SF Reads: Valencia

Cover of Michelle Tea's "Valencia"

I have a confession to make: I was really prepared not to like Valencia. It’s not that I didn’t want to like it—it’s hip, sexy, artistic; it’s about a girl my age living in my district; it has a wonderful title that rolls off the tongue; what’s not to like? Plus, it’s a huge deal in San Francisco. But I’ve been burned before by books that describe themselves in the language that surrounds Valencia (punk-rock, stream-of-consciousness, edgy, rebellious). I’ve read many terrible, terrible novels that are just thinly-veiled accounts of the author’s own experimentation with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and after a while they all start to seem like the same novel, pretentious and repetitive and far too serious in their attempts to find something deeply philosophical about street drugs and sex in dirty bathrooms.

Let me tell you right now: this is not that novel. The content is the same—late nights, cheap alcohol, wanton sexual encounters—but Tea has two things going for her that differentiate her memoir from something like Candy (ugh). The first is a self-deprecating sense of humor. Throughout the book she pokes gentle fun at her and her friends’ political consciousness; during a sexual encounter with a knife-wielding lesbian, she muses, “I was really into processing the knife. Like, was I encouraging violence against women, was I ‘part of the problem,’ was she going to get frenzied and just stick the thing into my ribs?” She never takes herself too seriously, and thus avoids one of the major pitfalls of this kind of writing; quite the opposite, she’s frequently funny and refreshingly artless in the way she perceives the fast-paced, gritty world around her. The second thing working in her favor is simple, but oh-so-important: talent. Tea is not some hack relying on shock value to carry her work; despite her free and casual writing style, you can open the book to any page and find deft metaphors and skillful turns of phrase, not showy, just clear and illuminative.

I focus on what Valencia is not rather than what it is only because, by the book jacket description, it would be so easy to confuse it with all of the other easy-to-dismiss books about youth culture, and that would be a real shame. But it’s also a shame to frame such an original and vital piece of work as “not terrible like all those other books, no, really, I swear!”, so let me tell you what Valencia is. It’s Weetzie Bat meets On the Road; punk sensibilities and girl energy and sparkling, pretty details mixed with a joyful, manic hedonism. It may very well be, like Weetzie Bat or On the Road, one of those things you have to read at a certain developmental stage to enjoy—luckily, I’m just 25 and badly in need of some vicarious wild times. I thought I was totally over fast times and youthful memoirs, but it inspired in me a fangirl literary love that I didn’t know I still had it in me to feel. It’s San Francisco and the Mission District, totally, completely, down to the smallest detail; everything Tea writes in the early chapters about coming to the city for the first time resonates with me, although my experiences were much more tame. It’s often outrageous, and sometimes hilarious—among the many scenes that stick with me are the illicit “zine parties” Tea holds under cover of night at the anarchist labor union office where she used to work, and a great scene towards the end that has Tea and some friends participating in an artsy porno shoot: “Bernadette wanted us to do something with the tripod, which was difficult. All we could think of was to rub our crotches on its legs like a pack of humpy dogs, and that was not sexy. Plus, it was very lightweight and kept falling over.” It’s all this and many other things, so all I can say is read it—you won’t be disappointed.

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2 thoughts on “SF Reads: Valencia

  1. letizia says:

    What a great review – when I first saw the cover, I admit I prejudged it and thought, hmm probably not for me, but your review changed all that. And the quotation had me laughing. I think I’ll be buying this book!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Haha, that’s awesome to hear! I actually saw a much classier cover at the library the other day, but I like to use the cover of the edition I have in the blog post. And this one kinda does represent the book, for better or for worse. Anyway I hope you like it!

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