Tag Archives: Michelle Tea

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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Settling in, or How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Mission District

I moved into my new apartment on August 1, and I’ve been pretty busy since then—unpacking, setting up accounts, exploring my new neighborhood, and just generally getting settled. I’m finding that the reverse culture shock of returning from Japan after two years is a lot stronger than it was when I came home for a visit after my first year—nothing insurmountable, but certainly a strange thing to feel when returning to the city I’ve missed for so long. My new place is right between the Mission and Bernal Heights, and on Thursday I walked up Mission to 18th and then came back down Valencia, passing by 826 Valencia and making a quick stop to browse at Dog Eared Books. It was too hot for the jeans and light jacket I was wearing, and I felt weird seeing the contrast between hipsters eating lunch on the patio at Rosamunde Sausage Grill and the long blocks of dingy discount stores. I was intimidated by the hip, well-stocked bookstore after two years of Toda Books, Amazon, and the JET midyear seminar book swap, and my feet hurt by the time I got home. To be honest, by the end of the day I was mentally composing a confessional blog entry about feeling wrong-footed in my own city. I thought longingly first of the foggy Sunset and Richmond districts on the other side of the hill, then of driving my mini-SUV through the snow-covered Niigata rice fields. I always felt like a self-sufficient badass doing that, even though the commute was a pain, and now I felt like a little country mouse trying to figure out Clipper cards (which didn’t exist when I left the city two and a half years ago).

So what changed? Well, on the way home from an internship interview this morning (which went well, by the way), I accidentally stumbled across the Mission branch library.

The Mission branch library

The reading room at the Mission Branch. Sorry for the crappy cell phone photo!

I popped in to renew my library card, and then went upstairs to the stacks. Suddenly being a country mouse was an advantage—I got to experience the awe of entering a real, healthy library as if for the first time. I also felt at home instantly. It’s dorky and cliche, but true—libraries are a tonic to book nerd types, a way to feel safe and reassured in the face of almost any trouble. I never met an SFPL branch I didn’t like (not so for LAPL, although their main branch is lovely), but the Mission branch is particularly nice.

Bulletin board at the Mission Branch library

The events bulletin board.

Just as exciting was the bulletin board, which was filled with colorful flyers and announcements for all kinds of events. I’ve been digging through the library events pages quite a bit lately (research!), but there were still quite a few that I hadn’t heard about—for example the Mission branch book club (the current selection is Tales of the City), or a workshop on Pinterest at the Bernal Heights branch.

I didn’t stay long—just enough to pick up two books.

"Valencia" and "The Waters & The Wild"


I’ve wanted to read Valencia for a while now, for so many reasons. Author Michelle Tea is one of the main movers and shakers of the San Francisco literary scene, and the book has a fantastic title and sounds so wild and punk rock and fun and will, I imagine, give me even more reasons to love my new neighborhood. As for the Francesca Lia Block, what can I say. I haven’t liked what she’s put out for at least the past six years, but old habits die hard. (I was actually looking for Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat, which I long and dread to read in equal measure—what if it’s awful?!—but this will do.)

Anyway, even though I drove down Park Presidio in the fog yesterday and felt the little pangs that you feel only when you truly come home, I’m back to loving my new neighborhood and the heady high I get from sitting in my wonderful bedroom looking out the window at Sutro Tower and the houses winding up and down the hills. I’ll explore Bernal Heights and try all the taquerias and read Valencia. I will even smile and pretend to agree when people cite the warm and sunny weather as a positive (although seriously folks, it’s called Fog City for a reason). And as I jokingly-but-not-really told people in Japan, after moving to the other side of the world and back, living on the other side of the hill is the next great adventure.

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I’m alive

But I’ve been very, very busy. I’m currently in limbo at my mom’s house in Folsom, getting ready to move into my new apartment on Wednesday—more on that later. The move from Japan to the States, needless to mention, was hellish and stressful and full of mixed-up emotions and bureaucratic loose ends, but it’s almost (almost!) done, and then I can start getting to know my city again.

As a peace offering, here are some links I’ve collected during the past few weeks. Most of them are a bit out of date by now, but they’re definitely worth a look.

First up, two new offerings from Litquake: They’ve recently launched the LitCast podcast and released a summer reading list populated with new Bay Area fiction.

7×7 has a nice article about City Lights Books, in which founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti looks back on the bookstore’s beginnings and its evolution through the last half-century. It’s the first in a series called “The Most Creative Spaces in San Francisco History,” which also covers the Fillmore, the Castro Theatre, Stern Grove, and more.

The SF Agenda has an Insider Tips Q&A with Valencia author Michelle Tea about her restaurant , shopping, and sightseeing recs. Read all the way to the end for info on the Columbarium, the only non-denominational burial place still in use in San Francisco, and to hear her tell it, one of the city’s hidden gems.

The Millions‘s #LitBeat takes a look at a recent event at the Mission’s Makeout Room. It gives a pretty good feel for San Francisco’s literary scene and the kind of events that form its backbone. It’s also timely for me—the article’s author has also just arrived back in SF after several years away.

And finally, Alejandro Murguía has been named San Francisco’s new Poet Laureate (SFGate, Mission Loc@l). From the SFGate article: “If Murguía has his way, the Board of Supervisors might follow up roll call with a haiku at its next weekly meeting.” He has a lot of really interesting ideas—check out the articles to read more. Murguía had several readings and appearances at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival, which ended yesterday.

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