2021 Class Day Speaker Jia Tolentino: An Interview

Jia Tolentino will present the GSD's 2021 Class Day Address. Photo by Elena Mudd.
Jia Tolentino will present the GSD’s 2021 Class Day Address. Photo by Elena Mudd.

Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the bestselling essay collection Trick Mirror, which has been translated into eleven languages. She was the recipient of a Whiting Award, a MacDowell Fellowship, and the 2020 Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize. She graduated from the University of Virginia, received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, and lives in New York.

Tolentino will present Harvard GSD’s annual Class Day Address during the School’s 2021 Commencement Exercises. Ahead of her address, Tolentino spoke with Harvard GSD’s Travis Dagenais about her writing, her pandemic experiences, and a cherished piece of personal art.

Let’s start with something I think a lot of people will want to learn more about: is that an original Ecce Homo in the backdrop of your headshot?

It absolutely is—thank you so much for noticing. I painted it several years ago while consuming three glasses of merlot on “free paint night” at a place in my neighborhood in Brooklyn called Wine and Design, which really sadly was a casualty of the pandemic. I’m not joking at all when I say that Ecce Homo speaks to me on a profound spiritual level—it is a reminder of the absurdity and transience of all human effort—and it was the ideal choice of subject for free paint night, because if I messed it up I would only honor its powerful energy even more.

Trick Mirror, like much of your writing, suggests clarity and conclusion amid chaos and conflict, though you write in the introduction that you are not always the “calm person who shows up on paper.” For you, what goes on in the space/s between thinking and writing?

For me, there is almost no space between thinking and writing, because I essentially can’t engage with my own thoughts outside a written form. My head is either empty or full of opaque gaseous substances. I can hardly even perceive properly without writing; I keep a notebook that’s mostly about the sky and the trees and the weather, because this is the best way to get myself to actually see the natural world. Outside writing, I have instincts, I feel conflict and trouble and dread and gravitation, but otherwise I have absolutely nothing—the only sense-making I am capable of always occurs in words.

You’ve observed that the pandemic has, among other things, altered your sense of the “possible rate of change.” That’s impressive, because I can barely remember what day it is. What sorts of events or phenomena have you seen accelerate, and what has slowed down?

In March of 2020, we shifted overnight to a way of life we’d thought of as unthinkable a week prior, and remained in that way of life for more than a year. Abolition and Universal Basic Income entered the Overton window, as did a near-unanimous acknowledgment that at least one specific form of healthcare, in COVID treatment, should be public and free. We stopped traveling, stopped using carbon in ways that many of us had thought of as completely essential. Not that I ever want to spend another year in one chair staring at my computer, but I have been galvanized by the reminder that we are capable of so much more than is typically expected of us, and that we are capable of reconstructing the way we live on other terms.

In an article in Elle—back in 2019—you were described as “extremely online.” How far did “extremely” expand last year?

It actually contracted—even as, like most everyone, I spent much more time looking at screens than I would have liked. I had been limiting my time on social media to 45 minutes a day for a while before the pandemic, but I had continued to excuse my participation in the world of memes and Twitter discourse with the fact that real life and real people were self-evidently and considerably more vivid and interesting to me, and the fact that I wrote about the internet for work. But in the pandemic, there was no real life to outweigh the internet; it was just the internet, and I was also shifting toward other kinds of work, like screenwriting. I eventually got off Twitter in summer 2020, shortly before having a baby, because I didn’t want to be up all night with her doing the numbing pleasureless scroll.

You’re intellectually omnivorous, and it’s enviable. The rest of us could probably use a revamp of our media hygiene, or some media hygiene to start with. What might you place in a starter pack for someone who wants to begin, or end, their day with a useful and enlightening periscope on social and cultural news of the day/moment?

I think that I’m probably underinformed right now, because I haven’t really looked for a workable substitute for Twitter in terms of finding and bookmarking new things to read; but reading books in the morning and evening has always been my main tactic for attentional hygiene. The most interesting way to think about the present almost never comes from the present, right? I try to indulge my passing curiosities, and read books about feudalism and cloud formation, and trust that nothing you go out of your way to learn is a waste.

You’ve been credited with revitalizing the essay over the last decade, and your writing is a pleasure, a master class, a therapy session, and a stand-up routine all in one. You’ve also deftly maneuvered what, in the early 2010s, felt like bit of a wall: the print-digital divide. You’ve taken on long-form writing and published a book, while also going viral somewhat regularly. What is it about the essay and long-form that suits your intellectual contours and desires? And what future do you see, or imagine, for long-form as our slightly bruised modern society continues tiptoeing through the 2020s?

You are very generous, and I can’t believe I wrote so much throughout the last decade. But I liked every kind of writing, from silly short blog posts to way-too-long essays in my book. It was a gift to be working at a time just before algorithmic flattening had completely taken over the internet, a time in which there was enough variety and flexibility in the media ecosystem to shift between flippancy and formality and giddiness and solemnity. I like writing long, because I like the depth and the challenge, and I think that readers, myself included, remain very eager for a winding, absorbing, consuming journey. But all types of worthwhile writing are disappearing right now because of the economics of publishing. Social media companies have made it impossible for publications to support themselves on advertising, venture capital is stomping local newspapers into the ground, and there are very few alternative or truly independent outlets for young writers to play around and develop a voice.

Your boyfriend Andrew Daley is an architect. You must, therefore, have some advice for our graduates. And maybe it’s advice on living with an architect, not being one.

My boyfriend and I historically do not speak about work with each other—he doesn’t read books and I don’t know what cement is. But there was one night that he brought home a 70-page drawing set and when I asked him to explain “what it was” I felt like I was a monkey being given a tour of a space station. I think (and hope, for the purposes of Class Day 2021) that there are parallels between writing and design in terms of mapping structure and identifying possibility and envisioning what does not exist yet, but I’ve always been kind of amazed at the way design work lives in the realm of the actual, when my work is just a sort of trick of direction in the mind.