How to Grow Up: a Memoir, by Michelle Tea






Michelle Tea é o pseudónimo de Michelle Tomasik nascida em  Chelsea, Massachusetts em 18 de Fevereiro de 1971, filha de Theresa Mansfield Tomasik (ascendência polaca). Já escreveu uma dezena de livros, um de poesia, uma ou mais novelas e mais quatro ou cinco livros de memórias (os géneros não devem estar bem definidos). Andou na má vida até bem para além dos trinta anos. Álcool, drogas e talvez por vezes também no negócio do sexo. Da cinta para cima, tem o corpo praticamente cheio de tatuagens.

A certa altura tornou-se bissexual até que, aos 42 anos namorou e veio a casar com Dashiell Lippman, de 34 anos, esta nitidamente lésbica, diplomada pela Universidade da Califórnia, Davis. Ainda antes do namoro, Michelle engravidara por inseminação artificial, mas a criança faleceu no útero e estava ainda dentro dela no dia do casamento em 9 de Novembro de 2013; abortou uns dias depois.  Fez nova tentativa e em 22 de Outubro de 2014, deu à luz um menino a quem chamou Atticus.

Michelle não frequentou a Universidade, não encontrou meios de se financiar para o fazer. Valeu-lhe o extraordinário jeito que tinha para escrever e, pouco a pouco, foi chamando a atenção do público para os seus livros.

O seu livro de poesias “The Beautiful: Collected Poems”, publicado em 2004 é do mais expressivo que ela escreveu.

Terminei agora a leitura de “How to Grow Up: A Memoir”, publicado já este ano, que se lê num instante (304 páginas).  Está lá tudo, menos a segunda gravidez e o nascimento do filho ((fica para mais uma autobiografia, que será a sexta). Embirrei um pouco com as abreviaturas, porque ela não juntou uma lista com os significados. Mas é questão de procurar na Internet.

Transcrevo a seguir uma crítica de Michael Schaub que  censura a autora por ter feito um livro didáctico, dando conselhos a quem está a crescer na vida e que, afinal, os conselhos valem pouco, ou são meras evidências. O crítico esquece que estamos na área da literatura, não do livro utilitário. Michelle Tea escreve com muita piada, joga totalmente com o humor, não está a dar conselhos a ninguém.

Os episódios do livro não são sequenciais, é tudo algo desorganizado. Por exemplo, nunca são referidas datas, é preciso investigar: diz ela que o aniversário natalício é o mesmo de Yoko Ono, e que a criança nasceu em 2014 no último dia da Libra!

As actividades da autora estão agora em stand by por causa da maternidade: os sites de Radar Productions estão agora fechados. Aguardamos por mais livros…

É estranho que The New York Times que tanto tem apaparicado a autora no passado, não tenha publicado nenhuma recensão deste livro.





San Francisco Chronicle


Thursday, February 5, 2015

'How to Grow Up,’ a memoir by Michelle Tea

By Frances Lefkowitz



How to Grow Up: A Memoir

By Michelle Tea

Plume; 287 pages


Once upon a time, I wrote a memoir called “How to Have Not,” with chapters titled “Start With Parents Who Marry by Accident” and “Kill Your Dreams” and the like. I thought it was such a clever title for a memoir about growing up poor in 1970s San Francisco and what poverty does to the soul. My publishers did not think it was so clever; they thought it would confuse potential readers and cause it to get misfiled in the self-help sections of bookstores, when, in fact it had not a speck of advice for how to live, with or without money.

Fortunately, my editor had a brilliant solution, simply lopping off the “How” and renaming it the Hemingway-esque “To Have Not.” (Unfortunately, no title could keep the publisher from going out of business and remaindering my book, but that, as they say, is another story.)

This story is about Michelle Tea’s new memoir, which, in its own way, is about growing up poor in 1990s San Francisco and what poverty does to the soul, and would be right at home on a self-help shelf. “How to Grow Up” is the perfect title for this life story that uses personal experiences and epiphanies as a way to share the author’s hard-fought wisdom about how to make one’s way in the world.

Tea’s book joins a growing list of titles that mix memoir with spiritual and inspirational messages. Her past, however, is a gritty one, full of drinking, smoking and tattooing before finding redemption in, among other things, eating, praying and loving. Elizabeth Gilbert meets Charles Bukowski, perhaps. But with her hyperactive, rat-a-tat narration, Tea has a style, and a sense of humor, all her own.

The author of four memoirs, a novel and a poetry collection, Tea spent her childhood in a working-class Boston suburb, discovering her own self-described “weirdness” (including a propensity toward blue hair and black lipstick) at a young age, and sticking to it even as it got her bullied by teachers and students alike.

Though she had no role model for leaving home, she knew she had to get out of there, and, in her 20s, moved to San Francisco, living in a series of squalid roommate situations mostly in the city’s Mission District. Here, the drinking and drugging she’d started as a teenager got serious, though through all the highs and lows, the voraciously creative Tea continued to write, publish and perform.

After one too many hangovers, and a series of bad love affairs with the wrong men and women, she sobered up, discovered her self-worth and began her “messy journey to adulthood,” in which she starts having “adult living situations, adult relationships, adult jobs and income, and, most important, an adult sense of confidence, of a solid place in the world, of stability.”

It is the contradictions — in her life, and in her descriptions of it — that make Tea such an entertaining writer. She’s covered in tats, but likes a good mani-pedi, and the occasional shot of Botox as well. She wears “a tiny strapless Jean Paul Gaultier for Target” dress. She’s a goth/punk bisexual who’s experimented with polygamy, yet creates her own rulebook for love, parts of which (“Beware of sex”) could have been lifted from Seventeen magazine.

For all her overflowing ashtrays and vermin-infested apartments, she’s got more than a spoonful of Mary Poppins’ sunshiny optimism, practicing her own brand of “intentional affirmational nondenominational prayer-ish magical-thinking magic.” One of her more instructional chapters is titled “I Have a Trust Fund From God — and So Do You!” (That exclamation point is hers.) And in a happily-ever-after ending, the rebel artist finds true love with a good woman who passes as a man, marries and moves to the suburbs.

Tea does a great, and often hilarious, job of drawing on her own life to show readers how they can live theirs, and “How to Grow Up” expands the how-to memoir genre by addressing those who reside in the margins — the poor, the weird, the ambiguous.

But all this upbeat, if offbeat, transformation has me wondering about the line between memoirist and advice columnist. Have we, as writers, readers and publishers of memoir, lost our ability to enjoy story for story’s sake, or have we always needed at least a subtle I-did-it-and-so-can-you message? “How to Grow Up” is a book that crosses more than one boundary, and pushes the edge on more than one question.

Frances Lefkowitz blogs about writing, publishing and footwear at Paper in My Shoe.



San Francisco Chronicle

March 17, 2015

From punk to white picket fence, author Michelle Tea grows up

By Meredith May

It’s pretty safe to say nobody writes like Michelle Tea.

How many punk, post-feminist, poor, bisexual, tattooed, former alcohol and drug addict college dropouts with a penchant for high fashion and tarot readings are published? Maybe a few. But then how many of them have written three memoirs before age 40?

And now she’s written a fourth.

Tea, 43, who has curated or emceed more than 1,000 Bay Area spoken-word events since arriving in San Francisco without a penny or much of a plan, has written a fourth memoir about, of all things, becoming a responsible adult.

“How to Grow Up” (Plume) is just as candid as her former books about dating narcissists and blotting out her feelings with drugs, but the subjects are different. There’s still internal terror, but this time it’s about whether she can conceive, how to manage money when she’s never had it before, whether she should turn down a teaching gig to fly to Paris for Fashion Week, all while balancing sobriety and a budding romance with a stable, sweet woman who is actually good for her.

“There’s always been this motor behind my writing, like I had this chip on my shoulder, this bravado from feeling that I was living on the margins, and stories like mine were not being told and I was illuminating the struggle,” said Tea, as she rocked her infant son, Atticus, in a home in the Sunset that actually has a white picket fence. “I worried about writing a book without a struggle, that it would come out as arrogant or braggy. What I discovered is that life in all stages has anxiety — there are just different things that freak you out.”

In one scene of her new book, Tea is getting ready for a dinner party and making two bipolar dishes: a Velveeta baked broccoli casserole — an heirloom dish of her North Shore Bostonian background — and then a foodie showoff dish she found on Epicurious, made of butternut squash with goat cheese and hazelnuts. These are metaphors, of course, of where she came from, and where she ultimately landed — as one of San Francisco’s leading literati.

She is founder of Sister Spit: Next Generation, a queer-focused multimedia literary performance tour that performs to sellout audiences in the United States and Canada. She founded her own nonprofit, Radar Productions, to promote local authors, and her award-winning novel, “Valencia,” was turned into an experimental film that was shown at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

It’s a long way from the girl who spent two semesters in college, one at Salem State University and the other at University of Massachusetts, Boston, before dropping out because she couldn’t afford it.

“My parents were both nurses at the VA. No one in my family had gone to college, and I went to a vocational high school with no guidance counselors, so the whole idea of higher education was overwhelming,” she said.

Education, not school

And college didn’t jibe with her gut feeling, which was that she was destined to be a writer, and writers needed to have experiences, not study other writers. Her real education, she said, came from the illustrated book “Angry Women.” In it, she discovered performance artist provocateurs such as Annie Sprinkle and Karen Finley, who were using stage performance to discuss hot-button issues of sex, race, AIDS and sexism.

After leaving college, she followed a lover to Arizona, then moved to San Francisco when that relationship fell apart. Initially, she came to visit a friend and get over her breakup. It was 1990, before the influx of wealth from the first dot-com boom, and the cafes were filled with poetry readings and open-mike nights.

“I had two goals,” Tea said. “Focus on my writing. Fall in love.”

Being an artist instead of a college student was appealing, Tea said, because it was free. But that also meant no paycheck. She took some paying gigs that put the odd in odd job.

She read tarot cards on the street. But people wanted to pay her with a special rock. Or one American Spirit cigarette. One guy did tell her how to apply for food stamps, probably her only lucrative customer. Then a store in the Lower Haight let her give readings inside on weekends, and clients finally started paying. She worked for an anarchist union, was a receptionist for a phone sex company, and somewhat fulfilled her lifelong dream to be a librarian by taking a job at Castro Books.

First memoir at 26

At 26, she sold her first memoir. Since then she’s published a novel, a poetry collection and three more memoirs, and edited anthologies on working-class women, fashion and queerdom. She’s just finished the third book in her young-adult trilogy, “Mermaid in Chelsea Creek,” and she’s working on turning her blog, “Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea,” into a book.

Getting sober, serious and starting a family didn’t come automatically. Like everything in life, it came in fits and starts, with mistakes, sudden realizations and a recycled determination to keep trying. During a post-breakup foray to the Zen Center in San Francisco, Tea in her latest memoir writes about a moment of clarity:

“What I do get from my (meditation) practice is ultimately something more lasting than a high, something I can have sober, all day, every day. What I get is the ability to see my mind’s chatter for the honkadoodle bull— it is. Some of my thoughts are good — they are skillful, helpful, positive. But some of my thoughts have the tone, timbre and validity of an Internet comment board, and I treat them accordingly — delete; ignore; I’ll pray for you, you sad, angry person.”

If the older Michelle Tea could go back and talk to the younger, she’d probably tell herself that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and weird. And then she would have prevented herself from getting certain tattoos.


'Annoying’ tattoos


Like the star with the words “FUN KILLS” on the prime real estate of her forearm.

“I was doing serious drugs with friends, and we all got the same tattoo, thinking it was sarcastic and funny,” Tea said.

And the one next to it, of a Japanese burlesque dancer that she and her friends got on a sex workers art show tour.

“They are annoying to me,” she said. “But then again, I am an amalgam of them all. If I hadn’t done all these young-person things and lived through all this, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about this new book.”

She doesn’t remove the inked memories, because they are part of her distinct history. Plus, there are newer, better tattoos to lift her spirits. She has a heart-shaped lock on the tender inside of her left biceps.

Her new wife has the key, tattooed in the same place.


Meredith May is a Bay Area writer.


The Boston Globe

JANUARY 27, 2015


“How to grow up”, by Michelle Tea


By Michele Filgate 


What does it take to become a successful writer with several books out, a popular website for mothers, a literary nonprofit that sponsors readings, and her own imprint at a successful independent press?

If the path of Michelle Tea offers any clues, consider dropping out of college, dealing with years and years of bad relationships, wrestling with substance abuse, and even living with a bunch of 20-year-olds deep into your 30s in a house so filthy that your fridge could legitimately pass for a fly incubator.

“How to Grow Up’’ doesn’t exactly work as a traditional memoir — its 15 chapters tend to leap about chronologically, for instance — but Tea is anything but traditional. It’s more of a punk rock, no-holds-barred, self-help cautionary tale written by someone who has lived and learned, and hit rock bottom only to develop a rewarding career on her own terms.

Born in 1971, Tea grew up in a blue-collar family in Chelsea, where she had a less than happy childhood. Her stepfather, whom she trusted, put holes in her bedroom wall to spy on her. She started drinking as a teenager, and that didn’t help her hold down a job for very long. She escaped to San Francisco and briefly to Los Angeles, and she spent many troubled years battling drug addiction and alcoholism.

It wasn’t until she sobered up in her early 30s that her life began changing for the better — “I’d felt so old before I’d quit drinking. The damage and drama that accompanies a downward spiral weighs on your body and mind like age. The longer I stayed sober, the younger I felt, as if emerging from a chrysalis.” It was certainly hard-earned. Tea applied for grants for the readings she had been organizing for free, met and fell in love with a woman who is not like the troubled people she used to date, and learned to eat healthy and take care of her body, among other adult accomplishments. But this transition didn’t happen overnight.

 “When it’s hard for you to grow up — because you’re poor and can’t afford the trinkets and milestones of adulthood, or you’re gay and the mating rites of passage don’t seem to apply to you, or you are sensitive to the world’s injustices and decided long ago that if being a grown-up means being an asshole you’ll carry out your days in Neverland with the rest of the Lost Children, thank you very much — when adulthood seems somehow off-limits to you, growing up takes time.”

At times the prose is clunky and juvenile, such as: “Every day I end my hours of work with the perfect, lucky confluence of the two: food that will make me feel awesome shared with a person who makes me feel awesome. What is more awesome than that?” This isn’t a book to read for poetic resonance; in fact, the writing style almost doesn’t even matter. It’s a map of a woman’s attempt at leaving bad habits behind her.

In that spirit, the book succeeds at instilling a sense of genuine rebirth. Tea emerges as a tattooed phoenix rising out of the ashes, a complicated, all-too-human woman who deeply cares about social justice but also loves an expensive leather hoodie and moisturizer.

Tea is a risk-taker, something that got her in trouble in her 20s but bolstered her ambition in her 30s and 40s: “[T]his urge to identify the most outrageous, slightly dangerous possibility and hurl myself into it — both daring the Universe and trusting that it would somehow hold me safe — has always been inside me,” Tea writes.

Making healthy choices seems as if it should be obvious and simple, but growing up — particularly growing up as an artist — can be dangerous business. “How to Grow Up’’ is an impassioned and honest take on a difficult topic: life itself.

Michele Filgate, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.





JAN 3, 2015 


Left Coast bohemian force of nature Tea turns her outsider moxie to the task of finally settling down (sort of).

In four gutsy previous memoirs, Michelle Tea has built a fervent cult following by writing about her blue-collar Boston-area background, her teen goth years, her stint working in the sex industry, and the ups and downs of her bisexual love life. Her latest memoir, How to Grow Up (Plume), once again seduces with the candor and immediacy that readers of her earlier works (she has also produced a novel, a book of poems, and a young adult fantasy series) will find familiarly bracing and ­affirming. A literary maverick and jill-of-all-trades, Tea runs City Lights Books' Sister Spit imprint; is creator and editor of Mutha, an online magazine about alternative parenting; and is founder and artistic director of Radar Productions, which produces a monthly Bay Area reading series, among other events. She also contributes to The Believer and blogs spiritedly about her pregnancy attempts on Xojane.com.


Tea shares in the introduction to How to Grow Up that she has "spent the past decades alternately fighting off adulthood with the gusto of a pack of Lost Boys forever partying down in Neverland, and timidly, awkwardly, earnestly stumbling toward the life of a grown-ass woman: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable. At 43 years old, I think I've finally arrived." In 15 lively and trenchant linked essays, she covers every­thing from growing up Catholic in the 1980s to her hazy years in a communal house in San Francisco's Mission District, to the menial jobs she has held down, to struggles with dating and substance abuse, to her increasingly stabilizing and profitable writing efforts, to her views on cruising the French Riviera, Zen Buddhism, feminism, sobriety, and beyond.

In "Too Cool for School," Tea offers a cogent example of the thinking that has both defined and bedeviled her quest to achieve maturity: "When you grow up in a blue-collar world, you don't even know what other jobs are out there. An engineer? A sommelier? A film editor, art therapist, finance? Even if one knew these positions existed, one still might not understand what they were, let alone how to get in on it." A bookish kid, Tea wanted to be a librarian but was led to believe that it was a vocation that "women wound up as, not aspired toward. My aunt Shirley would shush me when I shared my dream of being paid to hang out with books all day." Instead, her aunt exhorted her to aim to "be Miss America!"

While admitting to her failures and misadventures, Tea chooses to dwell on the positive, life-­enhancing practices and influences she has embraced during her journey to adulthood, and this latest installment of her resilient ride is wild, wickedly funny, and refreshingly reverent.






JANUARY 28, 2015 7:03 AM ET


'How To Grow Up' Needs To Grow Up


Michelle Tea


Michael Schaub


Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury andThe Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.


Michelle Tea has been many things: poet, novelist, memoirist, columnist, editor, drummer, film producer and darling of the queercore scene. She captured the hearts of punk-literature fans with her 1998 debut, the novel The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and drew praise from critics with her memoirs Rent Girl and The Chelsea Whistle.

The reason she's been so beloved for so long isn't just because she's versatile and prolific, though — it's because she has the talent to back it up. In her past books, she's written with a manic, hardcore energy and a narrative sense of urgency. She's talented, hardworking and smart as hell.

That brings us, unfortunately, to her new book, How to Grow Up, a memoir/essay collection written for those whose "path into so-called adulthood has been more meandering and counterintuitive than fast-tracked." The idea behind the book isn't terrible: A successful writer with a troubled past offers counsel to people who might still be on the long and winding road to growing up. But with a few exceptions, the essays in Tea's memoir read as forced and rambling, and they're written in an odd voice that sounds more like a college newspaper advice columnist on a tight deadline.

It's a bad sign for a book when even the table of contents induces eye rolling: "The Baddest Buddhist," "I Have a Trust Fund from God — and So Do You!" and "WWYMD: What Would Young Michelle Do?" are a few standouts. There's nothing wrong with having fun, of course, but the titles are so forehead-slappingly corny, the reader has to wonder how seriously Tea is taking the book.

For the most part, things don't get much better from there. While her personal stories are undeniably interesting — Tea has lived a remarkable life — she undercuts herself constantly by pointing out the obvious lessons she's learned from her experiences. In "Beware of Sex and Other Rules for Love," she writes about a relationship she had with a younger recovering drug addict who lived "on probation and opiate blockers in her mother's room on the other side of the country." The young woman later ended up selling her pills "to junkies at the bus station."

Even for slow learners, the lessons here are painfully obvious, but Tea spells them out anyway: "Don't date people who sell pills in bus stations. Don't date people who you know in your gut are lying to you all the time, whose stories are so shady you start to hope they are lying to you." Fine advice, to be sure, but it's hard to imagine readers who wouldn't consider Tea's story and come to those conclusions by themselves.

The biggest problem with How to Grow Up is that it feels like a memoir that's been hijacked and transformed into an advice book. It feels like Tea is doing an imitation of Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" advice columns, and she doesn't seem all that comfortable in the role.

This comes across most clearly in "How to Break Up," which is exactly what it sounds like. "But first let's dump these chumps!" the first paragraph concludes, with Tea sounding like the host of a terrible daytime television talk show. "Waiting for that other loafer to drop? You drop the other loafer, damn it! Chuck it at her head and get the f out of there!" Even by the standards of self-help authors and motivational speakers, it's cringeworthy stuff.

Tea has also developed an unfortunate new predilection for precious, affected turns of phrase, often punctuated with an exclamation mark. She's "managed to scrawl a slew of books"; she believes in "intentional affirmational nondenominational prayer-ish magical-thinking magic!" and she recommends people going through breakups "[g]et a breakover instead!" (A breakup makeover, but you probably already figured that out.)

How to Grow Up is a well-intentioned, exasperating mess of a book, though it does have a few essays that mostly work: "Fashion Victim" is sweet and funny, and "Ask Not for Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls" is, despite its dreadful title, affecting and brave. Tea is nothing if not honest and courageous, and she's refreshingly unafraid to own up to her own contradictions. She's a unique talent with a distinguished career; she's written some wonderful books, and she'll probably write many more wonderful books. This is not one of them.





realize that you never had a chance.
you were born into this place
where they pump pornography in like oxygen,
i don't mean hustler and all that shit, either,
i mean marlboro and l'oreal and the brady bunch.
you work your way up to hustler,
you've got to start somewhere.
maybe you should take
a college-level psychology course or something.
mine taught me that stressed out moms
make gay babies and schizophrenic geniuses
drawing maps of the universe should be locked up
but also how you can flash things like shoes
on a screen with a naked lady and after not too long
the men in the audience will get a hard-on
from a single spiked heel.
it should make you a little angry
to find yourself so programmed, but don't go
beating up women. do what i do.
walk into the liquor store and shred the
st. paulie girl ads in the proprietor's face,
have a little argument about how you're
a fanatic and why aren't you working
to make sure all those corporate women
are making as much as all those
corporate men, something important,
he'll say, but that's ok,
maybe what is important is having a sex fantasy
that doesn't come from a box, one that madonna
wouldn't bother making into a video, where
the woman looks like a woman and not a barbie doll,
i mean, you're a grown man, doesn't it
embarrass you to be lusting after
barbie dolls? maybe you've never thought of it
that way, maybe you've never thought of it at all,
how everything that turns you on is
also everything that turns everybody else on
which is also everything that everyone
from budweiser to the gap
is hoping that you'll be turned on by
so that you'll push some of that sexy green stuff
their way and maybe you want to think about this
and decide that your sexuality
should be more than the sum
of some not-so-subliminal advertising,
your father's pornography and whatever
relative molested you during childhood
but far be it from me to pull you from
your lipstick fishnet fuck paradise,
you're a grown man,
you can make up
your own mind.


from Michelle Tea (2004). the beautiful: collected poems. San Francisco: Manic D Press



San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Tea leaves the East for the West to sing the body electric

Reviewed by David Hellman


The Beautiful: Collected Poems

By Michelle Tea



In his poem "Native Moments," Walt Whitman declares, "I pick out some low person/ for my dearest friend,/ he shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be one condemn'd/ by/ others for deeds done ..." Whitman then concludes with one of the most ardent lines of his career, "O you shunn'd persons, I at least will not shun you,/ I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet, / I will be more to you than to any of the rest." Like Whitman, Michelle Tea is a humanist poet who sees the world from a very personal perspective. Unlike Whitman, whose view of the rough edges of society often came from a relatively safe distance, Tea is herself one of those "shunn'd persons," and her poetry speaks with a disciplined and passionate clarity. Her poetry, with its often coarse in-your-face style, might not be to everyone's tastes, but it deserves and will hopefully find an appreciative audience.

Tea is one of the founders of the all-female spoken-word troupe Sister Spit, whose lively performances were in response to the boy's-club dominance at many of San Francisco's open mikes. Tea is also a self-declared "lesbian feminist radical activist prostitute," best known for her autobiographical novel, "Valencia," in which a young woman flees an emotionally suffocating East Coast for the freedom of San Francisco's Mission District. In the process she begins to find herself and a multitude of lovers. Tea's poetry also reflects these experiences, and unlike "Valencia," which can be a bit of a trudge at times, "The Beautiful" is a wonderfully light and simultaneously deep collection of verse.

The poems in the collection embody a prodigious creative effort over a relatively short span of time. The first third of the collection represents unpublished poems written between 1993 and 1997. The rest of the collection comes from a number of limited-run chapbooks produced during the same period. Together they can be read as a personal saga, at times sad, at times empowering, and often hilarious.

At the start of the collection, the title poem envisions America as a thankless parent and a bad relationship. The poem states "oh American i love you/ i just want to/ go on a date with you/ and you won't even give me/ the time of day/ stuck up bitch." Tea has a talent for animating the personal with the universal and for connecting the concrete with the abstract. In the poem "Orca," Tea sees urban plasticity as a form of nature. Tea states "this is my nature poem" and as an urban goddess, she metamorphoses "the girls on their bikes" into becoming "the deer." In "Biter" she is "chewing on your arm/ like the excitable puppy/ I become/ in your presence." It is a world of immediacy that is full of contradictions, which seems to drive many of these poems. One of the frequently used images is of a dog, which can be equally a source of soft comfort and a sharp-toothed threat.

Despite the ability of images in these poems to shift shapes, the work is always related to a precise autobiographical self. To read these poems is to follow Tea on her life's journey, from an abusive childhood through prostitution and many failed relationships with women. Tea succeeds in keeping the reader's attention through what is often a tedious day-to-day existence of dating, drinking, smoking and just getting by (including a wonderful poem about a pot-brownie experience gone terribly wrong) because she rarely approaches it with any whiny sense of self-pity. Tea is often angry, but never pathetic, and often the poems demonstrate an ability to seesaw between emotional states. In poems such as "My Life in 11 Parts" and "How I Lived My Life in Tucson" we get all the contradictions, and Tea is honest enough not to care if it bothers us. As she says, "it was like having your cake/and trashing it too."

Much of Tea's inspiration and mentorship clearly comes from the poet Eileen Myles, and as with Myles there is great pleasure in watching Tea's poetry develop over time. Tea shares an affinity of spirit and courage with the writer Mary Gaitskill, whose own work challenges rigid notions of sexual boundaries. Tea's poetry also resembles the work of the late Charles Bukowski, who gets respectful mention in one of her poems. Bukowski, like Tea, is probably best known for his prose, but in addition he produced thousands of poems. Many of his poems are heartfelt and full of everyday life and at times almost painfully direct. Many of them are also beautiful and terribly underappreciated. Like Whitman, Bukowski wrote about people, not with manufactured glamour or a false surface, but real people, starting with himself. Tea does the same thing, and with any luck she will remain, as Whitman put it, "more to you than to any of the rest."


The New York Times

Published: March 26, 2006



Day Tripper




MICHELLE TEA'S books read like wee-hour confessions of debauchery, delivered in a street-smart literary voice that growls and purrs, gnashing about fakery, crooning about lust.

Tea, who is 35, has already published four cultish memoirs. Her first, "The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America" (1998), described her adolescent transformation from a "goth 'n' roll" party girl to a 20-something lesbian prostitute, a period she detailed further in her illustrated book, "Rent Girl" (2004). In "The Chelsea Whistle" (2002), she gave an account of her blue-collar Catholic girlhood in Boston (raised in a hardscrabble suburb by Mom, abandoned by Dad, a Polish postal worker), and in "Valencia" (2000), she explored the radical sex lives of Mission District lesbians.

But compared with "Rose of No Man's Land," a riotous coming-of-age novel about a misanthropic girl's sexual self-discovery, Tea's previous works seem like acts of preparation — apprenticeships in the badlands of memoir, lively, sprawling animals, unfettered by the pesky ball-and-chain of plot. Here, for the first time, the narrator is not named Michelle and the narrative is not allowed to unravel, even as the characters do.

Tea telescopes her literary vision into a day in the lives of three misfits: a drinker, a loner and a 14-year-old girl named Trisha Driscoll. Trisha just wants a friend, but most people disappoint her, beginning with her hypochondriac mother and her hairdresser sister, whose bedroom, plastered with posters of supermodels, is a "church of the female stomach." After being fired from a mall clothing store shriekingly named "Ohmigod!" she meets up with Rose, a fellow cynic and outcast, and is smitten. Over the course of 24 hours, Trisha gets and loses her first job, smokes her first cigarette, snorts her first crystal, kisses her first girl and gets her first tattoo. Some of the supporting characters seem familiar: the popular girls in cliques like "Russian nesting dolls," the leering drug dealer in his "beachfront creepshack." But Tea's wisecracking voice and eye for physical description drive them beyond the humdrum. "She was born malnourished and grew up stunted but Rose looked like she swung from trees," Tea writes.

That Trisha discovers so much about herself in a single explosive day strains credibility, but infatuation propels the story forward as if from a slingshot. Trisha's spoken dialogue appears with every first letter capitalized, conveying a girl on the edge of a scream: "I Love This, I said to Rose. I Love This. My downstairs felt wild and whirling and I reached out for Rose's head, pulled it down onto mine and kissed her. I split her mouth with my tongue like a shard of glass."

Tea's writing is guided by unapologetically raw voices: the punk poet Eileen Myles, the novelists Dennis Cooper (without the overt sexual abuse) and Mary Gaitskill (without the maturity). In close-ups, the fluorescent glare of Nan Goldin's outsider photographs can be felt ("Rose's crumpled sneakers were held together with a scab of fibrous duct tape").

With "Rose of No Man's Land," Tea is trying to do for working-class teenage lesbians what S. E. Hinton's "Rumble Fish" and "The Outsiders" did for greasers and street-brawling tough guys in the 1970's and 80's: to let them be heard and felt. Writing for young adults, Hinton shaped morality plays; writing for adults, Tea creates war stories with herself as intrepid reporter. She is sometimes unreliable, with a perpetual chip on her shoulder and an open valve to righteous indignation when the moment calls it forth. There are clear similarities between Tea's memoirs and the protagonists here, with their wild-child ways and malaise. But with this novel, Tea moves forward into her imagination, reining in her story so it can buck free.


Lenora Todaro is a former editor of The Voice Literary Supplement.


The New York Times


Published: September 22, 2002

Schizophrenia Lite

By Sandra Tsing Loh



By Michelle Tea.

331 pp. New York:

Seal Press. Paper


Some memoirs seat scorched-earth memories of childhood within the insulating perspective of the older (and more forgiving) adult. Such is not the case with ''The Chelsea Whistle,'' by Michelle Tea. Here is a girl's voice unexpurgated: this book's prose is all flung-out elbows and steel-booted kicks, and it is full of burning intensity and the feral longings of adolescence that -- as you may recall -- are heady and noxious as leaded gas. A grander lesson? A conclusion? A second act even? Why? In the pages of ''The Chelsea Whistle'' (as in the ugly Boston suburb of Chelsea itself) you're here and you can't get out -- and that is what gives the voice its blasting, wildly original poet's force.

In the late 1970's and early 80's, when the bulk of this memoir is set, Tea's family embodies a host of archetypal working-class horrors. Hers is a poor, cheerfully racist Polish-Irish family headed by an alcoholic father (''King Drunk'') who sits at the kitchen table and rails against the labor union that continually fails to elect him. The chain of futility extends through the women -- all of whom smoke, for instance, and all of whom pledge to quit. Unfortunately for Tea's mother, today is not a good day to quit, what with the stress of her own mother dying of lung cancer: ''What Ma needed was for life to stop lobbing tragedies at her, a pause between calamities so she could stop smoking.''

As described by Tea, the unmitigated grossness of life in Chelsea is so extreme it becomes hilarious. The food is hideous (one chapter is titled simply: ''Tripe, Kielbasa, Shellfish and Beer''). The sea is hideous, so dirty its foam looks like vomit. Caught up in the flow, even the storyteller's exaggerations sound flamboyant, like a list of neighborhood hazards building from boys on dirt bikes and men with candy to ''a van full of naked clowns, naked from the waist down so that at first glance you thought the circus had come to town . . . once the clown had seized you with his bulbous, gloved hand, you were doomed.''

For this teenage narrator with a gothic imagination, what's unexpected is for the true enemy to come from within the family, and for this man's sexual crime -- while creepy -- to be relatively anticlimactic. Indeed, its very slightness triggers a crisis of conscience. Unable to decide how severely she has been violated, the narrator enters a mental state she wryly calls ''schizophrenia lite.'' She joins up with a gang of vengeful militant vegan lesbians to gain some feminist clarity. But sadly, not even that seems to work. The nature-centered, quasi-pagan lifestyle they avow is boring (to pass the time, in one memorable section, Tea lies on some rocks and masturbates to a fantasy about being raped in the woods). Also, in contrast to the girl's combat-booted strength, the male perpetrator seems pathetic. He is depressed, he's an alcoholic, he's sorry -- and so surely she can forgive him, goes the neighborhood sentiment. The frustrated Tea writes: ''This is how it went in this family. . . . You couldn't ever get sick, or threaten to kill yourself, because someone else would beat you to it, beat you to it or crowd you out.''

The necessary -- and interesting -- problem of the book, then, is that the liberating catharsis our protagonist, and perhaps some readers, so desperately want will never happen. ''The Chelsea Whistle'' of the title is a distress call that, tellingly, boys send other boys when they need help. When Tea gives the whistle, no one comes. And of all the sick things in Chelsea, nothing's harder to take than this female betrayal. One bittersweet passage begins: ''I loved the damp, stale stink of a million cigarettes smoked. It's a terrible smell, and it's terrible that I enjoyed it. . . . It smelled like Christmas morning, the minute before I woke up Ma, when I sat by the glistening tree with its miracle of gifts beneath, luxuriating in all that beauty and promise and stillness, and the ashtrays overflowing from the party the night before.'' In this fierce memoir, movingly and unexpectedly, nothing proves to be more painful and toxic than family love itself.


Sandra Tsing Loh's most recent book is ''A Year in Van Nuys.''



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