Michelle Tea’s memoir How to Grow Up exposes a vein of humor that can be found in life, even in the zany and unsettling conditions offered to those who live at the intersection of unfamiliar and unfortunate. The memoir consists of a collection of essays, with topics ranging from alcoholism, poverty, fashion, queer culture in the 90s, and sex. As is mentioned in Kazim Ali’s essay “Genre-Queer: Notes Against Generic Binaries,” people are looking to break down the expectations that might be imposed on a body of work just as they would be on a person. Tea adds her own color to this discussion with her genre-bending novel Black Wave, blending elements of a memoir into a fictional universe, and with the novel-turned-film, Valencia, which became a collaborative effort with 21 different directors whose unique vision led to a sold-out premiere at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
In the first chapter of How to Grow Up, Tea identifies herself with a persimmon tree due to its unsynchronized flare of life:“As all the other trees lose their leaves and begin their winter dying, the persimmon flares up brighter than any of them have ever been, bearing fruit, even. That was me. I wasn’t on the same timetable as the other trees in the garden, but I was alive, coming into a certain prime, even.”
Tea associates this image of the persimmon’s belated blooming with a positive note that is sustained throughout the memoir. Although she often approaches her past self with humility and insight, she never apologizes for being different and even dedicates a chapter to “Young Michelle.” In this chapter, she simultaneously ridicules and adores Young Michelle (velvet body suit and all), but never placed her in a box. This strain of self-love, almost edging on maternal, resonated with me and came off as deeply unique. Having been raised working class in Chelsea, Massachusetts, she is able to contextualize her actions in a way that brings her readers together, despite the sometimes obscure events in her life, such as living in a house where none of the roommates cleaned. Ever. Seeing that I am the type of person who saves old toothbrushes in order to scrub the grout lines along the tile floor, I was horrified.
This image of the persimmon tree is subtly repeated when her sobriety acts as a conduit for moving in with partying twenty-year-olds and again when her “biological time clock” begins tolling with the desire to experience pregnancy. These situations play at readers’ expectations of recovery and of their own understanding of when milestones should occur.
Michelle Tea is a memoirist, poet, editor, founder of the online publication Mutha magazine and the non-profit organization RADAR Productions, and a literary citizen, having dedicated a portion of her career to creating opportunities for queer writers, such as Sister Spit. She has also written for multiple blogs and magazine, including xojane, where she documented her experiences with pregnancy. A particular favorite of mine was called, “Getting Pregnant With Michelle: I had a Baby.”
Butte College, Butte College’s Diversity Committee and the 1078 Literary Committee are proud to welcome Michelle Tea to the 1078 Gallery (820 Broadway) on October 11th, 7:30 pm.
Written by Samantha Smith