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Just Jia

by Jade Byers


Jia Tolentino blows into a Fort Greene wine bar the night before Nor’easter Stella was expected to blast New York City with over 12 inches of snow. The storm was a bust but the conversation was not — Jia describes her dog as a “hybrid f------ vigor.” Friendly and a bit hyped, she settles into the stool in a cramped bar facing Myrtle Street. She has just wrapped an interview with an artist for a profile piece she is writing for The New Yorker. “I’m new to writing profiles. It’s starting to grow on me. It’s a strange format.” Like most of her new explorations, her tactfulness translates well in the Sam McKinnis profile. “He has a way of appearing simultaneously deadpan and deeply sincere. There’s an offhand, nearly Wildean beauty to his manner and articulation; I found it hard to imagine him ever being old.” She is a new pro and an old poet. This is the essence of Jia Tolentino.

 

Her cuteness is palpable, her slight features complement her big teeth and her mouth is jittery — persistently on the verge of smiling. She is comical in both her writing and life, one of those people that can’t leave a conversation without a little jest. She orders a Red Blend; eventually I do the same, much to my chagrin  – wine hangovers are wrenching. We discuss the antiquated nature of awkwardly having people taste wine before committing. This is a strange celebration of class and servitude — a theme that regularly presents itself in her writing. Earlier this year she published a piece about the women’s strike and the certain complications of having the impunity to strike. “There’s an underlying note of guilt and aversion in these arguments — a sense that privilege renders a person politically ineffective. In reality, though, as the Women’s March demonstrated, privileged women are uniquely positioned to use their surfeit of cultural leverage to clear space for the causes of everyone else. And that seems to be the fundamental idea of the Women’s Strike: that it could help to forge solidarity between women with favorable working conditions and women who have no such thing.” This version of Jia is responsive activism sprinkled with contemplation. Responsiveness is where her writing resides — moral outrage and pithy exegesis — the yin and yang of cultural commentary. This is the nature of the culture wars and online media—and Jia is the millennial darling of it all.

 

The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Jia was born in Canada and raised in Houston, Texas. She went to Second Baptist School — a private school rooted in Dooney and Bourke handbags and Pat Robertson Christianity. White-is-right entitlement was a hell of a labyrinth to navigate as a Filipino but Jia was, in her words, an “exceptional minority” — the irony of privilege was never lost on her. Required curriculum included the ability to code-switch and tolerate nuanced forms of racism. She was inextricably aware of how being on the inside looking in has its perks but also many deep conflicts. “Growing up in Houston was good for me in a lot of ways — to be around a lot of very entitled people and learn that I could borrow some of the confidence and ease with which they approached the world.” She thrived, graduating with a letter jacket for cheerleading, a post as the yearbook’s editor-in-chief and a recipient of the Jefferson Scholarship — all at 16. She was able to repackage her exception into a token reality, something that divorced her from the very system that gave her incredible opportunity. You can find remnants of the evangelical experience in her writing. This often manifests itself as sardonically well-intentioned seriousness. During the election, she rages at the evangelical vim over candidate Donald Trump. “The ongoing connection between a three-times-married, formerly pro-choice paragon of arrogance and a fleet of people who believe that the earth is a few thousand years old is somehow, miraculously, a bad look for both Trump and the evangelicals.”

 

Jia is friendly, enigmatically so. Her energy is electric. It takes a few minutes to get it, and it’s further expanded when you are in her physical presence. She rarely skips a beat in discussions of femininity to the fragility of tripping on LSD. She is inspiring and maybe a little infatuated with what she is saying. Even so, she understands that complicated thinking can lead to hang-ups. She can point out how feminism is being exploited through the mechanisms of capitalism while still giving props to the girl with the “future is female” t-shirt. “I’m never going to write off something [commercial feminism] that makes people feel included — even if it’s just not for me.” She clarifies further: “What bothers me is the proliferation of it seems like the logical end point. What a limited way to see the future — what we can buy and sell each other.”

 

The current iteration of capitalism vis-a-vis exploitative consumerism is only scratching the surface of Jia’s laments. She dipped into the blog scene back in 2013, her final year of grad school at the University of Michigan. Twitter was a household name and blog platforms were quickly becoming the new media status quo. Jia worked for a site focusing on women’s issues and finding a community in like-minded provocation. She took cues from her editor, Emma Carmichael. The site Hairpin was a wet dream for Jia.  She held Q&As with adult virgins and harped on consumerism and the pressures of milestones in a very “Gossip Girl” way. These are human-interest pieces — reality TV silly or merely a WTF-type response. This was her beat and she was good at it, but not just good — she was exploring dense topics all in the time it takes to have a regular bowel movement. She had a retrospective series on traveling abroad and a self-interview about her time in Kyrgyzstan. Her professional jacket at Hairpin reads like a well-thought out Myspace page — charming intention with substantive demand.

 

She is thoughtful but not crafty, admitting this while retelling a Peace Corps anecdote about smoking hash out of a Coke can — apparently the only viable pipe option in all of Kyrgyzstan. Despite this, her hands imply the craftiness of being up to something, mindful and in unison with her voice, but only when necessary. At times, I could almost hear her unquiet mind — the way she navigates conversation is similar to her layered writing approach. This energy could be anxiety, however, she is able to navigate the expectations of “OK-now-what” — usually through reading. This has been a lifelong therapy; one that manifested during the sleepless summers staying up alongside her mom and little brother watching movies or playing video games. By the time of this interview she had already read 29 books since January. “I have this disturbing energy. I have to read poetry to myself to just, like, settle and click out of this hamster wheel.”

 

She appreciates the inarticulation and rule-biding of poetry. It is something to lean on, to explain the world, a viable escape from the technological fungus that is the internet. She taught poetry to undergraduates and third-graders, relying on the limitlessness of expression through verse. “It’s the same thing I like about visual art. I’ve always known exactly who I like, and I think I know why, but really, I don’t. It’s the same ... I don’t know anything about poetry and being with those kids reminded me it doesn’t matter, it’s communication on a nonverbal level.” Back in March, she did a “poetry breakdown” of “Solstice” by Tracy K. Smith via video that affirms her devotion to poetry. “It requires nothing of you than a willing ear. It’s also a mode of engagement that is not argumentative and is full of surprise and full of grace.” But don’t confuse her fascination with words as entirely emotional. Jia isn’t sentimental. She doesn’t hold on to favorite quotes — words are as much costive as they are cathartic. For her, it’s the frontal lobe functioning properly. It’s no wonder she describes her writing as compulsive, or why she wrote a novel in grad school, one she rarely discusses other than to say, “It’s been shelved.”

 

Her character could have developed into many things. She is argumentative despite her frustration with it. She would have made a good lawyer, but political science led to the Peace Corps and that led to fine arts and the rest is in her writing. During our time together, recounting her past prior to New York happened momentarily and mainly to set a scene for a story she hadn’t told — or maybe had — but retelling it was different, fastly intimate. In the event there is a pause, a rare moment to digest a flavor of truth she just laid on you before the next course, the energy builds and it’s almost awkward — at least for you. But Jia doesn’t seem like she has ever had a true moment of mortification. She is a Sim living in virtual reality collecting experiences and filing them away, obviating all the irrelevant bits. The flip-side is perfectly Scorpio, sneaky and building a mystery. “I like making myself uncomfortable to see if I can fuck with myself, and it’s kind of hard to do.”

 

I found her nonchalance to be both besot and obnoxious. In a follow up email, I asked what reporters ask: Why do you write? Her response was “I write because ... I like to!” Which is true — Jia appears eternally hedonistic. To read obsessively, to write cathartically and to interpret life religiously is not for the compromised. One of her most redeeming qualities — save for her lexicon — is her hustle. Plus, existentialism remains her state of grace — imagine embracing the truly stoned moments in life and burgeoning in it. It results in heady conclusions. This is how you accept that the world owes you nothing but, even so, life can be utterly unfair. Cultural commentary exists in these parallels and Jia burrows in it with ferocity.

 

Jia, like most Texans, is prideful of the place that is more like another country than any other state in America. Even so, she is the proximate New Yorker, fawning over Fort Greene Park and the view of the Empire State building from its Prison Ship Martyrs monument. “I’m never moving. I live across from Pinterest and Chipotle.”

 

She was invited to New York by former Hairpin editor and best friend Emma Carmichael. After working miles apart and developing Hairpin’s voice, they both stepped away: Carmichael first, inviting Jia to follow. The two secured their presence in the evolution of Jezebel. Jia was able to maneuver over the new platform with casual brilliance. She examined the Abigail Fisher anti-affirmative action case through the lens of tutoring entitled brats and applying historical reference (spoiler: she was Fisher’s tutor). Beyond that, she was stretching her legs with other media outlets, appearing in the New York Times and its magazine, Time and Poetry magazine.  Her Jezebel writing contained snapshots of her personality, long-form diatribes that barely offer breath between sentences. Other pieces poked at feminism, inequality and entitlement. “The world is flooded with injustice in two rough forms: random and systematic. The less privileged experience both kinds as a matter of breathing, but the privileged experience mostly one.”

 

Her demand increased as she volleyed between writing and editing features for the site. Carmichael and Jia always worked in sync, their relationship unequivocally simpatico. All writers need room to imagine — Carmichael gave her this and the task of managing other writers. “Just like her writing she has this skill of being able to talk you through an idea in a really beautiful way,” said Carmichael. The two picked a hell of a year to move into the Jezebel offices. Emma’s near fatal brush with death really defined their connection and Jia’s service to it. More complications arose at Jezebel’s parent company, Gawker (the media empire Hulk Hogan’s sex tapes toppled), which was undergoing lawsuits for outing PayPal CEO Peter Thiel and publicizing the Hogan tapes. “I’m not going to defend that post. I am going to defend the freedom that they [Gawker] gave to put up that post.” She isn’t conflicted about it; she is the consummate rolling stone — valuing freedom and the freedom to fall from grace.

 

She fingers her necklace, a gold chain that disappears into her almost gilded collar-bone. Her hair is a prairie grass blond, looking unintentionally lovely even pulled back. The hour has turned and the conversation is winding down. We’re both floaty and booze-fed as we discuss the inferno of online commentary and how to maintain personality void of preoccupation. “I try to use it in a way that isn’t prescriptive, to not argue how to think. That’s the thing I hate about the internet. This is how you should think and I hate writing like that. I don’t want to be known for that — and my brain leads me toward it.” She strives to be self-effacing but can’t ignore the nature of contemporary media and the potential collateral of having a brand. “I’m humiliated about having a brand and it’s also inevitable with social media. A brand is the same thing as a personality, or it can be if you think of it as one and not the other.” Personality over persona — On Writing with Jia Tolentino.

 

I ordered another glass, she didn’t, then she did ... as the server poured mine. Debating the next cue of inquiry — a pair of simultaneous voyeurs in a momentary exploration. We got jammed up talking about drugs altering the mind. Like all drug talk is mostly fleeting. I felt a facade of kinship — another contradiction we could agree on — drugs are both good and bad. Of course, being disarming is in her nature. She is progressively if not provocatively endearing. Teasing life in the ways it teases us makes her a great observer of others — straddling that line of being underestimated and manipulative.

 

“Getting people to really open up is a skill like flirting and I think it’s as much of a legitimate skill as a guy who's learned a natural unearned sense of authority.” If she did have a brand, it would be the same as her spirit animal — a chameleon.

 

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