The Writer's Writer: MICHELLE TEA.
Tea is a writer's writer, one who intentionally makes space for others and is known for her exuberant support of writers in the wider creative ecosystem. In the nineties, Tea started Sister Spit, a San Francisco-based writers' collective turned traveling road show for queer feminists to present spoken word and performance art. Sister Spit recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and a Sister Spit imprint with City Lights has brought the world subversive bestsellers like Rad American Women A to Z.
Tea, 48, created the international phenomenon Drag Queen Story Hour, an ongoing series of children's story hours hosted by drag queens at libraries around the world. Tea acknowledges cultural holes that need to be filled, whether that is a lack of queer voices in San Francisco's spoken word scene, or a need for more expansive representation of queer culture in children's library and educational programming. With the creation of organizations like Sister Spit and Drag Queen Story Hour, she makes more inclusive spaces for marginalized people.
I've been Michelle's publicist at two different presses, so interviewing her was a breeze. We discussed the winding path of her writing career, her recent literary honors, and her love of libraries.
Kait Heacock: You created Drag Queen Story Hour in 2015, and it has since grown into an international event series in libraries, bookstores, and schools. Why do you believe that children's literary spaces are important for cultural change? Do you ever witness conversations between parents and kids at these events in which you see firsthand the effects of this work?
Michelle Tea: Everything I needed to know to escape my oppressive, small, urban enclave and access a wider world with all its opportunity and diversity, I got via my local library. The Public Library in Chelsea [Massachusetts] was where I went to learn, through books, what it means to be human; how people hurt each other and heal each other, how deep and crucial our inner lives are, how people are oppressed, and how they triumph. The library literally contains the world, and it's free! This was a huge deal for a kid from a broke family like me.
Kids have autonomy in a library. They can roam the stacks and pursue their curiosities and obsessions without people looking over their shoulders (hopefully, anyways). When kids find themselves in literary spaces, they learn about reality and how to be active in our world.
KH: Drag Queen Story Hour is one of the many "cultural interventions" you've created throughout your life. Why is it important for you as a writer to not only create your own work but also create space for others' work?
MT: I am lucky to have a lot of excess energy and the lack of foresight that can stop others from pursuing what might seem a daunting undertaking. I'm always like, "Let's just do that." With Sister Spit, it was a response to both how popular spoken word open mics were at the time and how few queer people and women were participating in them--despite it being '90s San Francisco, which was in the throes of a very literary and artistic punk dyke movement at the time. I knew there were more women and tons of queer women writing, but they just didn't feel welcome at these straight bars populated with drunk "poets" emulating Bukowski. So, me and filmmaker Sini Anderson started Sister Spit as a weekly open mic. Immediately the sign-up sheet of people who wanted to perform was more than the event could accommodate.
Drag Queen Story Hour happened because I had a child in my forties. Story time at the library is a classic kid's event that I found myself attending a lot with my son. After a couple of decades spent pretty much exclusively in queer art circles, the sudden exposure to kid and parent culture was so shocking in its straightness and lack of queer camp, joy, and innovation that I felt a need for queer story time.
In addition to being a writer myself, part of my work in this world is to lift up the work of other writers and artists whose work I find important. It is easy to do and brings me a lot of happiness. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I remain a fan of writers and books. I love having outlets to express the enthusiasm I feel for the writers I love. I love being a writer among other writers, and writers in general are very generous with one another. Being of service to a fellow writer is a great way to get out of your own career anxieties, whatever they may be.
KH: As an author known for her memoirs, your books have mostly followed the linear trajectory of your life, with outliers being your middle grade fantasy series. Now that you're the parent of a small child, did children's picture books seem like the natural next step? How did you know that the astrology series was the framework through which you wanted to tell a story about the zodiac? What do you hope kids and parents learn from this series?
MT: Buying books for my son has been one of my favorite parts of parenting. I'm grateful to have become a parent during a time when there is an explosion of kids' books with social justice themes, as well as books that reflect the sort of interests and culture that may exist within less traditional families like my own. I am a practicing witch and have been interested in astrology pretty much my whole life. I wrote horoscopes in the '00s, and I have used astrology a lot in my tarot practice. When I realized that there were no astrology books out there for kids, I thought that the zodiac's presentation of twelve distinct "characters" and all the animal and space imagery inherent in the zodiac would make a great kids' book. I like that every kid has a sign and that they can search for it and hopefully learn something about themselves. People tend to be proud of their signs, and it's cute to see kids being proud of being a Leo Lion or a Scorpio Scorpion! As devoted as I am to the zodiac, I really have no agenda regarding convincing people they should believe in it or study it, but if it does pique their interest and engage the imagination of any budding astrologers, I would be very delighted!
KH: In 2019, you received the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and then librarians gave you the Zoia Horn Intellectual Freedom Award for your work with Drag Queen Story Hour. What does it mean to win an award honoring your cultural work in addition to one recognizing your craft?
MT: It blew me away. I feel like I'm the longshot in these types of things and was thrilled to even make it out of the longlist. That I won took my breath away. It is a huge honor. I have so much respect for PEN as well as the individual writers who sat as judges. It felt like I was being welcomed into a larger literary family, and it made me want to cry. And cash is always welcome!
KH: The Zoia Horn Intellectual Freedom Award is interesting because it's almost always given to librarians. How does it feel to work with institutions like the public library to create cultural spaces and safe havens for intellectual freedom?
MT: Again, talk about a humongous honor. When I was a child, I dreamed of being a librarian. They were my heroes, and they still are. They are the keepers of books and protectors of our civil liberties. When I was first invited to work with a library, it was via Jim Van Buskirk, the former head of the LGBT Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library. I was stunned. I hadn't known that my local library would be interested in hearing the work of me and my queer, marginalized writer community, but they absolutely were. I ended up hosting a popular reading series at the San Francisco Public Library for thirteen years. Most of the writers we hosted were outsiders and self-taught. It was very meaningful to them to be welcomed and celebrated by a civic institution. Though I have always loved libraries, I hadn't realized as I grew up and became more radical that libraries are radical institutions, too!
By Kait Heacock
Kait Heacock is a writer and book publicist based in Seattle.