38: Jia Tolentino
New Yorker Staff Writer

photos by Elena Mudd

Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker, formerly the deputy editor at Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. She grew up in Texas, went to the University of Virginia, and got her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. She's represented by Amy Williams and has a book of essays called Trick Mirror forthcoming from Random House. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, TIME, Grantland, Slate, Pitchfork, Bon Appetit, SPIN, and Fader. She has a dog, clearly, and lives in Brooklyn. 

Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both  35mm and medium format, and with digital.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on October 20, 2017. Elena Mudd photographed Jia Tolentino in her Brooklyn apartment.

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.


JIA: I loved being a girl! I was exactly the same when I was a kid. I was thoughtful and enthusiastic and I played a lot. I wrote and read a lot. I would get very busy in my own head about a lot of things. I just kind of motored through life. I don't think I was particularly eager to grow up, but I wasn't afraid of it, either. And a lot of my girlhood was, like I’m sure a lot of writers would say, refracted through what I was reading.


SOPHIA: What kind of cultural influences were playing on you then?


JIA: I’ve realized, in writing cultural criticism, that I almost never feel a sense of identification with characters in books, TV, or movies. Part of that is a demographic thing, I think, but I also sometimes wonder if I'm missing the chip that makes you want to see yourself in other people's stories—I see myself as very much in my own story, and that’s enough. But when I was little, I did identify with girl protagonists in books. They’re all brave, they're all adventurous, and they’re all kind of tomboys—though I was mostly a tomboy in spirit. But I loved Laura Ingalls, Betsy-Tacy, Anastasia Krupnik. They were brave and smart girls. They hadn’t started the trajectory, which I’m currently writing an essay about, of becoming sad teenagers and then bitter women. 


SOPHIA: You interviewed a woman who wrote about that, right? In Laura Ingalls Wilder—


JIA: Rebecca Traister, yeah.


SOPHIA: Girls who get married at like, thirteen—


JIA: And then their adventure ends. This is the narrative. But I always felt sort of unremarkably aligned with those girls. They didn’t exactly reflect me, but I felt like I was in good company. My girlfriends in school were also smart and adventurous and very strange. This isn’t to say I think childhood is idyllic. I really liked being young, and I never wanted to prolong it, and I never miss it.


[both laugh]

I find great pleasure in mass-market femininity.

SOPHIA: I particularly latched onto your adolescent experience in Christian Texas, because I grew up in a similar religious environment in Southern California which totally impacted how I understood womanhood in my own life. But I “bought” whatever was being fed to me, and the way you just described your childhood seems like you had this deep sense of security in who you were. Like, you went directly from an Evangelical Christian environment into the Peace Corps, which are very differently gendered environments. How did that security live within and across such dissimilar spaces?


JIA: I'm very glad that I grew up Evangelical. It gave me this obsession with morality, which turned into a throughline in my writing, I think. And… [laughs] growing up Evangelical turned me into a socialist! I do think that my background forced me to learn how to be very comfortable in settings I find alien and on many levels bad. I was at this very wild school, very white, very conservative. I was on scholarship. There were a lot of really strange things about it. A lot of strange rituals. But at some point, the strangeness felt like air. People were telling me these very wild things about gender and virtue and sin that didn't exactly cohere with my sense of myself, but also didn’t bother me very much, either. There was a transition period where I was going to youth group with my girlfriends and then going to the club the next night. It didn't register to me that those things were that different, and it still kind of doesn't.  

SOPHIA: The girl pop culture stuff that you write about is so clearly not self-conscious about not being high-brow. You’ll write these beautiful, exuberant pieces about like, Taylor Swift. What's the allure to you of that kind of enormous, mass-market femininity, and what do you believe that it offers culturally?


JIA: When I'm writing, I try to write in the tone of my actual reaction. I think the internet often encourages a kind of solemn, strained, uniform reaction, like, “Here's why this is extremely important." And that's not our actual reaction to everything we see. 


SOPHIA: [laughs]


JIA: Or, at least, for me, it is very unusual to have my instinctive reaction be, “Here's why this is super super important.” We have different chemistry with things, our reactions are colored all over the spectrum. And I find great pleasure in mass-market femininity. Some of it, not all of it, and not all of the pleasure is straightforward: some stuff is cheap, feels cheap, and is interesting because of that cheapness. But a Taylor Swift show in a giant stadium with 90,000 teenagers in a summer sunset? And Carly Rae Jepsen at the symphony? That feels great in a way that’s chemically obvious. So why not write about it in that chemical, obvious, unabashed way you feel? 

SOPHIA: What female writers have been formative to you, or do you currently admire?


JIA: I definitely don't have a canon, or a “feminist role model.” I don't have like a totemic relationship to anybody at all, which is part of the non-identification thing, probably, no patron saint list. But I really admire Zadie Smith. I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago and she is so careful. I’ve been thinking about how closely she listens in conversation, and wishing I could be more like that. Like everybody, I admire Didion and Sontag. This whole year I've been really glad that Eve Babitz has been getting republished everywhere, because—a rarity among writers—she seems like someone who would just be really fun to party with. Someone that just has a good time. Thoughtful and critical, but not neurotic in a paralyzing way. Recently I liked Mental by Jaime Lowe, I liked Eileen Myles’ book about her dog [Afterglow], I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's new short story collection, You Think It, I'll Say It. Hermione Hoby's novel Neon in Daylight is really good. I loved Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart.

Smart writing about identity is restlessly, ruthlessly interrogative.

SOPHIA: Could you talk about writing [your essay] “No Offense”? It was a while ago and you’re not as deep in that [Jezebel/Hairpin] world anymore. What thoughts have occurred to you with distance from the piece?


JIA: I feel somewhat distant from that period of feeling paralyzed and inundated with “the discourse,” since I’m not an editor anymore, and I don’t have to be looking at Twitter every three seconds to scan for breaking news. But there are a couple of things that have solidified for me. One is that, as our participatory democracy contracts, a lot of political energy is getting redirected towards the processes of online group identification and expressive boundary-policing, which is not action. Around that time, the statement “I disagree” really seemed to mean something other than “I disagree.” [laughs] Like, of course you disagree with me! You're not me! I know that I argue forcefully, and I do think I'm right about the things I write, or else I wouldn’t write them—but the possibility that I could be wrong is completely within my cosmology of thought. And certainly the idea that someone could think I’m wrong, that seems to be how things should be


SOPHIA: I think there’s a sort of economy of affect where feminism becomes a pipe dream in which everyone should feel good or have a positive reaction —and if you’re not receiving a universally positive emotional reaction, then something’s wrong.


JIA: Right. The interfaces through which we receive our news and conduct a lot of interpersonal interaction systematically encourage a view of the world where everything is mediated through identity-based reaction, and I think that really fucks with people's heads. An economy of affect is a good way of putting it.

It’s a disservice to women’s agency to not be extremely clear about what is forced on you and what isn’t, and the relationship between the two.

SOPHIA: In a brief interview you did with Brooklyn Magazine, you said, “I hope that more people who write about identity politics will have the decency to try to grow a brain.” What does intelligent writing about women look like to you right now?


JIA: The circumstance in which you were born in America is basically the most important fact of your life. And when identity politics is written about poorly, it chips away at the incredible political and discursive importance of that fact. These lines of inquiry [concerning identity politics] are too important to be treated dismissively, lightly, or with a self-interest that masquerades as a group self-interest but is actually deeply personal. Like, I hate the kind of writing that's like, “And here's why I was right to do what I did, here’s why I’m right to think what I think.” To me, that's not really a good conclusion. The conclusion should be the premise. Like, “I did this, or I think this. Now what?” So I think that smart writing about identity is restlessly, ruthlessly interrogative. It’s hungry, it wants to self-destabilize. That's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for writing that's not so fucking sure of itself all the time. I often find that kind of writing to be really disingenuous, because it fronts as if it argues on behalf of a group or a grand idea, but to me, it really seems to argue in favor of its author being exactly right. And I think we're at a time where we could afford to not end pieces on notes of certainty, because I think that's a lie. Like, who actually feels like that?


SOPHIA: [laughs]


JIA: This is a tough generalization, but I used to make the joke that the ending of the online feminist essay at its worst—a form that peaked several years ago—was usually, in so many words, “And that's why I'm perfect and none of it was my fault.” I hate that kind of ending, because nobody's perfect, and sometimes stuff is your fault!


SOPHIA: [laughs]


JIA: A lot of stuff isn't, but some stuff is! It's not feminism to say that a woman could never do anything counter to her interests or values, or make genuine mistakes. It's a disservice to women's agency to not be extremely clear about what is forced on you and what isn't, and the relationship between the two. I think that question is central to smart writing about identity politics. A lot of stuff is forced on you, and in order to be clear about that, you have to be really clear about the stuff that isn't.

SOPHIA: This opinion is informative in its own way, but while conducting these interviews, it is very typical to hear women say things like, “As we know, our universal condition as women is xyz.” And more and more, my internal response is, “Do we know that?”


JIA: Yes. You have to be really careful. I do think a near-universal condition of being a woman is getting consistently reduced to your reproductive body, your sexual value. There are things that are close to universal experiences that revolve around the use and misuse of the body. I wrote a piece in a universal “you” last week about Weinstein, and I thought that this case concerns a rough dynamic that every woman clicks into at some point in her life. But I agree that the specific is almost always more interesting than, “As we all know.” Because, do we?


SOPHIA: I recently interviewed Laura Kipnis [in October], and she said that the Harvey Weinstein scandal has given her “the sense that something’s shifting in the culture, in terms of male-female relations and the distribution of power.” And you’ve been thinking about this so much—


JIA: I just filed a piece arguing that this is not a turning point the way we think it is—that a newly consolidated moral narrative doesn’t automatically affect power structures. A unified story of oppression on behalf of the people who have been oppressed doesn't change the fact that people still profit from oppressing us. It reminds me of Black Lives Matter. There's blinding moral clarity there, which does nothing to affect oppressive power structures unless people with power force other people with power to give it up. In a world where there is increasing wealth polarization and men hold vast amounts of political and economic capital, I don't think that male power is going to be threatened across the board by a consolidated narrative about the abuse of male power. I think it will make huge changes in circles that care about gender equality, but a lot of circles don't, and the really powerful circles do not.

In the Trump era, moral narratives have never been more necessary, and possibly more useless. It's really frustrating to admit that as a writer. But I think that because we've undervalued women's speech for so long, we might be overburdening it right now. Women’s speech, no matter how compelling, can’t do the work of economic redistribution, of egalitarian public policy.

SOPHIA: Is there anything else you want to say?


JIA: Just… that I think it's an interesting time. I’m not sure of anything, but I think that might be good. It’s freeing. 


SOPHIA: I was moved by something I read recently... I'm going to misquote it and I don't remember who wrote it. But it was something about the necessity of acknowledging that the antithesis of whatever you're writing is lying right underneath, and within the text.


JIA: Yes! 


SOPHIA: What do you feel that women need or can do for each other presently?


JIA: This week I've gotten like sixty emails [in response to the Harvey Weinstein piece] from women that are like, “Here's what happened to me.” I was very grateful to know that the piece helped them, and I was furious to know that nobody in their lives had told them that they deserve better. I wish men had told them that. I want the things that lack in our lives to be other people's problems. I want our lives to be everyone’s responsibility. In the same way, I often think the biggest women’s issue is securing protections that would extend to low-income workers, Fight for 15.  

I wonder if this time will bring women around to a deeper understanding of the fact that capitalism is at odds with feminism—that an environment of scarcity prioritizes the individual at the expense of the group. A sense of scarcity seems to also be at the root of this fear of disagreement or differentiation. I think women should give each other space to understand disagreement as possible and sensible and not ultimately in the way of the larger project, but I understand that history has not exactly facilitated that yet.  

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