"I'm most interested in the self when it feels malleable, and when it feels porous,” says Tolentino who was in town recently to talk about her essay collection. Photography by Chris Clemente
Culture Books

The power of calling out your own BS, according to The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino

"My own writing is constantly ferreting out my BS all the time," says author Jia Tolentino who was in Manila House recently to talk about her book, Trick Mirror, about self-delusion and finding the sublime in friends
Jam Pascual | Nov 19 2019

"Half of this book is me calling my own self out."

If there was a way to sum up why Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror is one of the most striking and nuanced books to come out this year, it's with that very admission.

Subtilted as "Reflections on Self-Delusion," Tolentino's essay collection is half memoir, half sociological investigation of this era's confusions. It tackles a bevy of issues, including but not limited to the internet's toxic tendencies, the inadequacy of memory, the greatest scams and lies of our time, and why marriage is simultaneously wack and enticing. All these things play a part in identity formation, and the feeling of being lost that defines what it means to be alive today. Such a project can only be written with a healthy helping of self-reflexivity. This is how Jia seemed to approach Trick Mirror: by calling herself out. "My own writing is constantly ferreting out my bullshit all the time."

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With writer and journalist Claire Miranda onstage at Manila House.

In every interview and podcast I've consumed that Tolentino's been in, this approach is apparent. Tolentino is a writer who is more interested in the questions than the answers. And in her live Q&A at Manila House last week, this was very much the case, every query and response a gateway to richer, more complex trains of thought.

We have writer and journalist Claire Miranda, the interviewer for the night, to thank for propelling the conversation in this way. I especially enjoyed the way she phrased her first question, commenting on the book's heft and complexity by asking, "How did you organize this vastness?"

"I don't find myself interesting," Tolentino responded. "But our selves are all we have that can look at the things that are actually interesting, which is the world."

Tolentino’s book of essays has been called “a profound survival guide for an increasingly isolating world.”

The idea of an unfixed self repeatedly came up over the course of the conversation. When Miranda asked about how delusion works, and what makes us susceptible to it, Tolentino reminded us of the outside forces that influenced her book and the way we read it.

"I don't find myself interesting," Tolentino responded. "But our selves are all we have that can look at the things that are actually interesting, which is the world."

"I'm most interested in the self when it feels malleable, and when it feels porous," she noted. "We have this idea that the self is something sort of original and fixed, right? That our identity is something that we have, when in reality it's something that's constructed in response to all these systems. In response to capitalism, or male power, or the culture and politics of where we live. And I think that the process of identity formation is a lot of continual triangulation against these systems."

The joy of these kinds of events is getting to hear a writer invoke their authorial intent over a thing they made, which allows their work to come into sharper focus. This "continual triangulation" is a consistent idea in the book, but is most clear I believe in two pieces: "Ecstasy," where megachurch sublimation and drug highs collide, and "Always Be Optimizing," which investigates the (extremely gendered) cult of consumerism-fueled wellness.

Both of these pieces interrogate how colossal systems oppress us. Perhaps the reflex of most writers would be to unequivocally condemn these systems, and reject them outright without acknowledging our complicity. In a time in which we are so pressured to be good, it is easy to find refuge in a kind of moral posturing. (Just look at your Twitter feed, where the burgis, private school-educated contigent of Manila will comment on issues of oppression with little to no self-insertion.) "I think that's one of the conditions that sort of cuts into what it feels like to be alive right now, that often you benefit from systems that are punishing you, or punishing other people," Tolentino observed.

David Guerrero in the crowd.

Admitting this can be icky. But Tolentino doesn't shy away from this ickiness. “Often, when we talk about things that are bad, we only talk about the bad things, and we don't acknowledge that the reason that these systems have taken such hold is that they are rife with their own versions of pleasure." That goes for the way a megachurch can make you feel transcended, or a barre class or a pair of Lululemon pants can make you feel like a high performance human being. There's an incongruence to how these systems can make us feel good and terrible at the same time. Tolentino invites us to consider that in recognizing this incogruence, we can admit our delusions. With bravery, we can face our distorted reflections.

Tolentino invites us to consider that in recognizing this incogruence, we can admit our delusions. With bravery, we can face our distorted reflections.

When I came to this talk I saw... so many writers. So many fellow writers in the creative industry, who know what it's like to slog away at a keyboard trying to find a take or opinion that resonates just right with the frequency of the zeitgeist, who know the pressure of having to present as someone whose job is to have answers. I believe that for many of them (me included), this talk was a balm, a gentle reminder that we don't have to put on airs of sureness.

The predominantly young audience of Tolentino, many of them writers, at Manila House.

That's why I didn't feel that usual scholarly stuffiness during the open Q&A. What are your thoughts on cancel culture? She calls it a fiction—it's merely "the newness of accountability" for villainous men who are surprised to have their actions and intentions challenged, and still manage to get away. What's one way to find the sublime, the transcendent? Tolentino finds it in friends, and suggested dancing. You don't get these sorts of exchanges in places where people think they have answers. So we didn't come away from that night with answers, but with comforting speculations. Maybe we should call ourselves out more. Maybe we should go dancing.

 

Photographs by Chris Clemente