Of clowns and class struggles

The do-it-yourself career of fearless autobiographer Michelle Tea

If you want a clown to open for you on your book tour, sometimes you’ve got to wear the funny nose. Just ask Michelle Tea.

Tea, the San Francisco writer the Village Voice described as “a Jack Kerouac for her generation of tattooed, hypercaffeinated Mission-district dykes,” has experienced the art of do-it-yourself clowning firsthand. While planning the national tour for her newest book, childhood memoir The Chelsea Whistle, she hired an entertainer who formerly had clowned with the Circus Ridiculous Troupe.

“In all of the press I put out, I talked about the clown. I really thought that was a bonus for the tour, although I found out later that a lot of people don’t like clowns.” Tea, seeming genuinely puzzled by humanity’s rampant coulrophobia, paused momentarily before continuing. “Anyway, as it turned out, the clown was totally insane, and I had to kick him off the tour. Then, I felt bad that I had all this press out there promising clowns. So, I thought I’d have to be the clown so nobody would feel let down.”

On the tour’s opening night at Kimo’s in San Francisco, minutes before she would have to perform material from her new book, Tea made her full-greasepaint debut as Goldie the Bingo Clown. “I smoked a lot, and I swore at everybody and called bingo numbers. I wore lots of gold lamé—but in a clown outfit! I was a sexy, geriatric clown. I was hoping to exude geriatric as much as possible.”

Goldie was well-received. However, Tea soon found that trying to simultaneously remove her clown makeup, dress for her next appearance, negotiate last-minute tour details and collect her thoughts for her reading was too overwhelming. “It was way too much to perform, host, manage the tour and be a clown. I couldn’t wear so many hats. So, no more clowns.”

How does one weather the long sojourn from aspiring open-mike poet to nationally lauded writer and retired bingo clown? To hear Tea tell it, it’s mostly an issue of tenacity.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” she said. “But I didn’t really go to school. So, I had to find a way to believe I could do that without going through the channels people try to convince you that you need to go through [to write professionally].” After high school, Tea supported herself with a series of jobs that ran the gamut from cafe food prep to magazine layout assistant, briefly enrolled in college, came out as a lesbian, became a women’s rights activist, worked as a prostitute, moved from her native Massachusetts to Arizona with a girlfriend, broke up with said girlfriend and eventually found her way to San Francisco.

It was there that she emerged as a writer and a spoken-word artist. “When I moved to San Francisco, there were open mikes happening everywhere!” she related with enthusiasm. “I had already started writing poetry, so I went to a different open mike every night and read. I was really encouraged to keep coming back. I became part of a spoken-word community that was largely made up of writers who weren’t academically trained. They were street poets, folks that were writing about their own lives.”

Though the San Francisco poetry community did nurture her, Tea found it lacking in one respect. “Even though there were so many open mikes, they were really male-dominated. My friends and I would go anyway because I like that roadhouse vibe. We would heckle the guys and throw beer bottles at them. But there weren’t a lot of women who wanted to read there because they were writing more sensitive stuff or they were queer and didn’t want to read for homophobes or whatever the problem was. The city was full of writers, but there were hardly any girls at these open mikes.”

To fill the need for a woman-only reading space, Tea and poet Sini Anderson created the all-girl open mike Sister Spit. Sister Spit thrived as a weekly spoken-word venue for two years, “before too many girls with acoustic guitars started coming, and I got burned out. That’s the secret of why it really died,” she confessed. “Acoustic music killed Sister Spit.”

Sister Spit was later reborn as a national tour that traveled to colleges and festivals throughout the United States between 1997 and 2001 and featured such spoken-word luminaries as Beth Lisick, Tara Jepson and Tribe 8’s punk vocalist Lynn Breedlove. During this time, Tea amassed an impressive body of original spoken-word pieces, many of which were published in her first two autobiographies, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and Valencia. “It was an awesome success,” Tea said of Sister Spit. “It was great, and now it’s all done.”

After her return from touring, Tea went to work on what would become her third autobiographical work, the sobering memoir The Chelsea Whistle. “Chelsea was the first book I worked on with the understanding that it would be a book. The stories in Passionate Mistakes and Valencia were written as pieces to be read at shows. With the Chelsea book, I could explore emotions I wasn’t comfortable exploring in a cabaret setting. You know, like you don’t really want to tell about the time you wanted to kill yourself onstage, unless you’re being really funny about it. It’s hard to be vulnerable in the kind of performances I do, but it was easier for the book.”

The book paints a stark portrait of Tea’s childhood and adolescence in a poor family in working-class Chelsea, Mass.—“a town five minutes from Boston that may as well have been five hours, five days.” From the routine violence of neighborhood children to her discovery that her stepfather had drilled holes in her bedroom and bathroom walls to watch her undress, Tea pulls no punches in relating her past.

“I’m really compelled to write about my own experience,” she admitted. “When I try to create fiction, it feels totally bizarre and unnatural to me. The narrator Michelle is pretty close to me. As close as I can do it, with the amount of self-knowledge I have or may be lacking. It’s hard to tell from the inside out.”

Tea’s honest writing about typically taboo topics (sex, drug use, prostitution, molestation) and her endearing confessions of more common concerns (relationship and money woes) has won her a devoted fan base, as well as the 2001 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Publishing the details of her personal life “wasn’t really a struggle” for her, Tea said. “It’s a lot weirder to me to feel like you have to hide things about yourself. I’ve never felt like that.”

Of course, some of the lovers and friends who find themselves portrayed in her books have a different opinion. “The reaction varies. I have an ex-girlfriend who is totally hurt and doesn’t talk to me because of the books. But some of my exes, like Iris from Valencia, are totally supportive.”

When asked how her immediate family reacted to the revelations laid out in The Chelsea Whistle, Tea admitted, “They don’t know the book exists. They’ve kind of avoided my writing from the beginning. I was going to give my mother a piece of Valencia to read once, but then I couldn’t find a chapter that didn’t have me having sex with someone or doing drugs. Then I just felt bad. I thought, ‘She doesn’t need to know about that!’ There’s really nothing to be gained at this point from giving them the book. If I thought it would improve any of our lives, I would do it. Probably, they’ll find out at some point, and I’m ready for that if it happens.”

In the meantime, Tea is at work on several new projects, which include penning a screenplay of The Chelsea Whistle and collecting pieces for an anthology of writing by working-class women called Without a Net. For Tea, whose working-class upbringing is a central theme of her work, “class is the lowest common denominator. It’s where I feel the strongest allegiance with people, where I understand their motivation.”

“I got really inspired by that book Nickel and Dimed [by Barbara Ehrenreich],” she continued. “I liked it, but it gave me a panic attack—her writing about how horrible these people’s lives are. I feel very close to those people’s realities. I don’t think there’s a lot standing between me and working at Merry Maids. The author, sympathetic and class-savvy as she is, is ultimately going to return to her middle-class home and will never have to work at Wal-Mart again. So, I got really interested in the women who don’t get to go home, who have to keep working at Wal-Mart.”

Tea hesitated when asked whether she would return to writing autobiographies. “We’ll see. I got really sick of it. Partly, I want to start fictionalizing stuff because it seems like it will make my life easier, and part of me wonders how long you can keep writing about yourself before everyone just wants to kill you. I’m thinking if I give myself a break, I’ll be able to return to it.”

And Goldie the Bingo Clown?

“She could come back again. I still have the costume. Oh, no I don’t! I left one of her shoes in a hotel room in Vegas!”

You coulrophobes can relax now.