Author and editor Michelle Tea and the 'Sister Spit: The Next Generation' author troupe have hit the road once more and will be visiting Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, on Fri., Oct. 26. Climbing into the tour van and making the cross-country journey this time around are Meliza Banales, Texta Queen, Dexter Flowers, Chelsea Starr, Tara Jepsen and Kat Marie Yoas, a group of talented writers and fashionistas included in Tea's latest anthology, It's So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style. Windy City Times caught up with Tea while she was en route to L.A. and getting her eyebrows waxed.
Windy City Times: How did the It's So You anthology come about?
Michelle Tea: I was invited to do this book by Seal Press, but it was really an exciting invitation because I had long thought that using the subject of fashion as a springboard to get women to talk about their lives and the intricacies, difficulties and hilarities would be a really interesting anthology. … I wasn't really ready to do an anthology yet, so I wasn't going to pitch it to them. So then when it came to me, I was like 'Oh, I better do this or else they're going to ask someone else and I really want to do it.'
WCT: Can you talk about some of the writers chosen and the variety of angles taken on the topic of fashion?
MT: People came to the topic from really different places. People wrote who love fashion, are invested in fashion and are unabashed in their love for fashion. Then there are people who, when I asked them to write for the book, kind of laughed at me and were like, 'I hate fashion,' or 'I don't know how to dress myself,' or 'What do I have to say about fashion?' The stories are also really interesting because the thing about fashion is it's the only art form that everybody uses every single day. Somebody just said that to me—it's completely true—it's like everybody, if you wear clothes, then you have a relationship to fashion ... so it's like, 'Well, why do you think you hate fashion? Why do you wear the clothes that you wear? Why do you not wear the clothes that you don't wear, and what do you think that says about you?' It's super-interesting. Ali Liebegott is writing about the fantasy of fashion via talking about looking for the perfect pair of slippers that are the kind that a cartoon bear would wear. … We have pieces by people who are in the fashion industry, like Jenny Shimizu, who wrote about what it was like for her to start learning about fashion. ... It's all kinds of stuff.
WCT: What about you? What's been your relationship to fashion? How important has it been in your own life?
MT: It's really important. My introduction is horrifyingly, like, three times as long as any of the pieces in the book. ... I feel like I've always been someone who doesn't know how to dress appropriately for anything, and that kind of became clear when I was really young and going to Catholic school. So I wrote about that a little bit.
Then I wrote about getting this insane feminist consciousness—almost violently—that really impacted, for a period, how I wanted to dress myself. Oh, but before that, I was a death-rock teenager in Boston and I would get fucked with all the time. ... My fashion was contested on a daily basis. It made my home life difficult, my life outside difficult, my school life difficult, because I wasn't allowed to take classes I wanted to take because the teachers didn't like how I looked. … I kind of made the connection between anybody who was visibly different in the world and how the culture punishes them, and how it can be really scary and violent. Then, later, I ended up kind of neutering my fashion because I didn't want to look visibly female, because I was having such a hard time with men and male abuse and sexism and objectification. So, I had really horrible fashion for a while. I kind of neutered myself and was just wearing, like, baggy overalls, and then I kind of got over that [ and ] moved to San Francisco—where everyone was having a lot of fun with fashion and being really playful and kind of reclaiming everything.
I talked about money a lot in it, too, and class, and how money plays into it. So, yeah, mine's really long.
WCT: What do you think about the current situation with fashion and body image that's sort of playing out right now, with people defending skinny models and then others who have had weight issues talking about how they've been negatively influenced by these images?
MT: It seems like the focus on female bodies is bigger than ever. I mean every single tabloid you see is always like, 'Is she too skinny?'; there's this obsession with whether Nicole Richie has anorexia and, then, at the same time, there is this obsession with people being out of shape or people being fat. It's crazy. I just feel like the whole thing is really fucked up, that there is so much attention, like women's bodies are so policed. ... I think all the discourse about skinny models is great. I think it's awesome that it's gotten people talking that there is this problem of enforced unhealthy skinniness.
WCT: So, you're touring with Sister Spit right now, and are making a stop at Women and Children First on Oct. 26. What makes you keep coming back to Chicago?
MT: Chicago has such a huge, amazing and vibrant queer community and queer arts community, so our shows are always completely fun there. Last time, our Chicago show happened at the last minute and the amount of people who were able to come out and support us and enjoy the show at the last minute was so incredible. It made me feel really impressed by the amount of awesome queers in Chicago and how organized and connected everybody must be to be able to create a turn out like that at sort of the last minute. And Chicago is such a great town. There's so much going on. I'm Polish and you've got the [ Polish Museum of America ] , so I like that personally—not that I've ever been to the museum.
WCT: Women and Children First is such a great bookstore and I was wondering why you personally like stopping there when touring?
MT: I tour the country quite often … and I'm often in touch with bookstores and we are losing a lot of our feminist bookstores, which is a drag, because they're not just bookstores—they're cultural centers and places for people to find out what's going on and to meet each other and sort of hook up and make things happen, so I love Women and Children First. I was so happy to go there last time. … I think they're important to the publishing world, that they exist. It's important for writers, it's important for people who believe in independent voices and performance and writing to support a place like Women and Children First.
WCT: What about the current environment for writers compared to when you were starting out? How do you think things have changed and the avenues available for people to get their voices out there?
MT: I was just doing my performances in bars and coffee shops and I wasn't imagining that I would ever get published. The publishing world was a bit beyond my reach, and what's really different when I think about that, in San Francisco, where I'm from, we've lost a lot of the venues that we used to have to do performance and a lot of that is due to the way the cities changed due to gentrification … and also, in the '90s, for whatever reason, it was really cool to be a writer and especially in the queer girl scene. ... If you were going out for the night, you were probably going to go to a literary event, and that's where people would dress up and go and try to pick up girls and get drunk.
I wonder if there are girls out there that have these amazing untapped voices that aren't necessarily giving it a try because it's not necessarily the coolest thing to do right now. Our mission has always been to make writing as cool as disco or hip-hop or punk or whatever the prevailing kind of culture is, like be the literary arm of that.
WCT: What else should people know about the tour or the anthology?
MT: I think it's really important for people to know that if they come to the Sister Spit show they are going to get the opportunity to be exposed to writers and artists that they probably haven't yet been and might not get exposed to for quite some time. They're going to get the sneak preview of who the hot new writers are going to be.