By the end of Michelle Tea’s Black Wave, the protagonist, also named Michelle, types “the story of her life into the computer…until the words before her vanished and the very world around her was gone.” It’s that risk of erasure that charges this memoir-fiction hybrid with an urgent velocity, as one woman attempts to survive the threat of an environmental apocalypse, all while negotiating the disenfranchised conditions of being female, broke, and queer in America. In the midst of this stormy year, Tea’s book plants a flag by vigorously continuing the legacies of feminist writers like Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, and Audre Lorde.
Set in the Nineties queer scenes of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Wave is both a sprawling ode to the people who have filled Tea’s life as a poet and LGBT activist, and an earnest introspection on writing, addiction, love, and political violence. Michelle, the character, is trying to write a book based on her experiences as an outsider, while also attempting to heal herself from addiction and balancing her relationships with Stitch, Andy, and Ziggy, queer people whose own traumatic stories become entwined narrative threads. All of this foregrounds an impending doomsday (the reason for it is left unclear), which causes Michelle and her friends to try — with a desperate ferocity — to sort out their lives “before the planet’s dead.”
Wave advances the familiar ambitions of another American writer, Walt Whitman, in its effort to catalog a fully lived time and geography, including the minute and mundane; it acts almost as a primary source for a touchstone decade. Like Whitman, Tea leaves little unturned, preserving whole swaths of personalities culled from her youth. From lovers to drug dealers, lesbian moms, poets, and collaborators, she offers each a stage, depicting their joy, hurt, and vices in honest and unguarded prose. (Seeing a teen perform at an open mic, Michelle’s heart swells in solidarity: “To be a butch girl in high school, to be better at masculinity than all the men around you.”)
In Tea’s world, queer bodies exist not as a device or a plot embellishment, but as an epicentric force. If Karl Ove Knausgaard’s celebrated six-volume opus My Struggle interrogates boyhood and its ubiquitous and idiosyncratic rites of passage, Wave suggests that there are other narratives just as deserving of literature’s careful and obsessive tending. Tea is nothing if not aware of how these dominant perspectives affect her creative psyche. “The human experience is male,” she writes. “Does he have a problem with his father? Aren’t men always competing with their father or something? Michelle didn’t have a father so she didn’t know how to pursue that narrative. She cursed her lousy imagination.” Instead of sidestepping this dialectic — the idea that, to exist at all, a woman’s voice must first be wrested from the grip of a male narrative — Tea confronts it head-on by enacting the very moments of doubt that marginal writers experience as they try to carve out a space for themselves.
Tea harnesses the tension born of the book’s hybrid form to offer candid, even analytical, meditations on what life as a queer artist can be like: “People bragged about and competed for who had it the worst. Whose parents were brokest, whose PTSD the most damaging. ‘Calling people out on their shit’ was a worthwhile way to pass the time. Michelle wanted her last days to be of higher quality.” Tea cautions against turning pain into commodity, and advocates self-care — in order to live.
From these hard-earned wisdoms, the shift toward the apocalypse can feel abrupt, distracting from the myriad and rich lives Tea has already painted so well. “It’s such a mess,” Michelle’s brother Kyle tells her over the phone, frantically considering the world’s imminent end. “Scientists can’t reverse anything. The problems, the oceans…it’s going to accelerate and become like some sort of horrible sci-fi movie where we all start eating each other.”
One can read this “end times” theme as an allegory for the very tangible political and social upheavals occurring across the globe today. It’s fitting, in some ways, that a book navigating the lives of queer people would confront the possibility of doom. The story, no longer an escape, becomes a mirror reflecting the world behind its reader.
But the book is stronger when Tea sharpens her gaze on the specifics of her life. Many of these scenes have an unforgettable tensile vulnerability, as when Michelle, questioning her future, phones one of her mothers (she has two) for advice. The mother, a nurse, tells her how she recently had to “push” a patient’s prolapsed rectum back in, saving the elderly woman from the horror and shame of being exposed to other staff. This act, the rescue of a falling-apart body, becomes a suddenly tender moment of bonding between mother and daughter: “There was a stiff pride in her voice. She knew she had been brave, had accepted an experience few would be able to handle,” Tea writes. “Michelle could hear her take a dry drag off her cigarette and it inspired Michelle to do the same.”
Black Wave is a testament to the power that opens up when a writer dismantles the rigid borders of social hierarchies, and of genre. What’s more, it’s a book that claims a simple message: that a human story, regardless of its distance from the mainstream, deserves to be told and, when told under its own conditions, can insist on its own vitality.
By Michelle Tea
320 pp., Feminist Press