Read Local: Michelle Tea's Mermaid in Chelsea Creek
New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every other Wednesday for Read Local, a column about books produced in the Bay Area.
"You guys," Michelle Tea announces into the microphone, "I wrote a book that has amulets in it. Can you handle that?"
The crowd at The Secret Alley, a magical, sinuous forest hidden inside a nondescript building on Capp Street, would happily "handle" anything Tea offered. Three flights up, we sprawled underneath trees, casting the occasional envious glance up at the amorous couple who'd scored the tree house. Our bellies swelled with perogies from the Old World Food Truck, chocolate from Dandelion, and Drambuie cocktails.
We were there to celebrate the first of Tea's Young Adult trilogy for McSweeney's McMullens, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek - and I do mean celebrate. There was an undeniable feeling of friendship and community that night, as one person after another made laudatory gestures, practically genuflecting in Tea's direction. Daniel Handler-a.k.a. Lemony Snicket--was one of several writers who presented original material inspired by the book. Hilary Goldberg learned stop motion animation to make the saltastic book trailer, and perfumer Kenneth Cory created a scent for the release.
Tea takes in Handler's reading, inspired by her book.
Tea embodies a line Walt Whitman published 124 years before she was born: "I am large, I contain multitudes." The street cred garnered from her many endeavors -- memoirs, novels, poetry, the infamous Sister Spit Literary Performance tours, an imprint at the publishing arm of City Light's Books, the monthly RADAR Reading Series, and bouts as a horoscope writer, sex worker, and activist -- may have enticed the audience to attend the fete last week, but the book more than earned their presence.
"I loved The Hunger Games, but it was really shitty, and I didn't want to write something like that," Tea offered by explanation of her foray into young adult literature. Indeed, the prose that fills Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is the antipode of shitty. Each line carries substantive heft, emblematic of extensive research on Polish mythology, grounded by the gritty, immigrant haven that is Chelsea, Massachusetts.
The intensely likable hero of this adventure in magical realism is Sophie Swankowski, a 13-year-old outlier. Visions of a swearing mermaid come to her during "the pass-out game," which speaks to Tea's successful amalgamation of the fantastical and material. Sophie, much like Tea, lends validity to chance. Her thoughtful observations about the world around her are striking reminders -- for the adult reader -- of how our salad days swelled with intense emotion, when almost everything uttered by adults seemed dubious at best, and far too casual for the seeming consequence of every single moment.
Tea's book tour doubles back to the Best Coast in June:
Friday, June 7. Booksmith Bookswap
6:30PM-9:30PM. Booksmith: 1644 Haight St. San Francisco, CA
Tuesday, June 18. Reading at Moe's Books
7:00PM. Moe's Books: 2476 Telegraph Ave. Berkeley CA