Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms

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A Year in Reading: Chelsey Johnson

I launched a debut novel and bought three to five books at every store where I read on tour, so I struggle to even start to encapsulate this year in reading. And year-end lists tend to cycle around the same famous books again and again, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what everyone else is crowing about. I read and loved many of those books but you don’t need me to tell you about them.

1. Dept. of Extreme Rereading
OK, that said, I have to shout out Alexander Chee’s essay “The Guardians,” in the collection you’ve read about literally (literally!) everywhere. I read this essay on a gray couch in a tiny house in Echo Park. As it unfurled, I felt my heart start to pound with that feeling of oh my god, this essay, this is going to be one of those, like Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” or that part in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son where he describes anger at the lunch counter. “The doll woke up, stretched, looked around, and believed it was me.” I read it, I reread it, I handed it to people I love with you have to read this, they handed it off to other people with the same, it transformed us all.

My other vital reread is the poem “Glitter in My Wounds” by CAConrad: “glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to / unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture.” I read this in the November issue of Poetry, sitting at a tiny table in a big corporate bookstore while I waited for my dog to be finished at the vet across the street. I read “Glitter in My Wounds” so many times I think I’ve inadvertently committed it to heart. And it led me directly to Conrad’s collections The Book of Frank (2011) and While Standing in Line for Death (2017), half of which I accidentally read sitting on the living room floor between my dogs. I casually started reading and then couldn’t stop gorging myself on Conrad’s feral queer genius. (“You Don’t Have What It Takes to Be My Nemesis”: writer battle cry.)

 

2. Dept. of Chronology
The first book I read this year, traveling to snowy northern Minnesota, was Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks—fierce, lyrical, deeply intelligent both linguistically and emotionally, and the most honest and complicated book about reproduction I’ve ever read. The ending both wrecked me and restored me. The last book I read this year—as in I am reading it right now here in snowy northern Arizona—is The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and it may be one of the most brain-tinglingly brilliant books I’ve ever read. Tsing takes the rare and undomesticable matsutake mushroom as an entry into the way life regenerates and reassembles in ruined spaces—it’s not just about mushrooms; it’s also about economies, scales, interspecies assemblages, human migration, and, well, as the subtitle says, “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.” I can feel this book reshaping my lens on the world even as I read.

3. Dept. of Collections
I read Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck in bed, sometimes way too late into the morning when I should have been up and working, and sometimes aloud at night to my companion as they fell asleep. Eisenberg is one of my all-time short-fiction heroes and Your Duck Is My Duck is, as usual, school for me. With each story, you’re just, like, submerged into a full-blown consciousness and set loose. Every time I read her I learn from her. Out of all the famous people in the world the only person I have ever felt legit starstruck by is Deborah Eisenberg. At an Iowa anniversary event, I couldn’t even bear to approach her, even while our mutual friend strolled over to chat.

I read Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir in a couple of quiet early summer afternoons on a friend’s pool house couch in Los Angeles; I was in a blue moment, and this wide-ranging collection took such good companionable care of me. Michelle writes like she talks—quick and insightful and candid, witty and vulnerable and curious and smart. (Describing her tweenaged hopeless love for Prince: “It was impossible. I didn’t cry. I just sort of exuded trapped melancholia into my environment, like a plant.”)

I read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut Heads of the Colored People all over the place: in galleys in Richmond, Virginia, in hardcover on a friend’s couch in Los Feliz, on audiobook as I wound through the red rock cliffs and cacti on Arizona’s Highway 17. The title story, “Belles Lettres,” and “Fatima, the Biloquist” are so smart, emotionally rich, and necessary they’re going straight to my syllabi.

4. Dept. of Nepotism But Also 100 Percent True Fandom
The book I literally read and listened to more than any other this year, from proofs to press, is Blanket by K Thompson. Even if K were not my life companion and dog co-parent, I would be in love with this beautiful, strange, brilliant mediation on blankets, interwoven with brief glimmering shards about the death of a beloved young brother. When a passage can move you to cry as much on the tenth read as on the first, you know you’ve hit gold.

Abbey Mei Otis knocked me out with her fiction in a workshop I taught years ago at Oberlin, and this summer Small Beer Press published her first collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster. I read it at the coffee shop in the morning when I was supposed to be writing and at home as the August afternoon monsoons rolled in. Taut, freaky, unsettling speculative fiction where actual aliens, viruses, love, and disaster abound. So do great sentences. This book feels like the future. All hail the new writer generation.

5. Dept. of Actual Scandal
Like many of us who are academia-adjacent, I was completely captivated and repulsed by the Avital Ronell scandal that broke this summer: a story of queer mentorship gone terribly awry, brazen power abuse misrepresented as special “queer coding” when it simply bears all the hallmarks of an unchecked personality disorder, and an evidence chain of weird, cringe-inducing, wildly inappropriate emails. I think I read just about everything there was to read about this, and the two pieces that stuck with me most were a predictably witty, scathing article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Andrea Long Chu (“Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx”) and an unexpectedly witty, scathing LARB post by (to my shock) old-school Marjorie Perloff (“Certainly I will make some new enemies, but that’s a chance this octogenarian is willing to take.”)

6. Dept. Of Local Treasures
This summer I moved into a ponderosa pine forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, and fell in love with the place the way you fall in love with a living thing. Flagstaff is a mountain town, a border town, the homelands of several native nations, a volcanic wonderland, a dark-sky city, and home to astonishing biological and geological diversity. Ever since, the book I have picked up more than any other this year—I read it on the couch, I read it in the car, I pull it out on the side of the hiking trail—is Geology Underfoot in Northern Arizona. This information-packed, funny, friendly book has me all hopped up on things like the difference between rhyolite and basalt, why the peaks outside my window are shaped as they are, infant volcanoes, and mining and hydrology crises. The Book of Hopi by Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks is a gorgeous gathering of origin stories, Hopi world views, and artwork, as told by 30 Hopi elders. Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, a book I recently picked up in a bead shop in town, describes the intricate, awe-inspiring astronomy and cosmology of the Navajo; in a place so dark and clear-skied that I can actually see the Milky Way overhead, I’m starting to learn my way around the constellations, and the stories here captivate me far more than the old Greek ones. Finally, two weeks ago I picked up Sherwin Bitsui’s brand-new book Dissolve, a collection of brief, sharp, glimmering pieces that accrue into a single long poem rooted deeply in place. “This plot, now a hotel garden / its fountain gushing forth— / the slashed wrists of the Colorado.”

In 2018 I’ve thought more than ever about the Colorado River. I lived half the year in Los Angeles, the heedless beneficiary of that river’s diversion, a place where people spend that water foolishly like an inheritance they never had to work for, and then I lived half the year here in northern Arizona, where the litigious control of that river has caused relentless ecological and cultural disaster for the people, animals, and plants indigenous to the place. Everything I read this year (both listed here and not) moved me, shaped me, and cracked open new understandings for me, but perhaps nothing has been more influential or important to me than reading books about the place where I now live. When the contemporary world is falling apart, it helps me to turn to geological time and to scientific and indigenous knowledge about the ground beneath my feet and the sky overhead. The more I learn, the more I love it, with awe, with desperation, and with the understanding of how my own settler presence is a threat—yet how in the ruins we can find new and remarkable growth and assemblages. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that the ground beneath your feet holds the stories of everything.

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Memoir as Addiction: On Michelle Tea’s ‘Against Memoir’

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.
There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

As she describes in bits and pieces throughout this book, Tea started her literary career in the ’90s, sitting in San Francisco dive bars, drinking and writing about her love life, then reading the contents of her notebook out loud at open mics around the city. After leaving her hometown of Chelsea, Mass., the gritty little city located across the Mystic River from Boston—and a place that still haunts everything she writes—she made her way to the Bay Area with her queerness, brokeness, and punkiness as her guides. She soon plugged into the city’s underground gay community, finding her first girlfriends and discovering herself as a writer at the same time.
Now a fixture in the San Francisco scene, she runs her own reading series, a nonprofit called RADAR that she founded to promote queer artists with affordable literary programming. (Disclosure: This reviewer once read at a RADAR event and had a lot of fun doing it.) Those of us who love her today love her for her steady stream of fearless, vivid writing about sex and love, working-class family life, bad jobs, city life, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and looking/feeling/being socially unacceptable. Tough-minded and naturally funny, charming and tattooed, Tea became both popular and respected—a bona fide literary figure—simply by writing about herself.
So why is she now, after having made it such an important aspect of her writing life, against memoir? Well, she isn’t, exactly. But as she writes from her now-sober, more settled life, she recognizes it for the dangerous occupation that it is—a betrayal of friendships and confidences, the desire for revenge always slipping around under the surface like a shark. To illustrate this, Tea recounts in Against Memoir’s title essay the time she performed an old story about “the bitch who stole [her] girlfriend” to a packed bar, only to discover that the woman who’d done the stealing years earlier was in the audience—and not for the first time. The other time Tea performed this piece in front of her, the woman went outside and kicked a bus shelter in anger and broke her foot. In the same essay, Tea compares the drive to write memoir to alcoholism—an addiction she has kicked, though she vows never to give up her memoir habit. She also refers to her profession interchangeably as “writing” and the compulsive behavioral condition “hypergraphia,” and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s kidding.

Though this book shows how Tea’s work has developed from straightforward memoir to a more nuanced form of self-reflexive cultural critique, memoir makes up about a third of it. The section “Writing & Life” is composed of the kind of stories she’s best known for: outrageous yarns about things like the Sister Spit reading tours she ran in the ’90s and the lousy part-time jobs she worked one summer as a teenager. But interestingly, her writing about art—the ostensibly critical pieces—are among the strongest in the book. When she writes about Eileen Myles’s lesbian classic, Chelsea Girls, or about Andy Warhol’s would-be killer Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto with tenderness and understanding, the electricity almost leaps off the page. “The City to a Young Girl,” a complex and affecting piece about the Trump presidency, a poem written by a teenage girl, and Tea’s own girlhood, is probably the apotheosis of Tea’s development as a nonfiction writer.
Of course, writing about other people and their ideas can be a powerful way of writing about yourself. With the long-form essay “HAGS in Your Face,” Tea gives us good old-fashioned journalism, reporting on the gang of hard-living gutter-punk women who called themselves the HAGS and were notorious to San Francisco’s larger gay community during the ’90s. Tea interviews several of the HAGS who fascinated her back then, and they tell her how they traveled in packs, scooping each other up from the “black hole” of “addiction, homophobia, family abandonment, gender discrimination, all of it.” With her portrait of the HAGS, she shows us how being forced to the fringes of society can damage people irreparably just as it can forge them into something beautiful and brand-new.


When Tea seems less sure of herself, she can lean too heavily on a tossed-off charm to gloss over her discomfort, like when she worries aloud that her “hetero sisters are not getting the most out of their vaginas.” But on the whole, this book, like all of her best writing, bristles with life and a fierce intellect. Her voice is as distinct as ever, and her ability to conjure something—an album cover, the feeling of a hangover—in just a few phrases, like Zorro (zip, zip, zip!) is still wonderfully intact.
The most delightful discovery—to me, anyway—is a version of a short, bright piece called “Pigeon Manifesto” that I have only ever seen in print as a Poems-for-All book the size and shape of a matchbook, put out in 2004 (the book credits it as a performance Tea gave in San Francisco that same year). Writing about herself and her fellow misfits as much as the maligned city birds, Tea says: “When you say to me, ‘I hate pigeons,’ I want to ask you who else do you hate. It makes me suspicious. …Pigeons…are chameleons, grey as the concrete they troll for scraps, at night they huddle and sing like cats. Their necks are glistening, iridescent as an oil-slick rainbow, they mate for life, and they fly.”

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