For the past two decades, Michelle Tea has shared her experiences navigating queer culture, feminism, sex work and class throughout many celebrated autobiographies and non-fiction books. Her work has reached thousands of readers from around the world, showing the experiences of queer women long before in was on trend. Today, she's not only established a brand as a celebrated memoir author, but has published several books about modern divination and even established Drag Queen Story Hour in San Francisco. We sat down with Michelle to learn about her literary legacy and what her cult readers can expect to see in 2020.
What was your upbringing like and how did it lead you to pursuing a career in writing?
I grew up a low-income Catholic family in a low-income, predominantly Catholic small, urban town five minutes from Boston. Even though Boston is not the most cosmopolitan of big cities, the elements of cool culture it did hold never made its way to Chelsea, and people from Chelsea avoided going into Boston because they thought they’d get robbed. Never mind that Chelsea had tons of crime. It was mostly a racist belief, and the white people of Chelsea were nearly uniformly racist. That’s the atmosphere I grew up in, pretty fearful and xenophobic. I knew from a pretty young age that something was wrong, culturally. I’m so grateful I found my way out of it, both intellectually and literally. But it gave me a point of view with which to write. I never minded taking a stand or divulging a story that was somehow scandalous, because I grew up understanding that the masses, the mainstream, whatever you wanted to call it, was corrupt and ignorant. I didn’t want their approval, because I didn't approve of them.
What inspired you to write Valencia and why was it important for you to represent the experiences of queer women in fiction?
I wrote Valencia because I was having the most amazing life, and I am a writer, and so I wanted to document. I felt that I was living in a story better than any I had the imagination to come up with. I felt it was important that is was not fiction, that it said, Hey, we’re here, we’re real, you may not see us but we see you. I could not find a lot that reflected my experience, but there was enough to inspire me and make me want to join the ranks of my counterculture heroes.
Books like Stone Butch Blues, Macho Sluts, Chelsea Girls, The Crystal Diaries, The Story of Junk, and the work of Red Jordan Arobateau, Jean Genet, Audre Lorde, Sarah Schulman and David Wojnarowicz were important to me. And Diane di Prima. And the films of John Warters.
How did this novel impact your career and at the time were you hesitant about being represented as an author of queer literature?
Valencia’s success, though modest in publishing terms, really changed my life. It brought me opportunities for more paid writing and speaking gigs, and allowed me to believe that I could see my next book published as well. It led to me having money for the first time in my life. I was never hesitant about being represented as who I am, a queer, feminist, working-class writer influenced by her time in the sex industry. I was very proud to be who I am and come from my communities and have a little limelight. If I was the sort of person hesitant about such a thing it would not have been possible for me to write the way I do.
How has the representation of queer women in media changed over time and how can it still be improved?
Well I think there is always more queer women writing and getting attention for their work, which is rad, and there needs to always be more, in particular writing by trans women and women of color, and I will put non-binary people in here as well so they don’t fall through the cracks when we’re discussing gender. I think there is less of a concern about presenting queerness in a particular way, meaning nice, clean, white, middle class. Queer people and women in general carry a tremendous amount of trauma in this culture, and that trauma manifests in a lot of beautiful and monstrous ways and I think it is all fodder for art, all part of the collective truth that needs to be told so that we can see each other and maybe help one another heal. I think queer writing that is overtly for other queer people, that does not take into consideration straight ignorance, is what we are getting more of and I hope we continue to get more still.
How did you meet Beth Ditto and what led to you to work with her on Coal to Diamonds?
I have known Beth since she was quite young and The Gossip was a garage band in Olympia. Because all queer punks know each other, or will. Beth’s manager is a good friend and I guess they had a British writer trying to interpret her story, because the publisher was in the UK, but she couldn’t grasp the specificities of Beth’s uniquely American childhood. When you are ghost writing for someone you are literally putting words in their mouth and I think she was putting a lot of British words in there and it wasn’t working. So I was invited to take it on and it was thrilling to write another person’s memoir, to use the skills I’d gained writing my own and somehow transfer them to another person’s story. It was frankly an honor to hold another’s story like that, especially a person I have such deep admiration for.
What inspired you to write How to Grow Up and what’s the hardest part about accepting adulthood?
How to Grow Up was my first book sold to a big press, and I worked with a new agent on it, shaping it to be attractive to editors at major presses. I think it was the first book I ever wrote with an eye on commercial success, and frankly I am not good at gauging what the mainstream is interested in. Since we were setting out to craft a non-fiction work, I looked at what story about myself I hadn’t told yet, and it was the story I was living at that moment, someone who somehow got through the stunting effects of poverty and alcoholism and overall marginalization and was living a life I was in awe of. The hardest part of accepting adulthood for me has been figuring out how to let the wild, anti-adulthood parts of me have its place in my life without sabotaging everything I dearly love.
Take us through your journey of discovering tarot and what separates Modern Tarot from other deck companions.
I found tarot when I was 15 years old, and goth, and living in New England and communing with other outcast New England 15 year olds. We were all pretty witchy and intrigued by the shops in Boston and Cambridge and Salem that sold spell supplies and many books about the legacies of witchcraft and how to partake. I very much wanted to learn tarot, and had heard the myth that you couldn’t buy your own deck, and a friend I went to high school with who worked at Barnes and Noble stole me a Rider-Waite. After that I bought my own Thoth deck. Those are the decks I know best, having learned on them reading for myself and my family and friends. I mostly use those to read with professionally. In my 20s I became close with both The Daughters of the Moon 2 wave feminist deck, which is actually really great, and the perennially mysterious Secret Dakini Oracle. Presently I have over 30 decks. I am currently working a lot with the Jodorowsky Marseille deck, reading his very dense book about it, and the Modern Witch Tarot, which takes directly from the Rider-Waite but it is all women, with lots of women of color and some masc figures.
What does it mean to be a witch in 2019 and what do you credit to the recent rise in the appreciation of divination?
I think what it means to be a white witch in 2019 – and I mean white as in white privilege not as in ‘good’ – is to recognize our whiteness and privilege and question the practices we are engaged in. There has been too much cultural appropriation of indigenous practices, and of Black spiritual traditions, and a lot of this is due to ignorance but white witches need to not be defensive, need to investigate what we are doing and where the tradition originated, and to question if it has an authentic place in our craft. Anti-racist work permeates every aspect of white life, or rather it must. And we need to stop calling ostensibly ‘pure’ magic ‘white’ and hexing ‘black.’ AT THE VERY LEAST.
I think divination is on the rise because we are seeing the spiritual bankruptcy and deep misogyny of mainstream religions and practices. And humans have spiritual yearning, so these desires and curiosities must be satisfied somehow. Returning to ancient pagan practices that aim to put you in immediate connection with the divine and with your own divinity, which honor sex and the feminine and the earth and the queer and the gender non-conforming makes sense and also feels urgent at the moment when old traditions are dying and threaten to take the planet down with them.
What inspired you to create a collection of journalistic writing with Against Memoir and how did the current political climate impact this book?
Frankly, I simply wanted the joy of having a book in the world with as little toil possible, and thought that collecting a bunch of already written pieces would be the way to do it! I also like these one-offs that I do for various publications and wanted them all to live in a single place. Of course my publisher wisely had me write new work for it, and I am very grateful for that because I think they’re the strongest pieces in the book, or at least I like them the most. I am not sure how the current climate impacted the book save there is one piece I really like, The City to a Young Girl, which addresses it directly. I’m happy to have gotten to speak my piece during this particularly wretched time.
How has motherhood impacted the way you share your experiences through writing and what do you hope your child takes away from your work one day?
I suppose motherhood has and will impact my memoir writing as I don’t want my son to pay for having randomly been born to a writer by having his business non-consensually slapped all over the world. I do want to respect his privacy, even as I realize it will be hard for me. This is always the struggle with memoir, the way our stories interact and overlap and reveal the vulnerabilities of other people who may not want to be put on blast. But what I owe my son, as opposed to what I may owe my own mother, these feel like very different considerations. And I have always chosen to not write about the person I’m sharing a home with, because at the end of the day I need harmony. There are also the practical restraints on a mother, such as less time to write and promote your work, touring is more difficult and provokes new guilt, and residencies seem impossible, though I never have gone to residencies anyway.
Currently I only dare to hope that my kid will like the kids’ books I’ve written. So far he doesn’t! Not enough supervillains or carnivorous animals.
How do your tattoos tell your story and what’s your favorite piece?
I think my tattoos really tell the story of someone who began acquiring them in the 1990s, with little funds, for better or worse! My favorites remain the hearts on my fingers. I often wish I could clear my body of all except those and see what that would be like, to have a body like that. But I know I would just start all over again. Which is also a delightful idea.
What does 2020 look like for you?
I am beginning a podcast called Your Magic, which will investigate all things witchy and be centered around a tarot reading with a celebrity I admire. I don’t have much travel scheduled but I do hope the podcast takes me to some places I’ve longed to go, specifically the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, summer solstice at Stonehenge and that Parisian café where Alejandro Jodorowsky does tarot readings. I have a stream of astrology kids books coming out on Dottir Press, with illustrations by the amazing Mike Perry, as well as my first Drag Queen Story Hour book. Tabitha and Magoo Dress Up Too, with art by Ellis van der Does. I might finish a young adult novel that has been languishing on my laptop for a decade, and fingers crossed at least one of my television projects gets green lit!