The Voice of a Generation Was Forged In Houston

Jia Tolentino's first essay collection, Trick Mirror, contains startling insights arrived upon through the New Yorker staff writer's own bizarre life experiences, many of which took place right here in Houston.

By Morgan Kinney July 22, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Elena Mudd

The reaction to a new Jia Tolentino article is best approximated by one (since-deleted) tweet from the pop star Lorde: “i am so happy you are writing this kind of absurd excellent sh*t in the new yorker what a perfect time they are lucky to have you.”

Her breathless praise could be directed toward any of Tolentino’s typical output, which, for a while now, has focused on viral deep-dives into the issues of our time: feminism, memes, how the internet is melting our brains. Last year, after some 7,000 words exploring why teens love to vape, she was invited to offer her expertise at a Congressional hearing. Her essays on topics ranging from the #MeToo era to singer Carly Rae Jepsen—and what they tell us about ourselves—are widely considered definitive.

As of this month, the 30-year-old New Yorker staff writer also has published Trick Mirror, her first book. The essay collection filters startling insights arrived upon through Tolentino’s own bizarre life experiences, many of which took place right here in Houston. One entry dissects her career as a teenage reality TV contestant, while another excavates her loss of religion catalyzed by an only-in-HOU cocktail of codeine cough syrup, MDMA, and DJ Screw.

“There’s an energy in me that’s always been drawn to the weirdest situations possible, which is part of the reason I like journalism,” she tells us over the phone from her adopted home in Brooklyn. “It gives you a standing excuse to just kind of dip your toe in whatever.”

Which makes sense, considering Tolentino's upbringing repeatedly threw her into the deep end. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grew up accidentally evangelical in both Cinco Ranch and Memorial. The Tolentinos had recently relocated here from Toronto, for Dad's job at a plastics company, when they were enticed by those once-ubiquitous I-10 billboards advertising Houston’s Second Baptist Church. They were soon devoted parishioners, enrolling their 4-year-old daughter full-time at the megachurch’s private school.

Tolentino still looks back on her voluminous journals from those days, when the compulsive writer kept a running analysis of her time at the Disneyfied west Houston compound known to her alternately as “the Repentagon” and “Six Flags Over Jesus.” She was sincerely devout, but faith didn’t obscure certain absurd contradictions. Her school “prohibited sleeveless shirts and homosexuality,” required students to pledge allegiance to the United States, Texas, and Christian flags, and doled out purity rings; the church hired Christian bodybuilders to tear phonebooks in half “as a demonstration of the strength we could acquire through Jesus.” Yet her own cheerleader uniform was as skimpy as could be, and her largely wealthy congregation acted strangely distant from the issues of poverty and tolerance they proclaimed to care about so deeply.

“There was some sort of voyeuristic, journalistic pleasure in that even then, and I was like, It’s worth it to participate,” she says of those days. “You’re getting this knowledge of something … and I wanted that knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Tolentino developed into a bit of a contradiction herself. She was known for being something of a troublemaker at school, as well as the girl who took leave senior year to participate in Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico, a reality television competition that, among other things, involved a mayonnaise-eating contest. But you can also read the story announcing that Tolentino, her class’s salutatorian, had earned a Jefferson Scholarship for four years of study at the University of Virginia—where, she says, she “joined a sorority and did keg stands in sundresses.”

After earning her English degree in 2009 and embarking upon an ill-fated Peace Corps mission to Kyrgyzstan, Tolentino crash-landed back in Montrose, taking gigs ghost-writing a Christian motivational memoir, churning out real estate listings, and “editing” admissions essays for wealthy teenagers applying to prestigious universities—“the only job I have ever been truly ashamed of,” she would later write. In 2011 an escape hatch appeared in the form of a fully funded MFA at the University of Michigan.

Those years of grad school were nominally devoted to a novel, but Tolentino’s restless mind was often more engaged with the online world, where she wrote for now-defunct sites including The Awl and The Hairpin before moving on to Jezebel, the popular feminist blog. She liked the rapid pace, unspooling her thoughts clearly and succinctly. Looking back, some articles were insane, like an interview with a man famous for having sex with a dolphin. Others were poignant and timely, like her conversation with a woman who had a third-trimester abortion. Her stories came to define the conversation in a way few others could, and by 2016  The New Yorker took notice, poaching Tolentino as a staff writer.

It’s fair to wonder if an irreverent, proudly weed-smoking Southerner could fit in with the Yanks at the revered publication. “That’s really not how my personality is,” she admits. “I’m not, you know, reserved or dignified.” But perhaps that’s her strength, as someone who both reads a book a day and natively understands the internet arcana indecipherable to her more traditional colleagues. “Luckily, with The New Yorker my work has expanded in a way that people won’t be worried that they hired, like, an uncontrollable recreational drug user who can’t report,” she says. (Tolentino still tweets plenty of 4/20 jokes.)

That doesn’t mean she’s done with her hometown, however. “I feel Houston deep in my bone marrow,” she assures us, “and there’s so much left to be written about it.” Trick Mirror, for its part, extols the city’s unwieldy geography and emerging diversity—a welcome change from Tolentino’s experience of Texas as “so fully Bush era and so hegemonically white.”

As for what’s next? Well, there will be a book tour with a stop at Brazos Bookstore, and more magazine stories. Tolentino admits she’s never been much of a planner. “Really, one of my only concrete goals in life is to ghost-write Lindsay Lohan’s memoir,” she tells us.

A joke? Perhaps. With Tolentino, anything’s possible.

Tolentino will read from Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 16 at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St.

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