My heart’s pounding more than normal as I wait for Jia Tolentino to pick up my call.

There’s something about interviewing another writer that feels specifically terrifying. Are they going to think my questions are dumb? Are they going to be quietly editing my ramblings in their head? Are they going to read the resulting interview and hate the way I represent them—or worse, the way I write?

In an act of self-preservation (or maybe desperation), I blurt out my nerves to Tolentino almost as soon as she answers the phone. To my extreme relief, she understands my plight.

“The first thing that I did returning back to work this fall after having my second kid was a New Yorker interview with Naomi Klein, and 30 seconds into it I was like, ‘This was the worst decision,’” she says with a laugh. “I never have a hard time interviewing people, but when it’s other writers, I do. Especially someone like Naomi Klein. I was like, ‘Why did I thrust my postpartum brain into a conversation with one of the smartest women in North America?’”

Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and is the author of a book of essays called Trick Mirror that, when released in 2019, became something of a Millennial feminist’s Bible. Her success lies in her ability to marry intellect with relatability, somehow making topics like scammer culture seem academic, or subjects like bail funds feel anything but dry.

Ahead of her UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs talk at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts later this month, I chat with Tolentino about her feelings towards her book, the state of the internet, being forced into marriage, and more.

Trick Mirror came out in 2019. Looking back on it, how you feel about the book now?

I have never opened it willingly since it came out. I don’t feel embarrassed of it—that’s about as good as I can feel about anything that I wrote. I think I find it agonizing, kind of, to look back on. I generally feel like that about my work. I realized, especially when that book came out, that the thing that I seek from writing is not to have written something, but the process of writing it. 

I was writing it as this essentially private endeavor, because it was the longest I’ve ever gone keeping a project to myself. I was writing it for this imaginary audience of one—myself—and then it came out and I had this incredible true surprise of having a lot of people read it. Something about that did kind of make me feel embarrassed, and I have worked my way back from that. But I think it brought up a lot of complicated things: I’ve written about the commodification of selfhood, and then suddenly it came out and my selfhood was much more of a commodity because of something I had done.

I think I feel proud of having been able to write a book about the present that was published when the era it was written about still felt like the era that it was coming out in. Because of the lag time of a book, I was worried about that. But like, damn, 2019: I felt like I understood the internet at that point. And four years later—I mean, six years after I wrote the internet part—I really understand it less and less every day.

The internet’s constant churn is something I’m sure we’ve both talked about at length. But I find myself feeling more and more like we’re all writing about the same things and talking about the same things. Do you ever wonder why we’re still doing this?

Yeah. My metric for the internet was: as long as it is giving me something, as long as it’s giving more to my life and it’s taking away, adding more to my day than it’s taking away from my day—and as long as long as it’s funny. Those were always the redeeming factors. I was always immersed in fairly bad parts of the internet working in women’s media, and I feel like January 6 [the United States Capitol attack] came straight from all of these internet men subcultures that we were trying to write about at Jezebel like 10 years ago. But, you know, it was as long as it was funny, and as long as it was additive, I was always like, “I’ll keep playing this game.” And then, I don’t know whether it was a pandemic thing or a post-book hangover or having a kid, or all those things combined, but the internet just got dramatically worse and less funny in 2020, when it was so much bigger than most of our physical lives.

I do think there’s this huge pulling away. Journalists are not using Twitter in the same way; it really just is not funny anymore. Even TikTok was funny and chaotic, and now it’s mostly a commerce engine, like all of these platforms fundamentally are. So I think everyone’s asking ourselves that question, and it feels like most people are turning away from it in some way.

In its heyday, Jezebel was really the pinnacle of women’s media. What do you think the role of a women-focussed magazine is now?

There was a time when women-focussed publications and blogs run by young women were, I think—obviously, I’m biased—some of the most fun and interesting places on the internet. In general, there are no fun and interesting places on the internet at all anymore. It’s part of this algorithmic flattening of things, like you said: it feels like we’re all reading the same six websites and I think that’s partly because we are. There are not tiny publications anymore—a lot of that energy has transferred itself to Substack and podcasts. 

Aside from specific economic factors that made small publications generally non-viable, the positive thing about why there is nothing like Jezebel anymore—though it still kind of exists—is that a lot of all of these feminist publications succeeded. They transferred their worldview into, if not absolutely the rest of the media industry, they planted that word worldview with a firm hold pretty much everywhere. I think Me Too was the big signal that what might have previously been treated as a sort of crisis in women’s niche issues was treated properly as a story about industry and power and people generally.

If that work no longer feels revolutionary it’s because everyone succeeded in transferring it into the mainstream.

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

It’s not that I would not love a scrappy and weird and punchy women’s publication to crop up run by like a bunch of twenty-somethings right now. I would really, really love it if that happened. I don’t think there’s zero need for something like that. But I think the basic tenet of, “women’s issues are people’s issues” has been pretty well established now.

I saw on your Instagram that you were forced to get married due to a health insurance policy.

Yeah. I’m still very unhappy about it.

I remember you writing in Trick Mirror about your views against marriage. Has being forced into the situation changed anything for you?

Not at all. I harbour a lot of resentment towards the American healthcare system for effectively forcing me to get married. It kind of feels childish to resent something that is about a partnership that is the centre of my life. I need my husband—I hate saying that word—but I need him in this relationship in a truly new and very urgent and daily way since having children. 

But it’s like: I thought that this relationship was the place in my life that I would be free to make of it what I wanted to make of it. Then we had to get married for health insurance. 

Still, there was this one time we were all flying somewhere for work—me and Andrew and our kid—and I forgot my wallet at home. I was literally trying to con my way onto the plane with zero identification, and I was like, “My husband and my baby!” Occasionally I will use the terminology I hate when I feel that it will garner me sympathy for a TSA situation or something like that. 

Did you get on the plane? 

I did get on the plane. With nothing but a cancelled cheque and a bill from my veterinarian’s office. 

Wow. America. 

Honestly, the baby card really helped.

Your talk in Vancouver is called Eating the Rich. Why is the subject of extreme wealth and the injustices of extreme wealth a pertinent one for you right now?

In general, I’m interested in the fact that in the last, let’s say, six decades, the people depicted on TV and in movies have gotten richer and richer—to the point that you effectively only see upper-middle class and upper class people. The average sitcom no longer depicts the working class at all, and that is tracking alongside this rise in income inequality and the decline in union membership. I’m interested in the way even media reporting is covering strikes from the point of view of the inconvenienced passengers as opposed to the people striking.

From roughly the Parasite era to last year with The Menu and Triangle of Sadness and The White Lotus and the Knives Out sequel, we’re getting this glut of “eat the rich” type of pop culture. At the same time, in the US presidential primaries, we said no to the two candidates who did propose eating the rich, and we elected a centrist. I think I’ve always been interested in the question of: what role is this serving, and is it serving multiple roles at once? Is it an escape valve for a political impulse? Is it consolidating our political desire to put billionaires out of existence? Or is it a convenient pressure valve where we’re like, “Yeah, rich people, they’re evil” and we get that in pop culture, and then have less of that impulse to take to civic participation?

I feel like I toggle between: “Yeah, eat the rich! There’s so much excess!” and: “Man, wouldn’t it be nice to be rich?”

One hundred per cent. I mean, There are so many emotional reactions that come up. I’ve definitely watched The White Lotus and been like, “Well, I’ve never had a bad time on vacation. When I get to have lovely travel experiences, I feel grateful.” And I’m pretty sure like every incredibly wealthy person watching that said the same thing. They’re like, “Well, you know, at least we are aware of our privilege, and we would never treat the staff like that.” There’s some sort of distancing and desire. The two contradictory impulses—it feels like that’s the point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Jia Tolentino: Who’s Afraid of Eating the Rich? takes place on January 25 at 6pm at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

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