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August 15, 2019 - Image 6

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily

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There are two stereotypes that
routinely plague the modern writ-
er. One is the recluse, the innocent
bookworm, who recedes into the
woods like Thoreau and writes
about butterflies and the mean-
ing of life for days on end. No one
knows how they subsist on tea and
biscuits alone. The other is, essen-
tially, the newspaper editor from
“Spider-Man.” These writers are
the human equivalent of a pack of
Marlboro Reds. In between yelling
about the deadline and chugging
acrid coffee, they stay up until 2
a.m. trying to finish a piece on what
Quentin Tarantino means to them.
I like to think of these arche-
types as the bookends of the spec-
trum for self-branded writers. Jia
Tolentino, celebrated staff writer
for The New Yorker and author of
the recently-released essay collec-
tion “Trick Mirror,” sits smack dab
in the middle.
Tolentino, who young writ-
ers and journalists (or at least the
ones I know) have christened the
second coming of Susan Sontag, is
unabashedly honest in her analysis.
With that honesty, and her place-
ment as the fulcrum of a made-up
personality scale, she is somehow
able to write about everything with
the charm and hilarity of an expert
in each topic. It’s an uncanny skill,

one that allows her to attack sub-
jects like the rise of “step on my
neck” fandom with the same feroc-
ity she does when dissecting the
history of Trump’s assault allega-
tions. “There could potentially be a
world in which I write about books
all day,” Tolentino said in a phone
interview with The Michigan
Daily, “but it’s nice to accurately
reflect literally just what’s on my
mind.”
When I called Tolentino a few
weeks ago for this interview, I
didn’t feel the same anxiety that I
typically do when on assignment.
It must have been because I felt
like I already knew her, the same
way that I assume many of her
thousands of Twitter and Insta-
gram followers do, too. The writer
has always been game to share her
thoughts: “There are certain types
of personalities that the internet
favors, that can work well within
the performative structures of the
internet.” She added, “I’ve always
had that kind of personality, I’ve
always been extremely open.”
Tolentino takes to social media
with an ease often only seen in
figure skaters and birds of prey
swooping through the air. She
knows what she’s doing, but she
might as well have fun on the ride.
Watching
Tolentino’s
rise
through the annals of literary jour-
nalism has been exciting, to say the
least. To see someone unapologeti-
cally young be so successful at not
only digital media through her edi-

torship at Jezebel, but then become
a star in the crown of traditional
magazine publishing, gives hope to
a so-called dying industry. She has
no niche, no specific beat, no bor-
ders to her sea of subjects.
“I don’t want to write about
the same things all the time, and I
don’t think about the same things
all the time, or think at the same
level of seriousness all the time,”
she elaborated. “You can really
throw your voice around, like at
Jezebel I could write dead serious
about something and then I could
write something so stupid, like a
meme, about a subject that I take
very seriously.” In the same vein,
the writer has never given up her
wit and cultural precocity in lieu
of her literary venue’s unspoken
parameters.
Her piece about the rise of Juul-
ing was hilarious, yes, but it was
also in the top 10 most read New
Yorker articles of 2018. In my own
experience, I’ve used her articles
to explain things like vaping to my
parents, but my friends and I also
applaud her for getting the phrase
“real men eat ass” into a heritage
magazine. She has struck gold in
a balancing act, one that is enter-
taining to watch her navigate in its
own right.
“Trick Mirror” is no exception
to the rule of her talent, instead
acting as an extension of both her
writing for other publications and
personality alone. Tolentino is
the only writer I can think of that

picks apart the Book of Revelation
and the history of MDMA in the
same breath. It’s what makes her so
refreshing to read, in a media land-
scape clogged with sadness and
fluff. Reading her writing means
laughing and learning at the same
time.
Tolentino
walks
the
line
between comedy and blinding
truth
carefully,
successfully
rep-
licating the path
that we all tra-
verse
through-
out our lives in
her writing. Her
transparency
on
social media fol-
lows
the
same
rules. “It seems
like the only way
of making social
media bearable is
literally just not
thinking about what you’re doing
and hope that it’s ok! Because it’s
just like life, you know?” Tolentino
continued, laughing, “I actively
try to guard against … that sort
of calcification — I try to allow a
lot of space for inconsistency.” I
believe this avoidance of creating
a “brand” is what makes the writer
so approachable. She is incredibly
smart, incredibly online, incredibly
funny, yet Tolentino’s understand-
ing of her own identity creates a
level of comfort that serves as the
foundation for that variety.
In “Trick Mirror,” Tolentino
writes about religion, scams, drugs,
athleisure — everything under the
sun. But it’s always obvious who’s
talking — the writer captures the
human phenomenon of curiosity
better than anyone I’ve ever read.
The inconsistency she was talking
about isn’t a negative trait of the
modern era, as it is typically seen,
but a strength. The pressures of
the internet, as she speaks about in
the book’s first essay, have forced
many to turn themselves into a
solidified brand, avoiding change
at any cost. We have to remember
that although it seems like self-
branding is necessary, we’re not all
Kardashians here.
Tolentino, however, embraces
that unpredictability and runs
with it. Reading her essays makes
you feel like you could learn any-
thing, because hey, Jia did. Know-
ing yourself is a more crucial asset
than anything else these days,
and allows for a bigger worldview.
Tolentino’s talent is capturing this
perspective in words, inspiring her
readers to take the same leap.
Beyond her raw talent for writ-
ing, Tolentino’s “it” factor, the

reason “Trick Mirror” is flying off
shelves and appearing every three
tweets in my newsfeed, is her gen-
uine excitement for life. The last
four years have been a rollercoast-
er, something that Tolentino says
was the impetus for her book in the
first place: “I was so miserable in
early 2017, and I was like, I’m going
to be miserable for the next four
years.” She reflect-
ed, “A book is one
way to be miser-
able in a way that’s
really productive.”
Productive or not,
the fruit of her
misery is surpris-
ingly
optimistic.
The world since
2016 has seemed
like a cruel joke to
many, but she sees
a reason to laugh
at it. To Tolentino,
the urgent nature of our country’s
problems are countered by brilliant
art, books and cultural phenomena
that make surviving the darkness
worth it.
Tolentino is fascinated by Gen
Z and their relationship with the
media and internet. We talked
extensively about the differences
in social media between those in
my age group, her millennial expe-
rience and the experiences of those
younger than me. She interviewed
many Gen Z-ers for an upcom-
ing piece, saying that “It’s really
interesting, as someone who still
interacts with the world as a young
person, to be talking to these teen-
agers, and I’m asking them about
these extremely basic facts of life,
like it’s really nothing to them, and
it’s very clear they feel as though
they’re talking to someone that’s
70, you know?” Despite this, they
would probably find Tolentino’s
writing pretty interesting, maybe
even let out a giggle or two. She
is undeniably relevant to any age
group, something that not many
people can claim.
“I feel weirdly gratified by get-
ting, I mean, especially with femi-
nism, an email from a 75-year-old
woman, being like, ‘I really like
this thing you wrote,’” Tolentino
said on the subject. She has active-
ly avoided settling into the siloed
nature of modern media, instead
challenging herself to get over
that “internal hurdle,” “like (she’s)
going to write a piece about a phe-
nomenon that has to make sense to
somebody who has no idea about
anything about it.”

ARTS
6

Thursday, August 15, 2019
The Michigan Daily — michigandaily.com

Jia Tolentino @

Literati

Monday, Aug. 26

7:00 p.m.

Free

A talk with Jia Tolentino

BOOKS INTERVIEW

ELENA MUDD

CLARA SCOTT
Senior Arts Editor

Read more at michigandaily.com

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