Jia Tolentino: I like to write about instincts that are in some way good and in some way dangerous’

Hailed as the Joan Didion of our times informed, funny and fearless the New Yorkers Jia Tolentino is making sense of the world one essay at a time

Until recently, one of New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentinos best-kept secrets was that she spent the summer of her 16th year filming a reality show called Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico. A cheerleader then, she got permission from her school, which was situated in the middle of a Texan megachurch so large they called it the Repentagon, by telling them shed be a light for Jesus, but on television. An essayist who explores what its like to live right now, no now, remains, at 30, rebellious and contradictory in ticklish ways.

For example, a person of the old world might not expect, when meeting the best young essayist in the world, to find her in denim cut-offs scrolling Instagram behind a Brooklyn caf. They might not expect a woman who grew up an evangelical Christian to write a piece that links the weightless grace of coming up on ecstasy to that of kneeling in church, in words like epiphany and glory. They might not expect a piece about the challenging year she spent in Kyrgyzstan to be headlined: I Joined the Peace Corps to Keep From Becoming an Asshole. She treats all her subjects (recent essays include anti-abortion propaganda and the internet trend of fans begging celebrities to kill them) with equal care and precision, and such academic tenderness that the reader barely notices their mind being changed after reading her interview with a woman whod had a late-term abortion, she received emails from pro-lifers rethinking their stance; hers are essays that talk to young women about old problems and old men about young memes. And they might not expect, in our interview of an hour-and-a-half, for the Joan Didion of our time (New York Magazine) to use the word like 1,035 times.

She has left her dog at home, which is sad. Luna is the size of eight dogs and appears often in her stories as comic relief. Usually, Tolentino works with Luna at her feet and talks to her as she picks her way through the rubble of an idea. She knows what she wants to write about when, I feel some sort of chemistry with the subject. The bar for me is when its interesting enough that I would talk about it on my own time. One example is womens optimisation, the project of getting better at being a woman which, in her new book Trick Mirror she investigates through chopped salad, her previous job at feminist website Jezebel, very expensive leggings, and Virgils Aeneid.

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To read it as a person like me, brought up on girl power and the slogans of mainstream feminism, is to be stimulated and awakened to the small domestic truths of life. I like to write about modern instincts that are in some way good. And also in some way dangerous. She explores millennial issues with two hands, because, Maybe this things totally ridiculous, but also, secretly important. I enjoy those extremes.

Its easy to write about things as you wish they were, wrote Zadie Smith of Trick Mirror. Its much harder to think for yourself, with the minimum of self-delusion. Its even harder to achieve at a moment like this, when our thoughts are subject to unprecedented manipulation, monetisation and surveillance. One way Tolentino manages this is by offering one idea, then cracking it open to reveal a series of alternative ideas, Russian doll-like within. Her work, Smith added, filled me with hope.

Yep. And not just because of the kindness with which she approaches ideas, especially ideas we are used to seeing framed in black and white, but because the subjects she writes about today are the same subjects she once blogged about at Jezebel. What were once niche, womens magazine themes pop stars, beauty products, sex and rage are now, in the New Yorker, mainstream, and recognised as valid topics for study. This is not the old world any more.

Jia
Ive had the same personality since I was three years old. Really independent. Really social. But, also, really combative: Jia Tolentino. Photograph: Allison Michael Orenstein/The Observer

A lot of the book is about the thing versus the representation of the thing, she explains. For instance, love versus the representation of it in a wedding. In the essay I Thee Dread, she writes that despite having been invited, with her long-term boyfriend, to 46 weddings in nine years, her apathy towards them has grown. How much harder, she asks, would it be for straight women to accept the reality of marriage if they were not first presented with the fantasy of the wedding?

She remains fixated on the thing versus its representation, which means promoting (representing) her book (the thing) has become increasingly difficult. A hardback book feels awkward to her she likes to describe herself as just a blogger. Shes been blogging since she was 10 (Im going insane! I literally am addicted to the web! she wrote on her Angelfire site in 1999), but the just is sly her education in journalism at Jezebel was invaluable: a unique chance to learn how to fuck up on the internet. We would see these great waves of disapproval and anger and morality. With an uncommon amount of freedom to negotiate it. She thrives on such tensions.

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It wasnt just to keep from becoming an asshole that she joined the Peace Corps in 2010, it was to test her limits. I wanted to be in the middle of nowhere and go nuts and see what its like. Tolentino arrived inKyrgyzstan just as the government was overthrown. She was evacuated. She got active tuberculosis. Kyrgyzstan is a place where bride kidnapping still happens; she was sexually harassed by her host father she was sexually harassed a lot, in part, she thinks, because with her Filipino parentage she happens to look Kyrgyz. Every day I was seesawing between extremes of transcendent lonely happiness and crushing despair.

Kyrgyzstan borders China, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. And the feel is very strange. Like, I had no running water in my village, but they sold cookies shaped like iPhones. Nothing made sense, you know? The cookies feel like some kind of metaphor for her work, the meeting of fast and slow, a mind that has been brought up online turning its lens inward, to analyse the internet itself she is particularly fascinating when writing about the online performance of identity, analysing the ways she has benefited from, for instance, the internets sticky focus on opinion. But my brain moves slower and shes already run ahead. I think thats one thing that growing up in the church did to me I love being uncomfortable. It is so… interesting.

In 2016 she wrote an essay called How Empowerment Became Something for Women to Buy. I hated that word, she shudders, yet at the same time, I knew my entire career was possible because feminism was marketable now.

How does she feel about becoming part of the feminism industry? I think about it a lot. If something is more fun to represent than to experience, then you should avoid it. Its the same way with the feminism marketplace: if something is more commodified than it is true, you should avoid it. Some amount of bullshit is endemic and inevitable, and I participate in it, and I benefit from it. The way I resolve it is to make myself uncomfortable enough to be aware of what is only bullshit.

You know what annoys her? Books about badass women in history. She groans very loudly. The whole girlboss realm, actually. Anything that is treating the magnification of a personal brand, or the acquisition of wealth as the ultimate prize, is just fully out the window. The way those books treat little girls as if theyre generic? I get sent so many self-help books that are about like, perfectly imperfect, badass feminists that dont give a fuck, but then the fuck is bleeped out? You know what I mean?

The thing is, we have more freedom available to us than ever before, and yet theres a cartoon-like image of what that looks like as if all women want to do is to be on stage wearing a bold matching suit and a strong lip shouting AM I RIGHT? She screeches this at a high pitch and a stranger jumps. Shouting: A guy called me baby on the street, but Im not a baby! and everyones like, YASSSS

What I havent mentioned, among earlier descriptions of Tolentinos essays, is that they are extremely funny, partly because she characterises herself affectionately as a sort of dummy stoner, leading with fizzy enthusiasm, rather than her Yale-earned learnedness. It seems like were shrinking towards a lowest common denominator of what the ideal feminist is. And the things that I like, maybe, are the things that dont have this feeling of sameness and oneness.

The idea of the problem with oneness is something she elaborates on when discussing #MeToo. The thing that bothered me about it, was how this totally accidental hashtag design has shaped our understanding of an incredibly important moment. The problem with the metoo hashtag was that it said, to express solidarity with someone, you need to meet them at the point of maximum shared vulnerability. The internet flattened it, and erased the important differences in these womens lives. Which seemed to be both well intentioned, and also, a misuse of our new freedoms.

One of which is the right to be heard. People are like, Womens voices are silenced. Which might be true. And at the same time, is less true. For example, Christine Blasey Ford she was absolutely listened to and still dismissed. I want the discussion to meet the exact situation, which is changing so quickly. Its not simply, Women are silenced it is something possibly much worse. I take a drink of water. We both do.

The work of explaining complicated problems in a tumultuous time is wearying. Last week, I was really down. I forgot that I get stressed out when I write about sexual assault. She had written about the latest rape accusations against Trump. Its like when you wake up after getting drunk, and youre like, Wow, Im not hungover. And then at 5pm youre like, Im dead. It comes around the back and shakes you. In a recent interview, she was asked, Do you feel defeated? She was shocked. The reporter was like, Well, you dont propose any solutions to things. But I often feel that knowledge is useless. I dont write with the hope of making an impact, because the world is too confusing right now. But that actually makes me feel free in writing you just try your best. And I think that needs to be the philosophy I adopt about life in general. To that reporter she wanted to explain that its possible to write an argument without neatly tying it up with a simple conclusion. She smiles her cheerleader smile again, twinkling with contradiction. I hate the obligatory epilogue.

Recently, Tolentino watched Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico for the first time. I found it agonising. But also comforting, because I was the same. Having stumbled upon the audition at a local mall, she writes of the chance encounter: I like this story better than the alternative, and equally accurate one, which is that Ive always felt that I was special and acted accordingly. Its true that I ended up on reality TV by chance. Its also true that I signed up enthusiastically, felt almost fated to do it.

Watching the show, she realised, she tells me, that to be on reality TV, you must have a fixity. Ive had the same personality since I was three. Really independent. Really social. But, also, really combative. Like all iconic reality contestants, shes not here to make friends. When she got back in touch with fellow contestants, one remembers her as contradictory, even under the blaze of the cameras. You were like, he told her, I dont want to get famous for this bullshit. I want to get famous for writing a book.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (4th Estate, 14.99) is out now. Buy it for 13.19 at guardianbookshop.com

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