A staff writer for The New Yorker, and former deputy editor of Jezebel and a contributing editor at The Hairpin, Jia Tolentino is something of a contemporary essayist superstar; her debut, award-winning essay collection Trick Mirror (2019), becoming an instant New York Times bestseller and named one of the best books of the year by the New York Public Library, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, the Chicago Tribune, GQ, and the Paris Review.
Known for her sharp wit and unabashed takes of pop culture, from music reviews to internet culture, reality tv and film to her personal upbringing, Tolentino was featured as part of the ongoing Singapore Writers’ Festival 2023, where she spoke on modern internet culture and our fixation on the self. We spoke to Tolentino over email, and gathered her thoughts about writing, the representation of the self, and the possibility of a better world. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: I started reading your work some time back when a friend in New York posted about your collection Trick Mirror, and was immediately arrested by your strong, unique voice and wit. How do you feel you’ve developed such a strong sense of self and outspokenness?
Jia Tolentino: Thank you for your generosity, first of all. I spend the vast majority of my work time feeling intellectually incapable and unsure, and so I am grateful for the vote of faith that the end result can in fact come out different. I do believe that you write as the person you are, or you should try to—you should try to write as a clearer, better, bolder, more attentive version of your actual self, and not try to feign qualities that you don’t possess (in my case, things like coolness and distance). And in real life, I have a strong personality and I’m very outspoken. The process of writing, ideally, harnesses those aspects of myself and also humbles them, forces them to sit for a test.
Bakchormeeboy: You’ve always been renowned for your writing about music and keen observations and analysis of pop culture, right up to your work with Ronan Farrow on the Britney Spears conservatorship. Was there ever a fear that you would be perceived as a “fluff” writer who wrote about topics that weren’t “serious” enough? Was there a certain character or personality you wanted the world to view you as?
Jia: Oh, never. Parts of me are in fact unserious, fluffy, stupid, bubblegum, and I don’t feel that this interferes with my ability to be acute and perceptive about matters that possess real gravity. I’ve just tried to just write in different ways on different topics, to stay true in some way to the variety of reactions and tones and standpoints that all of us possess—we’re not always one way all the time, with branded consistency, the way personality-based capitalism would like us to appear. If I were to pin down how I’d like to be perceived by people who don’t know me—a sort of insane idea that’s become universal via social media—it would hopefully be as close as possible to my everyday understanding of myself: someone who tries to have fun, to live thoughtfully, to seek freedom and clarity.
Bakchormeeboy: In the process of writing such personal essays in Trick Mirror, it requires a degree of vulnerability to be so open about your own life. How do you ensure that your writing never ends up sounding self-centred and that you yourself have certain checks in place to make sure you care for yourself in the process of such vulnerability?
Jia: It’s important, if you’re a writer who gravitates towards the first person, to become a close enough self-editor that you can identify and remove the inevitable bits that you put in a piece from some purely self-serving motivation—to make yourself sound good, or interesting, or whatever. I’ve tried to use my first-person perspective deliberately, to make sure it’s always there for some craft purpose—to establish authority, or firsthand knowledge, or to model the journey of self-indictment or entanglement that I want to explore in the piece.
Bakchormeeboy: In addressing Singaporeans during your talk, you spoke about the Internet and the culture of self-centredness. How do you think we can promote empathy and remove the blinkers that we’ve developed over the years of exposure to social media?
Jia: I think the best possible thing would be to route as little as possible of our connection through these platforms, and redirect them to the full extent that we can to our physical communities. I think almost everything on the internet is a representation, at best, of the things we’re actually seeking: justice, visibility, power, connection, love. I don’t think there’s any hope for a net positive effect from platforms that so intensely incentivise disproportionate reactions, self-righteousness, misinformation, and rage.
Bakchormeeboy: Coming back to this year’s Singapore Writers’ Festival theme of “If”, what is one aspect of the world you imagine a feasible and hopeful future for?
Jia: Lula just won the Brazilian election!! There’s tons of disruptive ecological vandalism going on in the UK! I am hopeful that anti-capitalism and leftism will continue to gather power against the hard-right fascism that grows in parallel. I also don’t think there is any hope for the world without an anti-capitalist mindset, which is of course easily and instantly co-opted by capitalism itself, but nevertheless continues to foment and erupt.
Jia Tolentino was featured in the online programme Me, Myself and I: Jia Tolentino on 5th November. More information available here
Singapore Writers’ Festival 2022 – IF (JIKA, 若, எனில்) runs from 4th to 20th November 2022. Tickets and full programme lineup available here