Reading A Queer-Eyed, Radical "On the Road" for the New Millenium

Sister Spit, the on-again/off-again traveling roadshow that has brought queer female poets and storytellers to bars, community centers, college campuses, and independent bookstores in Europe and the 50 states, is an antidote to the LGBTQ mainstream. Participants—largely young lesbians, transwomen, transmen, and those who defy gender classification—have nothing to say about wedding bells, non-traditional nuclear families, or serving in the military.

Instead, Sister Spit has, for 18 years, brought writing about race, class, and gender to any audience that invites them. Participants sometimes bellow, full of sass, rage, and fire, but the goal, says Sister Spit founder Michelle Tea, has always been simple:  To fill a literary and social void. “I started Sister Spit because I wanted to go on a massive roadtrip,” Tea writes in an Introduction to the group’s self-titled first published collection.  “I started Sister Spit because I had a vision of a group slumber party with all the most interesting people I’ve met. I started Sister Spit because I was frustrated that all my friends are wild geniuses and the rest of the world didn’t seem to know this. And the bonding in the van, the thrill of a new city every night, and the true joy and wonder on the audience’s faces as they behold their new favorite performers and their concept of what is possible in life gets cracked open a little wider—all these things make me keep doing Sister Spit every year.”

It’s a heady concept, a queer-eyed On The Road that began in 1994 as a weekly  “girl’s only” open mic in San Francisco.  As the Sunday events cohered, once a week became insufficient and led to the formation of a 12-writer team that drove from coast-to-coast in a broken-down van, with troupe members grabbing whatever floor space and food they could, whenever they could. Pay was $80 each—for the month. 

Some of the book’s 23 entries chronicle the ups-and-downs of Sister Spit’s adventures, but the anthology is far more than a nostalgic look back.  In fact, the collection showcases a wealth of material that touches themes as disparate as love, fame, immigration, and getting tattooed.

Lenelle Moise’s "Memory: Private School Jezebel" is a particular standout and takes readers into 1980s Roxbury, Massachusetts. It was there, as a Catholic elementary school student, that the author learned to hide her Haitian heritage rather than be isolated as a possible source of AIDS transmission. Not surprisingly, when Moise’s third grade peers ganged up on a Haitian kid they dubbed “Cootie boy,” she remained silent. “I steal hellos and goodbyes to him before and after school, palming his back when no one is watching,” she writes. Later, Moise herself becomes the target of ridicule, but not by other children. On a day in which students had been instructed to wear street clothes instead of their uniforms, Moise arrived wearing a too-short skirt and was sent to the principal’s office. There, she was berated for looking like “a fallen woman…a little Jezebel.” Thankfully for Moise, the incident so enraged her mom that she was pulled from St. Patrick’s and enrolled in a public program. It’s a horrifying tale, not easily forgotten.

Kirk Read’s "Belle" is similarly powerful. In it, we learn about someone who talks the talk about progressive values only to later be unveiled as a user and creep.

Eileen Myles’ "February 13, 1982" tells the story of a booze-and-drug soaked book party that is rife with family angst and the confusion and shock that comes from sudden, unanticipated, celebrity.  It’s an unsettling saga—as much a portrait of a particular time and place—Manhattan’s East Village--as it is an account of self-destruction and pathology.

Yes, heavy outweighs light in Sister Spit.  At the same time, humor and wit are on frequent display. Elisha Lim’s The Hong Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart is a case in point. Bittersweet and beautifully illustrated, the story champions Ling Ling Han, a bold girl who’d spent a year in the US. When she returns to Asia, Ling Ling’s first-hand knowledge of American hip-hop makes her an instant powerhouse. Coupled with the fact that she walked with “the power strut of any neighborhood gangster,” Ling Ling soon became the crush object of her Convent School friends. It’s a sweet and funny narrative that is easy to relate to.

While I did not love every piece in Sister Spit, I found the fact that women and girls are the hub of the anthology gave it gravitas and meaning as a reader.

The word feminist is rarely used. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Raw, real, and riotous, this is not a collection that bows to a particular worldview. Critical and demanding, it asks us to imagine a better world and then do whatever it takes to make our fantasies real.

Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road, Edited by Michelle Tea, City Lights Books. 2012, $16.95, 208 pages.


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