Feministing Reads: Michelle Tea’s Black Wave

Partying like it’s 1999 takes on new meaning when you’re not just half-heartedly afraid of Y2K but actually on the edge of a global apocalypse.

Part memoir, part dystopian fiction, Michelle Tea’s latest novel, Black Wave (Feminist Press, 2016), guides readers through the years leading up to the world’s end with a playful wit, self-pity, and scrutiny. The story starts in San Francisco. Michelle (both separate from and connected to our author) is the protagonist of the novel. She is a 20-something living in a crusty apartment with a queer cast of misfit roommates and friends. With an element of nostalgia and homage to an era of a genre of “post-queer” (self-identified), Black Wave reads as a coming of age novel. The early chapters give snapshots into the changing neighborhoods of San Francisco in the 90s and the condition of being queer, broke, and without a college degree, through the mundane interactions between friends shooting pool and walks to the bagel store.

Struggling to write a second novel, Michelle seeks out experiences that fuel the fire of her addictions. As many of us do, she seeks a change of scenery hoping it will change her bad habits and provide new outlooks on life. She decides to move to LA. After her brother calls to tell her the apocalypse has begun, she finds that her world is unraveling and she is left with only herself — and the book she is trying to write.

There’s something about the world ending that liberates her (and us) to write new stories into being. There’s something about failure, collapse, and ruin that makes space for liberatory narratives. Unlike typical apocalypse narratives, in which the white-cis-hetero-male hero rides in on a white horse to save the day, Michelle does nothing to stop the end of the world. Instead, she bears witness as people react to the news, through addiction, scientology, suicide,  “patriotism,” and taking up arms.

Michelle, the author, has written five memoirs and is known for her blogging on intimate details of her pregnancy at XOJane. She is also an author of fiction and fantasy. Black Wave raises questions like, How do you universalize a “respectable” novel if what you want to write is considered chick lit? How do you write when you know your experience of the world is considered indulgent? In Black Wave, Tea attempts to create a “universal” narrative, like those who hold marginalized identities are often encouraged to do unless otherwise self-exocitize their suffering and trauma. “Every female Michelle knew was writing memoirs, excavating dark childhoods and heartache. Michelle didn’t know any men writing memoirs, but she also didn’t know any men — other than trans men…. Maybe Michelle could actually keep the ideas that obsessed her — injustice, struggle, gender, feminism—but put them onto a man, thereby making them universal!”

In this negotiation, the resulting novel is one that is neither universal nor wholly grounded in reality — but entirely relevant. Speculative fiction is powerful in imagining the world after this one, but what about the moments right before that happens? To consider the apocalypse from a queer, addiction-ridden memoir is an approach less fantastical than the Book of Revelation, and maybe more familiar for many of us. Black Wave immerses us into thinking queerly about the apocalypse.

And it raises questions about the potentials of genre bending (narrative fiction-memoir) made possible by collapsing social order.Black Wave stares memoir in the mirror for long enough that the real becomes hyper-real and begins to melt into the supernatural. It teeters between fact and fiction until the difference between the two no longer matters. This decision stylistically affords Tea the liberty to skip entire decades of time and write life-changing events out of the story, leaving gaps in transitions between ideas or relationships, because ultimately a “final judgment” never comes.

Part nightmare, part post-queer dreamland, Black Wave steps outside of salvation histories and marks an honest portrayal of the apocalyptic conditions in which we live today. It leaves us here: there is no salvation if the world was always shit.

Chanelle Adams is researcher, artist and writer. Follow Chanelle on Twitter.

Chanelle Adams is researcher, artist and writer. Find Chanelle on Twitter @nellienooks.

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