Jia Tolentino is an eloquent explainer of contemporary culture in the New Yorker magazine and an essayist often touted as the voice of her generation (something she rejects).
The 30-year-old’s new book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, is a collection of mildly unsettling essays that range over such subjects as internet subjectivity, being in a reality television programme, her ambivalence about literary heroines, high-profile scams associated with the millennial generation and the immersive properties of both religion and hallucinogenic drugs.
She writes incisively about these things, not from the countercultural margins but from the centre. She has lived much of her life at the heart of some very mainstream American phenomena, spending her youth as a churchgoer, a cheerleader, a reality television show contestant, a sorority sister and a Peace Corp volunteer.
“Right, like I’m completely basic,” she says and laughs. “I spent Saturday night playing beer pong until 3am … I’m kind of, I want to say ‘average’… I’m so vulnerable to all the same things we’re all vulnerable to, and I feel that’s a useful thing to be able to foreground in your writing, to show your total lack of immunity to all the forces working on all of us …
“I crave that experience of physically inhabiting the centre of something as the only possible way of understanding it.”
Throughout her life, she says, she has written things down in order to understand them. At the age of 10 she wrote on an early Angelfire webpage, “The Story of How Jia got her Web Addiction.”
“I spent so much of my high-school life being a cheerleader and there’s so much writing in my journal with me trying to understand what was going on with gender and in terms of my attraction to these extremely conservative structures where the girl is supposed to be pretty and the boy is supposed to be strong,” she says.
“I was trying to understand the hypocrisies and the unspoken codes of this world… I had great friends at high school, but no one was really trying to talk about conservative gender ideology. And I love my parents, but I definitely wasn’t talking to them about that stuff.”
At 16 she leapt at the opportunity to be in the now forgotten reality television show Girls vs Boys: Puerto Rico after being approached and asked to make an audition tape in a shopping mall.
Why did she want to do it? “You know when you’re 16 and you’ll do anything you can to get out of the house? I think it was partly that. I had lived this cloistered upbringing and was so eager for new experiences. And even still it was just curiosity and also a lot of narcissism and being flattered to think I was special enough to be cast. And I wanted the money. And I was curious. Even now if someone says, ‘Hello, Jia, here’s this weird experience you can do’ I’m mostly, ‘hell yeah!’”
She was born in Toronto but grew up in Texas where her parents, immigrants from the Philippines, were members of the Southern Baptist church. They were “not the most dogmatic” members of the congregation, she says, but as a teenager she knew nobody who was anti-war or pro-choice. She only heard the word “feminism”, she says, when she was halfway through her undergraduate course at the University of Virginia (a college she writes about in the context of campus sexual assault in another essay in the book, We Come from Old Virginia).
“I had literally never been exposed to any other views. And then I sort of drifted leftward.” Now she describes her politics as “as far left as they can be”.
After college she spent a year with the Peace Corp in Kyrgyzstan where she faced street harassment and was physically unwell and deeply unhappy in ways she only touches upon in this book.
“I’m still not at a place where I understand it well enough to write it,” she says. “I didn’t take any notes when I was there… All my life I’ve written everything down… And I wanted to try not doing that and see how it affected the texture of my daily living, and as it turned out maybe I should have been writing it down…. Because maybe when I didn’t, that was part of the reason I went nuts.”
She thinks now that she was clinically depressed. The depression lifted, it seems, when she began writing again. She undertook an MFA at the University of Michigan and won the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, but found she wasn’t satisfied to just work on fiction all day and ended up taking freelance writing gigs. This led to a job with the Hairpin and then one with feminist website Jezebel, then owned by Gawker.
She was there when Hulk Hogan sued Gawker into non-existence with the financial help of the billionaire Peter Thiel (Gawker had published clips from a sex tape featuring Hogan).
“It felt really bad,” she says. “Gawker made a ton of mistakes and people would sh*t on it all the time but that also makes you understand that the freedom to f**k these things up is the same freedom that enables everything that’s good that exists on these websites.
“Every sex predator that’s come out in the US since, Gawker was running that stuff in 2008. Gawker was running Jeffrey Epstein stories and stories about Louis CK and everyone was like, ‘This is horrible, you’re invading his privacy’… It was very clear to me that we were a canary in the coal mine of billionaire influence on media and also the decline of independent media … before Facebook and Google started to take up 85 per cent of the ad revenue.”
She accepted a job offer from the New Yorker the day the company went bankrupt. So she went from working for new upstart internet companies to working for one of America’s oldest and most respectable publications.
There she revels in being edited, fact-checked and permitted to write at length. Her work is always informative and thought-provoking pulling together the fraying threads of contemporary culture without ever landing on simplistic conclusions.
“I have very few conclusions about anything,” she says. “I think more and more that what I’m trying to get out of writing is just a sense I’m in the right direction.”
You can see people form opinions as if forming opinions was an act in itself
Her essay, ‘The I in Internet’ is one of the best critiques of generic online behaviour I’ve read. In it she writes, “I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems. First, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”
“I tried to write about these things,” she says now, “in large part so that I would be spared the worst of that distortion. You can see people be enlivened by opposition in a way that’s really sick. You can see people form opinions as if forming opinions was an act in itself. You can see people reacting to things out of any sense of reasonable proportion….
“And I think that the real way you can see it is the way that people will act differently online than they will in real life.” Later she says. “Sometimes I’m on Twitter thinking, ‘Will we be f***ing doing this until we die?’”
She finds some elements of internet culture nightmarish. “I was in the Peace Corp [when] memes were first around, and I came back and everyone was talking about these memes… I distinctly remember wanting to cry. It made me so sad. It seemed so self-evidently meaningless and ephemeral and transactional and cold in a way that really hurt me.”
Internet’s destructive centrality
Does she feel that the internet’s destructive centrality in our lives is inevitable? “I don’t want to be unnecessarily fatalistic, but it does seem we’ve reached a stage with so much acceleration and inertia, it’s hard to imagine things truly reversing.”
She thinks that if there’s any hope of reforming the online space it comes with tackling its capitalist underbelly and using America’s corporate antitrust laws. “There’s a strong legislative case for really taking apart and to some degree demonetising and changing the profit structure of these social media platform.
“I would love it if that happened… I even think of what happened in Ireland with abortion law. If there was a sudden reflection of what people wanted in the government, this could all be different. I try to remember that.”
What religion is supposed to be, a continual inquiry into a mystery, I love that
In another of her essays, Ecstasy, she writes about the unravelling of self that occurs with both religious fervour and drug-taking. “There’s a part of me that is really attracted to immersion and self-destruction and self-abnegation. I think that because so many other things in life are structured to put the self at the centre. I crave the opposite in any way I can get it.”
Does she still have faith? “I’m not religious at all but I have a lot of respect for devotion in any form … What religion is supposed to be, a continual inquiry into a mystery, I love that.”
When did she lose her faith? “I sort of reached a point towards the end of college where I thought that God is the laws of physics and that’s it.”
So, God is the universe? “That still makes a lot of sense to me.” She laughs. “And doing a lot of acid has been one way to keep remembering that.”
What do her parents make of her career trajectory? “I called them the week before that Ecstasy essay was in the New Yorker. I was: ‘Hey guys, sorry you sent me to Christian school for 12 years and the result is me writing 10,000 words on how much I like drugs.’
“They really treated me as an individual person as a kid. They respected me as autonomous and told me that I could do what I wanted to do, basically. [They] have done that classic immigrant thing where their priority was that we would have more freedom than they had.
“I know they would rather I was a bit more traditional… But if you raise someone to be honest and independent, which is what they did very consciously, this is what happens. I think they get that.”
Despite her progressive politics, does she still have friends from her church days? “Oh yeah,” she says. “I’ve got friends from home who voted for Trump and who are conservative and go to church and will send their kids to private school and do all these things I’ve run away from, but who are still my friends.
“I think it’s really easy to find people who agree with everything you agree with, but it’s harder to find someone you’d want to go camping with. And I’d rather have one than the other.”
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