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Goddess of the underworld: Michelle Tea's Black Wave

Sarah Ditum enjoys Michelle Tea’s latest anarchic autofiction, Black Wave.

Michelle Tea’s memoir Valencia, published in 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Reading Black Wave, you can understand the confusion: Tea’s work sits on a raw fault line between the real and the made-up. This new novel is about a San Franciscan lesbian (like Tea) who is an incomer from Chelsea, Massachusetts (like Tea). Called Michelle (like Tea), she is a writer of autobiographical volumes who worries about the ethics of autobiography (like Tea) and works dead-end jobs between getting laid and getting high in the scuzzy Mission District (like Tea).

In her introduction to the reprint of Valencia, Tea called that book “a bug trapped in emotional amber”. Is Black Wave just gummed up in the same moment? No, it isn’t. For one thing, that time and place are due for revisiting. San Francisco in the late 1990s was once a backdrop to Tea’s personal life. Now, it’s a synecdoche for the economic, social and cultural transformation of most of the world. The future hangs over Black Wave like exactly that – a black wave.

Michelle the character knows that her world of dive bars and dyke poetry is being wiped away by the yuppie storm of the dotcom boom, and she knows that the group of incomers she belongs to has pushed out the Mexican families that previously occupied the Mission. “Why did she think her world wasn’t supposed to change?” she asks herself. Michelle’s world is on the way out, and Tea records it with a degree of satirical detail that bespeaks true, attentive affection.

She captures grotty rentals and grungy clothes; there’s a magnificent page-and-a-half encomium on the things that Michelle’s butch friend Ziggy likes to hang from her hips, a rolling litany of metal belts and wallet chains and sometimes “a heavy dildo curled in her underwear”. It’s not a lesbian world as such, though Michelle’s clique consists exclusively of women who have sex with women. Michelle’s mothers back home are lesbians and have a life of monogamy and regular jobs that she views with baffled condescension.

Michelle is queer, a member of a relentlessly subversive subculture that governs its perversion with perversely rigid rules. In the early pages, she is excluded from a make-out session between her butch friends and a male ex-con because she “wasn’t butch enough to mess around with men. It would be simply heterosexual, and slutty.” The more seriously a group takes itself, the more fertile the social comedy, and the first section of Black Wave gets great, abrasive laughs from the meeting between Michelle’s politics and her more practical self-interest. For example:

 

Michelle understood that to truly support a prostitute meant wishing her a successful business, which translated into streets teeming with inebriated men propositioning anyone who looked slutty from their car windows. She tried to have a good attitude about it.

 

Later, an attempt to sublimate jealousy into performative sexuality goes disastrously wrong at a party and culminates in Michelle shouting at her lover: “I Just Felt Like You Like Her So Much Why Don’t You Just Eat Rice From Her Ass Then?” (All of Michelle’s dialogue is rendered like that; everyone else speaks in italics, with a fittingly zine-ish effect.)

Beneath the laughs is something more menacing. Michelle’s substance abuse, which she sells to herself as a feminist landgrab for the Beats’ macho excess, is escalating into dependency. Her behaviour, which has all the charm and thoughtfulness of a typical addict, is alienating her friends. And the world is dying: it’s mentioned in the most offhand way, but 1999 in Black Wave is a time of mass extinctions, poisoned oceans and scorched farmland that Michelle must cross to reach Los Angeles, where she plans to make a fresh start.

Here, Black Wave’s undercurrents erupt at the centre like geysers. There are shades of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’s autobiographical novel of addiction and lesbian obsession in 1930s Paris. Barnes took her characters down to hell where Tea brings a hypnotic end of days to hers, but they share an unsparing eye for the demi-monde to which they belong. In LA, Michelle tries to turn her San Fran experiences into prose and finds she is unable to “universalise” herself: “She had tried to write herself straight, but she was so low-rent. She tried to write herself male, but then there was her pussy and her PMS . . .” Out of a messy, scabrous delve into the personal, Tea has created something uncomfortably funny and bleakly gorgeous.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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