When you've spent long, smelly months in a bus traveling the world sharing words with pockets of alternative community, the issue of place takes the fore. As she releases her third book Cha-Ching!, and as her decades-old Sister Spit collective embarks upon yet another tour of spoken word, queer revelry, and cramped living conditions, author Ali Liebegott is getting academic about it.
"I'm kind of obsessed with how artists can live," she tells me in a SoMa coffeehouse. She had texted me for clarification the night before on whether it was okay to look "scummy" at our interview, but she looks pretty neat in her white tee, motorcycle helmet sitting next to her on a bench. "And how queer people can live. I always think, where would I live if I couldn't live in San Francisco or New York?"
Liebegott teaches Sarah Schulman's Gentrification of the Mind -- a book that looks at how economic displacement changes our brain's wiring -- in her fiction class at Mills College. And in Cha-Ching!, the economy is an ever-present force, guiding protagonist Theo into shitty apartments in both NY and SF neighborhoods where there are few out gay people. (Not to mention a ludicrously depressing janitor job at a junk mail factory.) The book is Liebegott's third after The Beautifully Worthless and The IHOP Papers.
When I ask whether they're getting easier to write as time goes on she just laughs. "If I had been a plumber, I'd be able to fix things in my sleep. It doesn't get easier, it just gets different."
Liebegott reads from Cha-Ching! at City Lights in October
In an ever-more-caffeinated manner, she and I discuss how those higher rents are coinciding with an era in which publishing houses are more hesitant about what they throw their weight behind. "[Queer literature] is the first to go," Liebegott says. "All the queer books at Barnes and Noble are behind a potted plant, there's like four of them, and one of those is Best Lesbian Erotica 1994."
So it's good that, as poor queers and creatives and poor creatives and queers get kicked out of their urban homes and prime shelf space, Sister Spit is on the rise. Once restricted to queer female writers, the tour now includes a variety of genders, and different kinds of artists.
Liebegott's book is one of the first to come out on the imprint that the group's founder Michelle Tea was able to start through City Lights Books in the fall of 2012 -- The Beautifully Worthless was also released through the imprint, as well as the amazing Sister Spit anthology from earlier this year. Tea's fantastical young adult novel Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, set to drop this summer, is delicious. The collective's gig at the main library on Sun/31 is in advance of yet another of its fabled tours. This time the path lies up and down the coasts, up to Canada, and into the Mid-West.
Along the way, the Sister Spit artists will meet audience members in places where there is no queer community, places where people fundraised to get them there.
"I don't want to say we're a beacon of hope, but it is nice to give people this connection that they might not have," Liebegott says.
And that connection, more and more, may not be associated with any specific urban area. San Francisco, for example, would be beyond Liebegott's reach as a home if it weren't for her and her girlfriend's rent control. "I kind of feel like we're headed towards hell," Liebegott muses, taking in our swank, caffeinated surroundings. "I feel like we're already there."
Regardless, art. Cha-Ching! deals in gambling addiction, drug addiction, poverty, ennui, animal abuse, powerlessness -- but nonetheless, can be laugh out loud funny even, especially, when characters hit their low points.
She's already planning her next book, about a war vet obsessed with feeding ducks. "I feel like I'm so mired in depressing things!" Liebegott says. "My threshold for that is much higher than most people."
Cha-Ching!'s ending, though, leaves room to hope that queers can triumph over today's adversities. Or does it? At any rate, you have ample chances to buy the book at this week's readings (Liebegott is one of the featured artists at the Sister Spit reading on Sun/31 as well.)
In other news, Liebegott's big into Sizzler. She told me to write that.
Ali Liebegott's Cha-Ching! release party
Wed/27, 7pm, free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
Sister Spit tour kick-off reading
Sun/31, 2-5pm, free
San Francisco Main Library
100 Larkin, SF