The glass door of the Berkeley-based bookstore is plastered with posters, but there is only one in color, drawing attention to its purple and yellow content: Sister Spit: The Next Generation! The fact that this poster is plastered here makes the act of stepping through the door an act, a choice, to go here and be queer, non-normative, unconventional, ever so slightly inappropriate, and proud of it.
Sister Spit: The Next Generation is a reading tour, consisting of authors who voluntarily drive everywhere in a small van. It ran in the 90s and then it was women-only or sisters-only and the shows revolved around free-styling at open mics, spitting. Now the tour is more inclusive and there are male performers as well. Queer authors are asked by Michelle Tea, who set Sister Spit up to read and share their stories all over the country, and in some cases, even all the way to Europe and Canada.
From what I can see through the glass door the store seems too quiet and too empty to host a performance in a mere five minutes. As I step in I see there were in fact many people, browsing and hiding between the books, maybe influenced by the same feeling of apprehension I had stepping into the store. Soft music is playing, some band either from the sixties or heavily inspired by the sixties vibe. I join the browsers, looking, like everyone else, at who else is coming in tonight. No one is extravagantly dressed, and apart from the poster the bookstore seems as normative as can be (perhaps deceptively so).
The furtive glances people cast around them as they enter bookstore Pegasus, seemingly at random, are performances in themselves. Trying to unqueer the space, perhaps, people browse the excellent selection of books, slowly weaving through the store until they reach the three small steps that lead to what constitutes Sister Spit’s stage tonight. About 40 metal blue chairs have been set up, facing a microphone. Even as they sit down they continue looking at the books on the wooden shelves next to them, as if they sat down by accident.
The people who arrive early are mainly in their 30s and 40s. There are some couples, women who sit together seemingly at random, but start to caress each other as they feel more comfortable. Many have come alone. There are more women than men. To the side a small table is host to red wine and sparkling water provided by the bookstore. The wine is barely touched. The performers sit next to this table, on the same chairs as the audience, but distinctively to the side, separated.
The music stops. Michelle Tea took it away, being host and one of the performers in one. There were many themes running through the often very funny personal stories the authors read to us. Feminism, loss of authenticity, doing drugs and getting tattoos from unreliable sources, as well as what it means to be an outsider, specifically a queer outsider, in rural communities. Other themes revolved around queer temporalities and queer space, the 1990s being the time that is queered somehow in this collective aching for a glorified past and the space that is queered through the eyes of the authors, who find something within the mainstream of American societies that becomes queer through their retelling.
Sister Spit’s Origin
Michelle Tea, who hosts the readings, explains in her story how difficult it was (and is) for women to penetrate into male-dominated subcultures and societies. She is talking about stand-up in the 1990s here. She wanted to give women a platform, a place to perform that they did not have to fight for – because, as Tea perhaps rightly points out, some women will not or cannot fight for it, yet they too deserve a platform.
Sister Spit started as open mic performances. To counter the macho energy that was very much present in that scene they were set up and open only to women. “It was supposed to be only readings, but then these girls came with their acoustic guitars and AniDiFranco1 covers and they ruined it, haha,” says Ali Liebegott, one of the performers. In the nineties Sister Spit toured for three years. Everyone was welcome and the shows lasted up to three hours.“There was lots of drinking and drugs,” Liebegott says with a grin before becoming serious again. Due to that and additional tensions between the Sister Spit members the group disbanded.
In 2007 the show started again as Sister Spit: Next Generation. The show consists of fewer members now, about six, and includes both male and female performers. Collaboration between Michelle and Tea and City Lights Publisher in San Francisco has led to Sister Spit as a promoting tour. Now Sister Spit does not only support its performers, but also helps them to get published. The idea of this collaboration is to publish writings informed by queers, writings that represent the authentic queer. In the nineties the show was very ideologically based. Now, Sister Spit is more a collective of authors touring to promote their work; they go through large cities and college towns. Liebegott says that in some ways the 90s tour was really great. It was fearless. But, she says, “you can’t live like that anymore when you’re in your forties.”
Class Struggle and San Francisco’s Mission District
Most of the authors did not go to college, most notably Michelle Tea. During the performance this was noted several times, brought forward in the question: “Would Sister Spit have existed if its founder, Michelle Tea, would have gone to college?” Michelle’s answer: “probably not” was met with laughter from the audience.
In extension of this, class difference emerged as a theme during the course of the performance which was especially interesting and poignant due to their performing in a bookstore, in Berkeley, home to what constitutes as probably the most prestigious public university in the United States. This plays right into the current political agenda, and Sister Spit’s writers are savvy enough to know when there is a sore topic for the public that might get some laughs—laughs of painful recognition.
Class-struggle as a theme ran both through the 90s and the current shows. The show was set up by people who had a working class background. The show’s authors deal with themes like addiction, class issues, and sex work. Liebegott, says these themes are more or less “expected:” Sister Spit owns them.
The tour started in San Francisco and most of its members are based there. The Mission, San Francisco’s art district is still home to many queer artists, even though the neighborhood has changed a lot since the 90s. The Mission changed a lot, and many young queer people choose to live in cheaper places, like Oakland, says Liebegott. The queer community in The Mission might be dwindling, but it does mean a new community is forming elsewhere. The Mission is the place I met Sister Spit-members Ali Liebegott and Rhiannon Argo (separately) to interview about life as a queer author and their involvement with Sister Spit.
I meet Ali in a cafe in The Mission, where she works and lives, a few weeks after the performance. The cafe, weirdly located in the middle of a quiet residential area, was beautiful inside: wooden floors, paintings on the wall, a counter that would not be misplaced in an old Western Saloon, and full of well-dressed people who were all working on laptops on a Monday afternoon. Ali came right from an art show next door; her art, along with the art of many others, had been featured. In total there were about 500 pieces, about 15 pieces had been sold and Liebegott had to take her piece home: a painting, using pastel colors, of a dinosaur who laments history being too straight.
Aside from the colorful painting under her arm, Ali is dressed in a plain loose white shirt and baggy jeans with a black jacket. Her grey hair is cut short. Ali Liebegott has been part of Sister Spit from the very beginning, which means she toured both in the 90s shows and in the current shows.
She’s a writer, author of The IHOP Papers, an editor, performer in Sister Spit: Next Generation and she teaches writing classes. “I remember always writing, creative writing,” she says. Liebegott has been busy putting herself out there since high school, sending her writings out to magazines and editors. She laughs when she tells me how this was done pre-Internet: she would buy a book which listed all possible places who would accept work from a beginning writer, including their contact information and she would just go through that book. There might be something to say for a comprehensive guide, but Wikipedia would turn its nose up to it for sure.
Liebegott started out as a poet, and began writing more fiction in her late twenties. She likes both forms equally. The only presents her mom gave her were books, but even so Liebegott admits to never having been an avid reader like some, who can waste their days away holed up in a cupboard with a book. Books that have had an impact on Liebegott both in her writings and in her personal life were books by other queer authors. She says she read memoires, she read Audre Lorde and Stone Butch Blues, and they all led to a better understanding of what it means to be queer. Then there was also the queer community, and especially the queer writing community, which inspired Liebegott. “This community is tight, and people all know each other through readings. They know each other’s’ work through “zines and chapbooks, small works of art and writings put together in a very small magazine authors in the writing community make and distribute.”
When I ask Liebegott to talk about her own work as queer and queer literature being accepted or not she became very serious: “Our society doesn’t support it. The publishing house that published my first book… died. The publishing house that published my second book… it died out. Today’s society doesn’t support authentic lesbian writers. There is a gentrification of the mind. Queer literature is very ‘ghettoized.’ There is a queer community that is very small and has been put into a box. They are not breaking into the mainstream. In my writing I reflect the authentic queer person. I want to show all kinds of queer people to show some kind of depth. Not just the gay kid who is presented on television. There are, of course, some representations of queer people in the media but they are not authentic, they have to adhere to some degrees of what’s acceptable.”
Rhiannon Argo, another Sister Spit member, also lives in the Mission which is where we meet, in the same café I met Ali Liebegott. Argo’s first novel The Creamsickle won the Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian Debut Fiction Category in 2009.
She is dressed in gym clothing, a loose bright shirt over a sports bra and her bright red hair in a messy ponytail. She says “I started writing when I was about seven years old because the teacher wanted us to keep journals. I read a lot of fantasy growing up. In high school I read and made zines, and through those zines and the community producing them I came into contact with Michelle Tea.”
“I was in an anthology Baby Remembers My Name and Michelle Tea worked on that. When Michelle Tea revived Sister Spit in 2007 she asked me to join. After I asked her how she enjoyed being in Sister Spit she answered with a big smile: “Before I went on Sister Spit I didn’t really have a writer community. Now I have. These girls are still my friends, my community.”
Argo supports her writing career through grants, awards, and going on tours like Sister Spit’s tour and some odd jobs on the side. This comes back in her literary work. Argo says: “I like to write about marginalized people.” She adds that she wants to put out a feminist take on different aspects of life. She says that “queer is very political,” it’s a world perspective which involves sexuality but it also implies that people have a similar political agenda.
Her aim in her work is to write for small-town queers. She grew up in a small town and she had no one to represent her. Part of going on tour with Sister Spit is to go to small towns and represent. Connecting and reaching out to young people is awesome, Argo adds, “the way they treat you out there, it makes me feel like a rock-star.” That anyone would travel hundreds of miles in a van to promote queer culture and connect to others is very meaningful to young members of the queer community in rural areas, even if they don’t necessarily have a community yet. Argo laughs when she explains that it feels that much better to be out there when comparing it to San Francisco since in San Francisco “queer culture is everywhere and queer performers are not necessarily appreciated.”
Cassie J. Sneider
Another member of Sister Spit, who did come out to Berkeley to perform but recently moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, New York, is Cassie J. Sneider. Fine Fine Music is Sneider’s debut novel. She does a monthly reading series in Brooklyn. She also writes a blog, draws comics and has a very open and public internet personality. In line with her being an internet personality (and, of course, the difficulty of getting to a café in Brooklyn), I interviewed her through chat.
She says, “I read every Babysitters Club book and a lot of the Sweet Valley series. I didn’t know I was allowed to go in the adult area of the library until I was thirteen and asked the children’s librarian for Faust by Goethe and Dave Barry Turns 40. Boy howdy was I embarrassed!”
When talking about becoming a writer she says “I would write stories and read them to coworkers in the break room of my job. When I first moved to Texas, I sent out some stories to 50 literary journals and got 48 rejection letters. The first place to publish me was a broadsheet called the2ndhand.” She met Michelle Tea through a mutual friend and sent her some writing. After that Michelle Tea asked her to tour with Sister Spit.”
“I think my writing and drawings fall in a space of embarrassment of the collective human consciousness. My stories are kind of queer, but they’re mostly about being working class or growing up in a crappy town or breaking up with crazy people. I am not that aware to intentionally make them about queerness or sexuality. They are just about things that happened tome,” says Sneider about her literary work.
“Being involved with Michelle Tea, Sister Spit has helped me immeasurably in my ‘craft’ and as a human being, and the only thing I can do with those feelings of overwhelming gratitude is to try to be a better writer and to help give other writers a chance in whatever way I can,” says Sneider.
When talking about the performance aspect of her work Sneider says “I think in my life as a reader and writer, by touring and having a book people enjoy, I’ve broken the fourth wall between holding a book and being in a book. It really makes you wonder how Ann M. Martin (2) feels. (Just kidding. Sort of).”
Queer Acceptance and the Next Generation
Originally Sister Spit was set up to be a platform for women, for performers, for anyone who didn’t fit in the scene. And it seems like it was that way for a while. The stage was flooded with supposed “crazies,” the stage was there for whomever wanted it.
Now there seems to be more acceptance— there are men performing, women performing, who are perfectly able to get their own gigs. It is less about being “queer” even though this is still the audience they aim for. The performance is there to assure people, people from a new generation, to make them feel less alone perhaps as Argo rightfully notes when she talks about how awesome it is to perform and connect with queers in rural areas without a community.
This could be part of a larger trend. The world does make its progress, however roundabout or backwards it may seem sometimes. There have been more and more representations of “queer” people in popular media. At the same time the “authentic” queer, a Liebegott says, has not been represented at all.
Younger people might identify with the mainstream productions, which present a “queer” that is made to be presentable for the general public: cute, gay and happy. This is where Sister Spit comes in: with its stories and performances the audience members are opened up to various interpretations of what it means to be them; to what it means to be queer. That this is presented to the audience by authors from different backgrounds, authors who are aware of class difference because they live it and authors who are part of queer communities makes their continued existence and revival inspiring to those they connect with on the road. And all this is made possible by a van, and possibly a lot of beer—which just goes to show that helping people is sometimes easier than we think it is.
This way Sister Spit helps a new generation find its own voice. Or one that is not as far removed from them as mainstream media would have it, perhaps.
1 A feminist singer-song writer.
2 The author of the Sweet Valley High series.
Written as a research project for COLWRIT110 taught by S. Tollefson, taken on exchange at the University of Berkeley. (Fall 2012).