I felt freedom, and it felt rad.
WITHIN THE CREASE and folds of Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road is the creak of a car door opening — a van door — and with that, a whiff of grease, exhaust, and sweat. Despite the freshly minted paper of this inaugural collaborative imprint between Sister Spit and City Lights Books, a raw aesthetics — one that invests in seams and fray as part of the telling — powers this live literary roadshow and its now-in-print twin. Edited by Sister Spit co-founder and literary revoltess Michelle Tea, this raucous, crafted anthology lays bare the grit and labor of a DIY subculture, inviting readers into the inner sanctum of a renegade community of feminist and queer writers. Tea says in the introduction, “Sister Spit was born in 1994, to fill a void,” referring to the male-dominated spoken word scene in San Francisco in the 1990s. Co-founders and poets Sini Anderson and Michelle Tea hatched the girl-only open mic from that void and since have nimbly let Sister Spit rise like a phoenix reinventing itself in different forms through time. Here we see the spit-firey Sister Spit anthologized for the first time — and no doubt the gritty, brazen, honest, funny, irreverent voices rise once again with audacious plumage and an unmistakably Sister Spit roar.
From the immediately popular feminist open mic in San Francisco, to two rounds of rebel-rousing, genre-busting literary roadshows (the Ramblin’ Roadshow and the Next Generation), to four spoken word albums released by the lesbian-feminist label Mr. Lady Records, the various incarnations of Sister Spit echo through the pages of this anthology. I have been to many a Sister Spit show as a fan and friend and also shared the stage with a handful of Spit performers in Austin, Texas, in the early aughts. The synergy I experienced performing with my queer troupe alongside Sister Spit was nothing short of a cultural revival. What I can tell you is — regardless of the incarnation — these trickster sisters roll off the road ready to rumble. Out of the van comes the latest roundup of old timers and up-and-comers, a mash-up of literary merch, and a certain Spit magic — one tinged with sarcasm and wit — that leaves a dervish of word-dust as they jet out of town for the next stop. Whether or not you purchase one of their handcrafted chapbooks, a DIY patch stitched with the latest queer quip, or an author-signed copy of a book, chances are you will walk away from a Sister Spit road show — and now this anthology — dusted from the inside spin of these outsiders’ America.
Sister Spit boasts a mighty staying power. Aside from a brief break from the prerequisite touring burnout, Sister Spit has produced nonstop for almost two decades. What has held true throughout Sister Spit’s evolution is the founding mission of creating a visionary space for queer and feminist writers whose work has not often fit inside the clean(er) centerfold of the American literary establishment. Enter a band of wordsmith misfits and countercultural heroes many of whom also, it turns out, are literary heavy-hitters — Eileen Myles, Dorothy Allison, Lenelle Moïse, Beth Lisick, and Ali Liebegott, among others. And notably, some of Sister Spit’s authors became — or are in the middle of becoming — literary figures during the long and galvanizing run of Sister Spit’s many acts. On these pages is an uproarious remapping: crossing genres, genders, and generations, Sister Spit knows how to motor a literary revolution across America.
A forte of this anthology is that it brings to life a past that continually rebirths a present. Part tour diary, part love letter to an era, the book is also a starter kit and cultural manifesto to what is still just as hip, just as happening, just as now as yesterday’s now ever was. When Cooper Lee Bombardier tells the tale of coming into his own as a tattoo artist, he recounts giving homemade jailhouse-style tattoos to many of the writers on the inaugural Sister Spit tour in 1997. He talks about how the “scraggly star” tattoos were rough and tumble but also more than their physical imprint:
It is about an immediacy, an intimacy, an indelible souvenir of a time and place that you will never return to as you sail forth on your life’s own ocean. It is about a connection, a reminder, a friendship, an adventure. You can look at your scraggly little star and remember: I was there.
That immediacy is exactly what the writers in this anthology offer up. As we read, we start to feel ink forming beneath our skin, a rough-star form speaking across time. The love letter that runs as a storied spine through the reminiscences structuring this book is not in any way fossilized, is not past; it is the phoenix of Sister Spit’s writers and artists reveling in what they reignite with each new audience on each new tour: what was — still is — equally badass, lurid, bold. In an era where youth and speed are valorized to the nth degree, Sister Spit offers up an alternative; at the heart of the community is a deep reverence for the ever-irreverent authors who cross generations — young emerging voices and the old-timer, heavy-hitters who share a mad respect for each other and, despite age or track record, are each seen equally as the cool cat in town. One of those shiny up-and-comers, Cristy C. Road, speaks to this in her wise and stunningly illustrated tour memoir:
I was ecstatic over the idea of it — being on Sister Spit tour; the tour that launched a million queers. The tour that presented the voices of distressed and passionate writers of the ’90s who, in many ways, changed my entire life. I could not believe that this, in its mature incarnation, would soon be my reality.
A series of equally hilarious and heartfelt “Tour Diaries” frame the anthology — some prose, some graphic narratives. As if we were right there in the tour van and on the stages with Sister Spit members, we get the grit and the chaos, the drama and the humor, the awe, the utopia of a van full of feminist, queer writers and artists taking their offbeat, inventive visions to the hubs and arteries of America. Even when the troupe ends up in totally suspect housing situations or there’s no vegan alternative or the van breaks down and they’re late for the next show, there is an unmistakable glue that holds everything — and everyone — together. As Cristy C. Road says, “In the van I saw we could do it all — pay our bills, without commodifying our struggle or compromising anything we need to say.” The bonds forged on the road seem unbreakable — these sisters with their sword-tongues are making it happen. The community fired up inside the van runs on fumes (often no money, no gas), humor (sometimes that’s all you got), and the fierce drive (leave it to the feminists & the queers) to bring their outsider history to the cities across the country. As Tea says in her introduction: “Two vanloads of queer performers taking off into the place we’d fled, ‘America.’”
Sister Spit is fueled by mad literary crushes on (in equal measure!): the road, the vans, each other, their fans, and, of course, their hell-bent urge to get to the next town, the next stage. There is something unstoppably scrappy and alive about the ethos that is Sister Spit, and it is infectious — it spreads from the inner sanctum of the van through their audiences and right back to the artists themselves. And now, the sarcastic, idiosyncratic spin that is so Sister Spit spills right out to the reader on the pages of this anthology. In his witty and wryly enthusiastic tour diary, Blake Nelson recalls from Day 34 of a recent tour:
We were served uneatable volumes of food and then stumbled out of there late and rushed back to the space and had that wonderful Sister Spit sensation of half forgetting where you are and what you’re doing and walking into the gig and finding A TOTALLY PACKED HOUSE. As a writer and goer to of writer things I have never seen anything literary consistently PACK THE SPACES like SS.
I’ve been in those packed houses, and I’ll say there is a haphazard edge to these road warrior wordsmiths. You can feel the sweat, exhaustion, and ecstasy of their DIY, punk-injected, motorized literary revolution. When Sister Spit steps into a community space for a show, it’s as if they just came in off the road that very minute: grease on their hands from changing a tire, wind-whipped hair from having to hitchhike — en masse. And sometimes, that just might be what happened. The thing is, people are hungry for this version of America. Give me your bedraggled, your bent, your hot-messed-up-renegade-poet-masses yearning to breathe free, not the wretched refuse of your pre-fab, plastic-wrapped, gated-up America. Enter, the inimitable Sister Spit who just might show America another way.
Town by town, city by city, Sister Spit ignites constellations of words and community — stringing together another kind of America, a queerdom. At another key moment in the introduction, Tea says:
Everywhere we went we found our people, and they were and were not who we thought they would be. Our country welcomed us. Incredibly, we realized that we belonged here.
Sister Spit seems as changed by their fans and the community they create as the fans are by them. Though the capitalist, heteronormative superstructure stands like an old iron fortress all around, there is the feeling — the reality — that when cultural heroes dare to invent another world, we get to live in the world as envisioned otherwise, for at least a flickering moment. That moment doesn’t last, but it changes us. I know that flickering. I know that moment. In 2001, I trekked my cowboy drag king poet self from Texas to Ohio for the Third International Drag King Extravaganza. Plunked into a mind-and-body-blowing theatrical scene of gender-bending performers from across the country, I was electrified. Every hair (natural and spirit-gummed on) stood on end. I had performed as Johnny T. before — but on this national stage, I had arrived. I had touched the pulse of our queer nation, and there was no turning back. When I teamed up with drag king sisterbrother Mocha Jean Herrup in Austin to throw our inaugural blowout show of Kings N Things (one of the king troupes still going strong), I was acting on the sparks of that flickering queerdom. So goes the creation myth of the Sister Spit Ramblin’ Roadshow — Michelle Tea returned to San Francisco from touring with a punk band where she got a taste of the many scenes and audiences in this larger queer land of ours. In the introduction she says, “I felt freedom, and it felt rad.” Once you see the unstoppable flocking of queers to the stage (on it or in front of it), there’s no stopping and so there came the firestorm: the Spit founders turned to that original phoenix nest and blew some shit up — Sister and spoken word were about to become new birds. Evolving with the border-shifts of the queer community over time, Sister Spit has become a posse of many kinds of sisters: trans men, queer men, and cisgendered male feminists. This is the brilliance of Tea and Anderson — they let Sister Spit evolve, bursting into that larger queerdom through the roadshow and now here in this imprint. What jumps off these pages is a decidedly genre- and gender-fluid world.
And yesiree, this book is full of bent visions of gender — in the tour diaries and the larger arc of the book. The illusory uneven ground of America’s binary gender system splits open with the crackle of Sister Spit’s sarcasm and irony. Be forewarned: didactic feminism is not spoken here. Myriam Gurba’s narrator, for example, gives us an off-kilter motherhood when she finds three motherless starling eggs and brings them to the bed she shares with her lover. “Some girls have Brillo Pads,” she says. “I have a course nest. It’s my bird womb.” Eileen Myles, in a classic story about her first book party in New York, talks about wearing a boat-neck shirt and says, “I secretly knew that I was a dog who lived in a boat.” And the narrator in Michelle Tea’s story says of a masculine character, “When Andy was a little girl she prayed to unicorns to not get boobs, and it worked.” In a country where gender is practically robotic, these authors turn to the muddier, more complex realms of creaturedom to push toward not just third genders, but funny, mythic versions of gender: feathered, tailed, horned. Harry Dodge spins a bizarre, surreal world in his story where his characters, amputees and mutants of one kind or another, live off-the-grid in a land where everyone’s named after soft rock bands (Air Supply, Bee Gees, Chicago, to name a few). As the narrator works to get a character named Marx the Authoritarian out of a seemingly impossible hole, he reflects on his own body-identity:
The assorted biological anti-fruits of my failed gene enhancements are — however — at this juncture quite striking and — I have to admit — have garnered a certain amount of praise and/or erotic attention. Chicks dig me. Life as an earthling without outer ear cones, less one arm, and with three spindly little brittle-boned birdlegs has not been as wholly joyless as one (not in the know) may imagine.
Forget smashing the patriarchy or the heterosexist, transphobic fathership — Sister Spit knows how to offer up stranger subversions that have more bite — and wag.
I will say, there are moments when the Sister Spit ethos — and some of the pieces in this anthology — traffic in navel-gazing and self-involvement. After all, what the book does is invite us into the navel, the inner sanctum. The subculture within a subculture that is this band of queer, misfit writers (holed up inside a tinier universe of the van) careens into myopia at times. It’s as if Sister Spit is its own small town barreling down highways past all of America’s actual small towns.
However. This town, even if its inhabitants are jacked up on their own inbred jokes, is a whole different kind of small. It is small like an archipelago of small queer hubs strung across the US — and the globe. And this is where Sister Spit and this anthology recoup quickly from any moments of Queertown myopia. The larger arc of the book — its range of voices, cultures, and perspectives — gives America back to us. Bent as we need it.
From the cultural margins we get to see unique angles — from the outside in. Several narratives take Sister Spit’s non-normative vision of the country to another level. Here a few stellar authors do some heavy lifting. Haitian-born Lenelle Moïse shows us the belly of the beast in her poignant memoir, “Memory: Private School Jezebel.” The narrator has a crush on a boy Christopher — also from Haiti — who is ostracized because he doesn’t hide his roots.
It is the eighties and Haitians in America are dubbed Boat People, even if they crossed the border on a plane, like me. Scientists, comedians, and politicians blame us (and the Harvey Milk–like men of San Francisco) for AIDS.
Moïse shows herself standing on that faulty line where America asks its people — especially immigrants — to warp ourselves in order to fit in. To not stand out. Here Moïse is unflinching in her self-examination as it exposes the larger fraud of America’s cookie-cutterdom. She admits she doesn’t join her peers who tease Christopher, but she also doesn’t step in to defend him. Meanwhile she sneaks secret hellos and goodbyes to him and simultaneously tells her friends she is from Tahiti, not Haiti. This is exactly the split personality — the cultural contortionism — America wreaks upon outsiders who try to make it past the very real borders and margins of this nation. Elisha Lim’s graphic essay “The Hong Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart” brilliantly reveals the massive export — and import — of that contortionism.
There are 6 billion of us in the world who do not come from North America, and we know what it’s like to live in its shadow — growing up hearing, seeing, reading, watching, discussing, interpreting and mildly obsessing over it.
Lim’s piece is set at a Catholic girls school on an undisclosed Asian island and centers on the hero/ine Ling Ling who is a heartthrob, idol, and the coolest kid on campus — because of her American leanings (hip-hop, jeans, basketball, etc). Through cleverly devised sections such as “The Music,” “The Jeans,” and “The Walk,” Lim shows the fixation with Ling Ling in all of its complexity — the hunger to consume American culture mixed with the sex appeal of Ling Ling’s masculinity. Lim states, “But her coolness wasn’t so much a credit to her as it was a credit to being American, and so you could argue that some of us were lesbians indirectly because of the command of the American empire.” Even having only lived in the US for a year, America drips off of Ling Ling, and every girl at the school wants a piece of it — and her.
America, it turns out, pops up everywhere — even when you resist or protest belonging to it. More than setting out to critique the place (although of course that, too), Sister Spit acts as a rolling stone. As this collective of outsiders rolls through town after town — with its running commentary — it gathers a bit of America into its fold. The coup of this anthology is that it reflects a ragged, uneven nation back to itself and shows us how, for a country that makes so many of its communities feel out of place, belonging is most often yearned for, and most inventively found, by its outsiders. To walk away from Sister Spit is to discover a constellation of roughly-hewn stars, courtesy of Cooper Lee, inked onto our arms — each of us flickering with our bent-up, fucked-up, beautiful little Americas.