"I'm just using language to manipulate the reader into feeling my feelings, or the feelings I hope they feel."
A little less than halfway through Michelle Tea's new novel Black Wave, our narrator—also named Michelle—reveals that the story she's been telling is not the "true" version of events. Originally, she tells us, this was to be a book about the end of a major long-term relationship, but the ex didn't want to be written about. In the past, Michelle powered through such discomfort with the mantra "don't act that way if you don't like to see it in print," but she's increasingly "haunted by the thought that the work she did, her art, brought pain to other people." So she shifts around the order of some encounters and events, and has herself move from San Francisco to Los Angeles alone, rather than with that ex, which is, we're told, what "really" happened. Also, the world is literally about to end.
The looming apocalypse is present from the beginning of the novel—late '90s San Francisco is a "vampire town," heated by a "killer sun," so we already know we're not reading straight-up memoir. But something happens when Michelle the narrator, who, of course, we can't help but read as a stand-in for Michelle the author (of numerous memoirs and novels), intervenes to let us know that she's presenting us with a manufactured reality. The whole book begins to buzz, glow, backward and forward, with the possibility of both the imagined and the real. Every utterance becomes multivalent. The effect is more complex and compelling than the typical state of suspended disbelief fiction typically invites us to embrace. Black Wave—brainily, hilariously, heartbreakingly—makes felt the labor of dragging language onto experiences in order to give them a shape that will reveal their emotional truth without bringing pain to other people. Every sentence is thick with what it both can and cannot communicate about a person, a time, a place, a life.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Michelle about memoir versus fiction, writing while parenting, the pitfalls of nostalgia, and more.
Sara Jaffe Were you interested in the apocalypse before this book came along?
Michelle Tea Definitely. It's such a trip to think about because the world feels so endlessly permanent, and yet people have always been preparing for the apocalypse. I remember seeing things in the tabloids as a kid, like: WORLD SCHEDULED TO END THIS WEEKEND! I remember coming home and being like, "Mom the world is ending this weekend? What does that even mean?" I was excited about it, but I didn't understand. When I was working on the book I had just come out of a long a relationship, so I was thinking about impermanence, and going through a moment of obsession with Ziggy Stardust, and its first song, "Five Years," is about the end of the world. And so I wanted to write a book that sort of followed the songs on Ziggy Stardust and was an apocalypse narrative, but then my relationship ended and I became obsessed with this whole part of my life that I hadn't been able to write about (since I don't write about relationships when I'm in them). So the impulses merged.
SJ There's a point in the book where Michelle the narrator says that she writes memoirs because she's enamored with the "drive to document, to push life in through your eyes and out your fingers, the joy of describing the known." Is that what you mean about being obsessed with that part of your life? Do you, Michelle the writer, have those feelings about memoir?
MT I have forever in my head described what I'm seeing. I'm constantly narrating stuff—especially when I've had a really boring job, or if I was stuck in something very routine. A way to transform that mundane kind of boredom is to suddenly start describing everything and trying to see how to cast it in such different lights, just by the tone of the language and whatnot. This became a sort of weird, like, OCD play in my head. I've lived like this in my brain for a very long time, and when I started writing memoir I realized it could become a thing. It could become a book. But fiction, creating from the ground up, always felt like so much pressure. With memoir, that pure creation, which has always been very intimidating to me, is gone, and what I'm doing is just playing with language. I'm just talking. I'm just using language to manipulate the reader into feeling my feelings, or the feelings I hope that they feel. That has always been really engaging for me.
SJ The way you describe taking in the world and then playing around with language, that's actually how I feel about writing fiction! Do you still feel that calling something fiction lends a different kind of pressure, even after having written several novels and also this book, which is sort of a hybrid?
MT At the core, I'm a memoirist. It's this idea of needing to represent something true that's motivated me, and then when you switch over to fiction, you still want to be representing something that's true within fiction, but I feel a lot of anxiety around that. Like, am I doing okay? Are these people real? Would this happen? I didn't realize until I did it a little bit more that you don't necessarily need to ask yourself that question, that you can kind of play God and just go with, "It's real because I'm saying it's real." When I was younger I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I'd try to write short stories and longer fiction, but it was so halting. I just didn't trust myself, which is also probably a product of being young. But for whatever reason, when I sat down to write memoir it just was like, boom: the story was there.
And it's funny—people bring up the fact that Black Wave starts out as memoir and turns into fiction, but, based on what you were saying, isn't that what fiction is?
SJ Yes, but I do think what's different is the way you draw attention to it. I've always loved work that draws attention to the overlap between fiction and nonfiction, like the New Narrative writers, or Ben Lerner's 10:04. Recently, I've been thinking about ambivalence, that productive ambivalence of "feeling both ways" creating a really generative energy. And I felt that in your book. We could feel these two urges—memoir and fiction—pulling away from each other but also propelling the forward motion.
MT There's so much ambivalence all throughout the book, not only about what form it should take but also ethical ambivalence about writing about other people, about whether to talk openly about recovery programs or not.
I like this idea of "productive ambivalence," did you create that?
SJ I'm sure I didn't… I'm still thinking through it and the different ways that could work both formally and also in terms of content—like how to write about political ambivalence and not have that result in passivity or apathy.
MT It's its own thing, not a cop-out or a state of inaction. It's really true, and kind of radical. Our culture pushes us to take a stand. It is so polarized and encourages that type of polarization. So it's quite rebellious to say, "I don't know." Even in pursuing a baby I felt ambivalent, and I was doing it anyway! I rallied because I am a rallier, and once I'm committed, I am committing because I can't really do it half-assed. But I was ambivalent about it forever, and that ambivalence is still part of my decision to go forward.
SJ That's something really exciting that writing can do—you could write about that experience and turn up the volume on that ambivalence and on the enthusiasm, having them both exist on the page but not collapse into each other or resolve. Aside from the stuff you wrote leading up to the pregnancy, have you written about being a parent yet?
MT Not that much. I wrote a piece for Harper's, where I tried to capture this overwhelming feeling of love and fragility right after giving birth. But I can't tell what my subject would be within motherhood. It's been written about so much. It's not as if I have nothing to say, because it's one of the biggest things I've ever done in my life. But I don't know. It's too soon and I need to let things leak in. What about you?
SJ I just wrote my first story about being a parent. My favorite part of it is that there is a character who is kind of like Donald Trump, and he is trying to get the narrator to prove that the baby is really hers, and his dialogue is the identical dialogue to the dogcatcher in Annie when he is trying to get her to prove that Sandy is really her dog.
MT (laughter) That sounds incredible. I thought you were going toward: the dialogue is like Trump's birther thing, but Annie is so much better. That's crazy.
SJ I think being a queer, non-gestational parent could be a really rich place to explore in writing, but mostly when I think of writing about parenthood I just cringe and yawn at the same time. It's such a minefield of cliché.
MT Did you read Miranda July's The First Bad Man? It's so good, and she just hits on some things about having a baby that felt really profound to me. I'm just reading another book now actually, What Becomes Us by Micah Perks, and it's from the perspective of two fetal twins who are narrating what's happening to their mom in the world. It's really wild. And there's another book narrated from the perspective of a baby, Little Beauties by Kim Addonizio, which I also really loved. Maybe that's the key—the fetus has to narrate.
SJ Yeah, there's the genre of the magic of parenthood, then there's the genre of the hapless, alienated at-a-loss aspect of parenthood, and I feel most interested when those two rub up against each other.
I want to ask you another question about the book, about nostalgia. One thing I really appreciated is that it doesn't feel nostalgic for San Francisco in the '90s. Some of that is overt anti-nostalgia, like when Michelle bemoans gentrification but says, "Why did she think her world wasn't supposed to change?" But further, San Francisco basically disappears once she moves to Los Angeles. Nostalgia can be such a strong feeling, but also a pretty politically bogus one. Did you specifically set out to avoid nostalgia?
MT I don't feel nostalgic, so I guess I just trusted that it wouldn't read as a nostalgic look at the '90s or the San Francisco that I inhabited back then. Of course I'm sad that things are gone, but I'm more sad that people can't find a place to live affordably. The culture kind of disappears as a result of artists and working-class people not having affordable places to live in our cities. But when I was younger and saw nostalgia in older people, it really scared me. I never wanted to have that kind of a relationship to my own history. It felt like everyone always thinks that their time was the best time, and it was almost a plan I came up with when I was younger, or a pledge I made to myself, to not get old and boring. Part of that means not being nostalgic. I still have a really awesome life.
SJ That's inspiring to hear. Nostalgia does so much to idealize and erase problematic or difficult aspects of the past. And emotionally it's like digging at a sore. Even if at first it doesn't feel like a sore, if you keep digging enough it will become one.
MT It's funny—when I think about feeling nostalgic I have nostalgia for the '80s East Village, or the '70s, where I never was. It's nostalgia for somebody else's good old days. I don't have that romantic longing for my own history, more for the moments I missed.
SJ That seems healthy.
MT Score one for mental health.
Sara Jaffe is a writer and musician living in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Dryland, was published by Tin House Books in 2015.