NEW YORK — Michelle Tea has been a horoscope writer, an activist and a sex worker. She never graduated from college, but she has written a novel, a poetry collection and four memoirs — one of which, "Valencia," is being made into an independent film by 21 filmmakers. As co-founder of the literary performance group Sister Spit, she's led troupes of performance poets and artists across the United States and Europe.
On a Sunday afternoon at a Polish restaurant in lower Manhattan, over a plate of pierogis and vegetarian borscht, she describes what might be her most unlikely project yet: a trilogy of young adult novels about a "radical Polish mermaid," the first of which, "Mermaid in Chelsea Creek" (McSweeney's McMullens, $19.95), will be published this month.
"I was kind of burned out on writing memoir," Tea says. "I wanted to write something really different." A friend persuaded her to read "His Dark Materials," Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy for young adults, and she was hooked. "I thought, how liberating to not have to try to find a way to tell the truth but just go totally bonkers and use your imagination."
"Mermaid" is Tea's first novel written in the third person, and her first book to involve magic and fantasy. It is set in a place familiar to readers of Tea's memoirs, her childhood home of Chelsea, Mass., a place she describes in her novel as "far from the New England of sailboats and lobsters" and full of "flocks of dirty pigeons and dented old cars; fish sticks with freezer burn and fast-food drive throughs; scuffed, neglected parks, trash-strewn train tracks and a putrid creek."
Like Sophie Swankowksi, the 13-year-old heroine of "Mermaid," Tea (born Michelle Tomasik) is of Polish descent. Tea says she researched Polish mythology to create Syrena, the mermaid "graceful in her design but ragged in her condition," with a "great muscular tail" and "the scabby flank of a sick fish for sale in a mall pet store," whom Sophie discovers living in Chelsea Creek.
Despite her status as a feminist and queer literary icon, Tea says she had a hard time finding a place to publish "Mermaid." "For young adult books," she notes, "it's not like there are these small, experimental presses."
As it turns out, she found a small, experimental young adult press just down Valencia, the street in San Francisco's Mission District that served as the title for Tea's best-known memoir, "Valencia," and 826 Valencia, the tutoring center and headquarters for McSweeney's publishing. Brian McMullen, an editor and art director at McSweeney's, had acquired several children's books for a new youth imprint and was looking to add young adult titles.
Andi Mudd, who became Tea's editor, had never edited a young adult novel, but Tea was one of her literary heroes.
"My first thought was that if I had gotten my hands on 'Mermaid' at 11, 12, 13, I would have never have put it down. It would have been my bible. It speaks to teens — alienation, extreme emotions, intense friendships, relationships with your mother, the suspicion you might be magical and no one has yet recognized your potential."
It's no accident, says Mudd, that so many novels for teens use magic as a metaphor. "When you are that age, you feel very dangerous, everything that happens to you is so intense. You feel if you could just tap into the ley lines, you could explode your whole town."
Tea has two more novels to go in the "Mermaid" trilogy and is working on another book she describes as a hybrid of memoir and sci-fi that takes as its premise the idea that the world ended in the 1990s. But while she finds new ways to tell stories, she insists that her core obsessions remain, even at age 42.
"I'm never not going to be interested in young girls who are struggling in poor places. I'm never not going to be obsessed with pigeons," she says of the birds that figure prominently in many of her stories and have graduated to speaking parts in the new novel. "It's about finding new ways to investigate your obsessions."
Tea's community has grown up with her. Sister Spit started as a ramshackle weekly open-mike night in a San Francisco bar in 1994, co-hosted by Tea and Sini Anderson, where writers — mostly poets, unpublished, feminist and queer — vied with acoustic musicians covering the likes of Ani DiFranco. At the time, Tea was also in a punk band and wondered: If bands could go on tour, why not poets?
In 1997, with the help of a manual bought by mail order from the back pages of a zine and a van with a overheating gas pedal (their solution was to stash a bucket of cold water and a rag next to the driver's seat), they organized the first Sister Spit Ramblin' Road Show. At the end of the first tour, after covering expenses, Tea proudly handed each performer their cut: $80 each.
Sister Spit, like Tea, has earned lit cred, cultural impact, and the ability to support itself through art. Tea now oversees a Sister Spit publishing imprint, in collaboration with City Lights Books. RADAR Productions, a nonprofit founded by Tea in 2003, supports literary arts programs including the Sister Spit tours and a monthly reading series at the San Francisco Public Library.
On this spring afternoon, Sister Spit is performing in the amphitheater of Manhattan's New Museum. The space couldn't be more different from a Mission District bar in 1994: There are clean, brightly lighted white walls, perfectly modulated acoustics, a special introduction from the museum's associate curator — and not an illicit substance in sight.
Sister Spit veterans swap grisly road stories from the early days involving surly Slovenian van drivers, bad drug trips and amorous hook-ups involving duct tape. Performer DavEnd, wearing an accordion and a scarf fashioned from a size 6 dress, offers novel advice on how to combat street harassment with song.
"This is so wholesome, all of us together like this for a Sunday matinee," Tea says, taking the stage dressed in a brown floral print dress that could be equally at home in the 1940s or the 1990s revival of that decade. "It's like we are in church or something." And in fact, Tea and company have created an institution of sorts: a roaming international community with enough faith, cash and cultural clout to support its original artists into another decade and bring in the next generation of poets and rabble-rousers.
Benfer is a writer in New York.