With Meghna Chakrabarti
New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino explores modern culture through her experience as a millennial, and how social media shapes identity.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Trick Mirror” by Jia Tolentino
New Yorker: “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” — “The church I grew up in was so big we called it the Repentagon. It was not a single structure but a thirty-four-million-dollar campus, built in the nineteen-eighties and spread across forty-two acres in a leafy, white neighborhood ten miles west of downtown Houston. A circular drive with a fountain in the middle led up to a bone-white sanctuary that sat eight hundred; next to it was a small chapel, modest and humble, with pale-blue walls. There was also a school, a restaurant, a bookstore, three basketball courts, an exercise center, and a cavernous mirrored atrium. There was a dried-out field with bleachers and, next to it, a sprawling playground; during the school year, the rutting rhythm of football practice bled into the cacophony of recess through a porous border of mossy oaks. Mall-size parking lots circled the campus; on Sundays, it looked like a car dealership, and during the week it looked like a fortress, surrounded by an asphalt moat. At the middle of everything was an eight-sided, six-story corporate cathedral called the Worship Center, which sat six thousand people. Inside were two huge balconies, a jumbotron, an organ with nearly two hundred stops and more than ten thousand pipes, and a glowing baptismal font. My mom sometimes worked as a cameraperson for church services, filming every backward dip into the water as though it were a major-league pitch. There was tiered seating for a baby-boomer choir that sang at the nine-thirty service, a performance area for the Gen X house band at eleven, and sky-high stained-glass windows depicting the beginning and end of the world. You could spend your whole life inside the Repentagon, starting in nursery school, continuing through twelfth grade, getting married in the chapel, attending adult Bible study every weekend, baptizing your children in the Worship Center, and meeting your fellow-retirees for racquetball and a chicken-salad sandwich, secure in the knowledge that your loved ones would gather in the sanctuary to honor you after your death.
“The church was founded in 1927, and the school was established two decades later. By the time I got there, in the mid-nineties, Houston was entering an era of glossy, self-satisfied power, enjoying the dominance of Southern evangelicals and the spoils of extractive Texan empires—Halliburton, Enron, Exxon, Bush. Associate pastors flogged fund-raising campaigns during Sunday services, working to convert the considerable wealth of the church’s tithing population into ostentatious new displays. When I was in high school, the church built a fifth floor with a train for children to play in, and a teen-youth-group space called the Hangar, which featured the nose of a plane half crashed through a wall.
“My parents hadn’t always been evangelical, nor had they favored this tendency toward excess. They had grown up Catholic in the Philippines and, after moving to Toronto, a few years before I was born, had attended a small Baptist church. When, in 1993, they moved to Houston, an unfamiliar and unfathomably large expanse of highway and prairie, one pastor’s face was everywhere, smiling at commuters from the billboards that studded I-10. My parents took to his kind and compelling style of preaching—he was classier than your average televangelist, and much less greasy than Joel Osteen, the better-known Houston pastor, who became famous in the two-thousands for his airport books about the prosperity gospel. My parents began regularly attending services at the Repentagon, and, soon afterward, they persuaded the school’s administrators to put me in first grade, even though I was four years old.
“I would regret this situation when I was in high school at the age of twelve. But, as a kid, I was eager and easy. I pointed my toes in dance class and did all my homework. In daily Bible classes, I made salvation bracelets on tiny leather cords—a black bead for my sin, a red bead for the blood of Jesus, a white bead for purity, a blue bead for baptism, a green bead for spiritual growth, a gold bead for the streets of Heaven that awaited me. During the holidays, I acted in the church’s youth musicals; one of them was set at CNN, the “Celestial News Network,” and several of us played reporters covering the birth of Jesus Christ. When I was still in elementary school, my family moved farther west, to new suburbs where model homes rose out of bare farmland. On Sundays, as we drove into the city, I sat quietly in the back seat next to my cherubic little brother, ready to take my place in the dark and think about my soul. Spiritual matters felt simple and absolute. I didn’t want to be bad, or doomed. I wanted to be saved, and good.”
The Guardian: “Jia Tolentino: ‘I like to write about instincts that are in some way good and in some way dangerous’” — “Until recently, one of New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino’s 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 she’d be ‘a light for Jesus, but on television’. An essayist who explores what it’s 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 café. 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 who’d 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 it’s interesting enough that I would talk about it on my own time.’ One example is ‘women’s 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 Virgil’s Aeneid.”
The Paris Review: “Please Fire Jia Tolentino” — “Is there any topic Jia Tolentino can’t tackle? Since becoming a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2016, she’s written features about the electronic cigarette brand Juul and the culty athleisure company Outdoor Voices; commentaries on the disastrous Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the violent rise of incels; and examinations of the ‘large adult son’ meme and the YouTube phenomenon of remixing popular songs so they sound like they’re echoing in abandoned malls. In the early years of her professional writing career, she conducted a series of funny yet deeply sympathetic interviews with adult virgins at The Hairpin, and her work as deputy editor at Jezebel helped shape online feminist discourse as we now know it. She also has an M.F.A. in fiction, and the first short story she ever submitted won Carve magazine’s Raymond Carver Contest. ‘If I got fired tomorrow,’ she told me, ‘I would probably go to the woods and try to write a novel.’ Even her tweets are good; for what it’s worth, my introduction to her work came via the occasional dog photos and thoughts on music she posts, which are often the bright spots in my feed.
“What unites these wildly disparate threads is Tolentino herself. Although she’s been called the voice of her generation, her writing is sharp, clear, and utterly her own. Tolentino’s first book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, vibrates with her presence. Over the course of nine long original essays, she turns inside out the fast-casual restaurants, pricey exercise classes, and dubiously simple narratives we use to propel ourselves through our overmediated lives. The result is a sort of revision of Joan Didion’s ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ for the late-capitalist horror show that is the twenty-first century.
“Each of the essays is dense with references and anecdotes. I came to think of them as self-contained storm systems, clouds of controlled chaos that Tolentino was conducting from somewhere far above my head. ‘Reality TV Me’ grapples with her time as a contestant on the forgotten television show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico while also considering how the foundational myths she’s built from the experience are utterly false. ‘Pure Heroines,’ one of the most finely argued cases for cultural representation I’ve ever read, charts the tragic lives of literary heroines through the ages, including Laura Ingalls, Esther Greenwood, and Anna Karenina. ‘Ecstasy,’ the best essay in the book, situates itself at the exact intersection of religion, music, and drugs; it somehow encompasses everything from Tolentino’s evangelical upbringing to the history of MDMA to the birth of chopped and screwed, a genre of rap music characterized by its lethargic pace, frequent skips, and otherworldly menace. As a writer, Tolentino seems allergic to the easy conclusion; many of the essays end not with a perfectly tied bow but a slow, meticulous unraveling. In the introduction to the book, she writes, ‘It was worthwhile, I told myself, just trying to see clearly, even if it took me years to understand what I was trying to see.’ ”
Washington Post: “Jia Tolentino’s smart takes on this absurd modern life” — “Jia Tolentino always liked telling people that she wound up on TV, in an epically disgusting speed-eating contest, ‘by accident.’ Then she re-watched the tapes of the show, and saw that she’d gotten her own story wrong: She’d auditioned, eagerly. She’d volunteered for that bowl of mayo.
“This is not a stand-alone episode. Again and again in ‘Trick Mirror,’ Tolentino catches herself doing things she’s too smart and too feminist for. On a long drive with her boyfriend, she descends into a rant about just how much she doesn’t care what people think about her being unmarried. (He tunes out.) Another time, she yanks on a tube dress and a ‘$98 dollar punishment thong,’ and realizes she resembles ‘someone whose most deeply held personal goal was to look hot in pictures.’
“Tolentino, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has a knack for throwing herself into experiences that she finds ridiculous, even demeaning — and then, of course, thoroughly dissecting them afterward. That heedlessness, chased by total clarity, is what gives her voice such authority, like the coolest Big in your sorority. (Tolentino was a Pi Phi.) In her essays, she takes inventory of her conflicting impulses to reflect on the absurdities of modern life. Avidly anticipated and incisive, her debut collection chronicles various aspects of contemporary culture, from fraternities to the attention economy, that have shaped Tolentino’s sense of herself and her moment.”
Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.