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‘Black Wave’: A More Ethical Kind of Memoir

In her latest, a blend of autobiography and fiction, longtime memoirist Michelle Tea sends off the traditional hedonism of the personal-writing genre.

By Marcie Bianco


In Black Wave, memoirist Michelle Tea uses fiction to protect her real-life subjects. (Photo: Amethyst Editions)

“Don’t ever fucking write about me!” an ex-girlfriend of author and poet Michelle Tea once screamed at her during a break-up. For Tea, who is known for bracingly candid, tell-all memoirs about her life as a bisexual artist, these words catalyzed her to write about the relationship, rather than dissuaded her from it. But in Black Wave, Tea’s new book and her first work of “autofiction,” or a blend of fiction and autobiography, the scene gets a conscientious twist: The speaker is a character, while the real person who served as inspiration remains anonymous.

Autofiction is an unusual choice for Tea, a queer cultural icon whose work is often labeled “confessional.” Indeed, Tea’s work, especially her early memoirs, tells candid stories of her past affairs, drug trips, and questionably legal behavior. Her debut novel, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, depicted Tea’s coming out as a bisexual woman in a buttoned-up Massachusetts household and ensuing stint as a lesbian prostitute; its follow-up, Valencia, profiled various characters in San Francisco’s Mission-District lesbian scene. For her proclivity to write personally and frankly, she has frequently been compared to the Beat poets: “I want to call her the Voice of a Generation, the New Jack Kerouac,” Elizabeth Bachner wrote ofPassionate Mistakes in Bookslut in 2007.

In Black Wave, however, Tea toys with her readers’ expectations. Black Wave is less a memoir than what Tea calls a “wild beast,” a hybrid of real and unreal: The author writes about herself in the third person, fashions a new family for her semi-fictional proxy “Michelle,” and changes real-life scenarios so that they become impossible and unreal. “I am playing with myself as a character, and playing with others in that way too,” Tea says.

The genre isn’t just a way for Tea to have a little bit of fun, though — it’s a frame the memoirist uses to write about her life while also protecting her real-life subjects. Autofiction is an initiative that came out of Tea’s personal experience with writing about others; her past writings have hurt those close to her. And yet it also has broader implications: As it bends genre, Black Wave demonstrates autofiction’s potential to make memoirs, and all kinds of personal writing, more ethical. In the fusion of fact and fantasy, Tea finds a way to tell outsiders’ stories candidly and conscientiously.

It’s no wonder that, in today’s digital world, scholars and readers alike have paid particular attention to the ethics of memoir writing. In the realm of social media, where the line between private experience and public sharing of it grows increasingly thinner, everyone is, to some extent, a memoirist. Meanwhile, the small and large fibs of professional personal writers keep getting exposed. In the past few years, media outlets have outed several high-profile memoirs for containing falsehoods and fictions —eroding public trust in professional memoirists and resulting in “a difficult period for the publishing industry,” as the New York Times’ Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz wrote in 2009.

“His request to not be written about became a sort of creative challenge to me.”

Memoirists can run afoul of common decency in two main ways, according to researchers: They can author stories that are not entirely theirs to tell; and can embellish or dramatize accepted facts about an event or person. Transgression of these values, indeed, often comes at a public cost. Consider a few recent memoir scandals: In 2006, author James Frey was kicked out of Oprah Winfrey’s book club (inclusion in which famously boosts book sales) after investigative website The Smoking Gun reported that Frey had fabricated certain elements of his narrative. In 2008, the publication of Herman Rosenblat’s discredited Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was canceled by publisher Berkley Books, and, that same year, Riverhead Books recalled 19,000 copies of Margaret B. Jones’ disgraced Los Angeles gang memoir Love and Consequences from vendors’ shelves.

While all writing stretches the truth to some extent, G. Thomas Couser argues in his book Vulnerable Subjects that it’s important to hold memoirs to account for their ethical transgressions. Memoirs don’t just tell one person’s story—they often involve the writer reflecting on others too. “The closer the relationship between writer and subject,” Couser writes, “the greater the vulnerability or dependency of the subject, the higher the ethical stakes, and the more urgent the need for ethical scrutiny.”

Tea’s views on the ethics of memoir have changed with time: “I no longer have the sort of bravura I had in my youth where I just demanded it’s my right to tell whatever story I want,” Tea writes. “I do feel affected by other’s responses in a way I didn’t used to.” Her confessional writing, indeed, has previously taken a toll on her personal life. One of Tea’s ex-boyfriends was offended when he heard Tea read a portion of a Black Wave draft that was later embellished with more fictional elements.

“His request to not be written about became a sort of creative challenge to me,” she adds.

In Black Wave, Tea grapples with the question of ownership — to whom does the stories she tells belong? Or: “Where did your own story end and other people’s begin?” as Michelle, the protagonist of the book, an aspiring novelist, and Tea’s semi-fictional proxy, puts it while staring into her blank computer screen.

Black Wave begins in San Francisco in 1999, just as the technology industry begins booming in the city, and rents are starting to rise. The premise, which includes an intense break-up, the protagonist hitting what Tea calls an “alcoholic bottom,” a move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and Michelle’s emergent desire to write a story about it all, was inspired by personal experience. But the frame that Tea chose to tell the story in is pure fancy, “a fame and apocalypse narrative,” as she calls it. “Alcoholism is pretty apocalyptic,” Tea explains, “as are break-ups, and then 9/11 happened, which, experienced from [my next home in] Los Angeles, was just bizarre and terrifying and totally disembodied.”

When Michelle moves to Los Angeles in the book’s second act, indeed, Black Wave becomes an even more dystopic fantasy. Tea depicts the city as a desiccated, superficial, skeletal landscape, dotted with designer stores and abutting an ocean with water like a “clotted,” “vast dumpster.” Her characters act with frantic, negative energy: Michelle wields a gun at the bookstore where she works in order to fend off a bigoted white man who repeatedly comes into the store looking to sell his old “Mariah Carey Cassingles”; soon after, an actor named “Matt Dillion,” a 1990s teenage-dream dashing man, saves the day — and has sex with Michelle after she reassures him that she “date[s] guys too.”

This fanciful tone conveys Tea’s personal feelings about L.A. — it also shields its subjects from invasive commentary. “[E]arly on I was thinking about different ways to tell sensitive stories — sensitive in that it’s memoir, and people don’t wish to be written about — that got at the emotional truth but also hid a lot,” Tea writes. “And these dreams worked in a practical way.”

As always, Tea’s pen is stylistically at its sharpest when she is writing about the queer community.

The dreaminess of the book’s style, though, doesn’t diminish its candor. As always, Tea’s pen is stylistically at its sharpest when she is writing about the queer community, andBlack Wave particularly exposes how feminine lesbians and queer women can pass as innocuous, normal people compared with masculine women. In an early scene in Black Wave, when Michelle and her two butch friends are doing drugs with a drug dealer they meet at a bar, her two friends start fooling around with the guy in an act of queer bravura. But for Michelle, a femme, it’s not queer at all to make out with a man. “Radical was the order of the day and it was not radical for Michelle, with her normal girly gender, to fool around with a guy. It would be a normal, boring, sell-out thing to do,” Tea writes.

As it reaches its conclusion, the book transforms into a trippy science-fiction novel. Michelle embarks upon several sexual escapades with young men, meets a time-traveling teen in a dream that delivers an important message about her future, and experiences dreams that telegraph messages of change, movement, and re-birth. The dreamscape harkens to a lineage of mid-century American Beat writers that Tea has been compared to, including Neal Cassidy, Jack Keroauc, Allen Ginsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson — poets and writers who produced work about “outlaw heroics [and] their hedonistic freedom,” as Michelle puts it early in Black Wave. When, in this scene, Michelle breaks up with her girlfriend, Andy, she invokes them by name: “Did anything think this canon of druggie men were out of control? Only in the most admirable of ways! Out of control like a shaman or a space explorer, like a magician sawing himself in half. Out of control like a poet.”

While Tea’s proxy may praise the Beat poets in this scene, Tea herself uses it to make a more writerly critique. Uncharacteristically for Michelle, she imagines herself making this speech rather than actually uttering it — because her girlfriend begins to cry. “Her heart cracked at the sight of Andy’s crumpled face,” Tea writes. The imagined speech is thus a revelatory moment of maturation for Michelle; rather than make excuses for her drug use by invoking its effects on her creativity, she stays mum and listens to a loved one.

Tea thus demonstrates how she differs as a writer from the self-centered experiential narratives of the aforementioned male writers. The confessional, dramatic stylings of the Beat Generation may be initially attractive to an aspiring writer like Michelle — but, as Tea conveys in Black Wave, that doesn’t make their style particularly conscionable. The difference between Tea and Michelle in most of the book is not just that of a writer and her character, it’s an ethical difference as well. Through the initial tension between “Michelle” and Tea, Tea rebukes the idols and transgressions of the modern personal writer; but as that tension resolves, Tea remains the hero of her own narrative, warts and all.