Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Michelle Tea's Mission District Frontier: Nostalgia, Gentrification, Valencia

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Michelle Tea's Mission District Frontier: Nostalgia, Gentrification, Valencia

Article excerpt

In this essay. Gano argues that while Michelle Tea's Valencia records and celebrates the particular, oppositional social practices of the Mission's queer community as its members successfully create and claim space in the city, it also presents the reader with a Mission conspicuously cleansed of the racialized struggles of Latinos and people of color more broadly who were, in this very time and place, being pushed out of the neighborhood. Gano situates this novel within two primary, entwined generic contexts: the urban frontier narrative and the "American neoconfessional" memoir. Gano first shows that the novel engages with a kind of frontier nostalgia, most powerfully expressed by Frederick Jackson Turner and commonly deployed in the rhetorics surrounding late twentieth-century gentrification. This particular form of nostalgia simultaneously romanticizes and mourns the passing of a wild and wooly space of opportunity and personal freedom; in Valencia, this is the transitional space of San Francisco's Mission district in the early 1990s. Michelle, the book's protagonist, heroically navigates the mean streets of the Mission in her search for love; as is typical of what Leigh Gilmore has called the neoconfessional memoir, Valencia emphasizes the protagonist's success in overcoming personal hardship while minimizing a broader historical and social contextualization of individual struggle. After all, there are winners and losers on the urban frontier: this nostalgic look back at the exhilarating San Francisco punk dyke scene depends particularly on the overt occlusion of the racial dimensions of gentrification. Drawing on the work of cultural geographer Neil Smith, Gano argues that the whitewashing of the urban frontier in Valencia is not only central to its generic success but is an important element that helps to enable a heroic narrative of gentrification process more broadly.

Michelle Tea's Valencia (2000), winner of the 2001 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and adapted as a movie in 2013, has been celebrated as a "cult-adored" (Harvey) coming-of-age novel that regales its reader with sexploits in leather bars, pissing in the streets during a drunken dyke march, tricking in a brothel hidden just across the bay in the woods, holding clandestine zine-making parties held in the middle of the night at an IWW office, acting in amateur porn flicks, and other assorted punk rock hijinks, all in the name of love and poetry. At least in part, Valencia's appeal comes from its outrageous-but-true status: the book's main character, Michelle, shares her name with its author, and although the book was initially classified as a novel, reviewers and fans immediately understood it as a confessional roman a clef, the extreme and transgressive content bolstered by a raw and urgent tone (Nelson 33-34). In the 2008 reprint of Valencia, Tea affirmed that the novel should actually be considered a memoir and asked readers to imagine her younger self navigating the Mission's mean streets during the city's turbulent nineties, just after she had moved there; Tea has situated it within a series of memoirs--five so far--that she distinguishes from her other fictional and nonfiction writing. Indeed, the book's popularity has been inextricably entwined with its author's fame as a writer, performer, and "pop ambassador" of her generation (Publishers Weekly): since the 1990s, Tea has toured nationally and internationally with the collective artists' and writers' cabaret Sister Spit, the "underground lesbian-feminist roadshow [and]... cultural institution" which Tea helped to found and promote (Ms. Magazine 72). Pinpointing the book's real-world local landmarks has, over the years, become more than just a parlor game among friends: recently, the book served as one of the sources for the "Bars, Baths, and Butches" queer historical walking tour, a public event curated by RADAR productions, a Bay Area non-profit founded by Tea in 2006 (RADAR Productions). …

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