It’s not just the ambiguous sexuality of the protagonist or the casual androgyny of the potential love interest; it’s the heart of the thing, the tilted lens of Michelle Tea’s Mermaid in Chelsea Creek that makes it the queerest young adult book I’ve ever read. It’s also no surprise that the 42-year-old Tea populated her foray into the genre with head-nods to outsider fantasy, Here, pigeons aren’t marginalized — they’re bearers of wisdom; and mermaids are surly and complex, not preening or diabolical.
Tea has been on the leading edge of what makes queers queer for over a decade. Valencia, her 2000 punk-rock memoir detailing dyke life in ’90s San Francisco, established her as a cult hero — a status reinforced by each subsequent book, including Rent Girl, a graphic novel about Tea’s experience with sex work.
Mermaid, the first of a YA trilogy, centers on Sophie, who, like Tea, is a working-class teenager from Chelsea, Massachusetts. Sophie is full of grit and magic — but not the kind we’re used to seeing in YA fantasy. It’s a queer version of the real world, full of overworked, tough-talking women with hearts of gold, a frustrated mermaid on a mission, and a scrappy girl just as misunderstood as the pigeons she needs to guide her.
Tea recently signed a deal with Penguin for a new book tentatively titled How to Grow Up.
I loved Mermaid, and I especially loved that Sophie’s magic power is basically being a compassionate person. What a gift to give a young reader that message.
Michelle Tea: You get so hormonally sensitive at that age — so oversensitive — and you feel crazy. I like that idea of that being something that was actually a gift or superpower that could be so amazingly helpful to the world.
The whole book gives magical powers to things that aren’t perceived as magical, like pigeons.
MT: I like that, and I like making the things that are magic a little pedestrian. I’m working on the second book right now, and the mermaid really rebels against the idea that she’s magic. She’s just another creature on the planet that humans haven’t really discovered yet, so she’s seen as magic but she’s like, “I’m no more magic than a dolphin.”
That’s so queer! Youth in general are really queer, which I realized when I was reading Mermaid: They feel things too deeply, they don’t play by the rules. Are you making the series consciously queer?
MT: I didn’t really believe in my ability to write a mainstream adult book because I don’t feel like I understand mainstream adult life, but I did feel like I understood young adulthood, which is — there’s something so perfect about what you said — there’s something so queer and weird and awkward and outsider-y about it. I definitely was not striving to make it queer or offbeat, but that’s just what happens when you’re queer and offbeat.
Something that’s always been held against queer artists is that somehow we’re not universal; somehow our experiences are so filled with specifics that nobody else can relate to them. That’s something that’s always hurled against people who are marginalized — that our voices aren’t suburban and middle-class enough. I love the idea that my idea could be a queer book without being overtly queer.
My life is what it is — I’m a queer person, I’m in a queer relationship, I’m in a queer community. I don’t have a particular agenda about it anymore. I’m really comfortable doing things like writing this young adult series that isn’t really queer, and also working on this blog [for XOJane] about trying to get pregnant with my girlfriend, and which is completely queer.
The XOJane column seems to prove that you can have queer content and an audience that isn’t necessarily queer.
MT: XOJane’s understanding of female experience is pretty broad and awesome and messy. It’s about the real, gritty reality of being female. I feel like when you’re open to that, you’re open to queers, because part of the banishment of queers from mainstream life is that we’re gender failures.
It’s making me think of How to Grow Up. How do you translate queerness into adulthood?
MT: Part of the struggle that I’ve had claiming some sort of adulthood has to do with the fact of being queer, because you are outside society in this way. Being outside society is so great because you get to blow off a lot of trappings of adulthood that are dumb, but it’s kind of cool to achieve adulthood. At one point in my life, I was like, “It’s so great to be queer, you get to be a kid forever!” And at some point I was like, “Oh, god, am I just going to be a kid forever?!”
It’s not just about how I had a hard time achieving an idea of myself as an adult because I’m queer. There are class things that play into that also, and education things, and being a critic of the mainstream culture and adulthood and at the same time wanting to participate, wanting to be part of the world you’ve inherited. A lot of people just don’t feel grown up, and it doesn’t matter if they’ve had some financial privilege, or they’re white, or they’re straight — the world is a really weird and complicated place to navigate.
I think it’s really cool that we’re coming into a time that a queer experience can be seen as a universal experience. When I was queer in my twenties, it was such a ’70s, punk-rock, no-future sort of experience. Nobody knew what kind of life they were going to have, and so you lived for the moment really hard. In the ’90s, the casualties of AIDS — especially in San Francisco — were still so recent that there were a lot of people who truly didn’t feel like they had a future.
I don’t regret it, but it is interesting to imagine what it looks like to grow up queer and know you have an awesome future ahead of you, and maybe it’s even more awesome because you’re queer.