I guess I can’t be mad she still has my copy.) I met another person who claimed to be stalking Michelle Tea. In practice, this means showing up at her events, and because there are so many—the Radar Reading Series, the Radar Salon, Litquake, the readings for her semi-recent novel Rose of No Man’s Land and for the anthologies she’s edited (Baby Remember My Name, It’s So You, Without a Net, the list goes on)—I can see how a fan might feel creepy and obsessive. But I never felt quite like a stalker until this weekend.

I’ve been going to Michelle’s events for years and have always admired her entertaining on-stage presence, the cookies and the commentary. I haven’t read all of her books, but I respect her writing, specifically her articles in The Believer, her introductions to anthologies, Valencia and Rose of No Man’s Land. Her descriptions ooze in a way that makes me feel as if her character is feeling a moment more than I have felt the entire last year of my life. And she’s really skillful at being just crass enough without being over-the-top unreadable. There is a scene in RNML when a character removes her tampon and throws it at some losers, a disgusting moment that comes off as queerly chivalrous and which left a mark in my mind as indelible as the crimson smear on the dude’s white tank top.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Michelle Tea’s blog. Did you know she had one? I’m not sure if this is common knowledge or not. It’s sort of hidden in the back of Leisha Hailey’s closet or underneath Katherine Moennig’s pillow as part of the Our Chart site, as in the L Word. I confess to watching the show, and last year that meant ducking through the crowd at The Mix one minute before show time, finding a prime seat that nobody else would consider a seat, a sticky beer-soaked step, and leaving at the first roll of the credits. In my spare time, I do not read L Word teasers, commentary, or download screensavers, but I am in a daily habit of reading the Our Chart blogs, namely Grace Moon’s (editor of the dyke mag Velvetpark) and Diana Cage’s (Sirius radio host and author of many books including Girl Meets Girl: A Dating Survival Guide). I started reading Michelle’s blog around the time of the recent Sister Spit tour.

So, I saw Michelle Tea out this weekend at an airband competition—think heavy metal rock costumes, aggressive lead vocals and full back up bands riffing and drumming in a kind of Def Leppard mime. Actually, I’m only pretty sure that I saw Michelle there, maybe like 97% sure, or 93% sure. My confidence has dropped as the week has progressed, due to no new knowledge, but rather the difficulty I have in believing in myself for long stretches of time. I would’ve been 100% sure, except Kristina was absolutely positive it wasn’t her. Our conversation went something like this:

It isn’t her. Yes, it is. Stop looking at her. You stop looking at her. I’m not looking at her. I’m positive it isn’t her. Be quiet. She can’t hear us, it’s not even her. It is her, please stop looking. Will you calm down, you’re acting ridiculous. Just stop staring. You’re wrong. Can we please stop talking about this. (For a more realistic re-enactment, read this paragraph twice. Reading it a third time will simulate the conversation Kristina and I will have once this is posted.)

That week, I had read a Michelle post about how after due to some reasons I won’t mention here for fear that I’d be committing some blog gossip sin, but that you can read about from her directly, she could finally read again. As reading is one of the only activities that keeps me sane, and is probably as important to me as it is to her, I thought to congratulate her. I didn’t know if this was appropriate since she didn’t appear to be working, and at that moment, I felt downright uncomfortable that I knew so much about what she’d been up to lately. When and what and how someone is reading is as personal and intimate to me as seeing what underwear she or he is wearing.

Only once had I summoned up the courage to say something to Michelle. It was at a Rose of No Man’s Land reading at a Different Light Bookstore, and I didn’t bring my book because I’ve never been into the whole anonymous, what’s your name again, book signing thing. But as the line formed at her table, I ran out the door, up the hill to my house, grabbed the book and returned. A few stragglers remained in line. The guy in front of me was exactly the kind of fan I didn’t want to be—pushy, ingratiating and disrespectful of the unspoken time limit rule.

“Do I know you?” she asked me. I thought to say I look like every other dyke in SF, but instead I said that I’d been to her events so many times I must just look familiar. I told her I loved the book, that I was a writer, and then proceeded to name-drop every person she knew or had read in my MFA program.

“Wow, what a great opportunity,” she said. Before I left, she said that now that we knew each other we could say hi. But we didn’t, for at least a year, and although she recently nodded to me at an event (and I almost turned around, even though there was no one behind me), we did not say hi at the airband competition. Maybe it wasn’t her after all.

In the next few days after the airband competition, I asked myself why I cared so much if it was Michelle and whether or not she noticed Kristina and I fighting about her. Then I read an essay that Stephen Elliot wrote in this Sunday’s Chronicle, a first-person reflective piece about the do-it-yourself, open-mike, chapbook environment and the community that was built around the bars and spoken word circuit of the mid to late 90’s, when none of those he mentioned like himself, Justin Chin, Beth Lisick, and Michelle Tea “were connected” in the larger literary world or had MFAs.

Elliot captures the desire, desperation, drive and especially the atmosphere I’ve always romanticized and associated with the underground writing scene. But in my thoughts, I tend to focus mostly on the women, symbolized by the early Sister Spit tours (that I never did see).

One of the most rewarding aspects of my MFA experience was the community of writers and what we shared of our words and of ourselves. But occasionally I felt as if something were missing, a connection to the city and to a diversity that went deeper than the academic canon. Sure I read a gay or lesbian here and there, too much Richard Rodriguez, some Virginia Woolf, a dash of Gertrude Stein and Gloria Anzaldua, as well as a kick-ass MFK Fisher story about oysters—need I say more—the only one we discussed in a queer context.

I remember a meeting with my favorite teacher, a woman with a Ph D and vast knowledge of female writers. I asked her for a list of contemporary lesbian writers and she hadn’t a clue (other than Eileen Myles, who had spoken at my school and sent all the straight middle-aged teachers swooning). She didn’t know Michelle Tea (that is until Rose of No Man’s Land received a favorable review in the the Sunday New York Times). My teacher called over another woman, an older lesbian (who would probably scoff at being called queer), who had little positive to say about the state of current lesbian writing beyond Sarah Waters and didn’t think highly of Michelle Tea. I know our difference in opinion had much to do with age, personal taste and the whole lesbian-but-not-queer thing I can’t get into now. But still, we were in San Francisco, and we were dykes. Did this woman have no idea what Michelle has done for the literary and queer folk of this city?

I do. And maybe that’s why I love her so dearly, and why I cared about seeing her out, when if I bumped into Michael Pollan (whose work I also read and admire) in Berkeley, it wouldn’t faze me. I want to be apart of the queer writing community and the San Francisco writing community to which Michelle Tea has made and continues to make such a strong contribution. I want us to say hi, for real. And until then, I guess I’ll just continue to show up at her events alone, stand in the back, observe, and join the rest of the crowd stalking Michelle Tea.

2 Responses to “ Stalking Michelle Tea ”

  1. Harbeer Says:

    When and what and how someone is reading is as personal and intimate to me as seeing what underwear she or he is wearing.

    Hm…well, I am reading your blog in nothing but a t-shirt, so I guess that makes us super-intimate. For now. I know you don’t really mean it when you say you’ll call, though.

    And I completely agree with you about the USF “community” experience. I don’t feel like I am part of a movement, but I think this is endemic to MFA programs. Much has been written about the safe, middle-class, staid aesthetics of the cookie-cutter MFA output. I just look at it as a chance to get student loans so I can focus on my writing without a full-time job–anything beyond that is just gravy.

    But…we have each other (and I don’t mean just you and me). The school may not provide the structural support to foster the sorts of initiatives you mention, but if they did, then it wouldn’t be DIY, would it?

    I have an email from Michelle Tea that was meant to be included in a zine about poop that I never finished making. It’s in a file at my apartment. I’ll let you touch it if you’re gentle.

  2. Kristina Says:

    Great post! But seriously. For real. That’s not her. Stop looking.

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