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Sister Spit: A Queer, Feminist Literary Celebration

Picture of Rachel Sanoff
Rachel Sanoff
Updated: 3 January 2017
On the evening of March 31, a packed theater at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum was thrilled to witness the radical literary experience known as Sister Spit. A queer-feminist spoken word collective, Sister Spit grew out of the Bay Area in 1994. Founded by Sini Andersen and Michelle Tea, the goal was gathering ‘the most notorious, talented, and just frickin’ interesting women and dykes‘ to create something raw, progressive and funny.
Virgie Tovar gives a "TED Talk" about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco
Virgie Tovar gives a ‘TED Talk’ about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco

Sister Spit originally began as a spoken-word open mic, exclusive to radical female performers, in response to San Francisco’s overwhelmingly male spoken word community. Their desire was to provide a space where women could speak on their sexuality, bodies, trauma, anger — about their humanity, really — without having to deal with drunken catcallers or sexist stage partners.

Eventually, by pulling names out of a hat, Tea and Andersen got a group of these lady-performers together and hopped in a van to embark on the first Sister Spit’s Ramblin Roadshow tour in 1997. They brought their fiercely feminist and queer literary performances to loving audiences at bars, bookstores, coffee shops, universities and artistic spaces across the US until 2001, when the women temporarily disbanded — a development that Tea later attributed to her and Andersen’s ‘dysfunctional habits.’ Prior to their hiatus, Sister Spit had already released three spoken word albums: I Spit on Your Country in 1997, Sister Spit’s Ramblin Road Show in 1999 and Greatest Spits!: A Spoken Word Compilation in 2001.

Virgie Tovar gives a "TED Talk" about diet cuture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco
Virgie Tovar gives a ‘TED Talk’ about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco

To the relief of zine-readers, artists, spoken word enthusiasts and queer/feminist identifying folks everywhere, Sister Spit brought their humorous, fearlessly honest, and empowering performances back to life in April 2007 – reborn as Sister Spit: The Next Generation. The new embodiment of Sister Spit has a few notable differences. For one, the performers are finally able to be paid more than $80/month for the beloved work they create and share with communities across the nation. No longer do they have to crash on strangers’ floors for the night while traveling between cities (though fans at their often sold-out shows had happily provided those floors), as they have since upgraded to hotel rooms.

The iconic ‘rambling Sister Spit van’ that brought the poetic girl-gang from state to state has since retired – not surprising considering its broken-down condition. They still travel by van, but now it’s a rented one that isn’t as likely to stall in the middle of nowhere. Also, Sister Spit: The Next Generation typically performs solely at universities and museums, though they still occasionally bring their verse to other spaces. Perhaps one of the most exciting developments is that, since 2012, Sister Spit no longer only provides performance venues for these storytellers, but also a pathway to publishing thanks to their collaboration with City Lights, the legendary San Francisco publishing house and bookstore.

Slide from Virgie Tovar's TED Talk about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco
Slide from Virgie Tovar’s ‘TED Talk’ about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco

Their imprint, known as City Lights/Sister Spit, has since released numerous publications, including Black Wave by Michelle Tea, The Beautifully Worthless by Ali Liebegott, and a Sister Spit anthology, among others. Kate Schatz and Thomas Page McBee, two of the storytellers at the March 31st Hammer performance, each read from their City Lights/Sister Spit books during their stage time. Rad American Women A-Z, Schatz’s book, is a wonderful picture book for children that teaches them about the radical and legendary women of American history. McBee’s memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, is a powerful, personal account of his transition. Both books, as well as chapbooks by the many performers, were sold (and sold-out) at the Hammer on Tuesday.

The inclusion of trans* people in the Sister Spit lineup is also a new, but extremely important and much needed change that occurred once Sister Spit reassembled. Though it began as ‘women and dykes’ only, in an interview with Oakland Local, Tea explained that the evolution of her queer and feminist communities made it obvious that all genders needed to have voices in Sister Spit. Tuesday night’s lineup, on Trans* Day of Visibility no less, included trans* performers like McBee and filmmaker Zackary Drucker, as well as queer male drag artist Mica Sigourney. They empowered, inspired and entertained the audience with their stories of sexuality, transition, identity and Beyoncé.

Slide from Virgie Tovar's TED Talk about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco
Slide from Virgie Tovar’s ‘TED Talk’ about diet culture | Courtesy Samantha Blanco

Sister Spit has clearly evolved, but their tendency to create lineups of radical writers from diverse walks of life hasn’t shifted. The 1990s incarnation featured storytellers who were also trapeze artists, dancers, Ph.D.s, filmmakers, cartoonists and musicians. Tuesday night also brought us Virgie Tovar, a sex educator and author who gave a TED Talk parody about diet culture, Myriam Gurba, a fiction writer and poet who read verse about her Chicana lesbian childhood, Francesca Lia Block, a professor who poetically discussed how to fall in love and Nikki Darling, an art critic who read poems of empowerment. Let Sister Spit inspire, empower and energize you, and check out their upcoming shows in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Flagstaff, among other cities.