by Kirk Read
I am generally not given to writing book reviews. The queer writing community is so small that when you write something remotely critical about a new book, its author puts you on a permanent shitlist and burns black candles on your behalf. This brand of vengeance is something, as I writer, that I totally understand. Plus, it's weird to write about other writers because it's such a small scene that you're always, as we say in San Francisco, "two fucks away." In other words, my exes know your exes. But two books just came out that I can't shut up about. They're by girls, so it's safe to say that my exes aren't doing their exes. They're two of the most important and entertaining books I've seen in ages. "Valencia" (Seal Press) by Michelle Tea and "post-Dykes to Watch Out For" (Firebrand Books) by Alison Bechdel remind us how complex and shifting our culture has become.
After tearing through the latest adventures of Mo and her posse, I immediately wrote Alison Bechdel a gushing fan letter. I've been a fan for years, but this one is my favorite. Thanks in part to the transgender movement, the tidy binary categories of girl/boy, fag/dyke, and liberal/conservative have been destroyed. Bechdel is the queen bee of a growing cadre of writers who acknowledge and celebrate this complexity. Her readers are richly rewarded. We get to laugh as we watch Lois fall for her FTM mechanic, who wasn't interested prior to the transition. We get to watch Mo and Sydney work their way through a complicated cyber-romance that may or may not violate their monogamy rule. We get to watch Clarice and Toni go into marriage counseling. This is vintage Ailson Wonderland, because the strip gets curiouser and curiouser. Here Bechdel is at her arch and sassy best, turning the dyke soap opera on its multiply pierced ear. Everyone, no matter what's between their legs, should devour this book. Sadly, it's a swan song effort for Nancy Bereano, who's closing shop at Firebrand Books after 16 years. Her press has been a vital and important outlet for a diverse spectrum of feminist and lesbian titles. Her brave and noble energies will be sorely missed.
Miss Michelle Tea has been a very bad girl. She smokes bummed cigarettes, drinks 40 oz. beers from bags, and trades in girlfriends like five day Blockbuster rentals. She's the brash, speedy gadfly who crashes your party, empties your fridge and slurps up every molecule of attention. You love her madly for it. Her first book, "The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America" [Semiotext(e)] gave us fragmented glimpses of her crazy-ass life, but "Valencia," offers a much more cohesive, nuanced portrait of San Francisco's young dyke scene. It's as if a very maternal dominatrix strapped her down, dosed her with Ritalin, and said "Now, Michelle, you're going to focus on one year in San Francisco, young lady, and you're going to LIKE it." Co-founder of the traveling girl-poetry circus Sister Spit, Michelle Tea casts an enchanting presence. She writes about Mission District dyke life with the authority of a village scribe. She makes offhand references to Hole albums and Bikini Kill songs, which makes the book a cultural feast for young queers who are starving for representations of their real lives. Between girlfriends and tattoos, Michelle takes us from party to party, job to job, and bar to bar. She honestly describes her experiences as a sex worker, as a temp job grunt, and as a rock star of her own dykish design. From start to finish, Tea fascinates. She is part crack-addled street corner prophet: grating, speedy, disturbing, vital. "Valencia" gives me hope that young queers aren't going to settle for being dot.com zombies.
The moral of this story, kids, is that boys and girls need to read each other's books. We have much to say to each other. Right now, I'm finding that female and transgender writers are holding my interest more than guy writers. These are scary times for LGBT books. If we're going to keep our bookstores open and our presses in existence, we have to reach beyond gender and truly hear each other. For adventurous boys, Michelle Tea and Alison Bechdel will be fantastic tour guides. They deserve to be bedtime reading for boys, girls, and trannykids everywhere.
Kirk Read lives in San Francisco and can be reached at www.temenos.net/kirkread and KirkRead@aol.com
[The book images above are not linked to amazon.com or any other online bookstore, because Kirk would kick my ass. -- Ed.]