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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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.