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Working Class Heroine 

Michelle Tea on her life and art -- and why she thinks it's OK to make a few things up in a memoir

At the age of 33, Michelle Tea already has a lot of hard living under her belt. While some people might see dysfunctional family life, poverty and occasional prostitution as a recipe for depression, Tea uses her hard-knock stories as creative fodder. Her three memoirs bear testament to her talents in alchemy.

"I didn't have a pampered life that gives me nothing to write about," says Tea, speaking by phone from her home in San Francisco. Memoir is a much-maligned genre, and those writers who dare to write one before they're grizzled and wise with age are often held up to increased scrutiny. But Tea says she trusted the quality of her material. "I've actually had quite a few experiences that are worthy of recording and are filled with all the conflict and drama that we want in stories, whether they're true or fiction."

Tea is coming to town this weekend for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, where she'll participate in a panel discussion on women's memoirs. Although the last three months have seen the publication of a volume of her poetry, The Beautiful, as well as two anthologies she edited, her latest memoir is still fresh in her mind.

The Chelsea Whistle is an intensely personal account of growing up working class in the gritty Boston suburb of Chelsea, and of the slow implosion of Tea's family. Sex runs through the book like a current, from the first experiments of a little girl to Tea's discoveries and adventures with the boys from the goth underground, and then with the girls. And muddying the waters is a creeping paranoia about a family member's intentions.

The book is full of the kind of intensely personal revelations. "There are absolutely moments when it hits me, when someone will comment on something and I think, f--k, it's so crazy that they know that, and it's all my fault!" laughs Tea. Occasionally she gets the jitters at a public reading, she says, but helps herself through it by reminding herself why she's up there onstage. "I'm doing this for art, and for other girls, and for myself, and to combat shame."

For one of the anthologies Tea edited, Without a Net, she collected first-person accounts of growing up poor and female. In her introduction, Tea argues that for all the studies that have been done on the problems of the working class, there's a dearth of stories told by those who have actually lived through the experience. The Chelsea Whistle is another outgrowth of Tea's desire to show the public what a working class life looks like from the inside. The book is also Tea's reckoning with how her hometown and home life shaped her personality. In an early passage, Tea sketches Chelsea's effect on her spirit with customary lyricism:

"When I grew up and began to meet so many different real girls, I met beautiful girls, calm and wild, who had grown up beside trees and pools of water and I hated them instinctively. They hurt my feelings. I had thought that these girls were imaginary, but no, they were real, and I could have been one too, and possessed that water-fed grace. I didn't know who to be mad at for not giving me a river. The creek didn't count, the dirty creek that Chelsea had spun a fence around, kept cordoned off like the city dump, the landfill ... Creek versus river, dirty creek girl versus glittering river girl ... ."

By turns funny, moving and alarming, The Chelsea Whistle captures the freedoms and fears of childhood, and even manages to narrate a confused adolescence without sinking into pathos. Tea credits her good memory for the ability to summon back the everyday stories of her youth and the thought patterns of a teenager. But, she says, "when there's a gap in my memory I don't hesitate to let fiction fill it in."

The question of fictionalization in a memoir often crops up in discussions of the genre, but Tea finds the debate unnecessary. "I think the reality for most writers is that you occupy a gray space," she says. "If you're writing fiction, you're filling that fiction up with elements of your real life. And if you're writing memoir you're fictionalizing a lot, you just have to. Because you're not going to remember what color the sky was, or exactly what you were wearing, or what someone's face looked like when they said something to you. That's where your powers as a writer come in."

Although Tea says she may attempt a deeper hybrid of fiction and memoir, she doesn't think she'll break off into pure imagination any time soon. "The characters, the stories I'd want to tell, they'd just be my stories and the stories of the people around me. That's what's compelling, that's what's so urgent and important to me." 

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