by Juleana Enright
At the risk of speaking for the queer lady masses, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there are certain authors that one becomes familiar with on the path to identity – the queer essentials, if you will. These include but are not limited to Rita Mae Brown, Sarah Waters, Kathy Acker, Michelle Tea, Dorothy Allison, bell hooks, Susie Bright, Sylvia Plath and the entire oeuvre of Anaïs Nin and Susan Sontag.
I first read Michelle Tea’s famed “dyke love story,” Valencia (also known to some of us as the queer girl’s bible), during a felicitously tumultuous relationship with PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.” I tore through the pages feeling a sense of camaraderie much like the way Tea’s Bay area heroines find solace in each other despite their differences – like the women of Lena Dunham’s Girls and – dare I even say it – Sex in the City. Okay, yes, these characters were queer and more likely to screw each other, but they weren’t overly recycled lesbian stereotypes. They were multi-dimensional characters who were – when you peered a little deeper – in their larval stages of evolution, much like I was.
So, when I heard Tea was emceeing Sister Spit – a ramblin’ roadshow of queer literati – I had to attend, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Admittedly, I haven’t kept up with Tea’s career post-Valencia and when I researched her I was shocked to Google images not of the messy blue-pigtailed, hoodie-sporting, punk-y Lisa Loeb depicted on the back of Valencia, but instead a 40-plus-er who could pass as a hipster librarian, or at the very least Bohemian chic. It’s not that I expected her to be exactly the same; we all change – moving between soft and hard, damaged and revitalized. It’s just that when you have such a cult following directly wrapped up in your current scene cred and persona, any re-evalution to one’s anima seems to come at the risk of losing your audience, not to mention setting yourself up for major criticism – kinda like Alice Coopers’ short-lived new wave career.
When I walked along campus to the Bell Museum Sunday night, it was raining outside. Flocks of hipster lady bikes were parked along the fence and street signs – a sure sign I was in the right place for Sister Spit. Sister Spit was birthed from Michelle Tea’s Radar Productions’ LGBT literary Nights in San Francisco, ongoing since the ‘90s. This year’s road version included Bastard Out of Carolina author Dorothy Allison, Radical Faerie cabaret artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (yes, the very one seen in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus), playwright Erin Markey, comic book artist Cassie J. Sneider, slam poet Kit Yan (crowned Mr. Transman 2010) and multi-hyphenate artist and former Gravy Train!!!! member Brontez Purnell.
As I slipped past the merch table – stocked with zines and GLBT pens – I entered a theater of fashion ducktails and folk punk attire among sprinklings of a more seasoned gay audience. Tea took the stage to a heavy accolade of cheers. She informed us that the Minneapolis tour was especially important due to the fact that instead of one or the other – like the past performances had been – both Justin Vivian Bond and the great Dorothy Allison were present tonight. It was also Allison’s send-off show and to miss her would have been a tragedy for any literary nerd.
After a glimpse into the night’s itinerary, Tea launched into a piece about when she should tell her current flame she plans to get pregnant titled, “Ryan Gosling’s Sperm Would be Totally Great Sperm,” from her latest project “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea” – a blog detailing her endeavors to get artificially inseminated:
Hi. My name is Michelle Tea. I turned 40 this year and realized I forgot to have a child. Now I am trying to get pregnant before all my eggs dry up. Do you know what happens to your eggs in your 40s? Google it. Or don’t, just come with me as I learn all about 40+ pregnancy as a single queer lady who hardly knows a single sperm-producing man.
The piece is told in Tea’s signature style of overly personal ramblings, gossipings with friends and badinage, modernized with Twitter jokes and Urban Dictionary lingo.
The next act, Cassie J. Sneider, is a writer and illustrator from the murky depths of Lake Ronkonkoma, NY. A barefaced fan of hair metal, Ratt and Dee Snider (if only for the similarities in last names), Sneider’s hilar monologue “Homegrown” recited the tale of growing up “white trash” in the ’80s and nursing a love affair for small town rock radio stations.
What followed was a real treat for Tea fans as she premiered “Chapter 5” of Valencia The Movie/s – a collaborative feature-length film (currently in post-production) based on the memoir. The film commissioned twenty-one filmmakers, including “Chapter 5” director, Hilary Goldberg, to interpret the chapters of Valencia. Goldberg’s depiction was a trippy short that blurred the lines between stop and live motion bringing to life the chapter’s finest highlights: the break up, magic mushrooms, and animated buffalo.
The next reader lead us in a synchronized swim through the waters of spoken word and slam poetry. Featured in the HBO documentary Asians Aloud, Kit Yan’s slam poetry is told through the lens of “a transgender Asian American from Hawaii now lost in the big city of New York.” His piece was a raw, heart-wrenching poem that swayed delicately through the interior of a break-up, shifting from eloquent descriptions of Asian food to provocative metaphors of his lover.
If you’re familiar with the flamboyant electro group, Gravy Train!!!!, the vivaciousness of Sister Spit next guest Brontez Purnell would have been no surprise. The writer, dancer, musician and creator of zine, Fag School, kicked off his set with the preface, “the first story is about semen and the second story is about witchcraft…Are you f”ing ready?!” As it turned out, we were and Purnell shocked us silly with his confessional account of being grossed out by other dude’s “happy endings” and the tale of his Southern Wiccan aunt who helps him cast spells on Quentin Tarantino using eggs from Whole Foods.
In John Cameron Mitchell’s underrated film Shortbus, Tony-nominated cabaret star, Justin Vivian Bond magnetically poises himself as the stunning voice of clarity to a party full of confused, sexually troubled and down-hardened souls. And while the atmosphere at the Bell wasn’t quite as doleful, when Bond read from TANGO: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels about life as a trans-child in the ”60s and mesmerized the room with two a cappella cabaret anthems, a similar semblance of queer solidarity and razzle-dazzle lifted the audience and I was half-surprised no one lit a candle.
For the finale, Tea returned to the stage to introduce literary virtuoso, award-winning poet and author of Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison, a powerhouse feminist, lesbian writer the tour had wanted to include since their travels in the ’90s. Back then, the Sister Spit crew toured in a van that periodically caught fire, slept in bathtubs and drank like true 20-somethings should. They were in no place to take Allison along, Tea admitted. But when Allison graced the stage, in a raspy Southern drawl she retorted, “Hell, I’ve slept in bathrooms.”
Before she read a short story from her Trash collection, she disclosed that she’s going to miss her fellow Sister Spit artists. “Being on the tour made me feel like I was 26 again, and drunk off my ass.” As she read, we vacillated between laughter and reverence for the woman Tea referred to as “our hero.” Allison rhythmically pulled us into the chapters of “Compassion” in which three sisters reunite to see their mother through her final days of cancer.
With the addition of literary bigwigs like Allison and Bond, the Sister Spit tour and the other projects under Tea’s Radar Productions umbrella aren’t just radical voices spouted on the steps of their Mission District apartments anymore but an evolved group of artists growing from each creative juncture, reinventing their art, and themselves (just like the rest of us) and continuing to be the voices of the vicissitudes of our generation…or, at least, a generation.