What to Read When You Need to Understand How to Live


My new book, Against Memoir, is a collection of published nonfiction—stuff I wrote for this website or that magazine—plus some new essays that had been bubbling around my brain and needed a place to live. Always when I am writing about life my mind gets inundated with other people’s thoughts about it all—beads of language strung by writers and artists and thinkers whose work I use the way I utilized pop songs as a teenager, to make sense of the world, to carve a path through both the confounding absurdity and the fleeting shocks of sublimity. Truly, to understand how to live.

These books, all referenced in Against Memoir, have acted in some way as a compass, a judge and jury, a tarot pack, a mirror. They continue to school me, because life remains boggling and my mind needs near-constant buffering by others, writers, these people that sit with their brains, no saner than you or me, I am sure, yet manage to work together thoughts and phrases and analysis and memories that act as powerful comforts and guides, even (especially?) when they have lost their tethers and are legitimately off their cake.


Airless Spaces by Shulamith Firestone
This book is a downer, but you should read it anyway. Shulamith Firestone became a famous feminist when such a thing was really—no, really, really, really—unheard of and even dangerous. Her book The Dialectic of Sex was a brainiac big deal. Still, she lived the rest of her life depressed, in and out of hospitals, trying to survive, living among humans for whom survival was a struggle and in no way guaranteed. It’s a wonder more people—in particular female people, people of color, trans people—aren’t driven mad by this rotten world. We have a responsibility to bear witness to the ones who do. But this book is not a chore. It’s sparse and deadpan and often darkly funny, gossipy. Check it out.


Anything by Dorothy Allison
Yes, anything, but mostly Bastard Out of Carolina, Trash, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, and the poetry collection The Women Who Hate Me. This is working-class, working-poor, dysfunctional family, white girl girlhero real-life storytelling. Dorothy Allison writes about sex and death and hardship and food and family, the grittiest bits of it, and it takes your breath away and also cracks you the fuck up. If you ever get to see her read live, please do. She embodies her stories like few writers and considering how powerful and edgy her stories are that is a very significant thing.


Anything by Red Jordan Arobateau
It’s exciting how many of Arobateau’s works are available on horrid Amazon—Jailhouse Stud, Hobo Sex, Rough Trade, Ho Stroll, How’s Mars?, and more. An openly trans, incredibly prolific, deeply underground author, Arobateau is like Valerie Solanas meets Iceberg Slim meets Richard Hell meets Kerouac meets Genet. His milieu is a landscape of residential hotels, homeless queers, the fringe of the fringe back when police raids were regular and trans folk needed to make sure they wore the appropriate number of the ‘opposite’ sex’s clothing to elide jail. In prose that shifts from the harshest toke to a freestyle magic to ponderous internal narratives, loaded with slang and filthy language, reading Arobateau is truly a trip into a lost world. If our culture wasn’t sickened with so many isms, he would be much more well-known, studied, and respected.


Angry Women edited by Andrea Juno and V. Vale
Damn, women have been angry for SO LONG! This book came out in 1992 and I bought it from Newbury Comics on Newbury Street, Boston. Then I dropped out of college. Who knows what you’ll do if you read this book? For sure you will know that when performance artist Erin Markety pulls a scroll from their vagina and sings from it the lyrics to The Lollipop Kids that they are making a fucking hilarious reference to Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll. You already have some sort of trans awareness, thank Christ, but if it was 1992 you could have gotten woke off reading Annie Sprinkle’s bit about her trans boyfriend—not to mention how handy it will be to know about her when in about six months you start dating a hooker and shortly thereafter become one yourself! Too bad we all can’t time travel back to the 90s to send our lives in a more interesting direction, but then, it’s truly never too late.


The Traveling Companion and Other Plays by Tennessee Williams
I want you to read Tennessee Williams’s play Green Eyes, included in this collection, but honestly, I haven’t even read it. However, I saw the play staged in a little hotel room in New York City, and it was such a fierce tumble of violence I was afraid some of it was going to splash on my pants. I love the idea of smaller plays, as it makes the whole undertaking of writing plays feel less like a big fucking thing, more like something you can maybe do while waiting for a friend to join you at the coffeeshop. That makes life feel a little bigger, doesn’t it? Perhaps you will write a play.


Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles
Are you kidding? This book is everything. There is a chamber in my brain where the lines of this books revolve, endlessly repeating itself, coloring, to some extent, my very personality. I don’t think Chelsea Girls saved my life but I know 100% that it gave me a life. That’s something a book can do, too. Almost twenty-five years ago it set me on my path, and as my path continues so do the revelations of the truly magical connection I have with these short pieces that document the world of a young, working-class, alcoholic dyke in New England and New York City in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. I use these pieces when I teach and I use them when I write and I use them to give me life, the way any person might consult a self-help book or revered spiritual text. It helps me remember who I am. Maybe it will show you a part of yourself you hadn’t known existed, or that you’ve lost acquaintance with.


White Girls by Hilton Als
Read White Girls and be smarter. I mean, isn’t that why we read? At least in part? I want to laugh and be scandalized, too, I want to be entertained, and it is a rare writer who can flick all these levers at once. Hilton Als is one of them. He makes me so happy to be gay because I just want to be as close to his intellect as possible, you know? But even if you’re not gay you should read it. Especially if you’re not! You need the gay intellect even more!


Deenie by Judy Blume
All hail Judy Blume! I began reading her when I was far too young, so much so that Anne, my beloved branch librarian forbade me from checking out Blume’s perhaps more popular Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, because she didn’t feel it was age-appropriate. I felt she had insulted my reading prowess, which was legendary and beyond my years, and I convinced my mother to write Anne a note granting me permission to read the text. Anne relented. I began the book and nearly fainted at the swift mentions of boobs and Playboy magazine. Anne was right! I sheepishly returned the book (what a nerd!) and was grateful to Anne for guarding my precocious innocence. But, Deenie! By using the term ‘stimulating your genitals’ rather than ‘playing with yourself’ the book’s entire discussion of masturbation went right over my head! Stimulating? Genitals? Instead I got a story about a girl horrified and frightened of her disobedient body, a girl whose body worked against her fitting in within a landscape riddled with bullying. Could it be that Deenie’s brother’s insistence that being a ‘whale’ beat being a ‘skeleton’ as whales are beautiful, loveable creatures and skeletons are creepy and dead was the first bit of body positivity I was ever exposed to? Perhaps. What about when Deenie and her friend egg the cranky dude’s house then piss on his lawn while forced to rake his yard in punishment? I wanted to find a girl to pull pranks with me so bad! (Don’t worry. I did.)


The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
A lot of people say about a work, ‘this book saved my life.’ But did it really? This book lit-er-al-ly saved my life, or at least saved me from spending my golden years wandering a low-rent shopping mall in a pair of pee-stained pajamas, shuffling in bedroom slippers behind a shopping cart full of nothing, a la my Auntie Laura. It’s very ‘men, men, men, men,’ and the suggestion to just ignore that is smart in the way that you might be in desperate need of the help it provides, so yes, ignore that so that you can save your life and live to fight more feminist battles. But the suggestion to ‘ignore that’ is also somewhat infuriating, so can we like have an alternate version that is like totally ‘women, women, women, women’ etc.? I do know of an alcoholic who so could not abide the absence of the female in this book that she went through and crossed out all the guy stuff and wrote She and Her and whatnot. Very cool. This book is a cultural artifact and also a bible, propaganda, spiritual text, a historical document, and my frequent bedside reading.


La Bâtard by Violette Leduc
It feels so good to recognize your literary lineage. As someone who was once told by an actual witch that my ancestors are disgusted with my life and have abandoned me—!!!—it is even more comforting, personally, to be able to trace my writing impulses and influences back into the past. I am a descendent of Violette Leduc and her self-loathing lesbianism, her fumbling gender expression, her compulsive need to love and worship and to write, her obsession with detail, her abjection, her French-ness, her passion, her proclivity for getting carried away. I wish I could pluck her from time and land her in the midst of some bustling queer landscape, so that she might know herself the way I believe I know her, a way that was elusive to her during her life. But misery breeds stunning literature, does it not, so we will just read her work and love her for living it and hope that if reincarnation is real she is actually thriving as a forty-something queer in some wonderful metropolitan area, seen and loved and worshipped back.


The Diary of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs Nin
You may think that if you didn’t get to this by the time you were seventeen years old then it’s too late for you and Anaïs. You might be right. But what if you’re wrong? How might your life be a little bit different for her subtle influence upon your psyche? What sort of flights of fancy and complicated sexual intrigues might come to you if you call upon her lacey ghost? If you are lucky enough to be put up in the ‘writers’ apartment’ at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris, France, you might look beneath the mattress to see why exactly it is so fucking uncomfortable, and you will find that the thin bed is placed atop crates of Anaïs Nin books. And so you can lie there, unsleeping, thinking about that. Yes, she might make you uncomfortable, but also you will be enriched, and a little delirious.


Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Peter Pan is such a lesbo/queer classic. Take Peter, most famously played by a girl, Mary Martin, the first genderfuck my tiny mind ever witnessed. Was I witnessing a girl who was really a boy, or a boy who was really a girl? I took this question into my twentiees, into my sex and dating, my romantic life. I had a type, it seemed—Peter Pan, and/or his Lost Boys. Who were girls. Mostly but not entirely and certainly not forever. It would be outrageous not to mention here the novel Lost Boi by Sassafras Lowrey, a queer retelling of the Peter Pan story, replete with Lost Bois squatting Neverland and whatnot. I mean, yeah. You already know Peter Pan, so read Lost Boi and you’ll understand what I’m saying.


Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Jean Genet, the criminal queer writer of Paris, so frequently was busted shoplifting books he must have, for all his boasting, been a terrible crook. Of course, he purported to adore life behind bars, having jail sex and pining after violent trade. He wrote Our Lady of the Flowers in the clink, scrawling it onto paper bags the guards sadistically snatched and shredded, forcing him to begin again, again, and again. Maybe that is how it attained its perfection. Genet’s books, his writing and language, are like fever dreams. I love them but sometimes I have to escape. If you feel similarly, try Genet by Edmund White, a giant brick of a biography that fascinates from beginning to end.


Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serrano
Poet and writer (and activist) Julia Serrano appears a few times in Against Memoir; I directly quote her poetry in my piece about Camp Trans, where I watched her perform, and then in a piece where I nervily instruct a bunch of young queer people how not to be douchebags. Julia’s intellect is fiercely female, feminine; as a trans woman she has a lot to say about the notion of gender being ‘performed,’ a concept which obviously has legs but has used said limbs to kick those who delight in expressions of femininity—especially trans women. As a woman who has been sent home from work for wearing vintage girdles as skirts, I am grateful that unabashed femmes have someone so daring and eloquent speaking on our behalf.


Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Don’t buy this book. Steal it from a co-worker like I did in 1987, and read it on the clock while you’re supposed to be folding T-shirts and helping customers. Get fired. Be a teenager, so that the misogyny confuses rather than outrages, and the masturbation titillates.


The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
When I got fired from my ice cream shop job as an alcoholic teenager this was the only thing in my work cubby. It was quite a balm for my termination. Would Jim Carroll care about getting fired from an ice cream shop? Fuck no. There weren’t many (read: none) girls in books who were living lives of fucked-up low-class outlaw grandeur, so it was to Jim Carroll I looked to show me how to live.  I hope, really hope, there is some girl genius out there getting strung out between dance classes and keeping a Ballet Diaries for us to peep at. Meanwhile, we can read about basketball.


The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writers’ Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Flaherty
I use this book a lot when I teach memoir in order to help my students understand that we are insane. Flaherty is a neurologist who introduced me to the concept of hypergraffia, a manic state in which individuals are compelled to write and write, primarily about their own life. Flaherty herself experienced a bout of hypergraffia following a miscarriage, and indeed hypergraffia tends to follow trauma and indeed this explains my prolific twenties in a nutshell. The Midnight Disease explores not only the extreme and uncontrollable output of hypergraffia, but also its dour sibling, writers’ block. And, Flaherty cites the lives of various writers, and don’t you just love reading about the lives of writers? I mean, to me that’s the real story. This book is fascinating, and, if you happen to be a writer, personally illuminating.


And to close out this awesome list, we had to include Michelle’s new book, available May 8! (And, keep an eye out for an exclusive excerpt and interview with Michelle on Monday, May 7!)

Against Memoir by Michelle Tea
The razor-sharp but damaged Valerie Solanas, a doomed lesbian biker gang, recovering alcoholics, and teenagers barely surviving at an ice creamery: these are some of the larger-than-life, yet all-too-human figures populating America’s fringes. Rife with never-ending fights and failures, theirs are the stories we too often try to forget. But in the process of excavating and documenting these queer lives, Michelle Tea also reveals herself in unexpected and heartbreaking ways. Delivered with her signature honesty and dark humor, this is Tea’s first-ever collection of journalistic writing. As she blurs the line between telling other people’s stories and her own, she turns an investigative eye to the genre that’s nurtured her entire career―memoir―and considers the price that art demands be paid from life.

Michelle Tea is the author of five memoirs: The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia, The Chelsea Whistle, Rent Girl, and How to Grow Up (Penguin/Plume). Her novels include Mermaid in Chelsea Creek and Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, part of a YA fantasy trilogy published by McSweeney's, and Rose of No Man’s Land. Black Wave is a dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid. Forthcoming works include Castle on the River Vistula, the final installment of the YA series, and Modern Tarot, a tarot how-to and spell book published by Harper Elixir. Tea is the curator of the Amethyst Editions imprint at Feminist Press. She founded the literary non-profit RADAR Productions and the international Sister Spit performance tours, and is the former editor of Sister Spit Books, an imprint of City Lights. She created Mutha Magazine, an online publication about real-life parenting. More from this author →