Valencia is Michelle Tea's unfiltered intense experience of life in San Francisco in the late 90s. She finds the courage to share her most intimate and painful memories, from working as a prostitute, to getting her heart crushed again and again, to filming an indie porn flick. Valencia is as direct and colloquial as Junot Diaz' Drown but somehow even more expressive. We are so used to seeing only the success stories, always the good side of people's lives. It is refreshing to read about Michelle Tea's dark days, to see how those experiences shaped her as a person and as a writer. If she can be proud of her past, no matter how difficult, then so can we.
The novel is driven by Michelle's raw voice from the opening scene when she beats the crap out of boys on the dance floor, kicking them "in their asses," kneecaps, and balls. She then shows us how real her story will be with the graphic depiction of rough sex with gorgeous Petra in passages like "I started punching Petra, her insides, the part I couldn't see. Thump, thump, thump. My clingy latex fist hit up against some strong, female part of her. She writhed and played with her tits, punched the bed beneath her, howled." Writing sex scenes is difficult and Michelle pulls it off with ease. We also see more of Michelle's personality and what intimacy means to her in the way she physically describes sexual acts in her love affairs, but never as a prostitute.
The action and emotions of Valencia run non-stop with the help of its unique writing style. Dialogue is not represented in quotes or line breaks but is rather contained within the paragraph, which makes us feel as if we're embodying Michelle's mind ourselves. To get around confusion, Michelle's own dialogue is written with capitalized letters while everyone else's is in italics. This way we can differentiate between the narrator's thoughts and words and of those around her. In one case, she mixes things up to include a third character's voice so that we get three people all screaming at each other at once. In this example, Michelle's voice has First Letters Capitalized, the police officer's dialogue is in italics, and the injured prostitute's dialogue is in ALL CAPS.
- "Come on, I whispered, and to the cops, She's fine, She's Not Hurt Bad, We're Going To Take Her Home. She may need medical--GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME! We'll Take Her To The Hospital If She Needs To Go. Really. Come on, I think you should come with us. GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!"
Michelle connects with her readers, who might not be familiar or comfortable with the turbulent moments of her lesbian life, through universal themes of love and heartbreak that anyone can relate to. She finds ways to share her pain with the readers without making it overbearing.
- She leaves much of her own sadness off the page by focusing on the pain of other characters: "Gwynn is difficult to impossible to inspire. She was just so sad, her whole face hung with it, like sadness was her personal gravity."
- We see Michelle's troubled state of mind and the intensity of her feelings through her actions such as when she describes her relationship with Iris: "We would just stare at each other, run home to have sex at her bar, run to the bar for last call and just gaze at each other. It was very meaningful, we shivered with it."
- When Michelle does describe her own pain she finds poetic visual ways to express it: "The worst thing about depression is how true your vision seems, like misery is the only correct perspective and everything you think when you're happy is a sham. I didn't even want to be happy anymore because I'd rather live in honest misery than fake bliss."
- Michelle's perspective on life is often humorous that helps offset the sadness such as when she first meets Iris: "I kissed her hand, my seduction technique is best filed under Obvious."
The beauty of Valencia is not only in the action and the dialogue but in the setting of the city. Michelle makes me nostalgic for the San Francisco I had never known, before it became crowded with hipsters and techies. She is able to relate the expressive freedom of love that has somehow diminished these days. The story follows Michelle and her three major love attractions with Petra, Willa, and Iris, but finds room to make even the minor characters memorable such as Robin Hood teaching Michelle to pee like a man and Ashley living in a house with remains of ducks and pigs in the backyard from its Chinese restaurant days.
Michelle makes interesting choices by starting her novel with chapters about her earlier loves (Petra and Willa) before getting to the meat of the story with Iris. The ending is dragged out a bit while we follow Michelle's struggles of recovering from losing Iris. I would have ended the novel sooner, but it is worthwhile to see Michelle bond with the other girls who were heartbroken by Iris and all the beautiful ways how Michelle retells their doomed ending.
- "It's something that can only happen once. You will cry a thousand times but they'll only be echoes."
Read Valencia, get inspired, and expel your own demons!