Rent Girl by Michelle Tea & Laurenn McCubbin

I’m getting a lot of reading done since the Summer Writing Program. One book I just finished is Rent Girl by Michelle Tea (Illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin). This is a memoir of a sex worker. The back cover explains: Rent Girl is the boldly illustrated saga of one broke baby dyke trying to make a buck in the surreal world of the sex industry. ?

Tea tells the story of a young woman who is neither victim or hero. No one forces her into sex work. She finds out her girl-friend is a prostitute and is attracted by the illicit glamour and the money. Mostly its the money, as she describes herself in the book as a ?confused lesbian slacker with no saleable job skills ? and many times stresses her own laziness and greed.

The other prostitutes range from colorful to psychotic. And the customers are an equally diverse cast, but all of them (even the not-so-bad ones) are men in the very worse moments of their mostly miserable lives. This is an engaging account of sex work that is accessible, straightforward, and genuine.

I got the book because I wanted something by Michelle Tea. I’d heard her name in a few places and wanted to read her stuff. Her bio in the back of Rent Girl says she is:

the author of the memoirs The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia, and The Chelsea Whistle; and the poetry collection The Beautiful. She edited the anthologies Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, and with Clint Catalyst, Pills, Thrills, Chills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person. She co-founded the legendary Sister Spit open mic and national tours, and continues to curate performance throughout America. She writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Girlfriends, On Our Backs, The Believer, and other fine print and web publications. ?

When I bought the book I thought it was a novel. And it is, but not a traditional novel because it is illustrated. But it’s not a graphic novel, either. There are no panels or dialog balloons. But the illustrations are as much a part of the story as the text. Each page of the book has text (50 to 250 words on average) accompanied by and beautiful drawing that connects (often, ironically) with the words. For example, in the first chapter (titled Ain’t Nothing But A Hooker Party) the narrator flashes back to a school field trip into the city where all the suburban kids strained their necks to catch a glimpse of a hooker ?.

The page reads:

What were we looking for? Think Donna Summer, toot-toot, yeah, beep-beep.

There’s A Hooker! one of the boys jabbed the smudgy pane. Outside was a woman waiting to cross the street. She had big, stormy hair and a shiny, tiny outfit. Her heels were tall. Maybe she was a hooker or maybe it was just 1982. But I nodded at the window, took in the brief length of her skirt, the point of her shoes, all that bright makeup and this great look on her face, sort of dreamy, spacing out while waiting for the light to change, confident in her extreme outfit, deeply engaged with herself. Walking the streets alone in stilettos, a hooker. I sighed.

Next to this paragraph is a drawing of a woman from the back: black leather jacket with fringes hanging from the sleeves, red mini-skirt, heeled shoes, 80’s style hair. The drawings always add to the text, sometimes creating an ironic tension, other times providing insight or detail into the world Tea is describing.

The illustrator is Laurenn McCubbin. Her bio on the back of book says she is:

?the author and illustrator (with Nikki Coffman) of XXXLIVENUDEGIRLS, a Xeric-award winning comic. She is the creative director of Kitchen Sink Magazine and principal of LMCC Illustration and Design. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, most notably the award winning SPX 2002 ANTHOLOGY, PROJECT: TELSTAR and TRUE PORN. Her illustrations have appeared in everything from On Our Backs to the New York Times. ?

The only complaint I have about the book is that it has quite a few typos. The book is costly ($24.95), filled with beautiful color illustrations, and thoughtful writing. It really cheapens it that someone didn’t take the time to correct simple spelling errors, especially in a book such as this. But still I feel like I got my money’s worth and would recommend it.

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