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Arts & Culture: Jia Tolentino Goes Beneath Smoke and Mirrors for “Trick Mirror”

“It was hot out the first time I tasted lean, on a night when everyone was home from school. I drank it with ice, booze, and Sprite, from a big Styrofoam cup. Soon afterward, I was in my friend’s pool, wading through hip-high water. The song “Overnight Celebrity” was playing, and it sounded like it would never end—like it had been slowed to Sunday’s chopped-and-screwed tempo, thick enough to carry me. The water felt like I could hold it. The sky was enormous and velvet. I looked up and saw the stars blanketed by the glow of pollution, and I felt as blessed as I ever did when I was a child.”

Jia Tolentino writes the above excerpt in Ecstasy, one of her nine long original essays in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, the Filipino-American writer’s first book. The New Yorker staff writer has already been called “the voice of her generation”, with Time, The Washington Post, Esquire, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping naming her debut book as one of the best this year — that’s no small feat. 

Laced with sharp wit and bold, illustrious description, this kind of verve can be expected in the rest of Tolentino’s work, each essay confronting truths about ourselves and our identities in the messy, complex web of the twenty-first century. With a voice that’s contemporary yet distinct, there is something unnerving about Jia’s writing, an ability to juxtapose contradictions and unravel this era’s definitive themes like the Internet and reality television, the monetization of self, pop feminism, and religion, among others. She delves into them with compassion, and ties them into the exploration of the ever-changing self-identity.

“I was born in a very individualistic era and the Internet sort of restructured itself around identity as this very granular, individual, this hyper-individualized thing. But in reality to me, I’m most interested in the self when it feels most malleable, when it feels most porous, when it feels kind of dissolving into something more interesting. We have this idea that the self is something that is original and fixed, the identity is something we have”, the Filipino-American writer explains during an invite-only book launch at the Manila House. “When in reality, it’s something that constructed in response to all these systems, in response to capitalism, or male power, or the culture and politics of where we live.” 

It would be all too easy to expect her to crucify the Internet and social media as qualities that allow for deception and tie them into a neat little bow. Yet Tolentino tackles and dissects themes such as pop culture not on a soapbox as one might expect from a columnist, but instead through a  three-dimensional perspective, rounded by anecdotes and stories taken from her own life.

Take for instance her thoughts on self-delusion, on what she thinks that “The internet has monetized that process and stretched (self-delusion) beyond what’s helpful.” 

As Tolentino argues, some self-delusion is necessary and even healthy, as it takes some self-delusion “to believe that anything we do matters.” The writer adds with an example lifted from her book, “You’re out with a friend and she’s bitching about something you don’t want to talk about, and you’re like, ‘No, I’m a good friend. I’m here for it’, and five minutes later, you become that good friend. We delude ourselves into versions that we want to be and sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s necessary and wonderful.” 

Bold, exciting, and completely timely for this generation: the Digital Age is full of deception, smoke and mirrors, yet Jia Tolentino knows how to go beneath them with clear and honest storytelling.


About the Author:

Sam Beltran is a freelance writer and editor who helped helm the Creative Economy issue of adobo magazine as Managing Editor, and whose work can currently be seen in several publications. She is passionate about creations spurred by imagination and made by hand. When not hunting for new flavors, she disappears from the busy city life and into the province to recharge on creative inspiration.

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