Trisha Driscoll just missed her last day of school, an inauspicious beginning to a summer in which the beer-swilling troubled "tween" will try to find a path toward womanhood more inspiring than that of her unemployed hypochondriac mother and more authentic than that of her budding cosmetologist (and aspiring Real World contestant) sister, Kristy. Then along comes Rose. Told in Trisha's voice, Michelle Tea's Rose of No Man's Land (MacAdam Cage) takes a hard look at the roles available to young women and then offers a tougher, truer alternative. The author of such previous works as 2000's Valencia, 2003's The Beautiful and more recently the 2004 graphic novel Rent Girl discusses her latest work, due out this week, in advance of this weekend's Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.
Q: There's this consciousness the characters have -- develop, maybe -- that they are being watched. Trisha starts to see herself as she is seen, as Real World would see her, as the Polaroid sees her. Is that unique to her and her situation, or do you think all girls go through that at this age?
A: Her situation probably is unique in that she doesn't look like a regular girl and doesn't act like a regular girl is supposed to. But women are constantly being watched and evaluated and judged and sized up and either harassed and "flattered" or insulted for the way they don't fit into what the world demands of them. All women and all girls are subject to that, and if you don't conform to the way you are supposed to be female, there are these little subtle, or not so subtle, punishments that you get.
Q: What is it about Rose that fits better for Trish?
A: Rose's fearlessness is really attractive to Trish, the way that Rose can just go out there and just do these crazy things: hitchhike and break these social taboos like using her tampon as a weapon. In her being blown away, her mind gets opened to other ways to survive in the world. Rose is feminine, also; she wears dresses and makeup. But it's still this ratty way of being a girl, on her own terms, that is very captivating to her, and a little scary."
Q: You set most of this in very artificial places: the mall, a street that you compare to Vegas. Rose and Trisha even have their first kiss while lying on Astroturf surrounded by plastic statues. How does all this artificiality impact Trisha's search for authenticity?
A: On the one hand, she's looking to be authentic in a world that is totally not authentic, so what do you do in that situation? And I think that's all of our situations. The whole world is not authentic. We're completely encased in plastic and false environments. Trish sort of embraces it because it's her landscape.
I grew up in a landscape that's very similar to Trish's. And what ended up happening is you develop this sort of love for these environments because it's what you know. There's this human capacity to find beauty; your impulse to find beauty will find beauty in an inauthentic landscape. That's Trish's land; that's Trish's vision. She's not going to sit around and be sad that there are no parks and no trees, because there have never been any for her."
Q: The Iraq War is going on in the background of all this. Not at all in the foreground, but it's back there.
A: I'm really distraught about the war. ... It had to be acknowledged. To make it the forefront would have been fake, because much like my life and the lives of much of the people of America, we're super-privileged and don't experience the day-to-day impact of the war. But we're all affected by it whether we realize it or not.
Q: The title of the book refers to World War I nurses. (The soldiers they saved would often tattoo their images on their arms.) A tattoo artist tells the girls there are no more "Rose of No Man's Lands" today. Was that connected for you to the Iraq war going on in the background?
A: I'm kind of talking out of my ass here; I'm not a war historian. ... But I do get a feeling that the wars that the country acted on in the past, there was a reason for it, a greater good, people were being freed. As much as the (George W. Bush) administration has tried to dredge up comparisons -- that Sadaam Hussein is like Hitler -- we know it's all crap. It's such a shallow comparison. We're in a war now that is based on lies. ... You really can't attach that romance to what we're doing in Iraq. It's just pure capitalist destruction that's going on.
Q: What was the inspiration for "Ohmigod!"? (The popular mall clothing store where Trish briefly holds a job.)
A: My background is in writing memoirs, and I did base the mall after a real mall that I used to hang out at as a tween. But I started getting frustrated when I was writing about this mall. ... I decided just to fictionalize it, and once I allowed my imagination to open up, I realized it would be great fun to create this absurd doppelganger of how malls are. And I love malls, I really do, and I love the absurdity of it and the over-stimulation of it. But it's also great fun to lampoon.