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Coming of Age — and Becoming a Writer — in an America Obsessed With ‘Dead Girls’

Michelle Tea’s collection “Against Memoir” is more eclectic and wide-ranging, but it riffs on many of the same themes in swift, immediate prose. She, too, reconstructs her artistic and feminist coming of age through her cultural influences, revisiting scenes from a more turbulent youth. If Bolin’s book is a lyrical meditation, Tea’s is a good-natured slap. The book opens with a piece on Valerie Solanas, the infamous Andy Warhol shooter and author of the outlandish SCUM Manifesto, which Tea understood when she first encountered it “to be totally for real and totally not,” in telling a truth “so absurd it’s painful”: that we live in a world where “men got to do anything to women and women got to walk around scared and traumatized and angry.”

A palpable pain animates many of these essays, as well as a raucous joy and bright curiosity. Having discovered that the stepfather she thought of as her dad had drilled holes in the walls of their house to spy on her and her sister, Tea writes, “He would have to deal with the shame of being caught, but he kept the house, the daughters had to flee. He kept the wife the daughters would never again be able to trust as a mother. He came into the family like an invasive parasite, killed it, and inhabited its dead body.” It’s a memorable image, and an emblematic one: Tea’s essays tend to center on transformation, on one thing turning into another, even as they are stories of escape and resilience.

Like Bolin, Tea also runs away from a nowhere town (“scabby old Chelsea, Massachusetts”) to the city (first Tucson, then San Francisco), where she, too, discovers Myles’s “Chelsea Girls.” “For me, at 23, girls were the mystery, and drinking (being drunk) and writing was the mystery. Eileen Myles was deep in it, solving it, reporting from the inside.” What strikes her about Myles’s book is the experience of being buried alive in a culture — under the rubble of others’ stories: “to have so much to say yet forced to claw out a place to say it with your own ragged, dirty fingernails.”

Her wild youth is now long enough ago that the period is shrouded for her in myth. An essay about the HAGS, young punk lesbians, many of them junkies, who lived and died (in scary numbers, from contaminated heroin) in San Francisco’s Mission District back when the city was punk and queer and cheap and dangerous, and made space for “wild ruffians” and “gorgeous monsters,” is especially haunting. But she’s equally memorable on what it’s like to be a young woman in the city, confronted daily with indecent exposure, or as they were called in the 1970s, “flashers”; on pigeons as despised urban fauna; and on longing and heartbreak.

In both “Dead Girls” and “Against Memoir,” the lure of autobiographical writing is also a longing to capture our experience of time, to trap us in a moment that is always passing. “You will never be in this precise state ever again,” Tea writes. “Its marks lie all over the version of your story you are telling today.”

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