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Sandra Song

Writing from on the Road: A Q&A with Sister Spit’s Michelle Tea

Both sentimental and side-splittingly funny, Sister Spit: Writings, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road (Sister Spit/City Lights), is a collection of stories coming out this month from Michelle Tea’s legendary feminist performance art collective, which performs around the country with a featured group of talented feminist writers, beat-boxers and trapeze artists alike.

Told through a series of essays, drawings and diaries from various caravan contributors, Sister Spit is a sharp, sassy take on the tour experience. Reading it feels like taking a road trip with your best friends at their brightest, sans the backseat bickering and rest stop bathroom breaks. A quick read that’s endlessly entertaining, it’s an opportunity to eavesdrop on some of the best feminist writers and performers in the Bay Area.

ZYZZYVA spoke via email with Michelle Tea, the anthology’s editor, about everything from Sister Spit to Sleigh Bells to sub-par lodgings.

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A Haunting in Houndstitch: ‘Inukshuk’ by Gregory Spatz

Despite the presence of rotting teeth, oozing sores and cannibalism, Gregory Spatz’s novel Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press, 192 pages), which charts the struggles of an emotionally disjointed family, is much more haunting than horrific. Exploring the gradual breakdown of a family abandoned, it’s a strange, hallucinatory tale of loss that still manages to keep itself grounded in the real world.

Uprooting his teenage son Thomas to the small Canadian oil town of Houndstitch after he is left by his wife, John Franklin must battle his own demons while also dealing with Thomas’s concerning obsession with explorer Sir John Franklin’s doomed Victorian-era Arctic expedition. Despite its slightly surreal story, there’s a recognizable narrative about broken families and emotional grappling underneath it all. Told in a fresh, innovative manner, Inukshuk better communicates darkness and distress than any S.O.S. signal. There’s a resounding undercurrent of resentment and anger throughout the narrative, which is eventually manifests in Thomas’s hallucinations, John’s romantic turmoil, and the marked absence of a distant second son and the ever-elusive Jane, his estranged wife.

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An Ever-Evolving Chameleon: Cindy Sherman Retrospective at SFMOMA

Installation view of "Cindy Sherman," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Ian Reeves)

The long-standing queen of conceptual portraiture, Cindy Sherman is the art world’s daring chameleon and its fiercest critic. Known for her bold pieces that often question identity, self-perception and established gender norms, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has curated an incredibly thorough traveling retrospective of Sherman’s work—more than 150 of her photographs, film projects, as well as a special series of film screenings that have inspired her creatively—that’s on exhibition until October 8 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Portraying herself as everything from a harlot to a housewife, Sherman embodies the narrow gender roles offered to American women and spits in the face of stereotyping. A fantastic visual parodist, her work is purposefully garish and brash, filled with images of the artist bearing caked-on foundation and wearing dollar store get-ups that reveal their own artifice, exposing the fraying hems and loose seams underlining the expectations of an “ideal” women.

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The Well-Researched Drug Memoir: ‘Opium Fiend’ by Steven Martin

When you think of opium smoking, the sepia-steeped image of an exotic Shangri-La probably comes to mind.. However, opium consumption has long been a worldwide phenomenom, with smokers found among  the upper crust and the impoverished. In his memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (Villard; 416 pages), Steven Martin delves deep into the long-lost secret history of a drug that once captured the imaginations of everyone, from the haute couture to Hunter S. Thompson.

Martin—a freelance writer living in Southeast Asia whose curiosity about opium smoking eventually led to his becoming an addict to it—gives us a crash course on the long-lost art of opium smoking, from instructions on how to smoke (Martin spent most of his adult life collecting opium pipes and related paraphernalia) to providing a breezy historical analysis of the drug  that is neither overly embellished nor painstakingly pretentious. It’s accessible and interesting without playing into the usual drug memoir tactic of detailing an incredible downward spiral of dependence leading to an eventual, magnificent train wreck.

What is most appealing about Martin’s story is that it’s enticingly candid and entirely plausible. Nothing seems made up or fake about his experiences. Also, his background in penning travel guides is evident as he transports the reader between turn-of-the-century opium dens and modern day Chinatown alleys and their tight corners. Martin is incredibly versed on his subject, relating knowledge on opiates that had been lost for decades before his painstaking, first-hand research.

Honest, direct, and full of carefully organized narratives that weave Martin’s personal stories with those of others and with opium itself, Opium Fiend creates a strong connection to Martin and his expat addict friends. Maybe that’s because the writing is unlike that of many other addiction memoirs, which tend to be pity parties rife with flamboyance and glamorous self-destruction. Martin’s voice has a laid-back vibe, perhaps as a result of his Southern California upbringing. He wants to share his insights with the public at large, educating rather than discouraging them from learning more about what it means to smoke opium and the worlds built around that addiction.

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Life as a Flounder, or Lizard: ‘No Animals We Could Name’ by Ted Sanders

Ted Sanders writes the kind of sensitive, careful prose that makes it easy for the reader to forge connections with the most unconventional of characters—whether a flounder or a lizard—and to live for pages as someone (or something) you thought you could never identify with.

A collection of fourteen individual narratives, each forming its separate universe, No Animals We Could Name (Graywolf Press; 272 pages) is a beautiful expression of feeling in the form of prose. Putting a surrealist spin on the most realist situations, Sanders’ hyper-observant prose and delicate descriptions are at once gentle and urging, prompting you to think about what really lays beneath the surface.

In the three-part story “Airbag,” the main character’s boyish fascination with a dwarf named Dorlene slowly unfolds amid a backdrop of self-indulgent schmoozing and stale party snacks. And in a story about a lion ragdoll, you see the twisted underside of a grown-up’s imaginary friend gone wrong. That story most overtly expresses the profound sense of melancholy that echoes in all these stories.

At times, Sanders’ “observe and let it unfold” approach can make the collection, which won the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, seem overly vague and self-indulgently mysterious. But Sanders has a rare gift for articulating the things most of us can only mutely feel and vaguely process. Like a meticulous anthropologist, he adopts a sense of clinical detachment, observing the minute details that lead us to insights.

A writer who delicately explores every crevice of the human body, who scrutinizes every action from the outside in, Sanders explores the awkwardness, cynicism and uncertainty that so often surrounds our relationships. Through fresh prose that is emotional and dispassionate at once, he has done something great in No Animals We Could Name, creating a complex work that speaks to the oddity of modern life.

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