Because I teach and grade hundreds of essays during the school year, I don’t get to read as much as I like – just the books I’m teaching, books I’ve read five to ten times or more already. Because I’ve been writing mostly memoir in the last couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs.
This summer I read four memoirs, all by women.
I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, Shawna Kenney/1999
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon/2015
How To Become a Chicana Role Model, Michele Serros/2000
How to Grow Up, Michelle Tea/2015
Not only does it appear that I really like memoirs written by women, and books organized like how-to guides, but I also like books written by women who share my unfortunate first name.
I Was a Teenage Dominatrix by Shawna Kenney made me laugh out loud several times. At only twenty-nine when she wrote it, Kenney is wonderfully self-reflective and good at punch lines. The thing that surprised me about this book is how much she included about her family, her working class background, and her determination to do everything she had in her power to do pay for college, since no one else could pay her way for her. I could have read even more about that, but I also loved her honesty about the choices she made about when to drop the dominatrix personae to just be a friend to a caller when she saw that some of these guys were just poor lonely saps with bad social skills and had only called her for the company. She even helped one guy learn to dress better and get some dates, and ultimately married. I am lucky to know Shawna personally, and I could really see her doing that.
Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon was practically required reading, as it was one of the books I read and wrote a brief summary of for PM Press to include with the distributor’s info, along with Violence Girl by Alice Bag, and Clothes, Music, Boys, by Viv Albertine of The Slits. Girl in a Band is well-written book, quiet and subtle in ways that I liked, but Albertine’s book was more my style, louder, brasher, and forthcoming. It’s important for me to point out here that it’s likely that I felt this way about Albertine’s memoir because she was in an all female band like I was, and because her background is similar to mine. We were both raised by single moms who were often down on their luck and money and necessities were often hard to come by. It’s not Kim Gordon’s fault that her mom was stable and that her dad was an academic with steady work and expectations that his children would go to college too. Gordon admits to being the type to keep her emotional reactions pushed down, but when she opens up in the, she is good at writing about her emotions, as a reader, you feel like super let in — I liked that.
How To Become a Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros is a memoir of sorts, more a book of semi-instructional essays. In March, I read at a Michele Serros memorial reading in Highland Park. Shawna Kenney invited me, and I was honored to do it, especially since I only met Michele Serros once at a reading where she signed my copy of Chicana Falsa – a book with the best title ever. There’s a poem in that book that has a stanza strikingly similar to a poem I wrote around the same time. The stanza was about how both Serros and I did not grow up speaking Spanish because our families have lived in California for a few generations already. Michele was good at expressing the shame you feel when you can’t communicate in what most assume is your mother tongue. My favorite part of How To Become a Chicana Role Model is when Michele, who has grown tired of being asked where she’s from and not satisfying with the answer California, begins asking the same question back. “Where are you from?” She says this near the end of the essay.
It was then I suddenly felt sorta sorry for him. It’s amazing how many white people don’t know anything about their own ancestry or background and so it’s no wonder why a lot of them confess to feeling so culturally bankrupt.
How To Grow Up by Michelle Tea — if you’re trying to learn to treat yourself better or break up with someone, you should read this book now. It is charming and super influenced by her roots in punk rock, spoken word communities, and recovery. It’s sort of weird that I’ve never met Michelle Tea, not because I feel I have to know every writer or every writer named Michelle, but because we have always traveled in similar circles, and we have a lot of friends in common. I will finally meet her in October, as she’s reading at Lit Quake sponsored Zocalo Spits: Arts in the Dro event, a reading series that I host with Soma Mei Sheng Frazier.
In addition to sharing a name, Michelle Tea and I also have a similar background, but it was my mom who was the one doing all the drugs – that’s not to say that I never experimented, or made terrible choices, and it’s for those reasons that did not agree at all with Michael Shaub at NPR’s review of the book, especially this:
Even for slow learners, the lessons here are painfully obvious, but Tea spells them out anyway: Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations. Don’t date people who you know in your gut are lying to you all the time, whose stories are so shady you start to hope they are lying to you.” Fine advice, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine readers who wouldn’t consider Tea’s story and come to those conclusions by themselves.
Those of us who are slow learners, or for whatever reason, growing out of a state of arrested development do need IT spelled out for us. Yeah, Michael Shaub (maybe you are just super lucky, privileged and well-adjusted), the lessons are obvious, but being raised a certain way and/or living a certain way for so long makes certain behaviors so ingrained that we need lots an lots of reminders to avoid them, and these lessons are extra helpful when they come from someone we admire. In this case, for me, it was Michelle Tea.