Michelle Tea’s “Against Memoir” Is A Study Of Counterculture And Life On The Fringe: BUST Review

by Crystal Erickson

No matter the topic at hand, author Michelle Tea’s writing oozes with memoir, as she injects her own experiences and perspective into any piece she’s working on. A collection of essays that originally appeared as articles, reviews, performances, speeches, and the like, Against Memoir (Feminist Press) explores the life and times of the author coming up in the Bay Area after escaping her dreary hometown of Chelsea, Massachusetts—though she tends to travel back in time during these essays every now and then. The book is a study of the counterculture, those living life on the fringes, and Tea’s journey of navigation of it all throughout her years as a writer.  

Tea gets right to it in the book’s first section, “Art & Music,” starting her book with a bang with the lady responsible for shooting pop art icon Andy Warhol—Valerie Solanas. Since the SCUM Manifesto lived on my nightstand throughout college, I metaphorically pulled up a chair immediately. Solanas is the perfect entry point to a collection of essay exploring people thriving in the fringes. In the essay “Purple Rain,” Tea proclaims her love of the film’s legendary soundtrack and Prince, the mastermind behind it. This essay completely resonated with me, since I worked as a staff member at First Avenue, the legendary Minneapolis nightclub where Purple Rain was filmed. I was even there for the legendary 7/07/07 show (his final performance at the venue) when Prince played the club after two other shows in the city, starting at 4 a.m.—and didn’t stop until the cops made him. Tea captures the mystique of “Purple Rain” perfectly in the essay’s final line: “I never got to see the Purple Rain tour and now I will never ever get to see Prince, but possessing an album that surpasses the passing of both time and its author, never losing its mystery no matter how much play it gets, is a gift for the ages.”

Tea epically captures that perfect feeling of fandom, when you’re so in love with this one thing at a particular moment in time and nothing can possibly shake the feeling. Her essays about music had me reminiscing over so many musical memories over the years, as the topic of fandom and the feeling it evokes is something I’ve been minorly obsessed with. Tea’s essays about music remind me of the work of writer Chuck Klosterman, who—just like myself and Tea—came from very humble beginnings in small-town USA, where the music you obsess over is basically all you have. Learning later on in the book that Tea abandoned a well-curated vinyl collection upon moving across the country is heartbreaking and understandable all at once, as I, too, am in the middle of selling my once-beloved CD collection for my own cross-country move out of nothingness. Nostalgia can’t win every time.

Tea’s approach to writing articles and reviews is probably what I found most refreshing about Against Memoir. Her book review “On Chelsea Girls” blew my mind because I’ve never considered injecting my own perspective into a review about a book I loved to the extent that she does. Tea doesn’t just tell the reader what she loves about the book, she tells the reader how essential the book is, and how she’s traversed bars and coffee shops with her worn-out copy of it. Chelsea Girls isn’t just a great read to Tea, it’s the book she re-reads to inspire her own writing. The passion Tea brings to the topics she covers is magic, and it’s impossible to not get inspired and influenced by such a writer.

The passion Tea brings to the topics she covers is magic, and it’s impossible to not get inspired and influenced by such a writer.

“HAGS in Your Face,” which details an ’80s punk lesbian gang in the Bay Area, is the book’s finest and most heartbreaking essay, appearing in the book’s section “Love & Queerness.” As the gang faces tragedy stemming from addiction, the only solution is to basically erase this tragic moment of time. I can see how the surviving HAGS had to move on and transform completely for their survival, yet it was also depressing to read about how drastically changed these women’s lives became after HAGS. Having dealt with my own impossible to deal with tragedies in the face of a friend’s addiction, I totally understand the desperate need to shed your skin from a lifestyle that’s killing you—in order to save yourself, survive and actually move on from all the death and sadness.

Where the book’s first and second sections offer glimpses into Tea’s life and times, its third, “Writing & Life” rips the Band-Aid off, leaving Tea completely exposed, with essays that are either nearly or completely memoir in form. One of my favorites is an essay where Tea ponders her contributions as an activist while preparing a speech for a group of students in “City to a Young Girl,” named after a poem she stumbles upon that rocks her worldview and value as a writer. The poem is written by a 15-year old girl named Jody Caravaglia who calls out “horny lip-smacking men,” and it’s relevant today with gross Hollywood men finally being called on their shit and the #MeToo movement—yet the poem was viewed as obscene when it was published in the ‘70s. Tea’s essay is a shocking read of what society considers normal vs. obscene, and serves as a reminder of what happens when boys get to be boys from the start, and what happens when society sets the foundation for men to harm women early on.

Against Memoir is a must-read for hopeless romantics and anyone passionate about life. Tea’s writing brings me back to a time in my life that I severely miss, yet am happy to have escaped: that feeling of being naive and young, and those angst-filled fumblings I endured when I was just finding myself. She recalls those beloved pre-internet times when we truly had to create something or discover something on our own—back when life was just one big scavenger hunt, filled with happy mistakes that would lead you to great things that couldn’t be accessed by a thoughtful keyword choice or by scrolling through social media posts. It all used to be way cooler than this, back when life was one big messy adventure, and the answers you needed weren’t at all easy to find. It’s in that difficulty, that constant struggle, that makes Against Memoir shine brightest.

Against Memoir is out on Tuesday, May 8

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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