Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea is an author and activist who will appear at the Lawrence Arts Center as part of the Free State Festival.

For some, having a name on the cover of a book, selling out bookstores and meeting publishing deadlines is what defines their lives. For Michelle Tea, this distant thought became an unexpected reality.

“I didn’t even expect to get published,” Tea said. “I was writing to read aloud; I was writing to perform. I didn’t even understand how people got published into books, so it didn’t seem like a reasonable goal for me to have, so I didn’t.”

Tea will be a guest at the Free State Festival in Lawrence on Thursday. She is the author of five memoirs and has gained global recognition for her memoir “Valencia,” adapted into a feature-film after being awarded a Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Her autobiographical works have been known for exploring queer love and life, race, sex work, drugs, class and more all while incorporating her life into her stories.

The Lawrence Arts Center will put on its seventh annual Free State Festival from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23. By changing the usual dates from August to September and organizing more free events, festival founder and director Marlo Angell hopes to appeal more to KU and Haskell students this year. The festival programming includes speakers, films, taste-testings and more.

Appearing in festivals and events has always been of interest to Tea after seeing various authors receive invitations. Although she never expected to be called upon for appearances, she’s found a sense of excitement surrounding it all.

“Once you had books out, you could get invited to go do cool things,” Tea said. “You could travel, and people would put you up in hotels and that sounded so exciting to me to get to actually travel and get to see the country and to be coming to read my work in a place I’ve never read it before. It’s awesome.”

Not only does Tea use words for art, she uses her body, too. With over 20 tattoos, each one tells a different story, she said. One in particular, a spade tattoo on her knee, includes a wild story containing Vegas, shady tattoo artists, a tour and horoscopes.

“People got really messed up tattoos,” Tea said. “Mine is probably one of the least messed up ones they did, but it’s certainly not a precision piece of art at all.”

Tea plans to read selections from her body of work at the Free State Festival as well as incorporate clips from her film, “Valencia,” to add to the film component of the festival.

The overarching goal of the festival is to bring the Lawrence community together and introduce people to new spaces they may not have encountered before, according to Emily Ryan. Ryan is the director of the Spooner Hall Commons and initially invited Tea to be a part of the Free State Festival.

“It gives us a chance to bring people where they aren’t,” Ryan said. “It’ll be cool to have such a high-caliber writer and cool human at the festival.”

Tea will be alongside other artists, film producers and musicians to celebrate art and culture. Tea’s appearance is free and open to the public from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center on Thursday.

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